How Not to Interpret the Bible– Part Two. Progressive Revelation

How Not to Interpret the Bible– Part Two. Progressive Revelation August 3, 2022

One of the absolutely major problems in the way some conservative Christians read the Bible is that they do not understand the progressive nature not only of the salvation historical narrative in the Bible, but also the progressive nature of God’s revelation of himself and his truth throughout the Bible.  This is sometimes coupled with a mistaken reading about the nature of covenants in the Bible, as if there was just one covenant throughout all human history which was renewed again and again by God.  Neither of these things are helpful ways to read the Bible.  It should be obvious that for the Christian, the clues provided in the New Testament should guide, to some extent, how we read the Old Testament. So for instance, when Jesus in dealing with the difficult issue of divorce (cf. Mk. 10 and Mt. 19) says that Moses permitted divorce due to the hardness of the hearts of his people, we realize that some of the legislation in the OT is there pro-tempore. Before the time of the new covenant, before the pouring out of the Spirit into every believer’s heart. In other words, unless a commandment or a permission from the OT is clearly reaffirmed in the NT, one should not assume Christians should be doing it.  For example, I trust the readers of this know that they are not supposed to be stoning their children!  This is because the Mosaic covenant, with the exception of commandments clearly reaffirmed by Christ or in the new covenant, are not still binding on God’s people.  This my friends is because God has progressively and graciously revealed his will for people over time, and he takes into consideration where they are in the progress of salvation history.  The author of Hebrews reminds us not only that the old covenant was becoming obsolete and had been replaced with a new one, but right at the beginning of Hebrews 1 he says that the previous revelation of God was partial and piecemeal but now we have not only the fulfillment of the OT institutions and Law in Christ, we have the fuller revelation of God’s will and character in Christ.

This explains a whole host of things.  For example consider afterlife theology. There is hardly any such theology in the Pentateuch.  All we hear about is persons going down to Sheol, the land of the dead, or the occasional really exception person like Enoch and Elijah being taken up into heaven to be with God.   There is no theology of resurrection before we get to the exilic and post-exilic period. Indeed, the first real place you hear clearly about a bodily resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous is in Daniel 12.1-3.  You will look for it in vain in the Pentateuch, or the early portions of the historical books. Even the prophet Samuel is said to be summed up from Sheol. Without a proper theology of progressive revelation, progressive covenants, etc. you are bound to misread the Bible.

I don’t even mention the failure to read the Bible according to the genre or category of literature represented– such as prose or poetry, history or wisdom maxims, oracular prophecy or apocalyptic and I could go on.  A flat reading of the Bible without proper literary sensitivity leads to a profound misreading of the Bible, not least because in a lot of the narratives in the Bible one has to ask the question— is this a go and do likewise kind of story, or a go and do otherwise.   The Bible has plenty of stories about even its most famous figures— Moses, David, some of the prophets, behaving badly.  It is painfully honesty even about some of our spiritual heroes. When Elisha curses the children who have taunted him about his baldness and the children are mauled by bears, this is clearly a story about a prophet misusing the powerful gifts God has given him, and is a go and do otherwise kind of story.

Lastly, any detailed study of covenants in the ANE makes clear that those covenants were conditional in nature, dependent upon the positive responses and obedience of those with whom the God in question was covenanting.  This is why there is an oath curse in those covenants.  If you disobey then the covenant has been broken, and the oath curses can be applied, and the covenant making deity has no obligation to continue that particular covenant in perpetuity.  This is precisely why we hear in Jeremiah about a new covenant which is not simply a renewal of the old Mosaic law covenant.

Please consult my volume Biblical Theology. The Convergence of the Canon for my detailed discussion of these sorts of matters.

Think on these things.


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