Progressive Revelation ≠ Progressive Inscripturation

What follows are some musings on biblical theology that I've been mulling over since grad school days. On Friday of last week I took the opportunity to run this idea past Dr. John Oswalt who was on GBSC’s campus to teach Old Testament Theology. His concurrence encouraged me to post.

Historically, some Biblical Theologians have confused the progress of revelation's inscripturation with the progress of revelation itself. The progress of inscripturated revelation is the history of the writing of Scripture. The progress of revelation, on the other hand, is the historical order in which God revealed truth. The progress of revelation can only be determined when Scripture itself explicitly states that a particular part of revelation was being given for the first time or had not been given before.

For example, Genesis 26:5 states, “because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” Since we have no revelation regarding what commandments, statutes, and laws God gave to Abraham, we have no way of knowing which of the Mosaic commandments, statutes, and laws had already been revealed to Abraham. The history of revelation is not equal to the history of the inscripturation of revelation.

Another example with regard to biblical history: The first place in Scripture we find reference to Enoch prophesying is Jude 1:14. In the history of inscripturated revelation, this doesn’t appear until close to the end of the first century AD. However, in history itself, it occurred prior to the flood. In the history of the transmission of revelation it, apparently, was transmitted orally until it was written down in 1 Enoch c. 200-160 BC.

This same text (Jude 1:14) provides us an inspired record of the content of Enoch’s prophecy: “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

Progress of revelation: the coming of Yahweh with ten thousands of holy ones to execute judgment was known in Enoch’s time – pre-flood.
Progress of inscripturation: Perhaps the first recording of revelation similar to this is Daniel 7:10

If a biblical theologian were to try to trace the doctrine of a judgment by Yahweh accompanied with his holy ones based on the idea’s appearance in the canon, he would make this a late theological development. Yet, given the NT’s revelation, it is a theological idea that has been around at least since the time of Enoch!


Unless the text explicitly or implicitly indicates that its revelation had not been known or given before, the biblical theologian cannot know whether what is recorded in Scripture was known prior to its recording. This, it seems to me, severely limits developing a history of revelation. At best we can develop a history of the inscripturation of revelation.


Jennifer Boyd said…
Please correct me if I am interpreting this wrong. So basically are you explaining that it is declaring one of the Biblical Persons or events cannot be assumed to have known what commandments and the revelation was given unless the Bible tells us in some way that it had been given. Is it sort of interpreting the Scripture where we are reading it with hind sight. We know what the commandments are but we do not know for a fact who knew what unless the Bible makes reference to it? This is a tough one
Philip Brown said…
Hi, Jennifer,
You got it. We can't know for a fact who knew what unless the Bible tells us (explicitly or implicitly) what they did or didn't know.
Philip Brown said…
Here are two examples that derive from a failure to recognize that the history of revelation cannot be determined by the history of inscripturated revelation:

"Sabbath in Christ" p. 291: "The stipulations of the Sinaitic Covenant were not given to Abraham." On first glance, that appears to be an accurate statement, but it is rooted in the assumption that whatever Gen. 26:5 is talking about isn't reflected in any aspect of the Sinaitic Covenant. We can't know that; therefore, we shouldn't assume it, much less assert it.

Similarly, Dressler in "From Sabbath to Lord's Day", p. 23: "The biblical view is unequivocal: the Sabbath originated in Israel as God's special institution for His people." Dressler's statement equates first reference in inscripturated revelation with first instance of revelation. Leaving aside the issue of how Gen. 2 relates literally to Exod. 20, and leaving aside the introduction of Sabbath as a non-covenantal or pre-covenantal gift from Yahweh (Exod. 16), it is illegitimate to assume that because we don't have inscripturated reference to a Sabbath day prior to 1446 BC, that the concept had not been revealed or further could not have been given as a statute to the people of God.
Eli Stickle said…
I have been studying about the sabbath. In the comment above you layout how you see sabbath as a non-covenantal gift. I would like to know your thoughts about Nehemiah 9:14 "...made known to them Your holy sabbath..." would this not indicate that this was a revelation to them at around the time of the exodus? Ezekiel 20:12 "And I gave them my Sabbath..." also seems to say the same!

I would love to know what you think. If you have writing on this topic or recommendations that would also be appreciated.
Philip Brown said…
Hi, Eli,

Nehemiah 9:14 says that God made known to them (Israel) His holy sabbath ... through his servant Moses, which is exactly what Exod. 16 records. This revelation, however, preceded the Sinaitic Covenant which was inaugurated in Exod. 19.

So, it was pre-covenantal, not non-covenantal. God incorporated the sabbath into the Sinaitic Covenant, and made it a perpetual covenant (Exod. 31:16). Ezekiel 20:12 is a direct reference to Exod. 31, I believe.

What is pre-covenantal may be incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant, without losing its independent status.


Popular posts from this blog

Man looks at the outward appearance, but God ... 1 Sam. 16:7

A Sketch of a Biblical Theology of Sanctification: Wesleyan-Arminian but not Wesleyan/Nazarene