bible theology

development in divine dealings with sin

Progressive revelation is the theological understanding  for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change.  The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.

I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it.  It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin.  I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:

Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out

First, the response is seek them out.  This is key.  In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them.  God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.

Before long, the next response is wipe them out.  This is severe.  Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil.  It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery.  Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.

Soon after, the response becomes spread them out.  This is unexpected.  The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens.  Taking God’s place.  Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth.  It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out.  This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.

Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out.  Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’.  I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent.  I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.

Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out.  The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out.  This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.

One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on.  The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden.  God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.

bible christianity theology

rain and bows

When it rains… look for rainbows.

Our son Tom quoted this message from a T-shirt today, as we finished off our lunch and looked out the window at the rain.

The imagery of the rainbow is used by peace activists, the queer community, sunday school teachers, and more.  It draws its formative significance, of course, from the story of the flood in Genesis.  I found myself thinking of how that story is framed, both as a complete story, and within the book of Genesis as a whole.

The whole Bible is framed by what we call progressive revelation, where truth is gradually (or progressively) revealed as the story or narrative goes forward.  In the same way, individual stories (or sets of stories) within the Bible follow the same principle.

Sometimes, a story or stories progress and combine to strengthen a belief about God.  The ‘lost’ stories of Jesus (lost sheep, lost coin and lost son) in Luke, for example, go together as a set of stories revealing the nature of God as a Shepherd/Woman/Father who seeks out what is lost.  A point any reader of the Old Testament would have known, but that Jesus intensifies.

Other times, stories progress and combine to re-shape or develop a belief about God.  The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, among its other purposes, is revealing that God is not the sort of God that demands a child sacrifice.  Yahweh is not like the other ‘normal’ gods of that time and place, for whom it was ‘normal’ to appease by offering your child.  People who imagine God to be a child-sacrifice-demanding God find this not to be the case.  This story carries through into the New Testament beautifully, with God providing not only a ‘ram’ instead of Abraham’s son, but providing himself through his only Son, who was the ‘Lamb’ of God.  Likewise, in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28, we have a story which challenges the existing Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  Jews of the day (including Jesus himself it appears!) would have imagined the Messiah to be coming ‘for’ or ‘to’ the Jews, to save them from the Gentiles.  But this beautiful, wise and persistent Gentile (Syro-Phonecian) woman shows them (and Jesus!?) that the community of faith was not limited to Jews only.

It seems the flood story both strengthens and develops existing beliefs about God.  Like the previous stories in Genesis 1-5, the flood story pictures God as not merely a God who is grieved and angry over human failure and sin (as seen in the expulsion from the garden, the curse, and the judgment of the flood), but a God who seeks out his children to restore and bless them (as seen in the provision of clothes, the provision of children to Adam and Eve, and the promise of mercy seen in the rainbow).

This pattern permeates the whole of Scripture.  God is not like we imagined – or feared.  God is holier and stronger than we dared believe, and more merciful and gentle than we dared hope.

And that is why they call it Good News.

bible christianity theology

lamb power

I’ve long held the view that God doesn’t always get what God wants/wills/desires.  It seems fundamentally basic to me.

Because, there is more than one way to be omnipotent.

By way of analogy, take my non-omnipotence… my mere potency.  I possess the ‘ability’, or ‘power’ or ‘potency’ to do this or that thing.  I am, within the laws of physics, I suppose, free to do what I like.  In parenting Thomas, I have the power to be harsh or lax, smothering or distant, coercive or cold, forceful or far-off (or hopefully somewhere in-between).

If we take God’s existence (or ‘super-Existence’ or some word we don’t have, etc.) as a given, the possible extremes for God’s mode of interaction with the world are a kind of indifferent and distant deism (like a cold, careless father), or a manipulative, coercive dictator (like a harsh, smothering mother).

The biblical story develops.  Sometimes God seems to be distant, and sometimes God seems in intervene in ways that are quite sudden and forceful.  But as time and the story unfolds, the picture of God develops.  And this development is (as we’d expect – and like unto the development of, for example, science) characterised by both continuity and discontinuity.  But at any rate, God is never perfectly known – not yet anyway (1 Cor. 13:9).

