Progressive revelation is the theological understanding for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change. The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.
I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it. It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin. I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:
Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out
First, the response is seek them out. This is key. In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them. God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.
Before long, the next response is wipe them out. This is severe. Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil. It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery. Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.
Soon after, the response becomes spread them out. This is unexpected. The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens. Taking God’s place. Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth. It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out. This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.
Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out. Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’. I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent. I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.
Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out. The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out. This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.
One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on. The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden. God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.