Ten Turning Points: Progressive Revelation

From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

God is always revealing himself. He has been doing so since (at least) the dawn of humanity. As I’ve written earlier in this series, he has done so not by dropping a book in anyone’s lap. We have a book now, but it didn’t come floating down from heaven, and it wasn’t dug up complete from under Jerusalem. God delivered what we were ready for, a bit at a time, when we were ready for it. In other words, his revelation has been progressive.

A lot of debate and confusion could be solved if people understood that. The Old Testament contains laws that were appropriate to the nation and the culture of Israel, many of which were timeless and remain in full force, but many of which (especially ceremonial and sacrificial laws) were meant to be set aside—especially the ceremonial laws that Christ fulfilled. We know more of God than the Old Testament prophets did: we know him through Christ.

There is a sense in which revelation is ongoing even now. I don’t mean God is giving new authoritative revelation, not by any means; but that we are continuing to develop a complete understanding of the depth of the Scriptural information he has already given. Every student of church history knows that knowledge of God continued to grow long past the time John put down his pen after writing the Revelation. The Church took centuries to hammer out a clear and coherent statement of the Trinity (at the Council of Nicaea, especially) and of the person of Christ (the council of Chalcedon). I believe Christians’ current debates over Genesis and science represent another process like the long ones that ended at these major councils. (At the rate we’re going, this one might take a few centuries too.)

Which is just another way of saying that we’re still learning: and whatever we learn that is true, is knowledge of God in one way or another, for all truth is of God.

Still it’s crucial to bear in mind what has never changed in all these millennia of God’s self-revelation. Our knowledge of God has progressed in some ways, but what he first made known about himself has never been corrected or overturned. It was not complete at the beginning (it still isn’t) but it wasn’t wrong. From the first verse of the Bible to the day you read this, God is revealed as the sovereign Creator. From the second chapter until today he is revealed as being good and just. From the third chapter until today we have known of God as being the rescuer who will see to it that the serpent’s head is crushed: a metaphor with massive meaning. From the sixth chapter until today we have known God as the judge who bestows grace and mercy on whom he will bestow grace and mercy. From the twelfth chapter until today we have known of God as the missionary God who calls on individuals and families to bless all other families.

All of these things have been true from the beginning. Do we understand them fully now? No. We’re still learning. I think we’ll be learning God’s ways and his character all through eternity.

Comments

  1. Alex Dawson

    The Old Testament contains laws that were appropriate to the nation and the culture of Israel

    Could someone possibly briefly explain to me how different laws applying at different times in history/in different cultures can be coherent without appealing to some kind of moral relativism?

    Thanks as always for the illuminative series, Tom.

  2. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Thanks, Alex.

    I won’t try this morning to catch up with the rest of this discussion, but I can answer your question here.

    Moral realism can take situations into account. The difference between moral realism and moral relativism is that under realism, (a) there is an objective standard of good and evil, and (b) there are at least some timeless and context-independent moral facts. Moral realism does not entail that all moral facts are timeless and context-independent, only that there are at least some facts of that sort, and that they be rooted in an objective and transcendent standard.

    So for example in much of the Middle East it is offensive (and therefore morally doubtful if not altogether wrong) to show someone the sole of your shoe. That’s a very context-relative fact: an act that’s wrong there is not wrong in most of the rest of the world. That’s a situationally-dependent ethical stricture that can easily coexist with, say, the universal fact that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun.

    Also: One could argue that this example I’ve given you is an instance of a higher-order moral fact: it is wrong to offend another person needlessly. It’s likely that if we took a very close look at the cultural- and context-dependent moral guidelines in ancient Israel, we could find at least some signs of their being temporary contextual expressions of eternal moral realities. I don’t really want to encourage us to try to work that all out here on this blog, though, because to do it right would require more knowledge of that ancient culture and context than any of us here probably possess.

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