Progressive revelation in the OT: A response to Jonathan Huddleston

Progressive revelation in the OT: A response to Jonathan Huddleston January 2, 2016
Jonathan Huddleston, an old and dear friend of mine who is an OT scholar, has challenged the picture of OT revelation that I gave (somewhat tangentially) in my last post. Here are his comments as posted on Facebook (reproduced with his permission), followed by my response:

In what was almost a tangent from his main point, Edwin took some time to portray a thumbnail sketch of the OT revelation that simply doesn’t agree with what I learned during my OT PhD program at Duke. But it does agree with what I continually read from people a lot smarter than me, who didn’t happen to choose OT studies. And I want to ask my friends: why do they believe this picture, and what would it take to stop believing it? (I ought, at some point, to write a blogpost about what I think I learned during my OT PhD program, and why it is different. But, among other reasons not to do so yet, I still am not sure that I am quite understanding this pervasive alternative, and so I’m not quite sure how to articulate why my own studies led me a different direction.) 

Here is the the thumbnail picture, as Edwin summarized it: “In other words, God clearly revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites in terms that made sense to them in their culture, and only gradually revealed to them the fuller truth that we believe we now know.” In the context of this sentence from Edwin’s blogpost, I notice (predictably) that images of God which Israel shares with its neighbors get the word “pagan” (rather than, say, “human”), and that these images are considered more progressed if they are only meant “metaphorically” (Edwin usually doesn’t go down the metaphor-versus-literal wild-goose-chase).
Now, Edwin and I agree that the Incarnation/ Atonement constitute the great final act of God’s revelatory interaction with creation, making Jesus the Final Word and the best way to know God. But this doesn’t really get us to a gradual unfolding of “fuller truth,” one that involves pulling away from (rather than embracing more closely) those diverse cultural lenses that all humans use in seeing God.
Edwin and I agree that every human experience with God, in various interactions with Israel and with us, gives us ever-richer cumulative understandings of God. But this doesn’t quite imply that there is a discernible forward progress, within the OT itself, that only toward the end becomes “full” enough to match the NT witness.
This is not a critique of Edwin. It is a question: why are so many people, who are so very wise and informed about Scripture and canon and Israel and theology, continually relying on a thumbnail picture of what the OT is and how it came to be that doesn’t sit very comfortably with the hundreds of articles and books I read while getting a Ph.D. on OT (emphasizing theological and canonical perspectives) from Duke University? Am I missing something?

The obvious first answer is that this is the picture that much older OT scholarship gives. Or am I wrong? Isn’t this, for instance, the picture one would get from someone like William Albright, or from OT theologians like Von Rad? It’s more or less the picture I get from someone like Peter Enns today. Or am I radically misreading these authors? Doesn’t in fact the traditional formulation of the JEDP pattern imply something like this, with “J” being earlier and more anthropomorphic, and “P” being last and most transcendent/abstract in its picture of God? I’m quite aware that this approach has fallen from favor, but you seem to be saying that you never encountered it at all.

My impression has been that this “progressive revelation” paradigm was the norm until relatively recently, but has been dethroned by
a) the swing back toward more radical skepticism about the historicity of the OT (“back” that is from the more optimistic views of people like Albright), so that it is no longer accepted by many OT scholars that the Hebrew Scriptures reflect many layers of composition giving us genuine insights into the historical and religious development of Israel, since the majority of it is seen as a post-exilic fabrication; and
b) the rise of Childs’ canonical criticism, which rightly criticizes the atomizing effect of “traditional” historical criticism and argues for taking the Hebrew canon as a whole and studying it in its final redaction as the version that really matters.

It seems to me that the second of these moves functions as a defensive reaction to the first. That is to say, it doesn’t really matter if the Exodus happened or not, or if the books of Samuel and Kings give us anything like an accurate portrait of Israelite history. Since only the “canon” really matters, all we have to do to use the OT as Scripture is to figure out what God was revealing to the post-exilic community. Thus, ironically you can get a theologically quite conservative view of the OT, in which the OT as a whole is taken to teach certain things by divine revelation, out of a very skeptical approach to the historicity of the OT.

