The concept of progressive revelation is the most important principle in the entire field of biblical interpretation.  It is the surest foundation for the Bible student’s quest for scriptural truth.  Also, ignorance of this concept accounts for most of the bad theology in Christendom.


            Progressive revelation may be defined as the gradual, chronological disclosure of divine truth in Scripture.  It means that later Scriptures show a clearer view of God than do early Scriptures.  It also means that ancient religious concepts are inferior to the theology of more advanced times.  Progressive revelation may be understood as theological evolution.  The Bible is made to come alive as an unfolding of God’s revelation of Himself.  (“Unfolding” is synonymous with “evolving.”  The Latin verb evolvere means “to unfold,” “to unroll,” or “to evolve.”  Progressive revelation can be perceived as just another aspect of the universal law of theistic evolution.)


            It is difficult for many religious persons to accept this concept, because it says that portions of the Bible are inferior to other portions.  It says that there are different levels of inspiration of the Bible’s human authors, i.e., that some writers saw God more clearly than did others.  This method of exegesis (interpretation) proposes that some Bible passages even contain evil teachings when compared to the high standards of Christian ethics and theology.  For example, it is not difficult to prove scriptural sanction for polygamy, concubinage, slavery, divorce, inferiority of women, wholesale slaughter of foreigners, butchery of children for parental offenses, lying deception, free use of strong drink, animal sacrifice, religious taxation, clerical orders, sacerdotal hierarchy, and exclusive seventh-day sabbath observance.  Neither is is hard to show where all these ideas were either modified or repudiated by other Scripture.


            The prominent Baptist theologians E. Y. Mullins and W. T. Conner chose to use the term “progressive revelation,” but some have preferred “progressive comprehension.”  In other words, God reveals only as much of Himself as man is able to grasp.  John Milton elucidated this idea as follows: “For such is the order of God’s enlightenment of His Church, to dispense and deal out by degrees His beam, so as our earthly eyes may best sustain it.”  J. R. Sampey made the unique declaration, “The Bible slopes upward!”  In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeated several times the phrase, “You have heard that it was said (by Moses) to the men of old..., but I say to you...”  He was teaching, in so many words, that the Mosaic Law had been superseded by His higher precepts.


            In his discourse on the subject of progressive revelation, William W. Adams said, “Because God permitted and even commanded something at sometime in history, and it is recorded in the Bible, is it binding forever on God’s people?  The Bible makes it clear that divine revelation has its beginning, its growth and development, and its maturity and consummation...In this development, earlier revelations are modified, enriched, or changed completely.  In every case, the earlier and incomplete revelation finds its fulfilment and completion in that which is final...Progressive revelation is thus seen to be both reasonable and practical.  It is reasonable because it harmonizes with the purpose of revelation.  That purpose is to educate man with a view to his redemption and his obedience to God’s will...In any educational program, the laws of the learning process have to be observed...God gave His revelation in keeping with these laws.  It is practical because it must be observed in order to interpret the Bible correctly.”


            Some Scripture actually slanders the good name of God.  As stated by a Methodist pastor, Gaston Foote, “Some of us have a false mental image of God.  I can see the evidence of the concept of a vindictive God in the Old Testament, but I cannot see it in the life of Jesus.  I keep reminding myself that the Bible is a progressive revelation of the truth of God.  By progress we move from one position to another.  God’s last word is not in Genesis but in Jesus.”  A similar view was presented by Herschel Hobbs: “Through men who were guided by the Holy Spirit, God has progressively revealed Himself and His will to men.  Progressive revelation does not refer to God’s inability to reveal, but to man’s ability to receive.  Thus we find a greater picture of God in John than in Genesis.”


            The Broadman Bible Commentary is also clear in this regard: “Old Testament examples of seeming conflict with the fact that God is love, it is claimed by many persons, are simply mysteries of omniscience and therefore should not be questioned.  Such persons will approach any number of baffling mysteries in the Scriptures in this way and be satisfied.  On the other hand, many other persons will insist that the Bible...can be rightly understood, rightly interpreted, only in the full light of the truth of Jesus Christ, the living Word, the complete and perfect revelation of God... The Scriptures are an unfolding revelation of God and hence a progressive revelation with their perfect and absolute culmination in the Word made flesh in Christ.”


