In keeping with the cooking theme of this blog series on basic hermeneutics, I consulted a professional chef about how to write a professional recipe. Here is part of the answer: “Spell out everything (tablespoons, ounces, etc.) … If the recipe has different elements (pie crust, pie filling, etc.), break up the ingredient list with headings.”
So today I’ll take up the idea of progressive revelation. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to spell out what I mean by that term, because – I must warn you – you have to be careful with the words “progressive revelation.” When I lived in Chicagoland I was a stone’s throw from the Baha’i House of Worship (often referred to as the “Baha’i Temple”) in Evanston. Believe me when I tell you that the teachings of the Baha’is include a very different understanding of “progressive revelation” – so please allow me the opportunity to explain what I mean by that term.
Perhaps most simply stated: A basic understanding of the Bible includes an awareness of the fact that God chose not to tell us everything in Scripture that He intended to tell us, all at once. The revelation of Scripture became fuller in content and meaning as it progressed.
Following the chef’s advice, let me break that down into three bite-size chunks.
What we do not mean by “progressive revelation” is that – as revelation progressed – former truths became untruthful. Progressive revelation simply means that former truth was made clearer by the addition of more details (or more information). The most obvious example of this progression of revelation is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Progressive revelation means that each doctrinal tenet has been made clearer as God has recorded more and more of His truth. With the passage of time, the purpose of God has become clearer and fuller. For example, we know something about ethics from reading Leviticus, but we know even more about ethics after reading what Christ teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. The same could be said about worship, or redemption, or even eschatology.
NEW INFORMS OLD
Practically, then, the Old Testament is to be understood in the light of the New Testament. This does not mean that the Old Testament does not make sense alone, but simply that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. For example, The New Testament does away with the Old Testament sacrificial, ceremonial, and dietary system by showing us that the fulfillment of all of those legal requirements is found in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. In spite of the Old Testament commands, we are free from those specific laws because of New Testament revelation. Keith and Kristyn Getty are absolutely correct: “In Christ alone my hope is found; He is my Light, my strength, my song!”
If there is any tension between the Old and New Testaments, then, the older gives way to the newer.
“The New is in the Old concealed;
the Old is in the New revealed!”
What marvelous truth!
On the other hand, if the New Testament does not add to, address, or expand upon the teachings of the Old Testament, then the Old Testament stands on its own. For example, we don’t discover any reason in the New Testament to re-interpret the attribute of God’s holiness that we find in the Psalms.
DIDACTIC OVER NARRATIVE
Another principle related to progressive revelation is that the Gospels and Acts are to be interpreted, for the most part, by the Epistles. (Clearly instructive/didactic passages prevail over passages that simply describe events.) The emphasis of the Gospels and Acts is generally in the accurate recording of important developments, while the Epistles are generally more concerned with interpretation of the significance of these events in terms of doctrine, exhortation, and application. If we are confused, then, about something in the Gospels or in Acts, we ought to check out what the Epistles have to say on the same subject. The Epistles help us to interpret the narrative parts of Scripture.
This rule is not absolute. In much of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, not only is there a record of the “acts” of Jesus and the apostles, but their teaching is recorded as well. Does that mean that Jesus’ teaching and the apostles’ teaching in the Gospels and Acts is given less authority than that of the Epistles (the letters of the apostles)? No. That is not the intent of this principle. Whenever the teaching of Jesus or the apostles is recorded, it is authoritative of course.
But the rule is important to caution us against drawing too many conclusions from accounts of what people did as recorded in narrative passages. Suppose someone were to say to you: “Jesus remained unmarried; this shows that celibacy is good and marriage is bad.” Your best response to that might be something like this: “Jesus’ celibacy does not demand that we view marriage as bad. The Epistles make it clear that marriage is a holy and God-ordained institution, and a beautiful picture of the loving relationship between Christ and His church.”
I’m sure that you can think of other examples of how failing to take into account God’s progressive revelation in Scripture might allow for doctrinal and theological error. There is always a place for reason, logic, sensibility, and humility as we study God’s Word – but Holy Scripture (above and beyond even our highest reasoning) must flavor every ingredient.