Towards a Definition of Progressive Revelation
Progressive revelation relies in the first instance upon the competence of how that revelation has been communicated. To deny this point is to cast doubt upon the utility of the modifier “progressive.” Revelation has to reveal or else it is not a revelation. Progressive revelation has to reveal progressively in a logically connectable way in order to be what it claims to be, and to thereby substantiate itself.
The Example of the Trinity
Think about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a classic illustration of progressive revelation. As it starts out the Bible introduces God. Then it speaks about the Spirit of God who broods in contemplation over the unformed mass (Gen. 1:2). We get to the shema (Deut. 6:4), and we learn that the God who is “one” (echad – which can mean a plurality in unity as in Gen. 2:24), is perhaps just such a plurality in unity. Numbers 6:24-26 hints also at this, as of course do the inner discussions of God with Himself (the “let us” passages) in Genesis 1:26, and 11:7, and also the occurrence of the Visitor to Abraham, who, as Yahweh, called down fire and brimstone from Yahweh in heaven in Genesis 19:24. Then Psalm 110:1 and Proverbs 8:22-31 add to the picture of a Deity who is alone God but is not unitarian. Indeed, Messiah is given Divine attributes in Micah 5:2, and is called “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14, and “Mighty God” in Isaiah 9:6. Yahweh is betrayed for thirty pieces of silver in Zechariah 11:12-13, but this refers, not to the Father, but to the Son.
Without pressing the point too much, the Book of Judges is filled with the activity of the Spirit of God. David says, in 2 Samuel 23:2: “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, And His word was on my tongue.” In Isaiah 48:16 we have the following intriguing passage:
Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; From the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord GOD and His Spirit Have sent Me.
The Spirit of God “grieves” (Isa. 63:10), and sends (Zech. 7:12). The New Covenant activity of the Spirit in the prophetic literature is pronounced: e.g. Joel 2:28-29; Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Zech. 12:10. Throughout the OT the picture of a triunity in God is being built up.
Once we come to the NT we are on unmistakable Trinitarian territory: e.g. Jn. 1:1-3, 18, 32-34; 14:7-21; 16:7-15; Rom. 8:14-17; Heb. 9:14, 10:29, etc.
The Example of Jesus Christ
Think about the OT predictions about Christ, and how they are progressively revealed. I have provided a handful below:
He would come from the tribe of Judah – Gen. 49:10 – c. 1750 B.C.
His garments would be divided and His robe gambled for – Psa. 22:18 – c. 1000 B.C.
His bones would not be broken – Psa. 34:20
He would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah – Mic. 5:2 – c. 700 B.C.
He would be born of a virgin – Isa. 7:14 – c. 700 B.C.
He would be the heir to the throne of David – Isa. 9:7
He would be rejected – Isa. 53:3
He would be buried with the rich – Isa. 53:9
He would die for others – Dan. 9:26 – c. 539 B.C.
He would be betrayed and the purchase money would be used to buy a potter’s field – Zech.11:12-13 – c. 520 B.C.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, and I have been careful to select prophecies which can be clearly related to Christ’s first coming. This is the sort of list one would use to prove to the non-believer that Jesus was indeed the Messiah prophesied in the OT. Please notice something very important. None of these predictions contradict or impinge on any of the others. They may impart some different information not given in other revelations, but they can all be taken as read without being specially groomed to point in some desired but questionable direction. In point of fact, it is crucial that they do so, for otherwise their usefulness for apologetic purposes would disintegrate. The “progressive” element in these examples depends upon a definition whereby one revelation is supplemented by others in a step by step manner without any interference of subsequent revelation upon the meaning of former revelation. What I mean by “interference” is not that certain aspects of a previous declaration cannot be clarified. I only mean that later revelation cannot act upon earlier revelations in such a way that it turns earlier revelation into an impenetrable mystery; wherein the words of God do not in fact mean what they appeared to mean.
Words revealed over time must be able to be traced so that the picture begins to converge in the listeners mind. It does not transform from one definite portrayal, put there by God’s words, into another picture completely. A true progression must be tracked as such. This means the earlier revelation must in some way determine the boundaries of the later revelation. It cannot be that a set of disclosures, vitally linked together to reveal a certain subject (say, Messiah, or the land grant to Israel), may admit to wholesale ambiguities further along the line. Revelation is not a brainteaser written in code. Such would be a contradiction in terms. There must be commonality around the subject of the disclosure. This is exactly what we see in the examples given above.
For an instance of this “determination,” when Isaiah predicted that “the virgin would conceive and bring forth a son” (Isa. 7:14), the expectation of a miraculous virgin conception was set in stone. It would be no good if Jesus had been born as a result of normal sexual relations between Joseph and Mary to then claim that the prophecy was fulfilled because she was a virgin the night before Jesus was conceived. The revelation would not allow for that. Even though there is a single revelation in this example, the way of progress is circumscribed.
The whole idea of progression in this sense must incorporate constancy of meaning. By way of illustration, coming across leopard tracks in the snow, and following them would lead you to a leopard. It would not lead you to a bear. Bears have different signatures. Just so, when God reveals He leaves a verbal signature which can be tracked. It cannot eventuate in a result which the revelation has rendered us totally unprepared for.
In view of this I offer the following working definition of progressive revelation:
“Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject, which can be cross-checked and verified against every other instance of the progression.”
Next time we will consider other approaches…