History of Religion and Progressive Revelation

Die Religionsgeschichtliche Schule

(From Gerd Lüdemann’s Archives)

There are two ways of dealing with historical issues in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  One is the concept of progressive revelation, and goes back to the New Testament (Hebrews 1:1-4) and early Christian leaders such as Irenaeus.  The other is more modern and is associated with the “History of Religions School,” some of the chief practitioners of which are pictured above.

Both approaches recognize development or “progress” over time in the Old Testament.   Both approaches recognize the importance of the ancient world as the context for understanding the text of the Bible.

The difference is this: Progressive Revelation understands God as taking the initiative in revealing himself and his will. God chooses and calls a people, speaks to them, and prepares them for hearing more of his word through experiences in history.  God condescends to meet his people where they are, and he leads them to where he wants them to be.

The History of Religions approach examines the religion of ancient Israel in the context of world religions. It sees Israel’s religion (and therefore the writings of the OT) as the product of social and anthropological evolution.  Religion developed in Israel in the same ways and under the same sociological laws as it developed in Egypt, Canaan, Babylon, China, India, and Africa.

Scholars in the History of Religions School may have been believers–most considered themselves Christians; but they kept their academic work in the University separate from the prayers they said in church.   In the case of the Old Testament, this was not especially difficult, since there was a long tradition (especially in Germany) of disparaging or neglecting the Old Testament.

Many, such as Wellhausen, believed they were being faithful to the example of Luther and Paul when they criticized the religion of the Old Testament, or spoke of its inferiority to the New Testament.  So they did not believe they were dishonoring God if the treated the faith of the Old Testament as arriving the evolution of primitive religious practices into somewhat less primitive practices and concepts.

If you read the first few pages of Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (15-17), you will find a description of Friedrich Delitzsch, an extreme case of the application of the history of religions approach.

John Walton, Peter Enns, and others are scholars who take the historical context of the Bible just as seriously as Delitzsch did, but they also take the theological nature of the Bible seriously: they understand that they are studying the Word of God.  Unfortunately, they are sometimes misunderstood and have been criticized for taking historical parallels and backgrounds seriously.  (More here and here.)


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