What does progressive revelation mean?

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What does progressive revelation mean? Does it affect our belief that Old and New Testaments together are God’s rule for faith and conduct?

 

Progressive revelation is a theological term for the idea that on many Bible topics God’s truth is revealed gradually and incrementally, starting in Genesis until His ultimate Word came through Christ. 

Examples of this augmenting of truth in Scripture include the topics of slavery, marriage, enemies, death penalty, and even gender equality. The enslavement of one person by another was not only practiced by some in ancient Israel but also found support in one or more texts of Hebrew Scripture, from the Pentateuch forward. The same is true of men taking multiple wives, ill treatment of one’s adversaries, international warfare, animal sacrifice — even suppression of women. Six times in Matthew 5 Jesus insists that His own teaching intensifies or replaces that of Moses. He uses this formula: “You have heard that it was said to those of old . . . But I say to you . . .” (vv. 21-44).

To affirm progressive revelation is not to say that Scripture got it wrong at the start. The ideal case for permanent and monogamous marriage, in fact, goes all the way back to Genesis 2:21-25. Even so, later narratives in Genesis approving multiple wives and laws in Deuteronomy permitting divorce illustrate exceptions to God’s original intent, only to be repaired and restored to the original standard by the living Word (Matthew 19:1-9). This one instance demonstrates the general truth, that we often find greater light and clarity in the newer Scriptures, without negating the essential accuracy of what God revealed through Moses and the older Scriptures. 

From these examples, we turn to an inspired summary statement of progressive revelation. Hear it in the first two verses of Hebrews 1: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets [including Moses], has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.” 

The bold implication of this passage is that a qualitative difference exists between Moses and the prophets’ words and those of Christ and the apostles. This distinction becomes ever more clear as the epistle to the Hebrews progresses. It piles up reasons why Jesus the Son is better than Moses (3:1-6); why those who lay hold of Christ by faith have a better hope (7:19), a better priesthood (vv. 24, 25), and a better covenant (v. 22; 8:6) based on better promises (v. 6) than those who rely on the old covenant with its Levitical laws. All of this adds another witness, if more were needed, to the voice from heaven that pointed Jesus’ disciples to the Man in the middle between Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets) on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Hear Him!”

Progressive revelation and the truth of the new covenant surpassing the old don’t cancel the belief that both testaments of Scripture are our authority for faith and life. But they do call for a nuanced view of that doctrine. 

The Old Testament with its 613 laws is God’s Word. It stands written for our learning, giving us space to grow in grace and knowledge. But not every law of it is written for our obedience in the new covenant. Consider those laws that required rebellious sons to be stoned and animals to be sacrificed for sin. 

The Old Testament is God’s Word, but not His final word. The ultimate unveiling of God through the person, words, and work of Jesus Christ brought fuller light into the world. Progress indeed! Progressive revelation for sure! 

— Elder Calvin Burrell

Calvin Burrell

Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.

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Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.