Progressive Revelation and the Two Testaments: A Quick Thought

An interesting phenomenon in regard to the reading of the Old Testament and the New is that whereas the Old Testament was written over a period of approximately 1,300 years – taking Job as the earliest book (c.1750 B.C.) and Malachi as the last book (c.450 B.C.).  During that time history witnessed the beginning of the nation of Israel under Moses, and the dominance and eventual waning of Egyptian and Babylonian dynasties, plus the Hittite, Assyrian, Persian empires, and the onset of the Greek empire.  Israel rose to become a powerful state in the days of David and Solomon; then split into two kingdoms until both parts went into captivity.

The story of Israel dominates the Old Testament, yet that book also includes the account of creation and fall.  It speaks of the world before the great flood – a world that is buried beneath the rocks and stones and seas.  The flood came some 2,500 years before the call of Abraham (although no one can date the flood precisely), which itself was around 500 years prior to the Exodus and the writing of the books of the Pentateuch.

Accordingly, there is a great mass of data that must be collocated and explained, and that is without introducing all of the prophetic content within the Hebrew Bible.

What this amounts to for progressive revelation is that if a person is going to truly track the unveiling and development of God’s word chronologically he must situate himself within the various biblical milieus which pass before his eyes.  He (or she) will have to try to match the voice of the protagonist being described (e.g. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc) with what is being revealed about then and their times.  Moreover, since prophecy is such a significant part of that revelation any study of the progress of revelation will need to include the cumulative impact of the prophetic word through the different eras.

But when we arrive in the New Testament we are up against something different; a relatively condensed time-frame in which God discloses His word.  For my part I believe that the Gospel of Matthew is very early: written in the 40’s A.D.  That was the view of the early Church and I believe John Wenham made a brilliant defense of Matthaen priority in his book Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke.  So if we start with a date of 41 A.D. for Matthew and end with the writing of John’s Revelation and circa 95-96 A.D., we get a 55 year difference.  When we compare this with the 1,300 year gap between the first and last book of the Old Testament the contrast is striking.

Just as with the time covered by the Old Testament is larger than the time in which it was written (circa 3,500 years at least), so it is with the New Testament.  But the variance in time span is not nearly so pronounced.  The birth of Jesus was around 6 B.C. and John wrote Revelation in 95 or 96 A.D.  This means that the total time covered in the New Testament narrative is a little more than a century.  When progressive revelation is thought about within a window of 100 years, as opposed to 3,500 years, we again see huge disparity.  Whereas the Old Testament period allows for a prolonged progression, this is not the case with the New Testament.

What this means is that progressive revelation is either accelerated in the New Testament, or else it continues at about the same pace or is slower than in the Old Testament.  As a matter of fact, I think a case can be made for all three ways of seeing it.  If one looks at doctrines such as the deity of Christ, miracles, the birth, identity, and makeup of the Christian Church, and the coming of Christ again in power; all these things are crammed together in a relatively few pages and compounded in a brief span of time.

To sharpen the focus, a perusal of even the earlier writings of the New Testament: the Thessalonian Epistles (c. 49-51 A.D.), the Corinthian Letters (c. 52 & 56 A.D.), Romans (c. 56-58 A.D.), Ephesians and Colossians (c. 62-63 A.D.) speak to many of these things in a mature and profound way.  This is all packed into a mere 15 years!

There is one area where the emergence of doctrine must be emphasized, and that is in the Life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and the overspill of that Life in the earliest chapters of the Book of Acts.

In the Gospels, the Synoptics especially, the onus is on Israel and its Messiah.  The annunciation passages in Matthew and Luke are borne out of the cumulative expectations created by the Prophets.  The fact that a messenger from heaven reinforces that expectation must not be glossed over by a hasty reading of the chapters from the perspective of the Church.  This is true also of places such as the kingdom parables in Matthew 13, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 (Mark 13), and the teaching in Luke 19, 21, and Acts 1 through 3.  The Book of Hebrews might be very profitably interpreted within the same atmosphere as these important chapters in the Gospels.

The doctrines of the Church are compressed within a very small time-frame.  It should not be assumed therefore that the last book of the Bible deals with just that short time-frame and the revelation it contains.  Since the Revelation alludes to the Old Testament more than the other New Testament books it seems reasonable to think that it falls into line with those Old Testament books and the expectations raised in them.

 

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