I’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.
1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.
In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.
2. Contradictory/Disjunctive. This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).* It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.
The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation. In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.
Revealing Luke Skywalker
Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.
In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.
Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.
None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**
Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?
Soli Deo Gloria
*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.
**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.