            Now, it must be understood that the entire Bible was given by God to man.  And the entire Bible should be taught, even to studying the genealogical lists and the most obscure visions and prophesies.  But it is every Christian teacher’s duty to explain that some passages are pre-Christian or sub-Christian (as when David invokes a curse upon his enemies or when Hebrew warriors kill Canaanite children to please their ethnocentric Deity).


            Moses is not necessarily wrong, but he is inferior and obsolete.  The Epistle to the Hebrews avows, “In speaking of a new covenant (God) treats the first as obsolete” (8:13 RSV).  How hard Paul fought to establish that fact.  He tore the infant Christianity out of the womb of Judaism and with sad resolution left the mother to die in her blood.  He broke the chains of the Mosaic Law that so many of his later followers have sought to re-weld - just because they can claim, “It’s in the Bible!”


            It should be understood that the Bible was originally a collection of individual scrolls written by various authors over large intervals of time.  But today when it is bound together in one volume, the Bible takes on a new unified, monolithic character.  It becomes an entity rather than an anthology.  And religious zealots naively conclude that the Bible exhibits complete internal harmony.  Such a simplistic belief is in complete disregard of the facts.


            Norman Vincent Peale used to say that to start the day right, a person should sit up in bed and say “I believe” three times.  In fact, it would seem that this is good psychology for everyone from Hindus to snake handlers.  It is so easy to wave a Bible (or a manifesto, or a flag, or an idol) and shout, “I believe entirely in this!”  Blanket belief is not merely belief, however, it is idolatry.  Blind, unreasoning faith is commendable in dogs, but not in human beings.


            The United States Constitution is not a static document.  It undergoes progressive changes through its amendments.  Beware the politician who professes allegiance to every sentence of the Constitution.  It is impossible to uphold and enforce both the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) and the 21st Amendment (Repeal of Prohibition) at the same time.


            Pity the theologian (and he is Legion) who attempts to amalgamate the Law and the Gospel, who believes implicitly in both Moses and Christ.  It is impossible to reconcile Judaism and Christianity.  Millard J. Berquist has said, “These questions and problems...having to do with the principle of progressive revelation, must be frankly faced, acknowledged, and honestly dealt with, else they may become stumbling blocks to seeking youth confronted with them for the first time in the presence of scoffing cynics.”  Any church that fails to equip its youth with the knowledge of this principle is, in effect, casting them to the wolves.


            The further one reads in the Bible, the more light he finds.  The Law had been adequate for the Hebrews in the wilderness and for the Jewish nation, but in the fullness of time Christ was sent with a new and better Way.  The Law having served its purpose was cast aside.  And the Old Testament was then relegated to the status of being just a Prologue to the New Testament.


            Anyone who does not understand the inferior status of the Hebrew Scriptures is faced with the problem of Bible “contradictions.”  Early Christian schismatics called Montanists, solved this problem by declaring the Old Testament Jehovah to be a vengeful, fickle, blood-thirsty demon.  The only Deity for them was the loving Christian God.  At the other extreme, many modern sects hark back to the outmoded Hebrew Scriptures for their proof texts.  How many bizarre systems result from this unnatural wedding of dead Law with living Gospel!  And how many embarrassing inconsistencies must be painfully explained away.


            Further, it must be stated that even the New Testament is not a final revelation.  Jesus did not disclose entirely all religious truth, even considering that He was God Incarnate.  He left the remaining task of revelation to the Holy Spirit.


I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth...I have spoken to you in parables.  The hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in obscure parables but tell you plainly of the Father.

       John 16:12,13,25


            Mortal man will never be able to receive a full revelation of God, since even the angels hide their faces from His glory.  But man’s religious instinct is to seek God.  And supersensitive seekers can be assured that God wants to be known.  He will continue to unfold His divine will little by little as mankind’s spiritual perception matures over the ages.

                                                                                                                   Richard L. Atkins



            Bible study consists, to a great degree, of attempts at harmonizing diverse passages of Scripture.  Such a task is generally fruitless, requiring large quantities of blind faith, when contradictory statements are so explicit that their import cannot be denied.  Cynics and agnostics are thereby afforded easy arguments for puncturing weak belief.  This deplorable state of affairs is, however, quite easily resolved by a great theological tool, the principle of progressive revelation.


            The method of progressive revelation is not to sidestep the fact of contradictions.  It accepts their existence and even makes them a means of clearer understanding of Divinity as a directive and purposeful Providence.  Religious history is a stumbling forward into the light.  It is the record of mankind’s climb upward from the mire of primitive superstition to the airy peaks of profound spirituality.  And the Bible is seen to be an accurate record of this the greatest quest of humankind.


