Progressive Revelation

Work in progressThe
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.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

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.

The Word of God and Spirit

I want to begin where I ended my last journal entry and ask, Why is it important to affirm that the Word of God, i. e., revelation, is something other than information?

It is important to do so because information is inert; it cannot save us. It is true that we can make use of information for our good. If I am on a diet and learn that a piece of bread contains 100 calories, I may be deterred from eating it. If I am told that investing in a certain way will increase my wealth, I can use that information. But information, in itself, does nothing. It is simply available for use.

Contrast this with the Bible’s affirmations about the Word of God. It is living and active; it works; it accomplishes God’s purpose. Information is not living and active; it does no work; alone, it accomplishes nothing. It thus cannot save us.

The living and active quality of the Word of God explains why the Bible associates the Word with Spirit. Consider these texts:

  • John 6:63: It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
  • Psalm 33:6: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath [literally Spirit or spirit, ruach] of his mouth.

Consider also how Word and Spirit are coordinated in Genesis 1: God speaks the creative word; the Spirit of God rushes over the void.

The coordination of Word and Spirit explains as well the Gospel of John’s teaching that, after Jesus (who is the Word of God) returns to heaven, the Spirit will continue the ministry of the Word: the Spirit will teach the disciples everything, reminding them of what Jesus has said (John 14:26) and will guide the disciples into the truth (John 16:13).

These texts tell us that the Word of God is spirit-ual; filled with the Spirit of God. Because the Spirit is creative, the Word is creative. That is what it means to say that the Word is living and active. Information may be interesting, useful, and important, but it cannot be filled with God’s Spirit. It cannot save us.

It is important to deny that the Word of God is information for another reason, one that bears on the way in which we read and interpret the Bible. For too long, Christians have treated the Bible as though it were a big encyclopedia of true statements–as though God wanted us to know some facts and caused the biblical writers to write those facts for our benefit. The result of this approach has been crazy and unsustainable interpretations of the Bible’s creation stories, as well as astonishingly stupid interpretations of the Bible’s eschatology. It all comes from treating the Bible as a huge store of facts, instead of approaching it as the principal way in which the living and active Word of God comes to us with creative and saving power.

So, we honor the Word of God when we receive its saving, transforming power–when we hear its message of judgment and deliverance. We do not honor it by ascribing to it the sort of petty truth that facts possess.