Progressive Revelation and the Unveiling of God – Brad Jersak
Question from a reader:
I have been reading a lot about progressive revelation, specifically in my readings of John Howard Yoder and Guy F. Hershberger. This sounds like some of the things I may be reading from Michael Hardin (anthropological revelation). This idea of God incrementally slipping revelations into humanity’s cognitive compartments, filling them gradually through different epochs is what I am referring to. Also, the study of later texts (prophetic texts) critiquing earlier (royal dynasty of Israel/kingship texts) makes for a more complete understanding of the Bible. I was curious if you have come across this and if you could help clarify some of it for me.
Progressive revelation is a fairly basic evangelical tenet that I was taught and held even as a staunch inerrantist. It states that obviously the Bible took time to write and therefore God’s self-revelation came through a long process of addition. Clearly Abraham’s revelation of God was supplemented by Moses, and his by David, and his by Isaiah and so on, then on to Christ and after him Paul, etc. Of course, Muslims, Mormons and Bahai would attest to the same idea, claiming that their latter revelations build on and surpass the former. But biblically speaking, this is also what the book of Hebrews teaches us: previously, God spoke through the patriarchs and prophets, but now he has spoken through his Son.
An inerrantist can believe all of that, because they would also insist, “And every word of every revelation from the beginning was completely true, but more would be added with each fresh revelation.” With this position, you can still end up with a “flat Bible,” which means you can read capital punishment from the Noahic covenant as completely true and relevant for today, or you must accept that God truly did command genocide every time the Bible said he did.
But there is also another sense of progressive revelation in which God progressively reveals himself within the context of human witnesses, whose own worldviews, prejudices, nationalism, militarism and even barbarism act as veils which cloud their revelations of God and even distort it (e.g. God is on our side, he wants us to kill our enemies, he will help us do that, he did do that), etc. But throughout Scripture, God is not only progressively revealing himself, but he is also progressively unveiling our eyes. I prefer to call this ‘progressive illumination,’ in which God’s self-revelation requires not only addition, but edition … Even within the OT, we see important reinterpretations where the Bible shifts from God loves Israel to God loves the world; warfare as worship becomes worship as warfare; God destroyed people to God gives the people over to the destroyer, and so on until only in Christ do we get the unveiled revelation of God. No one else had ever been behind the veil of transcendence, except God the only Son. No one else had ever seen the Father with unveiled eyes, except God the only Son. Christ was the first unveiled witness who made God known through God’s own his enfleshment in the world ( a la John 1).
This means that we cannot read the entire Bible as flat or every word as simply true, as if you could close your eyes, open to any page, tap any verse with your index finger and say, ‘This is unveiled truth.’ Rather, we must examine it to ask, “How does Jesus’ unveiling of God also unveil these previously veiled texts?” How do we read the texts blessing and commanding violence or the unjust laws (e.g. rapists must marry their victims) with the veil now removed?
I believe the primary way is to see that such texts are indeed revelations, not of God, but of us … the human condition, the way we make mistakes about God’s nature or even commit evil in God’s name, and continue to do so. They also represent the passion of Christ in that he endured the shame by association of a sometimes bloody people who claim to act for him, yet he does not abandon them (utterly) in their idolatrous misunderstandings and blasphemous acts in his name. Instead, he continues to prepare them as a servant to be the portal through which he arrives in the world in person. It also means that every Scripture holds inspired value, even when it portrays God in unChristlike ways, because it tells our own story and unveils God’s story — and how the two came together. The Holy Spirit alone is infallible, but he truly inspired those who would tell this story from their own perspective, to pass it down to us so that we could see how the Word of God (Jesus Christ) finally came to us through this epic saga and became the living revelation in whom all the fullness of God dwelled.