Not so Progressive Revelation

Progressive revelation is a Christian concept which states that the sections of the Bible that were written later contain a fuller revelation of God compared to the earlier sections. In simple terms those people who were around before the completion of the Scriptures were privy to an incomplete and restricted message. It is a doctrine which is used to gloss over a great many problems that lie within the pages of the Bible. Primarily it stands as an excuse for dramatic changes in the message of the Bible, and the apparent mood of Yahweh.

“There are many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in which Jews and/or Christians suddenly shifted their beliefs and practices. Previous revelation in the form of the Mosaic code or the teachings of the prophets were replaced, greatly expanded, or even reversed. Often, a fundamental belief of the ancient Israelites was overturned and an entirely new concept substituted.”[1]

For example much of the Mosaic Law revolved around offering animal sacrifices as a means to attain forgiveness for sins. Quite a considerable amount of the Pentateuch is dedicated to explaining the elaborate sacrificial methods. But, seemingly out of nowhere in Isaiah 1:11-13 a new “revelation” is given which abolishes the system of ritual sacrifice. Perhaps the people had been complaining about the massive loss of their livestock, or maybe they had just run out of turtledoves. Either way, Isaiah decides that it’s time to stop the madness. The Scripture itself is quite surprising:

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD.

“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

And the fat of fed cattle.

I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

Or of lambs or goats… Bring no more futile sacrifices;

Incense is an abomination to Me.”

So after over 500 years of animal sacrifice God speaks up as if to say “what are you doing this for?”[2] Uh, maybe because you commanded us to do it! So God, who is supposed to be unchanging, changes his mind and decides that the animal sacrifices aren’t quite achieving the desired result. He then states that the incense rising to heaven from the sacrifices is an abomination to him. I think that if I were one of the people who had been making the sacrifices I would be pretty pissed off. God had been the one to command them to perform these horrendous, bloody and expensive sacrifices and then he turns around and says that their sacrifices are despicable. Does this sound like the behaviour of a level-headed, logical, fair and good being? Obviously not!

A second example involves the sabbath, where the initial commandment in the Decalogue was to not work on the sabbath. The later addendum included the instruction that working on the sabbath was to be punished by death. It should be noted that Jewish scholars in their writings made amendments to this idea, recognising that it was basically impossible to keep. In the New Testament Jesus flips this idea on its head and says “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”[3] In doing so he completely undermined the initial commandment made by himself/not himself/part of himself, and declared that working on the sabbath is fine. Again, God is supposed to be unchanging and Jesus is supposed to be God, so why give the first command and make it punishable by death if you are just going to change it a thousand years later? The theologian might explain this as being part of the New Covenant, but doesn’t it kind of crap over all of the people who were subjected to the first ruling before Christ came, many of whom must have been executed for breaking that law? Sadly, most Christians seem to forget about the fact that the people living before Jesus were real people who were actually affected by these laws.

There are many other examples of this kind of change in heart that can be found in the Bible. A number can be found in the sermon on the Mount. It very much seems like Jesus had no respect for many of the laws that he was supposed to have given (as part of the godhead). Perhaps that’s because we are not seeing progressive revelation at work, but rather a revisionist approach to many parts of the Old Testament that clearly weren’t working in real life. Jesus presents a revised theology which has been updated for the modern era of 30 CE. But it didn’t end with him, many later theologians revised not only areas of theology, but the Bible as well, in order to make it coalesce more easily with the contemporary times.

The Big Problems with Progressive Revelation

Progressive revelation is extraordinarily condescending towards our recent ancestors. Human beings have been around for over 150,000 years and our brains, and level of intelligence, have not changed very much at all during that time. Today we have better education and more overall knowledge about the world, but we are not smarter than our ancestors from several thousand years ago. In other words, if one of them was born today and they received the same education that we did, they would be just as smart as we are. Their capability for problem-solving and data collection was just as good as ours.[4] But the Bible presumes, or perhaps it is more correct to say, the modern theologian who proposes the idea of progressive revelation presumes, that these people simply weren’t advanced enough to be able to understand concepts that we take for granted today. Let’s take a simple one – the shape of the Earth. In a number of places the Bible suggests that the earth is flat,[5] some theologians like to explain this using progressive revelation suggesting that it would be too difficult for someone in the Bronze Age to be able to deal with the idea that the Earth was in fact a sphere floating in space. But, it’s not exactly mind blowing. I learned about this fact when I was less than five years old, and besides the obvious wow factor it didn’t turn me into a blubbering mess. Somehow I think that people in the Bronze Age would have been able to deal with the roundness of the earth also. So why doesn’t the Bible just say that the earth is a sphere floating in space, orbiting around the sun.[6] Despite the lengthy theological rationalisations of these verses the most likely answer is that the people who wrote the Bible had no divine revelation and actually thought that the earth was flat.

