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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Progressive Revelation

Why doesn’t God just tell us the plan? Wouldn’t it be easier to trust in God’s plan and timing if he just explained what he’s doing as he’s doing it?

When we look to Scripture, what we see is that when God reveals himself and his plan he does it in a way that has been termed progressive revelation. In our society today the word progressive has taken on political baggage that needs clarification. Progressive revelation is not God revealing woke ideas to humanity. The word progressive is used here in the sense of gradual building. In the Bible, God reveals his plan to humankind one step at a time, bringing the full plan to fruition through a series of revelations progressing one after another. Only in hindsight can one see the fullness of God’s plan.

A common proposal among the more skeptical camp of biblical scholarship is that the human ideas invented by the early authors of Scripture (like Moses) were retconned and expanded by later humans (like Paul) looking to add to and update the religion of the Bible. If we divorce the text of Scripture from the divine inspiration it claims of itself, this is certainly a possible explanation on merely human terms.

But another possibility that does not compromise the integrity if the Bible’s own witness is that God progressively reveals his plan of salvation to humankind little by little on purpose. It is a dangerous endeavor to attempt to put ourselves in God’s shoes - simply for the fact that we are not God and do not share his infinitely superior perspective. But if we humbly try to see things from God’s point of view, the concept of progressive revelation makes good sense.

Step By Step Instructions

Anyone who has attempted to teach anyone anything can attest to the fact that usually, step by step instructions are the most effective way to guide somebody to the desired conclusion. When helping my nephew build a Lego set, we follow each step of the instructions to gradually build the set. This works better than looking at the box and trying to figure it out from observing the finished product. This is exactly how we see God reveal his unfolding plan to humanity through the Scriptures.

The God of the Old Testament reveals himself as a singular God as opposed to being just one of a pantheon of equal deities. God is completely alone in his majesty, holiness, and power. This was a powerful polemic against the rival near-eastern religions in the world to which God revealed himself.

One of the most important truths for the Hebrews to know when Moses was given God’s revelation (the Pentateuch – or the first five books of the Old Testament) was that he was alone and unrivaled. The God who has revealed himself to the Hebrews is in a completely different category from the Canaanite gods. They were about to invade a strange land with bizarre religious practices, and the Hebrews needed to know that these supposed gods the Canaanites worshiped did not hold a candle to the real God who was leading them and fighting for them.

It makes sense that God would begin here and not with on of the more abstract and confusing doctrines like the trinity. This would be irrelevant to the Hebrews in the moment in history in which they find themselves and would only muddy the waters. It is certainly true that God has always been a triune God, and there are textual clues even as early as the creation story in Genesis 1, but in the Old Testament people did not necessarily need to know about the particulars between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This point of God’s revelation being on a need to know basis is the key to understanding progressive revelation. God does not reveal information for information’s sake, it is always for a specific purpose (the ultimate purpose being a restored relationship with him in eternity). Put another way, God tells us everything we need to know, not everything we want to know.

When God promises a savior for the Israelites and restoration after the exile, he does not flesh out exactly how it will come about. He gives hints and clues that we can connect in hindsight, but to those receiving the revelation, the point was not how he would act but assurance that he would.

Abraham: A Case Study

We see this illustrated throughout Scripture, not only in how God chose to reveal the Bible to humankind, but also in the stories contained within Scripture. Consider Abraham.

I have always drawn immense courage from the story of Abraham. Originally named Abram, Abraham was not qualitatively different than any other man in his time. He dwelt in an obscure land called Ur, which was not particularly known to be faithful to the one true God.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

As modern readers we have the luxury of knowing the rest of the story. God selects Abraham to be the ancestor of a great nation: God’s chosen nation which will become enormously powerful and eventually will produce the Messiah (Jesus) who will reconcile all of humankind back to God. God will do amazing miracles in the sight of his chosen nation and will enable them to do things beyond their wildest imagination. We know the biblical stories. But when we consider the text in Genesis with fresh eyes, we are met with the staggering notion that Abram did not.

Look at the instructions that God gives to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. The instructions that God (who is not, it seems, previously known to Abram) gives are to leave everything he has ever known and travel to a land that God will show him at some undetermined point in the future. With the blind promise of blessed descendants, God’s instructions to Abram amount to “walk until I tell you to stop.”

Abram had no idea where God was leading him, he had no idea how things would come about. He had no idea how long the journey would take. He had no idea what would distinguish his descendants from the rest of the world or how they would bless the world. He was simply given the promise of protection and told to step out in faith.

What we see, as Abram’s story unfolds in Genesis, is that it is anything but quick. Abram finds his way to Canaan, and once there God reveals the next step of his plan.

When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
Genesis 12:5b-9 ESV

Upon arriving at Canaan, God reveals the next step of the plan. Canaan is the land that God has promised, but it will not be Abram but his descendants who will live there. The promise is coming into focus, and Abram must continue to be patient. Abram, though old, does not yet have a son, so the promise of the land must still be far away. He must be faithful and continue to follow God’s leading until the next part of the plan is revealed.

To the modern reader, the entire sequence of events that begins at Genesis 12 and continues, chronicling Abram’s journey, until his passing on the torch to his son Isaac in Genesis 25 can seem frustrating. It seems cruel for God to seemingly string Abram (who becomes Abraham) along. A deeper look into each and every step of Abram’s journey where he is gradually given a fuller picture of the promise God has given is fascinating, and I highly encourage doing so. But the question remains, why does God not simply give him a better picture so that he can have peace of mind in his wanderings?

The point where this question becomes inescapably relevant - where theology meets practical Christian living – is when we observe what Abram’s attitude was toward God throughout his entire journey. Certainly, there are character flaws and unflattering moments in Abram’s life (Abram and Sarai in Egypt, for instance), but Abram remains faithful to God and seems quite content to simply trust in God’s leading even when things don’t seem to be lining up.

Upon arriving in Canaan and being informed by God that this was the place, but that the ancestors of his yet-to-be-conceived son would be the ones to take control of it, Abram responds by building an alter to worship God and give thanks for his goodness.

This is the purpose of progressive revelation. God could certainly give us all the information with which we could work self-sufficiently to achieve the plans that God has set for us, but the point is faith, not results. God’s purposes for us are not only that we end up where we need to be, but that we grow along the way. Faith is something that cannot be cultivated unless there is need to trust in God in a way that recognizes that we are unable to do anything on our own without him.

Knowing that God would provide if we ever needing it is a far cry from actually needing God to provide and seeing it actually happen in your life.

When we consider that not only does God desire our spiritual growth, but that his very purpose for creating us in the first place was to have a relationship with him, the question becomes silly. If I am frustrated with God’s timing and find myself asking God why he won’t simply let me know the plan, what my irritation amounts to is asking - with full desire to live into God’s plan - why God won’t simply show me what to do and leave me alone?

Faith in God’s goodness depends on whether or not we actually trust him to lead us, even when we cannot see where. Through progressive revelation, God guides us in a loving way so that we always know what we need to know while still having to actually trust that, in spite of our inability to see it in the moment, God will come through and work things together for our good.

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