Last post I introduced the importance of approaching Scripture honestly to allow it to speak to us as God actually intended. I expressed my concern that our subconscious faithfulness to our extra-Biblical worldviews has led to us (Christians) to add additional (unnecessary) 'requirements' to our approach to Scripture. In particular, modernism inclines us to approach Scripture as if 'detailed cognitive understanding' was of ultimate importance, because modernism requires detailed cognitive information about God in order to place Him in the grand scheme of things, and inform us how to relate to Him. We often simplify Scripture in order to allow it to fit with our worldview, and end up being faithful to a curated form of Scripture, rather than to the real deal in all its uncomfortable fullness (including those aspects that don't fit well with our worldview).
I'm not implying that these 'uncomfortable aspects' are the major themes of Scripture, and that there is little evidence for e.g. a consistent thread of doctrine, common unity in the faith amongst the authors, God's mercy in the OT and his judgment in the NT, etc. But no one needs encouragement to be faithful to these aspects! We need encouragement to be faithful to the uncomfortable aspects, because this may require us to challenge our worldview (and this is difficult because it gives us a framework for how we think and feel about, well, everything).
Our worldview may also have us believe that considering these things faithfully is actually violating the 'faith' God expects us to have. So I reiterate again, my aim is not to challenge things for the sake of it. I just want us to be willing to challenge our worldview IF being truly faithful to Scripture and God requires it.
Today, as a kind of expanded 'introduction', I wanted to focus primarily on unpacking ONE particular aspect of Scripture that we simplify - the progressive revelation of God's character. It nicely demonstrates the uncomfortable complexity of Scripture, probably more than any of the other aspects I mentioned. And it opens up more discussions at once, than any of the others.
Most obviously, progressive revelation refers to the Scriptures as they were recorded. For example, the law was given progressively over the course of a generation, and not instantaneously. Subsequent additions were made as the Jews unpacked their culture and history in the promised land. There were many prophets, many of whom we have no record of, though some were recorded and eventually deemed 'inspired'. The NT was written over many years, and much of the church for years only had access to a mix of SOME of these materials (as well as many additional letters, which were lost over the years).
But I'm not just talking about new 'facts' being revealed about God over time. This is hardly controversial. There's also the progression in the amount and fallibility of the 'communication' available to God's people. Jews were being circumcised into the covenant community, and having faith that pleased God, for many generations PRIOR to Moses writing a word of the OT. They relied primarily on oral tradition taught by many varied 'rabbis' with varying degrees of training and experience. We could (potentially) argue that God preserved 'direct perfect and unbiased) communication through this diverse array of human instruments, but I contest this is unlikely, and we tend to argue this mainly to protect our worldview. The bottom line is that a huge number of godly saints did not have access to any 'direct perfect and unbiased' communication about God, or to the subsequent 'detailed cognitive knowledge' we deem so important today. The NT also did not exist for many years of the early church, yet these people were baptised into union with Christ. Again, they had access mainly to oral stories passed around (verified of course by the Apostles, but many of these Christians never heard directly from the Apostles - it was all third or fourth hand). And for much of the early history of the church, the OT was minimised as a source of useful instruction (either because it was deemed to be 'evil', or allegorical). So again, these believers had restricted access to any 'direct perfect and unbiased communication' about God.
Finally, and most importantly, Christ Himself - the fullest revelation of God, this time in a more 'relational' kind of communication - took his timing in coming, and even his first coming was only a partial revelation, while we await His return. Even in heaven we will continue to experience Him, meaning that He will not have finished 'expressing' Himself for eternity.
A Changing 'Image' of God
'Progressive revelation' inevitably extends to the broad picture of God presented by Scripture. We minimise this a lot to protect our worldview, but God presents a picture of Himself that markedly changes over time. Try it for yourself - read the Torah as a Exodus Jew would have read it, without any of our modern sensibilities (e.g. about Justice, slavery, women's rights, violence, etc) and without the rest of Scripture to 'balance' things out. This is just one example, but it becomes clear that in the initial stages of the OT God expects His Holy people to willingly and brutally massacre foreign children, without qualms. The God we see now (given the whole story from OT to NT) would expect people to have a heart which naturally flows out in efforts to STOP such behavior, and which would certainly question that command to massacre (was it really from God?), and at least have some qualms about it.
If we argue that God is truly unchanging (as He says), what we're saying is that for much of the OT, God blatantly restrained Himself from revealing these incredibly relevant and important 'balancing' aspects of Himself, and thus was deliberately creating bias in how His people perceived Him. And it was not just the general populace - it was the judges, prophets, priests, holy warriors, kings - God expected His people to perform in a way which is only consistent with a lopsided view of God.