To their shame, many Christians site progressive revelation as being the reason why the Bible does not speak out against slavery. It is easy to recognise that the Bible is very clearly pro slavery. There is not a single verse that speaks out against slavery, every verse regarding slavery merely talks about the treatment of slaves. Some theologians will say that slavery was so ingrained in early society that God didn’t want to “rock the boat” by introducing radical ideas such as “no person can be property.” But the Bible isn’t opposed to instructing people to pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands if they cause them to sin. It also doesn’t hold back from condemning adultery which would clearly have a severe impact on the world’s oldest profession. The Bible is also not restrained about telling us that anger is the same as murder, or to sell everything you own and give it to the church. It is apparent that the Bible is not overly concerned about presenting ideas that may be societally challenging. There is absolutely no reason why the Bible should not have spoken out against slavery. Indeed, if slavery is wrong then one would imagine that God would have been compelled to speak out against it. Surely, what we should read in Scripture is that God was absolutely disgusted with the fact that people were being treated like property and commanded that such a thing should be outlawed and never happen again. In the absence of such a command, we can acknowledge that the Bible, and resultantly God, are not opposed to slavery. It was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment, that slavery began its demise. Ironically, Christians like to take the credit for this because William Wilberforce was one of the individuals responsible.[7]

The next big issue for progressive revelation is the matter of fairness. What we understand about Christianity today has only been available for the past few hundred years. I won’t even go into how much the Enlightenment has impacted modern Christian thinking. Between Constantine and the Enlightenment was 1500 years of church rule in which Christianity dominated the Western world and cast its shadow across most of the world. During this period very few people could read, and they knew only about the Bible what they were taught from the pulpit. These people were manipulated and exploited by the church and received only a filtered message of Scripture. Is it fair that they, due to progressive revelation, should not have as full of an understanding of these things as we do today? But at least they had the gospel message, if we go back another couple of thousand years no one had even heard the name Jesus, and no one could hope to receive salvation through the special revelation of the scriptures. These people were performing animal sacrifices to Yahweh and being commanded to go to war with foreign tribes. Theirs was a brutal existence without even the promise of an afterlife.[8] How fair was this? The message of the gospel may seem wonderful to people who live today, because we have access to Scripture, education and a more polished version of Christian doctrine, but how fair is it for those who came before us? For God to be equitable on an issue as important as salvation, he should have designed a delivery system which more fairly imparted the salvation message. Why should people today have a better access to the salvation message than those who came before us? Progressive revelation is a benchmark of inequality and represents the height of injustice. Not what we should expect from a good God.

Of course before any of this supposed progressive revelation took place there was nothing, no divine message from God. The heavens sat silent for 99% of the current lifespan of humanity. 99% of the people who have ever lived never heard the gospel message, and were not even privy to the laws of Moses.[9] These people lived without any revelation at all. Over 99.9% of all of the species that have ever existed went extinct before the first scratchings of the Pentateuch took place.[10] What kind of arrogance is required to believe that Yahweh prepared this message for the people living today, at the expense of all of those that have come before us? Perhaps God was busy, or maybe he just didn’t care about all of those people who lived and died before the Bronze Age.

On investigation progressive revelation is a feeble idea used to mask a variety of flaws within the Christian scriptures. Even if it were true, it would reveal God to be an extraordinarily arbitrary and unfair creature. Remove the concept of progressive revelation and see how well the Bible stacks up. The contentious conflict between Old and New Testaments reveals theological ideas that were developing and overwriting previous ones. In much the same way as Christianity and Judaism both developed from earlier religions, we can see a progressive development of religious ideas unfolding throughout the collected works. This is not progressive divine revelation so much as it is creative writing designed to keep up with the developing modern philosophies of religion.

[1] http://www.religioustolerance.org/sinpars1.htm.

[2] Moses died around 1230 BC and Isaiah died at roughly 700 BC.

[3] Mark 2:27.

[4] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-has-human-brain-evolved/; Homo Heidelbergensis used stone tools as early as 335,000 years ago: http://sciencenordic.com/prehistoric-humans-were-far-smarter-previously-assumed; “Ancient people were the same as we are… Homo sapiens sapiens…Evolutionary change in humans takes far longer than the span of written history.” David Lipovitch: https://www.quora.com/Were-ancient-people-smarter-than-us; Gerald Crabtree, a Stanford University geneticist says that we may be less intelligent than our ancestors: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-11/are-people-getting-dumber-one-geneticist-thinks-so; http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics/brains

[5] 1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 93:1; Psalm 96:10; Psalm 104:5; Isaiah 45:18; Isaiah 11:12; Daniel 4:10-11; Matthew 4:8; Revelation 1:7.

[6] The Bible also suggests that the sun orbits around the earth. Joshua 10:12-13 ; Ecclesiastes 1:5.

[7] Wilberforce was a Christian.

[8] An afterlife is not widely acknowledged in Jewish thinking.

[9] The figure is probably much larger here, I am just using 99% as a linguistic device.

[10] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/extinction/massext/statement_03.html; http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/03/of-all-species-that-have-existed-on-earth-999-percent-are-now-extinct-many-of-them-perished-in-five-cataclysmic-events-t.html; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction.

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4 thoughts on “Not so Progressive Revelation

  1. It does appear that the bible says the sun and moon stood still indeed, but then when thinking about it this is indeed what appeared to them to happen so what is wrong with that? They had no idea of the earth revolving around the sun just like how God tells them to keep the leper out of the town and we know now that it is for isolation purposes because we have microscopes an can see the pathogens but they just did what God told them, naïve to the real background science to it all just as the sun and moon naively to them appeared to stand still. I don’t have a problem with it myself. There is also the verse about the 4 corners of the earth well….when you think about it, there is north, south, east and west isn’t there?

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    • The issue is that the Bible is supposed to be inerrant, that means without error. So if God was just using turns of phrase here he was doing so with full awareness that the Bible would be analysed later in the future and that it would be determined that it is incorrect by anyone who understands primary school science. It would only not make sense to them if God had not explained how the world actually works. What is to stop God from telling people that the earth is a sphere which spins and sits in space. That is no more of a mind blowing idea than elephants suspending the world on the back of a turtle. But instead we get an order of creation which is out of sync with what we understand it would have had to be from physics. We get a world which is described as being flat and apparently at the centre of the universe with the sun rotating around it.

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