            When there is divergence from a primitive code to a more enlightened philosophy, what seems to be a contradiction is really an evidence of progressive revelation.  God is simply drawing back the veil and affording man a clearer perception of truth.  Evolutionary progress is proof of a God of Order, Direction, and Purpose.  He draws all life like a divine Magnet toward Himself.


            The Old Testament presents a vascillating and vengeful God who is forever changing His mind, threatening annihilation, and playing favorites with those He wishes to bless.  But by contrast, stepping over into the New Testament, one meets a heavenly Father Who never changes His merciful concern for all peoples.  The Hebrew Yahweh has a body - of which man is the physical image - and He is housed in a temple at some specific location.  But the God of Jesus is pure Spirit without need of any manmade shrine (John 4:20-24).  Abraham’s God tempted that patriarch to kill his son, but James’ God would not stoop to tempting any man (James 1:13).  The whimsical God of Moses boasted, “I gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19b).  Isaiah’s God was exalted but also evil: “I form light and create darkness.  I make peace and create evil.  I, Yahweh, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).  This must be contrasted with the Christian Deity, Who is the personification of goodness, purity, justice, and love.


            Probably the most well-known “contradiction” in the Bible is Moses’ rule of “an eye for an eye” as compared to Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek.”  The Mosaic rule outlined in Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20 is rightly labelled the Lex Talionis: the “Law of Retaliation.”  But the injunction of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42) is based on a much higher standard, the Golden Rule, to do to others as one should wish done to oneself (Luke 6:31).


            The entire Sermon on the Mount can be said to contradict most commandments in the Decalogue.  The famous Sermon is, in fact, largely an elaborative commentary on the Ten Commandments.  And it is entirely proper that the same God Who gave the Commandments should, while in the Flesh, provide a fuller revelation of their meaning.  The First and Second Commandments to acknowledge one God as Lord (Exodus 20:2-6) were reemphasized by Christ’s command to love Him with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:29-30).  Outright idolatry among the Jews was nonexistent in Jesus’ day, so He did not deal with the Second Commandment - unless one considers the God-versus-Mammon issue in this light.  The Third Commandment against profanity (Exodus 20:7) underwent several changes (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20, Joshua 23:7, Isaiah 65:16, Micah 4:5) before Christ outlawed all types of swearing (Matthew 5:33-37).  The Fourth Commandment on sabbath-keeping (Exodus 20:8-11), which had become a burden to man, received drastic treatment at the hands of Christ (Matthew 12:8-12, John 5:16-18).  Christ endorsed respect for parents (Mark 7:9-13) laid down in the Fifth Commandment, but love for family was never to stand in the way of following the Lord (Matthew 8:21-22, Luke 14:26).  Christ not only forbade murder, in keeping with the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13), but also condemned angry epithets and malice (Matthew 5:21).  The Seventh Commandment prohibiting adultery (Exodus 20:14) was expanded to include lustful thoughts (Matthew 5:27-28).  The Eighth Law against thievery (Exodus 20:15) became a law of generosity, even to giving someone “the shirt off your back” (Matthew 5:40-42).  Not only should the Christian obey the Ninth Commandment against false witness (Exodus 20:16), but his every word should be completely honest (Matthew 5:37).  The all-inclusive Tenth Commandment against envy and desire (Exodus 20:17) became the keynote of “right attitude” found in most of Christ’s teachings (Mark 7:20-23, Luke 12:15).