God may have been slowly weeding this deliberate bias out with subsequent revelations, and working toward a more harmonious 'accurate' picture of His unchanging Himself. But we are still left with the NT apostles differing quite radically on their doctrinal emphases. While this might not seem as drastic as claiming that they held to contradictory doctrinal 'facts', it's still saying that the God that James saw was rather different to the God that Peter saw, that Paul saw, that John saw, etc. We could go so far as to suggest that they disagreed over aspects of God's character or priorities. A common example is the relationship between works and salvation - as a broad generalisation, Paul placed works as a definite outflow of salvation, Peter places some works as a requirement of salvation (e.g. baptism), and James and John placed works and faith alongside each other. Again, we could protect our worldview by drawing attention to the 'balancing' beliefs that the apostles held, which minimised the eccentricities they communicate in Scripture and make their theologies harmonious - or sometimes, when we can't find the doctrines we're looking for, we just assume the apostles held them. But I want to value the Scriptural tendency to communicate the eccentricities very clearly, sometimes more clearly than the harmony. Scripture doesn't seem as concerned with this 'harmony' as we are.
This discussion obviously raises questions about 'dispensationalism' vs 'covenant theology' vs other variants. As you've probably guessed, I think both views are simplifications. Progressive revelation contains components of both.
There is a consistency to the way God relates to people throughout the ages - through multiple, varied, deliberately biased (and incomplete) expressions of Himself. I'll delve more into this in later posts, but the point for now is that 'progressive revelation' is NOT saying that some 'phases' of revelation were superior to others. All of history has been in constant a state of incomplete revelation, where God has NOT yet made known his fullness in a cognitive sense. Instead, every incomplete revelation naturally combines with others over time / exposure to produce a more and more complete communication - hence the term 'progressive'. The flip-side is what I think is an obvious conclusion from any straightforward reading of Scripture - that our view of God and how we behave as His people is meant to change, between e.g. the Exodus and now.
The difficulty is trying to describe how we are meant to approach this change. Some attempt to arbitrarily divide Scripture into sections that apply in different ways to us (and some don't apply at all). But I think this approach is not faithful to Scripture. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest a division between some parts of the OT which are relevant to us today, vs those which are not. It was always considered as a whole by every Biblical author. Even when we try to 'divide' it up, we run into trouble - e.g. we want to keep SOME of the laws about money and property, but not others. We want to keep SOME of the laws about sex, but not others. We want to keep some of the basic laws of the 10 commandments, but want to avoid the punishment associated with disobedience. Jesus and Paul both affirmed the permanent usefulness of the WHOLE law as a unified unit, and condemned the legalistic use of the WHOLE law as a unified unit. There is very little suggestion that how we fundamentally relate to the law is meant to change now that we are in the NT era - the verses commonly used to support this position tend to demonstrate instead that our relationship toward the law was ALWAYS meant to be a particular way (including in the NT era). So if our approach to Scripture has not fundamentally changed, and all of Scripture is approached in a consistent way, how does the Bible expect our behaviour as God's people to change over time? Its because as revelation progresses, the clarify of our vision of God naturally progresses as well, even though our approach to every revelation is fundamentally the same and unchanged. And our relationship to God assimilates this change.
A faithful approach to Scripture must value the fact that detailed cognitive knowledge did not seem like a priority for God throughout much of the history of His people. It must value the fact that God seems to deliberately create bias in the minds of His people, which has evolved over time. What does it look like when we value these things? That's the sort of question I'm hoping to answer in this series.
OK more comments please :) How does this discussion make you feel? Are there other ways that progressive revelation manifests itself? Or other questions that it unearths? Do you think God is pleased when we consider these things?
Next week I'll start a little more logically:
- I'll discuss that God's fundamental aim in us is a relationship of faith, and that everything (including Scripture) works for this fundamental aim. I hope this will pave the way to discuss the usefulness and limits of cognition and communication (two important aspects of Scripture) when it comes to relationship.
- From there we will discuss WHY God seems to not only allow the intrinsic weaknesses of cognition and communication, but seemingly encourages it (demonstrated nicely by e.g. progressive revelation). This requires us to engage with the broader issue of why God allows ANY confusion to exist about his nature (e.g. the existence of evil, sin, etc).
- I'll discuss how the faith relationship works in this context (i.e. in the real world of confusion regarding God's nature). And we'll specifically explore how the faith relationship responds to three phases of progressive revelation (the Torah, Christ's first coming, and the possibility of further revelation).
- I'll discuss how the Jews approached Scripture in an unfaithful way and the problems this created, and then re-visit how we Christians do the same. And then I'll discuss some implications for Christian unity, discipleship, missions, etc.
A lot to get through! It'll take time...