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Progressive revelation

An introduction


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Different faith groups assign various meanings to the term "Progressive revelation." A common definition is the belief that God did not teach full theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical and other knowledge to humans in the beginning. Rather, God gradually revealed truths over a long interval, according to their needs, and at a rate slow enough that humans were capable of fully absorbing them.

Various religions and Christian groups hold different beliefs about Progressive Revelation:

  • Bah'ai Faith: Progressive revelation is a major foundational belief of the Bah'ai Faith. They believe that: "As the human race has developed through time we have gradually understood more clearly the world around us. During our progress God has sent us Messengers whose Messages were according to our understanding in the time during which we lived." 1 Bah'ai's believe that in ancient times, these messengers were Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Yeshua, and Muhammad. Many of these individuals founded independent religions, like Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. During recent history, two new messengers appeared: The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. The process will continue into the future. Bah'ai's do not expect a new messenger with an updated revelation for many centuries into our future.
  • Some Conservative Protestants: They generally believe as a fundamental belief that the Bible is inerrant -- free of error -- and that its authors were inspired by God to write without making mistakes. Many conservative faith groups and individuals teach progressive revelation. It is particularly popular among supporters of Dispensational Theology. Some examples:
    • Evangelical.us, an evangelical Christian mission serving North America, explains their understanding of Progressive Revelation in their essays against homosexual rights. They write: "In the Old Testament we see God taking people from a pagan culture and teaching them how to be the people we were created to be. He did not try to change them in a day, but instead took 2000 years (from Abraham until Jesus came) to lead them to the point at which some could accept Jesus as the Messiah.....God's revelation to us ended when the last book of the New Testament was written." 2 The Bible is complete; no further revelation is needed. They believe that there is zero possibility that any behavior called sinful in the Christian Scriptures can become non-sinful through a new revelation from God or the workings of the Holy Spirit in society.
    • Here We Stand is a "group of young Christians dedicated to the Reformed Evangelical Revival Movement." They write: "Progressive revelation means that God reveals the Truth to us, but He doesn't do so in an instant. Rather, He does so progressively. He didn't just send His Son to us right after the sin of Adam. Rather, He spoke to us through the prophets first. So, man's knowledge about God progresses, until the entire Bible is completed, and at last we can see the whole picture. Progressive revelation is necessary for us because we have become totally depraved after the fall of Adam. Our understanding of the Bible would be very twisted if God did not start to teach us from the basics. Special revelation is progressive rather than instant because God wants to lay down the most important principles first, and then slowly give us the details." 3
    • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, believe that God occasionally delivers a new revelation to the President of the church in modern times. One such revelation happened in 1890 when President Woodruff at least temporarily suspended the practice of polygyny in the church. In 1978, a second revelation caused the LDS leaders to terminate the church's racist policy towards ordination. They announced that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color." Previously, male African-Americans -- and persons with a black ancestor -- were not considered for ordination.
    • H. Grattan Guinness, a late 19th century theologian wrote on progressive revelation: "...take again the law of love; man's first duty towards his brother man. To the antediluvian world no law on the subject was given. To Noah, murder, the worst expression of hatred, was forbidden; through Moses the, doing of any ill to the neighbor was prohibited, either in his person, his property, his reputation or his domestic interests. By the Lord Jesus the feeling of any enmity was forbidden; and not only so but positive love, even to the laying down of life itself for the brother, commanded. What an advance is the conception of love embodied in #1Co[rinthians] 13 on that derived from Sinai, or even from the sermon on the mount." 4
    • Pastor Carl Johnson, of Kingsbury, IN discusses progressive revelation under the topic of Dispensationalism: "God did not reveal all truth at one time but through various periods and stages of revelation. This principle of progressive revelation is evident in the Scriptures themselves.
      • Paul told his audience on Mars Hill that in a former time God overlooked their ignorance, but now commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
      • The majestic opening of the book of Hebrews outlines the various means of progressive revelation (Heb. 1:1 - 2).
      • One of the most striking verses that show different ways of God's dealing with mankind is John 1:17.

      The concept of progressive revelation does not negate the unity of the Bible but recognizes the diversity of God's unfolding revelation as essential to the unity of his completed revelation." 5

  • Liberal Christians: They generally look on the Bible very differently -- as the creation of many individuals who were each trying to promote their own diverse and evolving belief systems, over the time interval from circa 900 BCE to 150 CE. Most believe in the Documentary Hypothesis: that the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures -- were written by different authors and groups of writers and later harmonized. The Hebrew Scriptures contains many ancient texts derived from Pagan religions in the Middle East. Thus, religious liberals expect that the Bible will be internally contradictory, as new more developed beliefs replace earlier, more primitive ones. Thus, progressive revelation exists throughout the Bible due to human causes. They see this process as continuing today, as previously approved practices, like executing non-virgin brides, burning some prostitutes alive, human slavery, torturing prisoners of war, oppression of religious minorities, etc. are rejected as profoundly immoral. They see the culture as continually developing in our present and future, as -- for example -- women achieve equal rights, status, and opportunities, including ordination as clergy; gays and lesbians receive equal rights and protections; same-sex couples are allowed to marry; and opposition the death penalty and the use of spanking to discipline children grows.

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Some examples of progressive revelation in the Bible:

There are many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in which Jews and/or Christians suddenly shifted their beliefs and practices. Previous revelation in the form of the Mosaic code or the teachings of the prophets were replaced, greatly expanded, or even reversed. Often, a fundamental belief of the ancient Israelites was overturned and an entirely new concept substituted.

Two examples:

  • From the Hebrew Scriptures:  Much of the Mosaic Law in the Hebrew Scriptures required ritual sacrifices of animals as a mechanism by which a person could either attain forgiveness for their sins or terminate an interval of ritual impurity. Some procedures are quite elaborate and specific. But Isaiah 1:11 quoted God as giving a new revelation which essentially abolished the ritual sacrifice system: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?...I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats....incense is an abomination unto me;
  • From the Christian Scriptures: The most obvious paradigm shifts mentioned in the are found in the gospel of Matthew. They often took the following format:
    • Jesus began: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time..."
    • This was followed by a description of a past practice or belief.
    • Jesus then continued: "But I say unto you..."
    • This was followed by the teaching of a very different new practice or belief.

Matthew 5:51-52 is a good example. Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus) was recorded as saying: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment [and]....shall be in danger of hell fire."


References:

  1. "The Bahá'í Faith; Basic Facts 1/9; Progressive Revelation," at: http://www.warble.com/
  2. "New (wrong) thoughts on homosexuality: Progressive Revelation," Evangelical.us, at: http://www.evangelical.us/
  3. "1. Revelation," Here We Stand, at: http://www.herewestand.org/
  4. H. Grattan Guinness, "The Approaching End of the Age," Historicism.com, at: http://www.historicism.com/
  5. Carl Johnson, "Dispensation: General Information," BELIEVE Religious Information Source, at: http://www.franciscan-sfo.org/

Copyright © 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-DEC-23
Latest update: 2003-DEC-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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