            The Old Covenant’s toleration of polygamy (Genesis 16:2, 25:1, Numbers 12:1,9, Deuteronomy 21:15) did not meet Christian standards (Matthew 19:4-6).  Concubinage (Genesis 25:6, 2 Samuel 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3) and prostitution (Genesis 38:15-26, Joshua 2:1, Judges 11:1, 1 Kings 3:16, Proverbs 6:26), though tolerated by the Hebrew Scriptures, were denounced as lust and fornication in the New Testament (Matthew 5:28, Acts 15:20).  The system of slavery (Exodus 21:2-11, Leviticus 25:44) was no longer condoned by the Christian brotherhood (Galatians 3:28).  The discriminatory privileges of primogeniture - all inheritance to the oldest son - (Genesis 27:19, 48:18, Deuteronomy 21:17) no longer applied to God’s children, who were to be joint heirs with His firstborn Son (Romans 8:17).  Lax divorce customs (Deuteronomy 24:1) were greatly modified for the Christian family (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9, 1 Corinthians 7:15).  The inferior status of women (Genesis 3:16, Numbers 30:13, Deuteronomy 21:10-14) was greatly improved under the New Order (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:25).  Annihilation of gentile races (Joshua 6:21, Esther 9:5, Psalm 137:7-9) succumbed to the ideal of universal brotherhood (Romans 1:16, 2:11, 10:12, Colossians 3:11).  Telling expedient lies was condoned in the Old Testament (Genesis 12:13, 26:7, Exodus 1:19, 5:1, Joshua 2:5, 1 Samuel 16:2, 20:6, 1 Kings 2:20-22, Jeremiah 38:27) but not in the New (Matthew 5:37, Colossians 3:9).  It was permissable to hold back part of the tithe to buy wine for pleasure (Deuteronomy 14:22,26), but Christian sobriety called into question the wisdom of drinking wine (Romans 14:21, 1 Timothy 3:8, Titus 2:3).


            The old system of sacrificial atonement (Numbers 28:1, Leviticus 16:34) was repudiated (Isaiah 1:11, Jeremiah 6:20) and then dropped (Mark 12:33, Romans 12:1, Hebrews 9:12,23).  The need for priests was past, since all Christians were themselves priests (1 Peter 2:5,9) with Christ as the only high priest (Hebrews 4:14).  Sabbath observance (Exodus 20:8) was replaced by Lord’s Day worship (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10).  The old practice of killing innocent children along with their parents (Exodus 17:14, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9, 25:19, 1 Samuel 15:3, 1 Chronicles 4:43, Psalm 109:14) was later seen to be unjust (Jeremiah 31:29-31).  The Jews had from old times freely cursed their enemies (Genesis 24:60, Psalm 6:10, 92:11, 109:17, 143:12), but Christ taught His followers even to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44).  The use of divination and casting lots to ascertain God’s will (Numbers 26:55, 27:21, Acts 1:26) was no longer necessary after Pentecost, since all decisions could be directed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3, 13:2).  Revenge was considered to be the privilege of the wronged person (Numbers 35:19) before God’s later declaration, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Romans 12:19).  All adulterers were to be stoned (Leviticus 20:10) until Jesus forgave the woman taken in sin (John 8:3-11).  Many animals were classed as unclean and taboo to the Jews (Leviticus 11), but to the Christian all flesh was clean (Mark 7:19, Acts 10:28, Romans 14:14).  Eunuchs could not enter the Jewish congregation (Deuteronomy 23:1), but this restriction was lightened (Isaiah 56:3-5) and then voided in the Christian church (Acts 8:36).  The command to circumcise (Genesis 17:11) was also voided (Galatians 5:6,12).  Special, distinctive clothing (Numbers 15:38, Deuteronomy 22:12) was criticized by Jesus as being vain show (Matthew 23:5).


            The unequivocal belief that God may tempt man (Genesis 22:1) was refuted with the declaration that God does not tempt (James 1:13) - but He does allow temptation, while at the same time providing a means of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).  The introduction of the concept of Satan into the Bible switched the blame for evil from God (2 Samuel 24:1, Isaiah 45:7, Job 19:21) to the Devil (1 Chronicles 21:1, 2 Corinthians 12:7).  The consignment of all the dead, both righteous and wicked, to a murky, underground abode called Sheol - Greek Hades - (Genesis 37:35, Psalm 30:9) was replaced by a system of rewards and punishments in the afterlife.


            The preceding applications of the fact of progressive revelation indicate another great truth - that correct scriptural interpretation is afforded only through the light given by Christ.  Theologians have specified this type of exegesis (Bible interpretation) as the “Christocentric” method.  That is, all Scripture must be Christ -centered to know its real meaning.  Any statement or account in the Bible is not a correct view of God or of the Christian faith if Jesus would not have said it or done it.  So, the criterion “What would Jesus do?” applies both to Bible interpretation and to guidance for life’s decisions.