And I admit that I’m unpersuaded by this kind of approach. I also admit that I don’t know nearly as much about it as you do, and that if the consensus is as total as you say then I really need to rethink. But it seems to me that this involves giving up any sense of the OT as a living, growing thing in favor of a highly static view of it as a postexilic product largely cut off from prior history. And I admit that I have a strong emotional revulsion toward such a view of the OT, and that it would actually weaken, at least to some degree, my faith that the OT really is divinely revealed. One of the reasons I find the OT so compelling (in comparison, say, to the Qur’an) is precisely that it seems to me to have these layers upon layers within it, reflecting a long tortuous history in which God was revealing Himself.

And that brings me to the nub of the question of why I look at the OT this way. This was the picture of the OT for which I abandoned a more fundamentalist approach. I think I got it most succinctly from C. S. Lewis, which I freely admit isn’t the best source on this subject, since he probably knew considerably less about OT scholarship than even I do! But it’s the picture that seemed latent in most of the 20th-century authors I encountered who seemed to take Scripture seriously as divine revelation without being fundamentalists. Again, maybe it’s all bosh, but that would require some very major rethinking of how I think about a lot of things.

A further reason why I find this approach congenial is that it’s congruent with the classic Christian “shadow-promise” paradigm. And that’s also, I suspect, one reason why it’s fallen out of favor among Christian OT scholars, particularly given the anti-Semitic cultural context in which the “progressive revelation” paradigm was formulated in 19th century Germany.

I understand how annoying it can be when people outside your specialization insist on clinging to a scholarly paradigm that you think has been thoroughly debunked within your discipline. I get frustrated when theologically/historically educated people who aren’t Reformation specialists reproduce a “Whig narrative” of the Reformation. (Indeed, one thing that might persuade me to abandon the progressive revelation narrative is that in its modern historical-critical form it looks as if it might have been produced by the same cultural prejudices as the Whig narrative–a Whig narrative for the OT, as it were.) But in that case, while most of the scholarship I was most directly influenced by in grad school went against the stream of the “Whig narrative,” and while it’s definitely fallen out of favor, I certainly read plenty of material in which it was implicit, and there are scholars who continue to champion modified versions of it. Either the eclipse of the “progressive revelation” narrative is more total than that of the Whig narrative, or you read quite selectively in grad school, or you’re exaggerating a bit, or I have badly misread the bits of (mostly older) OT scholarship I’ve read or absorbed second-hand.

The second-hand absorption is, of course, one reason why older paradigms live on outside a specialization long after they’ve fallen out of favor within it.

A couple of specific points I wanted to address:

1. I used the word “pagan” not as a slur, but to refer to the religious ideas of ancient people who were not Hebrews. I’m also probably very influenced by Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances (both directly and through Lewis). Barfield identifies paganism with what he calls “original participation,” and sees the OT as a kind of divinely mediated “withdrawal” or “concentration” of participation in preparation for the Incarnation. But while Barfield used this idea for his own purposes, the basic notion would surely have been taken for granted by most people in the 50s when he was writing. At any rate, I have trouble seeing the problem in using the term. You suggest “human,” but modern people are human too. Stoics were human too (and pagan too–so really the more precise term would be “Ancient Near Eastern pagans”). I’m assuming something like the picture of Ancient Near Eastern paganism found in Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, and Jonathan can tell me if this is substantially erroneous. So, for instance, when I find Jacobsen saying that people in ancient Mesopotamia as early as the second millennium had a concept of a “personal god” who took care of them, then that seems to me to make a lot of sense of how Abraham would have viewed his relationship with God (and yes, I know it’s now wildly unfashionable to suggest that Genesis might preserve any genuine memories at all of anything from the second millennium). 2. I do try not to use the language of “metaphorical” and “literal” thoughtlessly–I especially dislike the word “literal.” But at a somewhat later date, both Greek pagans and early Christians did debate whether this kind of language should be taken to refer to a human/animal-shaped body or not. Kalman Bland–the only person I actually studied anything Hebraic with at Duke in a formal way–thought that a post-Biblical text like the Shi’ur Qomah was “literal” in its measurement of God’s body parts. So I suppose that would work against the idea that the “later” sections of the OT (if there are such things) have a less “literal” understanding. But again, it seems to me that the texts traditionally identified as “J” do have a more anthropomorphic language than the texts traditionally identified, say, as “P.” Genesis 2 describes God in much more concrete, anthropomorphic language than Genesis 1. And Genesis 1, like “Second Isaiah,” seems to be written in order to put as much distance as possible between Israel’s conception of God and the Babylonian view of their gods.

