Progressive Revelation or Cumulative Revelation – a question of priority

Within the context of theological systems and hermeneutical approaches to the text of Scripture, two systems dominate the theological landscape today: Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Granted, these aren’t the only two, but these two will always enter into a conversation about how to understand the message of the Bible.

How is it possible for two people to open up the same Bible and come to different conclusions? How does one believer read and study Scripture and come to the conclusion that the church will not go through the Tribulation. Yet, another godly believer reads the same texts and prophecies and comes to the opposite conclusion?

As a point of illustration, I’ve seen Matthew 24 used to defend a pre-tribulational rapture, a mid-tribulational rapture and a post-trib / pre-wrath position. Obviously, Matthew can’t be teaching all of these contradictory positions in his text! Further, the answer can’t be determined by which commentary was written by the most spiritual person (whatever that means!). In truth, godly people, who love Jesus passionately, come to different positions here. Each are filled with the same Spirit of God – the BEST interpreter of the text! Yet, no agreement… Why is this? Several questions should help us frame a response.

Which testament receives priority?

This is an interesting thought that some Bible readers have never consciously considered. Yet, the way we “read” the Bible will to a large degree determine how we “interpret” the Bible. Let me reframe the question to align with the title of the post: Do you start with progressive revelation or with cumulative revelation when interpreting a text?

Still confused? Let’s illustrate it. When you read Psalm 22, “My God, my God, Why hast Thou forsaken me…” – Do you immediately run to Calvary and import all of the Messianic hope into this verse? Or, do you ask, “Why does David feel this way?” The first question is taking a cumulative approach; the second assumes David doesn’t know about Calvary or a child named Jesus born to Mary and Joseph.

Again, read Genesis 12 and contemplate the Abrahamic Covenant. When Moses wrote these words, was he anticipating the Christ, the God-man, becoming a blessing to every family of the earth? Or, did he envision Joseph as having some bearing to this covenant? (After all, Joseph, from the lineage of Abraham, was used by God during a world-wide famine to bless every family of the earth.)

Part of the responsibility of the exegete that is committed to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is to place the text within its historical context. He asks questions such as, “What is happening in the world at the time of this writing? What would the original audience have understood by these words?” No one in the original audience could go forward in time to receive more revelation to understand the message. He could only compare the message to the truth that had been previously delivered.

On a personal level, I believe the truths that God communicated progressively through the prophets contained understandable truth that His people should have acted upon. Further, I believe that further truth never contradicted previous truth; it clarified it.

New truth never contradicted previous truth; the new truth only clarified the previous one.

In light of these personal beliefs – and for other reasons not yet provided – I believe the starting point in interpreting a text is to begin with the revelation that had been given up to that point. Thus, I do not allow the New Testament to change the meaning of an Old Testament passage.

A Static or Dynamic Meaning?

Do New Testament writers change the meaning of the Old Testament text? Does Scripture contain one single meaning or is there a “fuller meaning” (sometimes referred to as sensus plenior)? I live by the mantra that “The text cannot mean what it never meant…” I try to be consistent in that principle. Yet, I know that some dispensationalists that I highly respect allow for a fuller meaning of a text (think of it as at least two levels: 1) The meaning the writer intended; and 2) the meaning the Spirit intended).

A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.

Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics

This principle of single meaning was also affirmed by the second Summit of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The principle was stated, “We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite, and fixed.”

At times, confusion is introduced into this discussion because application and interpretation become blurred. We hear of Bible studies where a group leader asks, “What does this text mean to you?” The better question would be, “What does this text mean?”

In dispensationalism, a view of one meaning, unchanging throughout time, is the standard. If a text can mean anything, in reality, it means nothing. Our goal as biblical interpreters is to discover the meaning of the text, and then apply it to our day (but remembering that the application is not the meaning!).

In Defense of the Priority of the First Testament

In conclusion, I’d like to offer a few reasons why progressive revelation should be the starting point rather than cumulative revelation. By extension, these reasons would also demonstrate why we give priority to the First Testament in our biblical theological method.

  1. When we start with the revelation that has been given (and not with what is to come), we help to anchor that text in its historical context.
  2. When we start with the revelation that has been given (and not with what is to come), we allow the OT passages to actually have meaning to the original audience.

Obviously, this is not a robust case! However these two points, along with the implications that can be derived from them, provide direction. Many within the Reformed Tradition will argue that the New Testament should be given a logical priority (since it cannot have chronological priority). Yet, for my friends who lean in this direction, and yet hold to a single meaning view of the text, I leave this question: “Since the NT is complementary to the OT, and would never contradict it, what hermeneutical damage can come from approaching the meaning of a text in its historical and chronological place?”

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