                                                                                                             Richard L. Atkins




          Near Eastern cultures in Bible times practiced human sacrifice, and the victims usually included infants, slaves, and prisoners of war.  That the Hebrew tribes were influenced to mimic these practices of their neighors can be easily seen in their Scriptures.  But these same holy writings show the pattern of a growing repulsion toward human sacrifice that finally resulted in total repudiation of the savage custom.  At that final stage of enlightenment, human sacrifice was viewed as an affront to the same Deity who had formerly treated it with approval.  The following Scripture references show how the principle of Progressive Revelation applies:


Exodus 22:28-30                God commands the sacrifice of firstborn sons

                                                on the eighth day.


Judges 11:30-31                Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to God.

           11:39           This is an accepted “custom in Israel.”


2 Kings 3:26-27                  Mesha the Moabite sacrifices his son.

            16:3                     Ahaz of Israel sacrifices his children.

            21:6                     Manasseh of Judah sacrifices his children.


1 Samuel 14:43-46                King Saul attempts to sacrifice his son.


Genesis 22:2ff           Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son.


Genesis 17:12            God allows a substitute sacrifice of the foreskin

                                          of a son on the eighth day.


Exodus 34:20            God allows the substitute sacrifice of animals.

Leviticus 12:6


Leviticus 18:21, 20:2          Sacrifice of children is forbidden.

Deuteronomy 12:31


Jeremiah 7:31             The human-sacrifice commandment is repudiated.

Ezekiel 20:24-26

Micah 6:7


Jeremiah 7:22             All sacrifice is repudiated.



            It is now the fashion for mournful jeremiads to whine predictions of decline and defeat for mankind.  They abandon all hope for a sick world’s recovery and take refuge in dreams of another world soon to be realized by divine intervention.  These are the radical adventists who throughout history have been the alarmists of society.  Their shortsighted views of life fail to account for man’s history and progress.


            This world is less than five billion years old.  It has mothered myriad forms of life in that time, and, in the last 50,000 years, the most complex creature, Homo sapiens.  Man has been civilized for the last 5,000 years.  He has been scientifically oriented for only the last 500 years.  And he has just achieved masterful technology in the last 50 years.  Barring unforseen occurrances this world has more than five billion years remaining in which it will support life.


            Society is improving.  Man’s pattern of progress is evident when various aspects of civilization are compared:


                        Ancient Times                                   Modern Times


            Animism, polytheism,                Monotheism, philosophy

              superstition, magic


            Holy war, persecution                Religious toleration


            Slavery, caste systems                      Civil rights, “All men created equal”


            Begging, starvation                            Benevolent organizations, charities


            Poverty, disease, famine                        Prosperity, health, medical advances


            Infant mortality, short life                    Lengthened lifespans


            Inferiorty of women, polygamy            Elevation of women, monogamy


            Child labor, work houses,                       Labor laws,

              unsafe and unhealthy work      increased leisure


            Despotism                                         Democracy


            “Might makes right”               Constitutional Law


            Confession by torture                        Right to remain silent, bail bond


            Trial by ordeal                                Trial by jury

                                                                        Protections: habeas corpus, ex post facto



            Excessive punishment                 Humane penal codes


            Death for theft, heresy, sedition            Abolition of capital punishment


            Cruel punishment:                           Attempts at international law:

              galley, mine, flogging, branding,           League of Nations

              mutilation, stocks, pillory, keel-    United Nations

              hauling, tar and feathers


            The list is practically interminable.


            And although our generation has its problems, an honest appraisal of history will show that we are no worse than any of our predecessors.  We have profited by their mistakes, and, consequently, we live better.  No institution of man is perfect, but to the positive thinker there is the challenge to improve and to elevate what we have.  Optimism is the only attitude worthy of the believer in a God of love.  There is more purpose in creation than a return to primordial chaos.  The definite trend in man’s history toward increased spiritual awareness is proof positive of divine direction of the universe.


            So, the world is not going to the dogs, and the world is not likely to end anytime soon.  This is an optimistic belief that is just as valid as that to the contrary.  The Doomsday monger sees a world of despair and defeat, whose only destiny is the ash can.  But it is just as realistic to focus on the good things in the world, as well as man’s potential for even grander achievements.  Belief in the longevity of our planet is commensurate with the belief in Universal Purpose.  Believing that God is the Source and the Goal of the universe, the Magnet that draws life toward perfection, is not compatible with imminent termination of the cosmos.  Not yet, by a long shot!  There is too much left to do toward perfecting the work that God has begun.  His grand purposes must first be fulfilled in and through mankind.

                                                                                                                Richard L. Atkins





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