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Progressive revelation?

Published: 30 May 2020 (GMT+10)

In response to Love and faith, Philip U. wrote:


I have a problem with the concept of the developing revelation of God through the Hebraic times. Apart from being too close to the humanist concept of the evolution of religion, it doesn’t make sense. Of all people, it is Adam who had intimate knowledge of God. Abraham and Adam knew God and knew His promise of salvation. The prophets over many hundreds of years had a more intimate and lived experience with revelation than we could ever hope for. How then can we say that revelation then ‘progressed’? Jesus did not bring new revelation but fulfilled that which was already expected (by those with ears to hear). The Hebrews looked forward to Jesus whereas we look back. The difference is semantic.

Lita Cosner responds:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interact with your thoughts. Scripture itself indicates that our knowledge of God revealed through Jesus Christ is superior to that of the Old Testament saints. Peter says,

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10–12).

Hebrews 1:1–2 states,

“Long ago, at many times in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.”

If we can agree that Christ in the flesh is a fuller revelation of God than the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets, we agree that revelation is progressive. That is, God has revealed more of Himself to people as He was working out His plan of salvation.

Think about this: When God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a human sacrifice, he had no idea that child sacrifice was abhorrent to God. Slitting the throat of your firstborn son might be something Yahweh wanted him to do. God told Moses, and hence every person who would read Leviticus, that child sacrifice was abhorrent to Him (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2–5). We know that far from requiring us to sacrifice our sons to be in a relationship with us, God sacrificed His own Son for us (John 3:16).

What differentiates this from the evolution of religion? First of all, we believe in the existence of God as an objective, necessary truth, not a sociological fiction. Second, the Yahweh who walked in the Garden with Adam, appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush, who Isaiah saw enthroned between the cherubim, and who spoke to Christ as His baptism are all the same God. The evolution of religion would suggest that people started by worshipping the sun and the rain, and then by personifying forces behind the sun and the rain, and then seeing one force behind all the phenomena they couldn’t explain, and then becoming atheistic as they developed science and thought that physics explains everything (except the existence of physics). What I am suggesting is much more like getting to know someone better and better as you know them longer.

Abraham, Adam, and the prophets all experienced God in ways that many Christians envy. We can only imagine what it was like to walk alongside God in Paradise before sin entered into creation. We don’t speak with God face to face as Moses did. But they could not imagine being indwelt by the Holy Spirit as every Christian today is, looking back on Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice for sin, or having the complete Scriptures available to them.

Helpful Resources

How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
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Creation, Fall, Restoration
by Andrew S Kulikovsky
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Readers’ comments