But what does happen is that the New Testament authors are convinced that in Jesus of Nazareth, they have seen God in a way that is truly an ‘unveiling’.  The author of Hebrews contrasts the former God-speech from prophets and such like (Hebrews 1:1-2), with the recent unveiling of the ‘express image’ of God’s person (v3).  The book of Revelation could be called literally ‘the unveiling/uncovering of Jesus Christ’.

One of the most striking, unintuitive and ‘you’d-have-never-guessed-God-would-be-like-this’ aspects of the revelation of God in Jesus is that God’s omnipotence is the kind of omnipotence that is best pictured by a bloodied animal.  A lamb. On a throne.

This God is neither distant, nor a dictator.  This God suffers with us, and conquers the sin and evil that has literally ruined the world.  This God’s omnipotence is best described as lamb power.

bible christianity philosophy theology

projection, polytheism & judaeo-christian ‘atheism’

One of the standard atheist charges against belief in a god (especially since Feuerbach) is that humans invent a ‘god’ who is nothing more than a ‘projection’ of their own need to believe.  The central idea is that all beliefs about ‘gods’ simply reflect what humans want or assume a ‘god’ to be like.

Quickly, I’ll say that although this would be one of the strongest challenges to theism, it is anything but a knock-down argument.  Not only does it leave entirely unchallenged the notion of a real, actual, but yet unknowable god ((which is something most forms of theism – in different degrees – say about their god)) with essence and qualities other than imagined or known by humans, but it also assumes that a ‘god’ would automatically be unable to reveal himself through the god-like desires and assumptions of humans ((I note that ‘assumptions’ is not a very charitable term to theism.  For example, negative theology is an immensely rational, logical and delusion-countering way of thinking about what qualities a ‘god’ must have.)).  Nonetheless, even apart from these points much more can be observed.

First of all, we should note that the charge of ‘projection’ is precisely the charge that the biblical prophets level against the polytheistic ‘gods’ that the nations believed in.  Isaiah 44 has a deliciously illustrative example of the classic monotheistic mockery of polytheism – a kind of monotheistic ‘atheism’, if you like ((Which is also seen in the creation story, where all the things listed in the 6 days of creation – sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, sea, birds, beasts, etc. – reflect the polytheistic array of ‘gods’ of the surrounding nations)).  Isaiah effectively says that these polytheistic people take a tree, cut it down, use one half to cook dinner and warm themselves, and then take the other half, carve it into the shape of an image and bow down to it as a god.  Polytheism, atheists and monotheists agree, is human projection.

Also, having noted the similarity between the critiques of both Feuerbachian atheism and monotheistic ‘atheism’, we should not the key point of departure.  Revelation.

Contrary to humans imagining or desiring their way to God, the Bible speaks of a God who reveals himself.  Romans 1 speaks of the idolatry of the Roman pantheon (resulting in the idolatrous lifestyle of gluttonous eating and indulgent sexuality – faithful worship of the idol gods of food and sex), and contrasts this with the God who is ‘plainly seen’ as creator because of the created world.  The wider New Testament presents the person of Jesus Christ as the exact, final and full revelation of God – sharpening, completing and bringing into focus everything that had ever been revealed about God.

Martin Luther has a particularly striking understanding of this.  For Luther, even reason was unreliable to gain true knowledge of God.  For Luther (following the lead of the NT authors), God was fully known in and through Jesus – and particularly through Jesus’ surprising, detestible, un-godly, weak and shameful death on the Cross.  He contrasted ‘theologians of glory’, who speak of God’s bright glory and strength, with true ‘theologians of the Cross’, who speak of God’s suffering, shame and ‘weakness’ on the Cross.

I’ve seen a video of Dawkins mocking Jesus on the Cross as small-minded and insignificant.  What he is doing, perhaps unknowingly, is agreeing in principle that God would be ‘powerful’, ‘big-minded’ and ‘significant’ as imagined by humans – and mocking Jesus for not being like that.  The New Testament writers however, knowingly proclaimed this strange, weak, local, and dying God – whose gospel sounded foolish to Greek ears and was an offensive stumbling block to the Jews.

bible christianity theology

progressive revelation

Progressive Revelation is the theological/biblical (and Judaeo-Christian) understanding of the process of God’s increasing self-revelation over time. The only other understandings of divine revelation are a) denial of divine revelation (deists, atheists, pantheists, etc.) or b) some kind of mass-download-ish ‘instant’ revelation.