The reason I introduced this material at all was that many people use the “pagan” sources of the Islamic idea of God to prove that Muslims don’t worship the true God. Whereas, in fact, it seems to me that Islam marked a much sharper and more sudden break (sharper because it was drawing on existing Jewish and Christian tradition, of course) with its pagan context than the OT revelation did. And again, that’s all to the advantage of the OT, not Islam, in my book.

Because here’s the thing: I probably wouldn’t be a monotheist at all if I weren’t a Christian. I see the value of what Barfield would call the “withdrawal from participation” primarily as a preparation for the Incarnation. The grandeur of Second Isaiah would still tug at my heart if I weren’t a Christian, but so do the pagan myths. I don’t find the Islamic picture of God (outside of Sufism) to be appealing or convincing at all. (Although, to be sure, the concept of God in Islam is quite anthropomoorphic, while highly transcendent–at least in the more fundamentalist versions of Islam today, and probably in the earlier strands of the tradition as well.) So I find the picture of God in Genesis 1 “truer” than that in Genesis 2 only in the sense that it clears away more thoroughly possible misinterpretations of God’s nature, in preparation for the revelation of God as one who really does walk among us and breathe on us in a concrete, “literal” way. That doesn’t mean that I find Genesis 2 less valuable. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God. But I am not convinced either historically or theologically that we should abandon a narrative that makes sense of the flow of Scripture throughout centuries of Israel’s history for one that treats the entire Old Testament as essentially a postexilic creation. That may well be my ignorance. But in answer to your question about what it would take to convince me otherwise: it would first take more actual evidence and less argumentum ad auctoritatem than I’ve seen so far. And secondly it would take a narrative that has the same explanatory power as the one it replaces, including the same ability to make sense of the relationship between Scriptural revelation and paganism.

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5 responses to “Progressive revelation in the OT: A response to Jonathan Huddleston”

  1. "Edwin and I agree that every human experience with God, in various interactions with Israel and with us, gives us ever-richer cumulative understandings of God. But this doesn't quite imply that there is a discernible forward progress, within the OT itself, that only toward the end becomes "full" enough to match the NT witness."

    At the risk of sounding simplistic, that "thumbnail picture" seems to be the popular view to begin with.

    I don't consider myself a Christian or knowledgeable in the Bible, and yet I believe that picture, and I know many people who do. Of course, I am from a Catholic country in Europe, and the situation here may be significantly different than in some other parts of the world.

    In my estimate (I don't know of official studies) many people here believe that the Bible is one book, consisting of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the New Testament basically picking up where the Old Testament left off.

    It seems possible that this is a "backward" explanation. That is, that first or most powerfully, there was the conviction that the OT and the NT form one unit, and then, as if in a retroactive justificatory effort, an explanation was devised to explain how the NT flows from the OT.

    I am well aware that serious Bible scholars will probably frown upon such a view!
    But I am not so sure that the ways of religious development have always been straight anyway …

  2. Sophia, the role of the OT was one of the big debates in early Christianity. It wasn't self-evident to many Christians in the second century that the NT and OT were one book at all. The OT was included very much with the awareness that it was different from the NT in a lot of ways. I can see how that would be lost over the centuries, though I thought Protestants were more likely to play down the differences than Catholics.

    The NT authors themselves obviously saw themselves as in continuity with the OT, but were also aware that what they were writing was in some way different.

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    Reading your posts and responses here, I am overcome with a chill. I am reminded of the time when I looked into Buddhism. I had felt a similar chill back then in regards to Tibetan Buddhism. The idea that in order to make spiritual progress, I would need to study and know forwards and backwards all those teachings (they have vast amounts of them, in comparison to Theravada, for example), then making any spiritual advancement (what to speak of becoming enlightened and thus making an end to suffering) is completely and hopelessly beyond my reach. This was one of my main reasons for distancing myself from Tibetan Buddhism.

    If Salvation is a matter of becoming a Bible scholar and a scholar of religions, then the majority of the human population is doomed!

    I am not saying this to criticize academic religious scholars. But at this point, I am not sure how things stand anymore. I really feel like the ground has vanished beneath my feet.

    Growing up in a Catholic country over thirty years and more ago, one gets used to thinking of Catholicism as "the right religion" — even if one isn't a member of it. I know it's different now; by recent laws, Catholicism is now legally equal to all other religions here.

