FAQ: What Do You Make of “Progressive Revelation?”

bible readingI spend a good deal of my time unpacking (and helping friends unpack) the ideas we all learned growing up in church. Many of these ideas are directly damaging (e.g. You’re wicked and deserve to be tortured), while others are indirectly harmful in the way that they confound attempts at critical thinking (e.g. You’re not supposed to understand, just have faith). In my experience, the directly hurtful teachings aren’t the only ones which need to be debunked.

One of the word games we learned growing up deals with contradictions in the Bible. Everyone who really reads the book knows they are there, but each of us learned one of a handful of different techniques for sidestepping or dismissing those concerns. One of the most common ways to minimize problematic elements in the Bible came up in conversation with a friend who I believe is going through a kind of deconversion herself, at least from fundamentalism if from nothing else. I’m cutting and pasting that discussion here in order to invite the rest of you into the conversation so that we can both hear your input.

Are you familiar with “progressive revelation”? If so, what are you thoughts about it?

My answer somewhat depends on what leads you to ask. Because from my perspective, generally speaking, it’s an interpretive device for rationalizing contradictions in the Bible, especially between the Old Testament and the New. In the hands of some, it’s used to say that it’s fine that God seemed to be obsessed with banning shellfish and mixed fabrics in the olden times because, well, people either just didn’t hear God very clearly or else he was speaking to them like children, using word pictures so that they could better understand. (Understand what? That God hates shrimp? That blood is how you get sins forgiven?).

In the hands of liberal Christianity, it goes even further, to the point of arguing that even in the NT they still didn’t get everything right, and now it falls to us to pick up where they left off, pushing forward into a socially progressive direction, recognizing that even in the NT they still hadn’t gotten a few things right yet.

So what brings you to ask? That may help me know which way to take the discussion.

Well, I messaged a friend whose background is similar to mine, but is now on the progressive end of Christianity to ask about his thoughts on where to find peace & comfort since I no longer believe the Bible to be “inerrant and infallible.” He mentioned that I should read about progressive revelation. The more I read, the more it seems that it’s very loose in its meaning. And if it’s true, then what keeps me, for example, from saying I’ve had a revelation and that God wants me to add to the Bible?

Right. Well, if I’m not mistaken, the progressive revelation idea was first thought up by conservative interpreters, not liberal ones. Baptist theologians would side with the first group, and progressives would fall into the second group.

Even the idea of having a finalized canon—a done-and-finished revelation from God—is a little weird, if you think about it. I mean, once he revealed himself in the original Bible (the OT), why open it back up and start a new one, admitting 27 new books into the canon? And how do you settle on the right 27? What about the other dozen or so that didn’t make it in? And what about the ones that made it in which almost didn’t (Revelation, for example, or the book of James, or Hebrews)?

The biggest problem for the way conservatives frame this is the fact that in the OT it didn’t just say, “We think this is what God wants.” It says, “Thus saith the Lord.” So if that wasn’t really God talking, then how can anyone be so sure that when it says, “And Jesus spoke unto them, saying…” that they didn’t get it wrong there as well?

And if all of the above really WAS God talking, but the things he said kept changing over the years, what does that tell us about this form of communication? If God can only reveal to us at any given point what our own minds have expanded to be able to handle, then is it really “revelation” at all? Maybe that’s just “progress” and not “revelation.”

In other words, it’s not that God is bringing us more and more into the truth, it’s more that human civilization is just continuing to evolve, and each time it does, religion retrofits its interpretations of what God wants, reverse engineering the way we read the holy books to make it seem like this is really what God wanted all along. It’s all just too convenient.

What are your thoughts on this question?  Did you ever have “progressive revelation” thrown at you as a rationalization for the apparent contradictions in the Bible? What were your thoughts then, and what are they now?

I’d like to hear your feedback.

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