What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.5)

Part Four

In the first part of this series I referenced some things to which I should now like to return.  Even before getting into what is meant when the two words “progressive revelation” are brought together, I said that we needed to settle on what revelation is.  At bottom revelation is communication from God to man.  The next question up is, how accessible a communication is it?  Is it both constant and consistent?  That is to say, does the revelation crop up repeatedly, and/or unequivocally?  Does it have a character which is traceable backwards and forwards?

What Did You Expect?

I gave the examples of the Trinity and the Messianic prophecies to do with the first coming.  I illustrated it by imagining tracking leopard tracks in the snow.  One would expect the tracks to lead to a leopard.  In the same way, a reliable progressive communication about a subject through time would produce an expectation based on the data contained in the words being revealed (unless the words were incompetent or else deliberately misleading),   Just as one would not expect leopard tracks to lead to a bear, one would not expect OT predictions of Christ to be fulfilled in someone born in Jerusalem, from the tribe of Asher, begotten through an earthly father.  Why?  Because the those things were not part of what was communicated!  And any “transformation” in the subject’s identity along the line of progression would manifestly terminate said progression!

Yet this is precisely what many evangelicals teach when they refer to “progressive revelation.”  I provided some examples.  One more is found in Michael Lawrence’s book, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.  In his book, Lawrence makes a case for progressive revelation early on.  He puts forth four features of progressive revelation as he understands it.  The first is that Scripture was revealed at different points in history.  This says nothing about the content of revelation or the nature of its progression other than it wasn’t given all at once.  However, he does seem to say that the progression is fulfilled at “the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (27).  That is to say, the progression is fulfilled at the first coming.

Lawrence’s second feature highlights a common view among many evangelicals that revelation is all about redemptive history.  Again, once this is noted we can move on to the next feature.  Before we do, I shall just note that the fourth feature is about practicality, so we need not be detained by it.  In fact, of the four characteristics of progressive revelation Lawrence supplies, only the third one touches on what progressive revelation actually is.

Lawrence’s third characteristic refers to the “organic nature” of progressive revelation.  This term is commonly used by those with supercessionist tendencies.  It is the lead-in to a brand of typological hermeneutics and the theology based upon it.  He writes,

It doesn’t simply proceed like a construction site, which moves progressively from blueprint to finished building.  Rather it unfolds and develops from seed-form to full-grown tree.  In seed form, the minimum and beginning of saving revelation is given.  By the end, that simple truth has revealed itself as complex and rich, multilayered and profoundly beautiful.  It’s this character of revelation that’s going to help us understand the typological character if Scripture, the dynamic of promise and fulfillment, and the presence of both continuity and discontinuity across redemptive history. – Ibid, 27-28.

He will state that the discontinuity is that indicated in the Book of Hebrews between the temporary Old Covenant and the eternal New Covenant in Christ.  The movement of progression is “the movement between shadow and reality” (80).  To describe it in terms of our illustration: this translates into following leopard tracks and discovering that they lead to something utterly unexpected.  The tracks, if literally interpreted as belonging to a leopard, would mislead the tracker.

But allow me to make some observations on the larger quote:

First, you will notice that in the opening sentence Lawrence uses the adjective “progressive” in the way we have been recommending in these posts.  When you look at the blueprint you can follow the building process till you see what you expected to see – a building.  But he rejects this meaning.

Second then, he says the progression is akin to a simple seed which grows into a complex tree.  The idea seems to be that because a seed is very different looking than the tree it grows into, so the words revealed progressively in the OT “grow” into a fulfillment which looks very different than what the prophecies would lead a person to expect.  Of course, everyone knows what an acorn will grow into – and it isn’t a gooseberry bush (I might also point out that leopard prints don’t look like leopards).

Third, this “tree” illustration helps us understand “the typological character of Scripture.”  That is, the revelation of God in the OT Scriptures communicated only shadows, not anything real.  As we pointed out previously, the reality could not be known from the line of progression, but only in its “fulfillment” when it became something different than was expected.

This brings us to a fourth observation: the “progression” was merely that of historical pronouncements couched in types and shadows, not in plain language.  All that is meant by “progressive” is “communication at different times.”  Meanwhile, all “revelation” turns out to be is “obtuse disclosure” which would remain unclear and misleading until the “fulfillment” was announced!” 

So we get this:

“Progressive revelation amounts to obtuse disclosure, given at different times, which would remain unclear and possibly even misleading until the “fulfillment” was finally announced.”