    Still, popular Catholic ideas (such as the Bible being one book) have shaped my thinking, providing a sense of order. But reading your posts has shaken this up!

    Clearly, everyone with any ability for critical thought will rethink ideas that seem self-evident or a given. But when it comes to religion, critical thinking can mean the end of whatever religious order one has had!

    Even secular people promote certain popular religious ideas. I can see this now as I went back to college as a non-traditional student to complete my undergraduate degree in language and literature (it's a public university, no religious affiliation). I am preparing for an exam in literature written between 1900 and 1950. I have to read several literary texts that deal with religious themes. The literary analyses of these texts that we work with are thoroughly secular, humanist. Nevertheless, they, too, operate with those same popular ideas about religion and specifically Catholicism, never questioning how religiously accurate they are. Those popular ideas are being intensely questioned and criticzed from a humanist perspective, but their religious accuracy is not being questioned. I do know some Catholic doctrine, and I can tell that at least on some occasions, those literary analysts are erecting strawmen and fighting against them — but I get into trouble with the teacher if I point this out.
    In other words, the secular culture is maintaining some popular but inaccurate religious ideas, and in this way contributes to a sense of religious order (however disliked it might otherwise be).

  4. Yes, that last point is true. G. K. Chesterton remarked in _The Everlasting Man_ that someone totally unfamiliar with Christianity would be better able to evaluate it than the typical 20th-century Westerner who knows just enough to misunderstand it.

    It certainly isn't necessary to be a scholar in order to be saved. In the end we are not saved by knowledge but by faith that works through love. And faith, in the sense that saves, is the choice to open yourself to truth as you perceive it. As a Christian, I believe that this truth is Jesus, so faith in its fullest sense is a personal trust in Jesus. But I believe (as does the Catholic Church) that it's possible to have implicit faith in Jesus insofar as you open yourself to the truth that you do perceive.

    Your reasons for hesitating to accept Christianity strike me as honorable and reasonable. I hope that you can overcome them and make the "leap," because I think there are even better reasons to believe than the excellent reasons that exist for not believing, but I would never judge your motives for not doing so.

    On the OT and NT–just to be clear, I was not denying their unity, but like all authentic unity it's a unity of diversity. They are very different collections, but the NT depends on the OT and, we Christians believe, reveals its fuller meaning.

    And I'm pretty sure that's the view you will get from official Catholic teaching.

    It is indeed very hard for me to understand what it's like to grow up in a Catholic (or other traditionally monolithic religious) culture. Religious pluralism, if only among the many varieties of Protestantism, has always been part of my reality.

  5. Thank you for your reply.

    To be clear, "too much scholarship needed" is not my reason for not accepting Christianity; it's just a concern.

    I don't want to get too personal here, but my situation is relatively rare and possibly different from what most people can imagine. I was born and rasied as the only non-Christian, non-Catholic among Catholics. From as early I can remember, I have felt deeply alienated from religious people, specifically from Catholics. Much of that is certainly to their credit, since they have actively discriminated against me. They have made it clear to me that I am not one of them. Several times, I was literally in a situation of one against all, all against one. They have accused me of some internal flaw that cannot be mended (since I wasn't baptized as an infant as the rest of them was). To this day I don't understand what exactly that flaw is, but already then I understood from the looks on their faces and the tone in their voice that it was something bad. Something so bad that it deserves eternal damnation.
    To be clear, I don't feel hurt or offended by that, just extremely alienated from them. Like we are different species.

    I suppose in some sense I am something of an "inverted Catholic/Christian" or "parallel Catholic/Christian". I was there, among them, yet not one of them. I know some Catholic doctrine probably better than many Catholics do, and I generally know my way in theological debates.

    Yet it seems impossible to me to trust any Christian or any religious doctrine or think of it as somehow mine or as something I could partake in. I can work on it intellectually, but that is all.
    That basic trust that one must have if one is to approach and join any religion — I just don't have that. I suppose the Catholics in my youth killed it.

    I don't think there exist reasons for believing in any religion; or for not believing. It's not clear that religion can be a matter of choice. Surely, secular constitutions of countries usually posit religious freedom. But given that religions propose claims that contextualize one's being (ie. they claim answers to the standard questions Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? etc.), "choosing a religion" makes as much sense as choosing one's parents. It cannot be done — at least no consciously, not rationally. One simply "just believes," or one doesn't.

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