Saturday, August 25, 2007

POST #3: Principles of Revelation: Progressive Revelation

In this post and the previous post, I am laying the groundwork for discussions that will follow by defining an epistemology, that is, a set of governing principles for how we arrive at knowledge. I have established the place of Special Revelation, particularly the written revelation of the Old and New Testaments. These Scriptures are our authority for all matters of faith and practice. They must be the arbiter of all Christian understandings about God.

I have defined General Revelation in somewhat broader terms than are typically used. It is my conviction that we can learn much about the Creator by studying his Creation. The cosmos offers a wealth of information which may furnish clues to his character and purpose. In addition, there is a strong linkage between the state of scientific knowledge in any given era of the church, and the theological understandings of that era. Thus, science can and does influence theology. But the church has typically lagged behind science, at times taking hundreds of years before adjusting its thinking to align theology with the more accurate understandings about the Universe. It is my contention that much of evangelical Christianity is dwelling in just such a time lag today.

We now turn our attention to Progressive Revelation.

When I first was taught the principle of Progressive Revelation, the extent of its application was limited to written revelation. I learned that later Scriptures built upon, expanded upon, and expounded upon earlier Scriptures. This can be seen readily as we read through the Bible, beginning to end. Moses lays a foundation for David. Isaiah builds upon David. By the time John wrote, he had the benefit of all of the Hebrew Scriptures and many already extant New Testament writings. Our understandings of God, his character, his purpose, his involvement in the earth grow with each new portion of revealed truth. Progressive, when used in this sense, is defined as “developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step”. Progressive Revelation, understood in this way, is widely accepted and taught. Controversy heats up quickly when the discussion turns toward the notion that revelation might be progressing still today.

Written revelation was completed in the first century. The foundation for the church, and for our age, was laid by the original apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20) and through their writings. Jesus is the Word of God. The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament consists of a flurry of writings by those who walked him, or had first or second hand exposure to his life and teachings. The essence of our understandings about God are wrapped up in Jesus. No writer today qualifies to write about the Logos, Jesus, in the same way those first century authors did. I am satisfied that written revelation is, therefore, closed.

But I take a different view when it comes to General Revelation. The heavens and the firmament are “uttering speech” (Psalm 19:-2). To the degree that General Revelation affects theology, to the degree that it informs our understandings about God, and about his work of Creation, to the degree that it illuminates the Scriptures, to that degree we continue to receive revelation! And General Revelation affects theology in many and profound ways.

In addition, while written revelation is closed, it is but one aspect of Special Revelation. The activity of the Holy Spirit in believers, both generally and though the special gifts of the Spirit, includes many streams of illumination. The Spirit still speaks, still teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, John 16:13, 1 John 2:27 This illumination does not add to the authoritative base of the Scriptures. It must always be judged by the Scriptures. But the Holy Spirit can refine our understandings of those Scriptures, helping us to arrive a truths contained there which we may have overlooked and/or misinterpreted in the past. In this process, the Holy Spirit may assist us in coalescing of the fruit of our exploration of Creation with the Scriptures in ways we have never seen before.

The interplay of these three elements (growing General Revelation, ongoing Spirit illumination, with the written Word giving us the anchor and setting the parameters of truth) provides us with a richly textured revelation that is dynamic, alive, and progressive.

John Polkinghorne, the Anglican Theologian / Particle Physicist, has long argued for this interplay of science and theology. He sees the two disciplines as “cousins” in search of one ultimate reality. Occasionally we encounter what first appears to be conflict. But as the conflict finds resolution (as it always will!), truths emerge which are deeper and more profound. He describes this process in five successive steps [from Quantum Physics and Theology]:
1. Moments of enforced radical revision
2. A period of unresolved confusion
3. New synthesis and understanding
4. Continued wrestling with unresolved problems
5. Deeper implications
In the last 100 years, there have been many such “moments of enforced radical revision”. Many findings of science have been at first disconcerting, and have resulted in considerable wrestling. In many cases, the wrestling continues as Bible believers come to grips with the concepts of relativity, quantum uncertainty, evolution, the big bang, the age of the universe, the timing of the onset of entropy, the incomprehensible size of the universe, the likelihood of many extra-dimensions, etc. Each of these concepts touches upon theology, how we perceive God, and his work of Creation. Each of them jolt us out of some preconceived notions. They compel us to reevaluate how we read and understand the Scriptures. They shed new light on Scriptures we could not have fully understood before. And just possibly, they lead us to “deeper implications” in theology, origins, eschatology, and even the advance of the Kingdom in our own day.

It is these deeper implications that I wish to explore. I invite you to come along and share with me some fresh new vistas offered to us through the scientific discoveries of the last two or three generations.

And, I ask you to join me in this prayer: Holy Spirit, aid us in this search. Enlighten our hearts and minds, sharpen our insights. May our discussions not become bogged down in idle speculation. Instead, I ask that you lead us to life-changing implications that will find practical expression in how we live out our commitment to the King and the Kingdom.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
I think I see where this is going - and I think I'll take back the qualification stated earlier on progressive revelation. Your position articulated in this post is one with which I’m pretty comfortable.

