One of the keys to understanding the meta-narrative of Scripture is what is typically called “progressive revelation.” Progressive revelation is part of the interpretive process wherein it is understood that God has revealed himself and his plan in gradual increments throughout history.
As we seek to understand progressive revelation, let us be sure what it is not.
What Progressive Salvation is Not
1). It should be understood that progressive revelation is not an evolution of religion or doctrine. Some maintain we see in Scripture the gradual transition from polytheism and nature worship to monotheism; the shift from cultic blood sacrifices to ethical religion. This perspective was popularized by the higher criticism that is associated with the Modernist movement of the 19th century (which is more commonly known as classic liberalism).
2) It should also be understood that progressive revelation is not a revelation of inconsistent and opposing truths at different points in history. The theological construct known as dispensationalism would be the most common illustration of this. The early dispensationalists, such as CI Scofield, postulated that God revealed himself in entirely different ways in different dispensations. The position these men advanced was more than just new information that built on old information. It was distinct and separate from that prior revelation.
A dispensation, according to Scofield, was a radically new way in which God related to his people. For instance, during the time of Moses it is believed that God related to his people by means of law. In distinction from this, dispensationalists proposed a new dispensation known as the church age wherein the Lord related to his people by means of grace. The older (sometimes called “classic”) dispensationalism went so far as to say that the saints during Moses’ time were saved by virtue of their works while the saints during the church age are saved by faith.
Contemporary (or “progressive”) dispensationalists would deny such a claim and affirm the more orthodox position—that the OT saints were saved by faith in the Messiah to come. Nevertheless, their view of progressive revelation still has some of the same incongruities. This is witnessed in the fact that both the older and the more recent forms of dispensationalism posit two different plans of salvation for two different peoples (Jews have a physical earthly kingdom, Gentiles have part in the church, the spiritual and temporal kingdom).
Progressive Revelation Explained & Illustrated
If progressive revelation is not evolutionary in nature or different in substance, how then are we to understand it? The proper view may be compared to an oak tree that grows out of an acorn. While the oak tree is obviously distinct from an acorn, it is not altogether unrelated. It is the fuller manifestation of the acorn. The essential properties of the tree are not different from that of the nut. Rather, it is simply the greater expression of all that was contained in the smaller seed form.
Charles Hodge says of progressive revelation, “What at first is only obscurely intimated is gradually unfolded in subsequent parts of the sacred volume, until the truth is revealed in its fullness." Another put it this way,
"The basic truths of Scripture are in their essence present in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, yet progressively in stages unfolded, explained, clarified and brought to their fullness in the New Testament. Thus the doctrines of Creation, God’s nature and attributes, Man as created and as fallen in sin, God's covenant of redemption, the Savior - his person and work, Faith and repentance and salvation through grace, judgment are there from the beginning, though the fullness (and along with it, the understanding) of them undergoes a gradual development through Scripture.”
As an example of this gradual development, we may consider the promise of salvation first given in Genesis 3:15 to Adam and Eve. God promised that there would be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Ultimately though, the seed of the woman would crush Satan’s head. Adam understood this to mean that God would not treat them as their sins deserved. While it would not have been altogether crystal clear what the Lord intended by it, there was certainly some knowledge of life (he would go on to have children) and salvation (Satan would be defeated).
This first announcement of the good news is the acorn, and it is this kernel of truth that is elaborated upon all through the succeeding pages of Scripture. When Abraham is promised a land, name, and greatness in Genesis 12 we see that a plant is starting to emerge from the acorn. Abraham lives by faith and expects God to give him a dwelling place (as opposed to condemning him to eternal hell fire). This dwelling he sought was certainly more than just a nice piece of real estate too as he set out to find “a city whose builder is God.” (Heb. 11:10)
Later, the promise comes to David that God would “build him a house” and that he would have a son who would reign for eternity. David understood this to be part of the saving promises of God in that God’s kingdom would last forever and that there would be military figure (a king) who would completely defeat the enemies of God.
In the Psalms we also read that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Here we see that the acorn has developed into quite the stout sapling. As David sings he expresses that the borders of his kingdom were supposed to stretch far beyond the region of the Canaanite territories to the outer portions of the earth.
In coming to the New Testament the promise of God comes to its most clear expression in the saving work of Christ. He preached the “kingdom of heaven” and opened the doors to Paradise (Luke 23:43). We are also told of the full oak as some indication is given of consummation of that salvation. In the book of Revelation we read of the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven. We also see a “new heavens and a new earth” wherein God dwells without the hint of evil.
There are details certainly left out. We did not speak of the conquest or Abraham’s having only inherited a grave. Yet the sketch certainly indicates the progressive nature of Scripture. Just as no child is given a full meal until they have grown enough to be able to chew and digest, so too the Lord does not give all of his truth in one revelation. He gradually reveals it, uncovering just enough at each instance to assist his people in their faith in him and comprehension of his ways.
[This article is the second in my new class on "The Old Testament Witness to Christ." The first may be found here: Story of Stories.]
 PROGRESSIVE REVELATION: The unfolding of God's revelation: http://www.eldrbarry.net/clas/gb/b12progres.pdf
 However, some of the progressive dispensationalists only shift the argument in that they suggest that the nature of saving faith in the OT was substantially different from saving faith in the new. (For more on this, please see Dispensationalism—A Reformed Evaluation, by Ligon Duncan:)
 Systematic Theology. Hodge, Charles. Vol. 1.Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers (2003), pg. 446. ISBN 1-56563-459-4 (also available abridged by Edward N. Gross, ISBN 0-87552-224-6)
 ibid. PROGRESSIVE REVELATION: The unfolding of God's revelation.
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