Progressive Revelation

A revelation which furnishes the practical reason with a starting point for the interpretation of past, present and future history is subject to progressive validation. The more apparent it becomes that the past can be understood, recovered and integrated by means of a reasoning starting with revelation, the more contemporary experience is enlightened and response to new situations aptly guided by this imagination of the heart, the more a prophecy based on this truth is fulfilled, the surer our conviction of its reality becomes. In this respect as in many others, Christian revelation is like the revelation of Hebrew faith. The prophets saw God acting in and through the actions of the nations of their own time by apprehending these as repetition and even more as a continuation of the mighty acts whereby the Lord had delivered Israel from bondage. Priests reconstructed history until they saw the past, not only of Judah but of all Israel, not only of Israel but of all mankind, as one past and one preparation for the saving work of God. And seers prophesied with strange accuracy events to come, not by observing the movement of planets and stars or by adding mystic numbers, but by making explicit what was implicit in the relations of a sinful nation with a just and holy God. Revelation was not only validated but every new event and every reinterpreted memory became a part of revelation since in all events the same Lord appeared and was known of men. So history based on revelation became a history of revelation.

It is not otherwise with the revelation to which the church refers. It is progressively validated in the individual Christian life as ever new occasions are brought under its light, as sufferings and sins, as mercies and joys are understood by its aid. Revelation has been tested in this way by many generations of men and its success in clarifying and reconstructing souls is one source of its great prestige among us. Moreover such validation has been more than proof of the initial principle, for every event which the revelatory moment clarified has been in a sense a repetition and continuation of that moment so that Christians have been able to say long after the first generation, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; . . . that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us."

It cannot be denied that there have been many failures in the application of the method of revelation, that through long periods the reasoning heart of Christianity has remained content with ancient understanding, or that the very idea of the revelation of a living God has been lost in the effort to confine revelation to a set of customary ecclesiastical assertions about God and man. There has been a marked hesitancy in the modern period to apply the method of revelation to the history of societies or communities as though the gospel applied only to men in isolated communion with God. The common life has, therefore, been interpreted by means of other images less inclusive and often evil. In particular the social gospel has often brought to bear on societies only the impoverished image of a conflict between good and evil in which victory is not by grace but by merit, in which there is no suffering of the son of God nor forgiveness for the sinful society. But the failures of the church to use its method are not the fault of the method. Indeed, when the church recognizes the revelatory moment as truly revelatory it is impelled to continuing, progressive interpretation of every occasion in the life of men by means of its great image of the saving work of God. In our time particularly, with the manifest destruction being wrought by men with evil imaginations of the heart, Christians are sent back to the method of reasoning on the basis of revelation and can practice it with the firm expectancy that it will be able not only to illuminate contemporary life but also to give new assurance of the present activity of that same judging and loving God who manifested himself in Jesus Christ.

Revelation is not progressive in the sense that we can substitute for the revelatory moment of Jesus Christ some other moment in our history and interpret the latter through the former. The monastic movement and the Reformation, modern evangelism and the social gospel, represent no progress beyond the New Testament in the sense that we may understand the latter through the former. Benedict and Luther must be interpreted through Christ and not vice versa; modern civilization and modern human life must be regarded as the scene of activity on the part of the Father of Jesus Christ, but Jesus cannot be rightly understood as the son of the god of modern culture. Nevertheless revelation is a moving thing in so far as its meaning is realized only by being brought to bear upon the interpretation and reconstruction of ever new human situations in an enduring movement, a single drama of divine and human action. So the God who revealed himself continues to reveal himself -- the one God of all times and places.

In another slightly different sense we may speak of revelation as progressive. First principles are not only our beginnings from which we proceed to second and third things; they are also our endings toward which we move from the multiplicity of present experience. In our conceptual knowledge we move back and forth from reason to experience and from experience back to reason. And in that dialectic of the mind our concepts are enriched, clarified and corrected no less than our experience is illuminated and directed. We do not easily change first principles but we discover more fully what they mean. By moving back from experience to the categories in our mind we find out more clearly what was in our mind. The reason of the heart engages in a similar dialectic, and it does not really know what is in the revelation, in the illuminating moment, save as it proceeds from it to present experience and back again from experience to revelation. In that process the meaning of the revelation, its richness and power, grow progressively clearer. This progressive understanding of revelation is also an infinite process. "To be assaulted by the presence of greatness," Professor Hocking writes in his Thoughts on Life and Death, "is not to take it in; a mountain makes no immediate impression of vastness -- it conspires with the illusion of distance to conceal its proportions, and we only know them through the journey and the climb." We climb the mountain of revelation that we may gain a view of the shadowed valley in which we dwell and from the valley we look up again to the mountain. Each arduous journey brings new understanding, but also new wonder and surprise. This mountain is not one we climbed once upon a time; it is a well-known peak we never wholly know, which must be climbed again in every generation, on every new day. There is no time or place in human history, there is no moment in the church's past, nor is there any set of doctrines, any philosophy or theology of which we might say, "Here the knowledge possible through revelation and the knowledge of revelation is fully set forth." Revelation is not only progressive but it requires of those to whom it has come that they begin the never-ending pilgrim's progress of the reasoning Christian heart.

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