The following discussion of the progressive nature of scriptural revelation is an excerpt from an email exchange between myself and a former parishioner, named Melissa. I hope it is a source of insight to any who care to read it. Michael Bogart
Melissa’s Question: Hi Pastor Mike,
I hope you don’t mind being my sounding board, but I have a very interesting question I would like your opinion on…if you have time
Okay…so Abraham gets with Hagar and Ishmael is born. I know God was upset with the fact that he didn’t wait for Sarah…but, was it still considered
adultery? In fact, many of the “godly” men spoken of in the Old Testament
seem to have committed what modern day Christians would deem adultery. I don’t get it.
Is this a case of “God blinking” at the sin…or was it something acceptable
for the time period. Especially, when reading about David and
Bathsheba…God talks about giving David the wives of Saul (2 Samuel
12:8)…how does this fit with the New Testament command to not even look at a woman in lust because you have committed adultery?
Confused enough for now? I hope you have time to give me your take on this. Thanks in advance, Melissa
My Reply: Melissa– You raise a good question. I think I would answer this way: Many Bible scholars (myself included) follow a principle called “progressive revelation” which says, in effect, that after the profound turning away from God following the Flood (Rom 1:18ff), he began to reveal himself again, starting with Abraham (Genesis 12).
As someone who is familiar with education, you know that you must begin teaching simple ideas and build from there–concept on concept, skill upon skill. I think that is what God did with Abraham. That means he didn’t “sweat” every issue that came along, because Abraham was learning the fundamentals of faith–simple obedience in the face of what seemed to be impossible. Later, Moses is used by God to set up a much more specific code, which the New Testament book of Galatians tells us was meant to be a schoolmaster, training us in the particulars of what holiness and godly living might look like.
However, the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) must be understood as primarily applying to a scenario in the second millenium BC. Applying its teachings and precepts to other venues must be made carefully and with lots of New Testament grace. Some things like the prohibitions against idolatry, murder and adultery are clearly universal principles. Other things like the kosher laws for food and the whole priestly ceremonial code seem to have been intended as specific for Israel. The New Testament itself sees it more or less in this light.
So, did Abraham do wrong in taking Hagar? Was David out of God’s will in polygamy? In light of the New Testament I would have to say that, yes, they were out of God’s perfect will in the sense that they did not live up to his perfect righteousness, nor did they model his original plan. Take for example Jesus’ teaching in reference to the Jews’ questions on the permissibility of divorce in Matthew 19. His words might be summarized like this:
“Yes. Moses did permit divorce –as a concession because of Israel’s immaturity and hardness of heart. But this in no way reflects God’s best plan for marriage. Go back to Creation: didn’t he create them male and female and pair them for life? Therefore to be true children of God, we should seek to live as much like him and follow his plan as closely as possible.”
In other words, Israel should have moved beyond Moses and the temporary covenant to the bigger picture. Certainly Hagar was a mistake. Although the practice of surrogate wives may have been common in that time and place, that was no excuse for Abraham. He violated God’s plan for marriage and showed a very disturbing (though understandable) lack of faith. But I see a greater truth here: God isn’t nearly as worried about some kinds of mistakes as his people often seem to be. Even David’s horrible sin with Bathsheba and the causing of her husband’s death didn’t result in God’s total rejection of David.
In both cases, God set a plan in motion that was contingent upon the choices and actions Abraham and David had made. This plan involved continuing to use them and bless them because of his grace while requiring repentance. His grace both foreknew and incorporated the new factors they had caused (Ishmael / Solomon, etc).
I think we evangelicals are a bit too “all or nothing” sometimes. God is committed to the redemption of those who will cooperate. Apparently he will put up with a lot to accomplish this. Of course Galatians speaks to the issue of taking advantage of God’s graciousness. Far be it from us to think we can do what we want and God will work it all out. Better to say–”Wow! What a great God. Look at how gracious he is and how much of my foolishness he has overlooked (and forgiven). I want to know him and his ways better and serve him more faithfully.” I think this approaches a truer understanding of grace than most of us who have been trained in modern biblical Christianity would dare hope for (or allow others to hope for).
I hope this helps. Pastor Mike