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Revelation: Progressive or Continuous?

Working on the book of Hebrews over on my Participatory Bible Study blog has led me to do some additional thinking about revelation or inspiration, and how it functions. One of the key claims of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is a greater revelation than that provided by the Torah. In order to support this claim, he has to first establish that revelation is in some sense progressive, though he does not develop a doctrine of progressive revelation, but rather establishes that a new, greater revelation can supercede an earlier one.

This is a key difference between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism sees the Torah as the ultimate revelation, and everything that follows is less authoritative. The idea of something appearing that would supercede the Torah is pretty much anathema. It is typical of later religions to make a claim that their own newer revelation is greater than what has gone before. For Christianity, it’s Jesus and the New Testament, but then many Christians want to claim that revelation has ceased. For Islam (or at least the vast majority of it), the Qur’an is the final revelation, and cannot be superceded. It’s finally the perfect thing.

But Christians divide on this point, some believing in one form or another of continuing revelation, while others believe that revelation ceased with the age of the apostles. Amongst Christians liberals and charismatics tend to see revelation as continuing, while the reformed movement and those related to it see revelation as complete with the Bible. There are a number of special cases, such as the Roman Catholic church and the concept ofthe “magisterium.” Technically, this is not continuing revelation, but in effect, it certainly gives that appearance. The Latter Day Saints have their living apostles who can bring out new revelation.

I grew up as Seventh-day Adventist, and one of the key controversies between SDAs and the rest of the Christian community is over Ellen White. Can you have a modern prophet, and how does this relate to scripture? Here again I think there is a difference in the way things are expressed and the way they are put into practice. My experience was that many Adventists used the writings of Ellen White as though they were scripture, no matter how church doctrine was stated. But I don’t think SDAs are alone on this issue. The place of the prophetic movement in charismatic and pentecostal churches is very similar and I see some of the same things being done either with words from the Lord, visions, and writings. Some conversation here between modern charismatics and Seventh-day Adventists might be valuable. I have often wondered how Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel would fare if we had as detailed a record of their lives, along with copies of every letter they ever wrote. Fortunately or unfortunately we don’t get to compare the first draft of Jeremiah with the second, and attempts at a chronology of his message are often quite speculative.

So let me ask first whether revelation is progressive. I think “progressive” is a terribly dangerous word. In biology, evolution is often described as a progress from simple to complex, primitive to modern, with “modern” defined as “better.” As time goes forward some suppose that organisms become better adapted to their environment, so that we have a constant movement toward perfection. But if you read descriptions of evolution by actual biologists, this picture doesn’t seem to work quite as well. One can say for certain that variety has generally increased, i.e. there is more now than there was in the Cambrian period, but none of the other claims I mentioned can be made with certainty. “More complex” may mean less adapted, and thus natural selection would select for simplicity. The environment changes as well, so one cannot be certain that we’re always moving to better adaptation.

Why bring biological evolution in here? Simply because progressive revelation is often compared to biological evolution, often in a negative sense. It’s part of the “applying evolution to everything.” Well, one can certain apply some evolutionary concepts to anything that changes, but that’s not really the issue here. “Progressive revelation” has gotten tangled with the same types of misunderstandings that are involved in biological evolution. First, it is assumed that any new revelation must automatically supercede an older revelation. Second, it is assumed that as time goes on the revelation we have in our possession will be better and better, i.e. that we will become closer and closer to the truth about God.

Just as the inevitable progress of biological evolution does not seem so well founded, and just as adaptation can go on for many millions of years without any assurance that anything actually gets 100% adapted, so I see little reason to assume that revelation will be progressive in either of those senses. What I personally hear from the Lord is more adapted to my circumstances. A current revelation to a church community will be better adapted to their time and their place, but because we are imperfect people, we will always have problems fully comprehending that revelation. A perfect revelation cannot be 100% adapted to imperfect recipients.

But my prior paragraph could easily be misunderstood. The biological analogy breaks down. The revelation is not, in fact, adapting itself. Rather, the revelation is coming to different people, in different circumstances, at different times, and in different ways. It has always been that way. We can refine our understanding, but again, because we are imperfect, there is no guarantee that we are always getting better. We can hope we are, but we cannot be certain. The next generation could look back at our time and laugh, just as many of us laugh at a prior time.

I think that God is continually revealing himself, continually speaking. We hear with varied clarity. In scripture and established traditions, we take those things that have been heard, confirmed, and reaffirmed at many times and in many places. What Isaiah said is not necessarily better than what someone hears from the Lord in their morning devotions. But Isaiah’s words have been used and tested repeatedly by many people over a long period of our tradition, and so have been accepted as of genuine, general value over a wide geographic area and over a broad range of times and places. The fact that his book is scripture is a definition of the community that accepts it, not a simple derivation from the nature of the content.

I know there will be those who are disturbed. I am overcome by delusions of grandeur, and am receiving revelations of the quality and value of those of the prophet Isaiah. [Pause for effect :-)] Well, no, I’m not. But if God speaks to me, and if I hear correctly, the words of God are just as true whispered in my ear as in anybody else’s. And of course they are just as true whispered in anybody else’s ear, including the ear of someone I despise, as they are in mine.

I have more options to test these words now because I have scripture, as defined by my community, and I can even dabble in scripture as defined by other communities just to check things out. This increase in quantity and variety gives me an advantage. One pictures Abraham, as tradition suggests dealing with idols as was the family business, and suddenly addressed by God. “Get out of here! Go somewhere that I’ll show you!” Abraham has very little to go on. Scripture doesn’t exist yet, and won’t for centuries. He simply has to decide whether to accept what the voice says (presumably based on the patriarchal tradition, but do you want to decide on God’s voice based on your family tradition?) or not. I have it easier. I have a community; I’m not about to found one. I have other people who at least claim to hear God speak, though this is often more of a hindrance than otherwise. There’s more variety.

But fundamentally God speaking is God speaking, and I don’t think it’s getting better or worse. We just have more instances of it to study. So I reject the term “progressive” and prefer “continuous.”

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