Frank S.
Yes. and may I add some further clues to the way God's self-revelation has deepened: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you: (John 16:12,-14" "In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets." (Ephesians 3:4,5)
Greg S.
A few more verses on the progressive revelation of God.
In Matthew 5, Christ says 6 times (v 21,27,31,33,38,43), "You have heard that it was said..."; and then says {v22,28,32,34,39 44), "But I say to you...".
In Matthew 17, at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were talking to Christ. God said from a cloud, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him."
In 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 7:11 through to 8:13, we read that the Old (Mosaic) covenant is becoming obsolete and has been replaced with the glorious New Covenant in Christ. Indeed in Romans 7:6 we read, But now we released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
Glenn P.
I agree with Philip. Adam and our forefathers had the full revelation about God and salvation. Over the millennia that revelation was generally obliterated being preserved only in the Hebrew Scriptures. I prefer to think it not as progressive revelation but as re-discovering the revelation. Jesus completed the rediscovery.
S H.
Completely agree. There is a definite revelation of Jesus. We can look back on the prophets and the experience they had of God, but the Bible makes it clear they didn't completely see what was coming in regard to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and salvation. We know from Hebrews that we have a 'better covenant'. Jesus himself then said it's better that he goes away and that we have the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit in us (as opposed to 'on us' although who knows what that really meant!) it could be argued that we have a greater revelation with God in us and 'the mind of Christ' (although of course in a very limited way!!) We see from the experience of the disciples that their experience and understanding of God grew once they were filled with the Holy Spirit compared to when they were not. Jesus also told his disciples that the OT prophets longed to see what the disciples were seeing. Clearly the OT prophets did not see the fullness of Jesus. Would it not make sense (and I'd argue it ties in with the Bible) that as the day of Jesus' return approaches, the church would be shining ever more brightly too.
Peter H.
Clear, succinct response. Thank you.
Samuel W.
"When God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a human sacrifice, he had no idea that child sacrifice was abhorrent to God. Slitting the throat of your firstborn son might be something Yahweh wanted him to do." - Apologies for my bluntness, but this is absurd. I believe there is progressive revelation, but there was certainly a good understanding of the moral law before Moses. The Mosaic law, with respect to morality, codified, sharpened, and developed what people (especially such as Abraham) already basically knew in principle. Bestiality, child sacrifice, sodomy, and all kinds of other sins were well known to be wicked and depraved before Moses (e.g. Gen. 19:7). For such sins the Canaanites were destroyed out of the land, and were not utterly ignorant of their wickedness. Abraham obeyed God despite knowing that child sacrifice was normally abominable and not commanded by God, because in this instance God *had* commanded him (being the friend of God and a prophet, he received such special revelations from the voice of God in that day), and God had given him Isaac miraculously to begin with according to His promise, and he reasoned by faith based on that promise that God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19). The progressive revelation here was the figure that God would provide a substitute sacrifice, on account of which Abraham named that place Jehovah-jireh. Now God's people were closer to understanding that the salvation that would be brought by the seed promised from the beginning would involve a substitutionary sacrifice. With respect, Sam W.
Lita Cosner
There is one problem with your interpretation. When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he didn't say, "But Yahweh, child sacrifice is abhorrent according to the moral law you gave us!" He got up early the next morning and put Isaac on an altar, and didn't stop the sacrifice until God told him to.
Clifford R.
Actually the “humanist concept of the evolution of religion” & “had a more intimate and lived experience with revelation than we could ever hope for” might be two thoughts that hold hands more so then contrast. Both of those ideas limit a believers concept of knowledge and intimacy of relationship hence revelation w & of Jesus Christ. 1st John 1 he is telling us, from a first hand eye witness of his experience with Christ in the flesh, we too can experience the same intimacy that him and the other apostles did.
Bill P.
Very well said. For myself at this time I envy those I knew who came to faith in The Gospel of Jesus Christ by The Grace of GOD through HIS holy Spirit as they traveled through this world looking towards that kingdom designed and built by the very hand of GOD for ALL of us who love HIM and HIS Word. It is written for the believer "to be absent from the body is to be w/The Lord". I do not say "goodbye" to those I knew who believed in The Unique Son of GOD and are w/HIM now. Instead I say to them: "see you soon on That Day when The Lord gathers ALL both asleep in The Lord and those of us who are still alive who's faith is in Jesus Christ, singing songs of praises and thanksgivings to THE FATHER and to HIS son Jesus Christ for what HE did on our behalf on that cross 2,000 yrs ago". These are just a few of the promises of GOD given to us throughout the ages and they are confirmed within us who love Him through His Holy Spirit Who lives within each one of us witnessing to our spirit which is made alive again because of the grace, mercy, and love of The Living GOD, Creator of heaven and earth and everything in it. I'm an old man w/Spanish, Polish, and Jewish blood flowing in my body. I remember my youth attending old fashion weddings and receptions from these ethnic backgrounds plus a few more who married into our family (such as Italian and German). I loved those receptions w/the food, music, dancing, etc. They were so much fun. How much more awesome will "The wedding Feast" that The Lord is preparing for His Bride be ? There are no words of men to express what this will be like, united w/HIM, reunited w/loved ones from our past, along w/our family in Christ Jesus that we haven't even met yet, and this Wedding Feast is going to last forever. See you there.
Stephen T.
Abraham would have been aware that taking of one's first born just as the taking of any human life would be a sin in the natural order of events. When he was commanded by God to sacrifice his own son, it would have been a sin to disobey and had God allowed him to carry through that commandment it would have been a righteous act in faith to God and obedience to his word. Hebrews tells us that he believed that God would raise him from the dead had this sacrifice taken place, Heb. 11:17-19. This by the way shows the progression of revelation in that without the letter to the Hebrews what Abraham had thought would be only speculation.
This ought to be considered also, that Abraham's faith was being tested in that it appeared to run counter to God's promise that his inheritance would be through Isaac and as Abraham would have understood the path of redemption also would have been cut off. How that would have worked out exactly in practice would not have been known, only that through him would the Messiah appear to make sacrifice of which the aborted sacrifice of Isaac was a picture. The details of course were gradually revealed until its fruition in Jesus' actual sacrifice when it shone in fullness of day.
Lita Cosner
The problem with Abraham 'knowing' it was a sin was that the text shows no awareness of that.
Murray A.
Progressive revelation is less to more; obscure to clear.
Evolution of religion as generally conceived is worse to better; crude and "primitive" to refined and "philosophical".
Stephen N.
I agree with the conclusions of this article. The revelation of God through history is progressive. Christ as God in the flesh was the perfect revelation of the divine love and character. To know what God is really like we look to Christ, as his life is recorded in the scriptures. Many misconceptions about God's character would be avoided if a person looks first and foremost to Christ and the writings of the New Testament. The Old Testament should be viewed through the lens of the New Testament to properly view the whole Bible. In this way, people are more likely to avoid the error of concluding that God is harsh and vengeful. Satan (the god of this age) is the one who is harsh and vengeful, in contrast to the love and grace of the true God as revealed in Christ. Your article was well done.

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