Try that as an apologetic tool!

Objection 1 Revisited

In my third short response to the objection about cultural-historical distance (the ‘two horizons’ problem), I stated:

if God wanted me to know the overarching meaning of the events in the Bible then He would have to have it communicated to me in a way that diminishes the temporal – cultural obstacles which would arise.  Granted, there are many ancient understandings of which I am ignorant, but these difficulties would have to be but a small part of the overall communication which God as Author wanted me one day to read and assimilate.

I want to extend this answer by making two more points.  The first is that any denial of this statement would have of necessity to lean heavily on cultural and historical data discovered only relatively recently, and still not fully and harmoniously understood.  We would be required to accept a chronologically formed esoteric hermeneutics wherein much of the OT could not be understood without recently acquired specialist or “insider” knowledge.  Bang! would go the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture.

In the second place, this would do absolutely nothing to address the clear examples given above; both of the Trinity and the coming of Messiah, and also the intertextual quotations of covenant promises I have adduced in Part Two.  Since these clear examples give the lie to defining progressive revelation in such obfuscatory terms as Lawrence’s view leads to, this objection falls to the ground.

So what is Progressive Revelation?  We begin to see that it really depends on who you ask and how their theologies permit them to answer.  That will be subject of Part Six.

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8 comments

  1. We know however that types & shadows are a biblically permissible (Gal 4:25) so doesn’t the ? , in this particular area of hermeneutical usage, become how heavily we can lean upon such an approach within progressive revelation? Granted I am only addressing a minor point in the article. Thanks ahead of time Paul.

  2. Would the OT folks be surprised at the “tree” that came from the seed? Seeing as how they collapsedthe 2 advents into 1 for instance? Is this a case of them thinking it was a leopard when all along it was a bear? from THEIR perspective compared to ours with the NT behind us?

  3. Paul, something cropped out of my mind after reading some lengthy and patronising remarks by a supercessionist on another thread. If what the supercessionists truly believe is true, that the OT saints have truly no conception of anything about what they are trying to conceive, that the nation of Israel got everything wrong that nothing of God’s Kingsom is physical at all except 1. Jesus is the Son of God and He is the Lord and Saviour, 2. physical resurrection of the dead for eternity, and 3. the eternal kingsom (New Heaven and New Earth) has [or may have] some physical aspects of God’s direct rule, how would Jesus be any different to numerous other founders of a religion who latched onto the sacred texts of anotehr regligion, declaring they all got mistaken, and launched their own?

    I can see examples include Muhammad with Islam, Joseph Smith with Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints), numerous cults like the Solar Knight Temple, the Watchtowers Society (Jehovah’s Witnewsses), all claiming to be a major “correction” of Christianity. Or look further afield, how Guru Nanak founded Sikhism from a Hindu family, and as a result, Silkism is a new relgion founded “in reaction against” Hinduism.

    In that case, how is Jesus unique? How is Christianity unique? The supercessionists claim it is because of the Old Testament’s testimony of Jesus prophesised and fulfilled the promises. Very good, but how do we know that Jesus filled the Hebrew Scriptures as He proclaimed, if we have to stretch parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to “prove” He is the messiah? If we indeed have to read “beyond the woodedn literal sense” then Christianity is like numerous religions that are founded on hearsay and imagination of men.

    It is not a trivial question. The issue whether Christianity stands or falls rests on it.

      1. Thanks Paul And Alf, also I was doing some random internet browsing that came across this blog post about the state of the Anglican Communion today.

        Putting aside the main point of the post about the impeding and inevitable split in the Anglican church due to difference between liberal vs conservative theology, a liberal Anglican made a remark towards his conservative counterpart that is worth us dispensationalists’ attention:

        http://anglicandownunder.blogspot.com/2013/07/tragic-marriage-split-through.html

        “…Quite frankly, I can’t see how you can read Jesus and Paul, and see them as authoritative, without contradicting some OT Scripture. …”

        You see, this is from a church denomination that by and large understands the doctrine along the line promoted by supercessionists/fulfillmentists. Thie liberals point to their conservative counterparts the obviously that they have no better authority to stand on if they say certain OT parts were fulfilled literally, while others “sort of” fulfilled but will do for the purpose of Christianity. It is a frank admission, and I think if we can’t insist all prophecies are to be fulfilled literally without theological fudging here or there, we all better become some kind of liberals.

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