My main concern initially was that "progressive" could imply "better" revelation, and therefore maybe a better understanding of God. Or even that we were “progressing closer to God because of Science” – maybe something like Teilhard envisioned. In some ways this progression is going to be true, since we have a better understanding of how God's creation works. However, the objective of revelation is not some intellectual achievement, but a repair of the broken relationship between God & humanity. Science really doesn’t add much to this central issue. Certainly, we in the 21st century have no advantage over those in the 1st century, or those in the 19th century BC. Ultimately it comes down to the simplest request from God: “Trust Me” – and that’s true of us, the first Christians, and, as the writer to the Hebrews indicated, Abraham (who didn’t even have the benefit of much of the special revelation). But I’m pretty sure you are very much on the same page as this.

One thing I’m interested in exploring further the tension between “the hiddenness of God” and “the God who displays his Glory”. I think you’ve hinted at this is some of the things you’ve written. Ie. Progressive revelation will make no more sense to the unbeliever than any other forms of revelation. Maybe that’s something that will be covered in future posts as you provide more details.

And thanks for the prayer. This type of theological wresting can indeed become simply “idle speculation” if it does not translate into “furthering the kingdom of Christ” for each of us personally.

but at the. So, for example,

Cliff Martin said...


Welcome back to cyberdom! Good to hear from you.

The idea of continuing Progressive Revelation can be a bit scary. But I was pretty sure that when I explained what I mean by that you’d be on the same page. The differences from more traditional approaches are 1) I believe there is an aspect of General Revelation in which we are proactive seekers as opposed to being passive receivers; and 2) I believe there are Biblical texts that can be better understood in light of recent scientific findings; 3) I believe that the Holy Spirit who actively leads us into the truth can help us connect the dots; and 4) I believe that some of these connections may make substantial theological differences that have practical ramifications.

Yes, I’m interested in the tension you mentioned in which God seems to play hide and seek. Did you read the recent revelations (in our Sunday Oregonian today) about Mother Theresa? If you haven’t, please do. Google Mother Theresa in News Results. Anyway, these two posts on epistemology close out my planned discussion on revelation. The next post (which I wrote today, and will probably post tomorrow or Tuesday) begins a discussion of entropy. But whether on this site or on yours, I’m sure we can get back around how and when God chooses to show himself, and why. The Mother Theresa story has had me thinking about that a lot today.

Thanks for your comments.

Steve Martin said...

Here is a cut-and-paste from a post to an email list that I follow. I think it's very relevant to the discussion of progressive revelation:

It's quite obvious that one can justify genocide (in modern terms) from "the Bible." (I leave other religions to fend for themselves.) All one has to do is point to stories like the extermination of the inhabitants of Jericho or Ai in Joshua. (Whether or not those are historically accurate is beside the point now. If they aren't accounts of what really happened then they're statements about what a later writer thought should have happened. For a modern application we need only remember the common equation America = Promised Land with what seemed to some its natural corollary, Indians = Canaanites.

I.e., if one regards the Bible as a collection of religious or moral "timeless truths" which are all of equal value, then examples of the extermination of populations are as timeless & as true & as important as "love your enemies" or I Cor.13. It is a quite different matter if we recognize that scripture, especially when understood christologically, gives a quite different picture of itself. Concepts like "God is love," kenosis (in the ethical setting in which Paul presents it in Phil.2) & progressive revelation, which can be seen as implications of such a christological reading, point in a direction rather different from that of the stories of Jericho or Ai.

Is that simply a subjective reading of the Bible? Only if coherence is regarded as purely subjective, because the first way of reading the Bible is self-contradictory & the second isn't - or at least needn't be.

Further on the supposedly "timeless" character of biblical truths in the first way of reading scripture: Opposition to any progressive or "evolutionary" aspect of revelation (& thus the Bible) is of a piece with belief in a static creation beloved of anti-evolutionists. While not all "creationists" (in the popular sense) are, by any stretch, in favor of genocide, they have, at the very least, a problem with texts like those in Joshua that those who recognize something progressive about revelation don't. (& by "progressive revelation" here I'm not referring just to increase in the amount of information conveyed but to changed understanding of the divine character & will - to a qualitative change in revelation if you will - something necessitated if God accomodates revelation to changes in people.)

Post was from George Murphy - see his website at:

Cliff Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff Martin said...

Thanks Steve,

I could not agree more. The emphasis of this post is on Progressive Revelation moving forward into our day and beyond. But my views of how Progressive Revelation affects the way in which we understand and interpret Scriptures are very much the same as Murphey's.

And while this may be a discussion for another time, I am convinced that we will need to revisit this aspect of Progressive Revelation as these articles move forward. Questions re. inspiration and inerrancy will arise. For now, I am content to direct the interested reader to Chris Tilling's exchanges on the topic at Chrisendom. I'm sure you are familiar with the discussion which occurred there earlier this year and last.

~ Cliff

Keystone said...

Cliff - thanks for the thoughts - tim