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The Progressive Nature of Revelation
March 10, 2008
I am about to spiritualize (and very possibly even trivialize) one of the great laws of physics. As you no doubt remember from your days in school, Newton’s Third Law of Motion states, in its simplest form, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Take a look around and you will see this law in action every day.
Have you ever seen a slow-motion replay of a big boxing match where the broadcasters show the punch that finished the match? A gloved fist flies towards a face and at the moment of impact you can see the law in effect. As the glove meets the face, it reacts according to the amount of force applied to it. When the fist meets flesh, the point of impact is compressed inwards - perhaps a cheek is pressed into the boxer’s mouth. As that happens, the force of the punch pushes the entire head in the same direction as the fist is traveling. The opposite cheek sags eerily outward and a spray of sweat flies off the man’s body. The action of the fist striking with stunning force produces an equal and opposite physical reaction.
While this law is true in the physical world the framework of this law applies equally to truth. Through history we have seen that for every truth God reveals about Himself, there arises an equal and opposite error. Whenever God has chosen to reveal new truth about Himself, an opposite falsehood has arisen to lead people astray from the Lord.
The history of truth’s progressive revelation to mankind is not constant. Through history we have seen that for truth to progress, God must first reveal it in an objective sense. There must then be a combined effort on the part of God and men to subjectively reveal that truth to church or society. Where the objective revelation may take place in a moment or a day, the subjective revelation may take years or ages. Consider God’s revelation of His Law to Moses. In just a short while He wrote the Law on the tablets, objectively giving His Law to a particular man. It was then the combined task of God and Moses to subjectively integrate these Laws into society.
History, then, when viewed through a wide lens, is a series of these great epochs as God first makes an objective revelation and men then slowly integrate this truth into society. The first is an action on God’s part and the second is a reaction on the part of men. While there is always a positive action in reaction to truth, there is also an opposite negative reaction that arises in direct opposition.
J.A. Wylie describes the waves of action and reaction as being similar to the tide rising on a beach. A great wave crashes down on the beach, and for a moment it seems that the beach and the land beyond must be flooded. But in a moment the ocean’s fury is spent and the wave retreats, washing back towards the sea. But a careful observer will see that not all the ground that was gained by the great wave has been lost. Before long another wave crashes on to the beach and more land is gained by the ocean. And thus, by a series of advances and retreats the tide flows in and the beach is gained. And so it is with truth.
I want to briefly consider this in the contexts of four of the great epochs in history: God’s original revelation, God’s revelation to Moses, early Christianity and the Reformation.
Revelation After Creation
At the close of Creation God created a man in His own image and placed him in the Garden of Eden. The crowning achievement of His Creation, man was given a position of great honor and responsibility. Man was given dominion over the earth and entrusted with the responsibility to tend it. Everything was given to him but a single tree - the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man walked in perfect communion with God. We do not know what truths God revealed to man at that time, but we can presume that it was just exactly what he needed - no more and no less. God told man what he needed to know to thrive in a perfect world. It was in this beautiful world that there arose the first error as Satan convinced man that He could be like God. In opposition to the truth that man is limited and God is infinite, arose the opposite error. Satan convinced man that he could be like God. The waves receded so that by the time of Noah the Bible tells us everyone on the earth, with the exception of Noah and his family, hated God and sinned continually.
Truth gradually progressed in society. But as truth had progressed, so had error. Paganism took root as the opposite of the pure worship of God. The tower of Babel arose as men reached to the heavens to usurp the glory due only to God. We see that paganism, though in a primitive form, arose and thrived as the evil alternative to God.
Many years later God’s children found themselves in bondage to the Egyptians. It must have seemed like the world contained nothing but darkness and surely the Israelites must have felt that God had abandoned them to their sin. But this was not so. Just when it seemed that things could not deteriorate any further, God providentially raised up Moses. After leading the people from their slavery, God gave Moses new revelation about truth. Over the course of many years, this truth was subjectively integrated into the Israelite society. The tabernacle and later the temple were built as places to worship God. The feast days were integrated into the calendar and the ceremonies into times of worship.
During this time error also increased in direct opposition to the pure truth of God. Baal worship progressed in its influence and in its evil. The ceremonies of pagan worship grew in proportion to match the ceremonies of god-ordained worship. God’s people were continually led astray by more developed forms of pagan idolatry that directly contradicted true worship.
The Early Church
Jesus’ death marked the end of the Mosaic era. The ceremonial and judicial laws were fulfilled in the Savior. In place of law and ceremony God planted a church - a church that was not merely an extension of His plan for His people but was the fulfillment of His plan. His eternal plan led to this church, composed of men and women, Jew and Gentile, black and white - a church of people from all races united in their love of God. But the laws of truth were in effect even then, and there quickly arose opposite errors. The simplicity of the early church was polluted as jealous men fought for rank and position. Whatever God instituted was quickly matched by a corrupt opposite. Simplicity gave way to symbolism, free grace to man’s work and sacrament to ritual. The early church gave way to a Roman religion that for over a millennium seemed to hold back the tide of truth’s progress.
Once more the waves receded so that the beach again appeared to be bare. Once more it seemed that God had allowed the shadow to cover the earth. But there, in the 16th Century a great wave crashed against the shore. God allowed one man, Martin Luther, to take a stride forward in truth. Following in Luther’s footsteps other men came to rediscover great truths that had seemingly been lost since the time of the apostles. Within just a few years this truth had been integrated into Christianity in the movement that came to be known as the Reformation. Similarly, within a few years, there had arisen errors to match these ones. As truth unfolded in a more complete form, so more complex errors were invented. Arminianism arose as a means of lessening the terrifying prospect of God’s absolute sovereignty. Catholicism continued its corruption, attacking the principles of Protestantism - Christ’s sufficiency, His completed work and God’s free grace.
And So On
And so it continues. Even in our present day, hundreds and thousands of years after these great revelations, truth marches on. The truths God revealed to Adam, to Moses, to the apostles and to the Reformers continue to challenge the church. There is little reason to doubt that more epochs will unfold, or perhaps are unfolding even now, as God more fully reveals truth. As truth progressively unfolds, error continues to oppositely assert itself.
It is of foundational importance to understand that while each truth further strengthens its position, each error further corrupts the attempts to undermine God’s revealed truth. Each truth draws closer to perfection while each error draws closer to destruction. Just as a child lies to his parents and as his fictitious story progresses it becomes less and less plausible, so error upon error progressively undermines the position of those who fight against truth. Truth is a constant—what is true today will always be true. But error is fleeting—errors arise and fall, they are constructed and dismantled in quick succession. We love and study truth because it never changes. God’s truth must and shall prevail. In the end error will be destroyed; truth will reign supreme and shall be fully revealed. We will know truth even as truth knows us. Truth will win in the end.
This is based on an article I wrote years ago and one that somehow got lost in my archives. Funny how that works…