Christian faith affirms the reality of progressive revelation; without it, the New Testament would be, not new, but only a different version of the Old Testament. For Christians, the New Testament bears witness to a revelation that is more complete than what we find in the Old Testament. And even in the New Testament we can see some developing insight into revelation, as when the church, after considerable discussion, came to see that God does not require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.
What usually worries us about the idea of progressive revelation is the possibility that there could be a revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ or a witness to revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, professes to have a revelation that goes beyond and adds to the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. Muslim theology claims that Mohammed received from God the ultimate revelation that gives the true interpretation of Jesus Christ’s significance. It is these sorts of beliefs that make the idea of progressive revelation problematic.
Jesus Christ is the
ultimate revelation of God
It is a bedrock element of the Christian faith that there is no revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ and no witness to that revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The basis of this belief is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the
Logos, the word of God, incarnate. Before Jesus Christ there were many preliminary expressions of the word of God, such as Moses’ law or the declarations of the Old Testament’s prophets, but Jesus Christ is the word of God itself, and not merely an expression of that word. It is also a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith that the New Testament is the unsurpassable witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ and is so because it rests on the testimony of Jesus’ apostles.
However, revelation is not only something sent but is also something received. Revelation that is not received by human eyes and ears and minds is not yet revelation. There can, accordingly, be a development in the human understanding of revelation–a growing awareness of the implications of revelation. So, although in one sense no revelation can surpass Jesus Christ and the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, there is a developing history in which God’s revelation is understood with increasing insight.
The possibility of such a developing history is grounded in the fact that the revelation of Jesus requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches disciples (John 14:26) and guides them into the truth (John 16:13). This Johannine theme reminds us that revelation must be received and that our minds must be suitably disposed by the Spirit to receive it. History shows us that the Spirit’s attempt to lead the church into truth is progressive, even if the pace of progress is frustratingly slow and uneven.
For example, take the practice of slavery. Paul wrote (in Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person. The revelation of Jesus Christ, in other words, means that God is overcoming the distinction between slave and free. Yet the New Testament writers took slavery as a fact of life. They did not and, in their cultural situation, could not envision an end to slavery. But over the centuries, the Christian church came to understand that slavery is contrary to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It took more than 1800 years, but the Spirit finally succeeded in helping the church grasp this important truth. There has thus been progressive insight in the meaning and implications of revelation. Or, take the ordination of women into the ministry of the church. It took Christian churches more than 1800 years to grasp the point that the oneness of men and women in Christ implies the propriety of ordaining women. Most churches still do not acknowledge this point, but some do. Finally, consider the centuries-long Christian belief that the Bible teaches that the earth lies at the center of the universe. It took the labors of astronomers to convince the Christian community otherwise. In this case, astronomy was useful in helping Christians gain insight into what God’s revelation teaches and what it does not teach.
These examples show us that revelation is one thing and the human understanding of revelation, of its meaning, significance, and consequences, is another thing. It is good for us not to confuse the two. When we forget this distinction, we identify our finite, fallible interpretations of scripture with the declaration of scripture itself; we think that our understanding of revelation is revelation itself.
There is no such thing
as generic revelation
What about the phenomenon of Christian prophecy? We read of prophets in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:29). These prophets may deliver a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 26, 30). Do these new revelations transcend the revelation of Jesus Christ? The book of Revelation shows us that such utterances of Christian prophets are new revelations, but are not thereby progressive revelations. They do not constitute a revelation beyond Jesus Christ, but they are fresh occasions of revelation in new contexts. Because revelation must received and because this reception always takes place in particular historical and cultural circumstances, there is no such thing as generic revelation. Revelation is always the intersection of God’s speech and human situation. That is why we read the repeated refrain in Revelation, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (e.g., 2:7; 2:11). The revelation of Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a treasure. Those who are trained for the kingdom of God can bring from it both what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). Expressed differently, the Spirit of God may have a new word to speak to the church–new because the church dwells in ever-changing contexts that require fresh adaptations of the revelation of Jesus Christ.