Q & R: Progressive Revelation … or Regressive?

Here’s the Q:

I will try to keep this note as brief as possible, but my comment requires providing you with a brief personal background for context: I was raised in a strong fundamentalist home, where I learned all about biblical inerrancy, sola scriptura, and so forth. I accepted this, and because I attributed such importance to the Bible, I determined that I wanted to understand it as best I could. I began studying it in earnest during my undergraduate years (at [a prominent Evangelical university], where the excellent Bible faculty introduced me to biblical criticism) and then went on to get a master’s (at [a prominent Catholic university]) and Ph.D. ([at a top secular university]) in Hebrew Bible. During this time I underwent a major paradigm shift in how I view the Bible, which could be described almost perfectly in your terms: I transitioned from a constitutional to a conversational understanding. (Incidentally, I lead church-based Bible studies when possible, and long before encountering your work I used the terminology of “revelation through conversation.” I guess I’m not as innovative as I thought…)
Anyway, although theological questions have always driven me personally, my own serious work as a scholar has always been almost entirely historical. Recently, however, a friend introduced me to your A New Kind of Christianity, which I appreciate immensely. It essentially describes my theological/intellectual journey of the past decade, and it has been a fruitful journey that I hope many others take (though perhaps more rapidly and without having to make a career of it). But, as a biblicist, there’s one part of your argument that I cannot accept—even though I very much want to. In your discussion of the God question, you respond to objections to the atrocities in which God partakes in the OT by providing an evolutionary model of the human conception of God. By playing the “progressive understanding” card you essentially subjugate the texts that we don’t care for much to the NT picture of Jesus, whom we do like a lot. (I apologize for oversimplifying.) I have tried to interpret the Bible similarly, but in the end I find it unsatisfactory because the biblical authors don’t always evolve in the right direction. In other words, sometimes they seem to devolve.
Perhaps the best example comes from your following chapters, on Jesus: It seems like some of the latest texts in all Scripture are the apocalyptic bits of the New Testament, for example, Matt 24-25 and Revelation. Here we see a Jesus who is completely out of character with the Jesus of the bulk of the gospels—and, I expect, the historical Jesus—one who is up for smiting the unjust and sending people to eternal punishment. I am not at all persuaded by those who read Revelation non-violently. It comes from a persecuted people who want their oppressors overthrown and punished.
But since I think we disagree on how Revelation should be interpreted, and since I am a far cry from an expert on the New Testament, let me provide an example from within my bailiwick: the law and the prophets. One of the major “discoveries” of biblical scholarship in the last century or so has been the recognition that the law as a historical phenomenon in Israel postdates the prophets. It seems that cries for social justice of Amos, Isaiah, and others were not in response to rampant legalism, as is often thought. If anything, it seems like the legal reforms of Ezra and friends were an attempt to squelch the more tolerant views that prevailed before. This is seriously problematic to a biblical interpretation based on progressive understanding. To cite one example: In the Hebrew Bible we have various texts that welcome foreigners and treat “Israel” as a community of faith, not an ethnic community. One thinks of Elisha with Naaman and Gehazi, Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, Rahab juxtaposed with Achan, etc. On the other hand, we have horrific xenophobic texts, such as the narrative of Phinehas in Num 25 or God’s stipulations in Deut 7. It would be great to explain this through your model, except that the xenophobic texts were created in a response to the more palatable, accepting texts. The Israelites’ views on this matter, for a while anyway, got significantly worse.
There are several other examples of this throughout the Bible, but this note is already long enough. I’m not sure I actually have a question, except perhaps—how would you respond to this? By the way, I do not have a good answer myself. Dealing with the awful texts of the Bible in a satisfactory way is something that I have struggled to do ever since I began to investigate the Bible carefully, but I fear I have made little progress. I have tried the evolutionary model that you espouse, but I don’t think it works.
I hope this doesn’t come off as too critical. I’m on board with most of your points. I think you are doing terrific work, and I wish you all the best. I would love any feedback you might have, though I’m certain you are a busy man.

Here’s the R: Thanks so much for your note. You raise a number of important specific issues (such as how we deal with Matthew 24-25 and Revelation), but let me first focus on the big question: that the so-called progressive revelation model doesn’t fit the best critical scholarship.
In short, I think you’re right. That’s one reason I try to avoid the term “progressive revelation.” The idea of a linear or quasi-linear evolutionary process needs to be replaced with a more dialectic process, where there are two main lines of thought from near the beginning:

A: God created the world as good, and all people (and creatures) are beloved by the Creator. Evil arises from human beings – individuals and groups – failing to rightly honor the goodness of their fellow creatures.
B. The world is divided into the good – us – and the evil – them. We have been granted blessings and life, and they deserve condemnation and death.

If that’s the case, then the people sometimes “vote” A and sometimes B. Jesus comes along and votes A. For us to be Christians would mean (among other things) we believe Jesus was right in that assessment.
I think two examples from contemporary culture illustrate how the process works.
First, The US has had an argument similar to the one I propose we find in the Bible:

A. God has created all people equal and endowed all with certain inalienable rights.
B. God has created all white, heterosexual men equal, and everyone else – not so much.

In the 1960’s, A made major advances. With Barack Obama’s election, even more so. But in the intervening years, especially as white male hegemony has lost ground, we see a resurgence of B – evidenced by attempts at voter suppression, incarceration as “the new Jim Crow,” etc. (BTW – just this morning I received a racist email from a white South African, saying that the only mistake of the Afrikaners was that they didn’t commit genocide when they had the chance. And last week, some Italians threw bananas at an elected official of African descent, imitating the racist behavior of some Italian soccer fans in recent years.)
Second, the Catholic Church boldly surged ahead through Vatican II. But recent decades evidenced an accelerating retrenchment and regression. Perhaps the new pope will help regain lost ground. Time will tell.
So – even if a group chooses “A,” its descendants may opt for “B.” The old temptation to racial, religious, caste, class, or national supremacy is always an option … which is one reason (of many) why Jesus’ life and teaching are always needed. Let me know how that works for you. I’ll have to come back to Matt 24-25 and Revelation another time.
One more thing. I’m just finishing the first draft of my next book, which will be called We Make the Road By Walking: A Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. It is written in the form of 52+ sermons that attempt to give a coherent overview from Genesis to Revelation. Working on this challenging project has reinforced to me even more powerfully how important the question you’re raising is. We need to articulate a better way of reading the Bible; otherwise, it will be used in the future as it has been in the past as a divine justification for “B.”