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Revelation Cannot Be Divorced From the Character of the Revealer
Plain-speaking is usually thought to be a virtue. One should say what one means. On the other hand, it is not a virtue to use words which one knows beforehand may lead another person to conclude we mean one thing, when, in actuality, we mean something more obscure and inscrutable, or even utterly different.
To show how impactful this truth is, I’ll pick an example from another sphere. In his recent book against the false claims of Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Sarfati writes this:
It is…disingenuous for an ardent antitheist like Dawkins to profess concern about a creator’s alleged deception. However, biblical creationists respond that the real deception would be for a creator to use evolution then tell us in the Bible something diametrically opposed in every respect – the time frame, the method, the order of events, and the origin of death and suffering. – The Greatest Hoax On Earth?, 26
The complaint against Dawkins stems from his blindness to his own presuppositions. However, the thrust of this statement is not against Dawkins, but against any “creator” who would employ language to beguile his creatures. Like a person who deceives a dog into running after a stick which she only pretends to throw, the kind of god who would “reveal” the creative work in the words of Genesis 1 and 2 when, as a matter of fact, he did it by evolution, would deserve to be labelled, as Sarfati says, “disingenuous.”
As I have said more than once before, our definition of “revelation” requires that we say something about the character of God. As one OT scholar puts it, “Revelation as an act of God reveals our God, with all of his goodness and perfections.” – Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption, (Paternoster), 446. It also requires of us that we don’t forget this link between revelation and God’s character. Our doctrine of revelation is the bedrock of what ever else we as Christians might want to say. Revelation entails clarity of intention. In speaking about “progressive revelation” we are always talking about the character and consistency of the Revelator. For God to lead us into thinking He did X when He in fact did Y would be, as the example above declares, a disingenuous thing to do.
In light of this let us consider what someone like Willem VanGemeren says about progressive revelation.
VanGemeren says that God’s Name “I Am who I am” may communicate the fact that,
Yahweh declares that he is free in the progression of fulfillment of his promises…Further, no one can predict how or when he will work out the full redemption of his people (cf. Acts 1:7). – Ibid, 149
Using Acts 1:7 to support his statement is a bit of a stretch. There the Lord Jesus was simply telling the disciples that it wasn’t for them to know the times or seasons when the kingdom would be restored to Israel (see v.6). Hence, Acts 1:7 in its context supports the idea of “progression” I have commended in these articles: that of supplemental revelation which can be traced backwards and forwards through all the others in the set. The revelation cannot undergo transformation in any sense which would affect that understanding of “progression”, otherwise the term itself becomes equivocal (that is to say, “progressive revelation” would mean different things depending on whether one is talking from an OT or a NT perspective).
VanGemeren himself restricts this “freedom” of God by making it clear that God’s acts “in fulfillment of his promises are intended to instill…confidence that he is faithful and able to deliver them.” (150). This is an important point for him. Earlier he writes,
The purpose of the revelatory Word of God is to prepare individuals to respond to that Word when it is addressed to them. – Ibid, 55.
Saying What We Mean
Nevertheless, in reading VanGemeren one senses that the underlying reason for the “freedom” and unpredictability of how God will work it all out, (and his use of Acts 1:7), is because he believes in wholesale alterations to what was to be expected based on earlier revelations in the set. This would involve tinkering with the word “progressive” to make it mean something like “modified.” The modification usually involves the substitution of one thing for another, and this significant alteration of specified content within the promises becomes not terribly unlike the homologous “adaptations” we’re all familiar with in evolutionary dogma.
Biblical theologian Charles Scobie avers that,
Later revelation can add to and modify what was revealed in the earlier stages. – Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 91.
But then he adds a note of caution in using the term “progressive revelation”, noticing that some scholars avoid the term altogether. One can see why some prefer this option, especially if their view of “progression” involves discontinuities between earlier (esp. OT) and later (esp. NT) “revelation.”
To avoid confusion then, it would be better if those promoting “transformative revelation” would not utilize “progressive revelation” to describe a “progression” which is only really progressive because it is declared nominalistically to be so. We also should say what we mean by choosing the right word for what we are doing.
One is prompted to ask these “modificationists” why words taken one way in their original proclamation have of necessity to mean something different when their fulfillment is announced centuries later. For necessity there has to be, because God does nothing by caprice. There seems no reasonable excuse not to state somewhere in the OT: “The time is coming when I will dissolve national boundaries and make out of all nations one people who will inherit the whole earth.” But, although it may come as a surprise to some, there is no such promise. In fact, there are very clear promises, progressively revealed, which give the lie to such expectations. The comparative absence of similar references in the NT does not argue for a dismissal of the original OT words of promise and a re-application of some of them somewhere else.