Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Progressive Revelation

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Introduction 
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The Canonization of Scripture"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The New Hermeneutics
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Faith and Practice
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Walter Bauer Thesis
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Progressive Revelation

Properly defined, I believe in progressive revelation. In the third chapter of his book Collected Writings on Scripture, Dr. DA Carson provides a helpful discussion of  progressive revelation. He begins by noting that the "term 'progressive revelation' is a slippery one" (133). Its genesis stems from liberal theology which has used the term "to describe an evolutionary approach to understanding the Bible" (133).

Though Carson does not explore the liberal trajectory more here, one can easily see the influence of evolution and progressive revelation throughout liberal writings. Several years ago Emergent leader Brian McLaren, in his book A New Kind of Christianity, described the Bible as a collection of writings that reveal the progressive evolution of humanity's understanding of God. Thus in the Old Testament, God is predominately an angry Being who condemns sinners while in the New Testament we see a much softer side of God in the example of Jesus. In his theology, the canon is not closed in the sense that all our understanding of God is exclusive to the 66 books of the Bible. God continues to reveal himself and we humans continue to discover God. The Bible reflects an ancient view of God - one in which we have mostly outgrown.

Yet this is not what the Carson means by the term "progressive revelation." Instead, he uses the term to
. . . refer to the fact that God progressively revealed himself in event and in Scripture, climaxing the events with the death-resurrection-exaltation of Christ and climaxing the Scriptures with the closing of the canon. The result is that God's ways and purposes were progressively fulfilled not only in redemption events but also in inscrpiturated explanation. The earlier revelation prepares for the later, the later carries further and in someway explicates the earlier. (134)
This is a good working definition.

Carson then adds that "The most dramatic canonical shift is the shift from Old Testament to New" (134). This assertion, I assume, needs little defense. The shift from legalistic Judaism to Jesus is a notable jump. The gap is bridged, I believe, by the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist.

There are "certain characteristics of the diversity in the New Testament that have to be born in mind" (134). First, "certain parts of the old covenant under which Jesus lived are not continued under the new covenant he inaugurated (e.g., Mark 7:19; much of Hebrews)" (134). No serious take on systematic theology can ignore this fact. The Gospel narratives clearly show that Jesus is the fulfillment, in many ways, of Israel.

Secondly, "the full implications of" the new Spirit-age "takes some time to be understood . . .and this understanding comes only in degrees, unevenly, haltingly, cautiously." (135) This eventually leads Carson to ask an important question, "Can there be development within the writings of one particular author?" (135) The obvious best case-study in this regard is the Apostle Paul. Taking their ques from C. H. Dodd, most writers "affirm unhesitatingly that they can trace development in Paul's thought." (135) I disagree; so does Carson.

There are several problems with this thesis. First, there is still considerable debate regarding the dating of Paul's letters. Though most agree on various ranges, liberal and conservative theologians will likely never agree on date and authorship of Pauline writings. This point alone leaves the thesis virtually unprovable. Furthermore, the letters of Paul are diverse due to the nature and purpose of the letters. Some are pastoral, some are theological, some are introductory, some are personal.* Finally, most scholars believe Paul wrote his canonical letters within a fifteen year time span which makes diversity less likely.

All of this leads Carson to conclude:
There is little reason to doubt that Paul sees himself growing in understanding and maturity, including theological maturity (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-12; Phil. 3:12-16). But there is not the slightest evidence that Paul perceived himself to be abandoning any position he had formerly maintained in his writings. It remains important that we interpret Paul by Paul, not only for the sake of systematic theology but also for the sake of understanding Paul. (136)
So, in conclusion, do I believe in progressive revelation? Yes. No doubt we see a slow unveiling of the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture, for example. However, as defined by liberals, I fully reject. Liberal progressive revelation makes theology impossible. Orthodox revelation makes theology glorious.

* Carson explores this point more fully on pages 138-141.
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