“Cumulative Revelation?” Nah, Stick with “Progressive Revelation”

“My personal preference is to speak of ‘cumulative’ revelation. It would be possible to see the word ‘progressive’ as registering an advance from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘mature’ understanding, leaving the ‘primitive’ behind. This is not what happens in the Bible: hence the word ‘cumulative’ is preferable. Truth is built up layer upon layer, so that nothing is lost. The earlier statement is not primitive but partial— part of the complete whole that is yet to be.” -Alec Motyer, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Loving the Old Testament

BTW NOTE: I don’t think Motyer is correct here. It’s not merely that layer is added to layer, nor that there is a cumulative build up of truth across Scripture. That overstates the unity of revelation. There is an age of types and shadows and there is an age of fulfillment. With the age of fulfillment, it’s not just that layers are added, but some things are taken away and replaced by other ideas.

Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 3


Chapter 3 is the longest and most important chapter in this collection of lectures by Vos. It is about the redemptive-historical hermeneutics used by the author of Hebrews. The title is, “The Epistle’s Philosophy of Revelation and Redemption.” It also deserves a much more thorough review than what I will be providing in this post.

Vos argues that the big distinction that Hebrews makes is between the covenant made at Sinai with Israel (aka the “Old Covenant”) and the New Covenant. The historical dividing line between the Old Covenant and the New is the death or, perhaps even more precisely, the ascension of Christ. This is because there was a change of priesthood in Christ’s ascension; he entered into the true temple with the sacrifice that takes away sin.

Another way the distinction is made in Hebrews is between “this age” and “the age to come.” The Old Covenant pertains to this age. The New Covenant pertains to the age to come. Believers are already in touch with the age to come (cf. 6:5, 9:11, 10:1). Christ’s death and resurrection are the beginning of the age to come breaking into this world. Where Paul contrasts the two ages morally (the preset evil age and the age to come), Hebrews contrasts them in terms of perfection (the imperfect and the perfect).

So, the first thing Vos establishes is that there are two periods spoken of in Hebrews (Old Covenant and New Covenant, this age and the age to come, etc). Now the question is about what they have to do with each other. What’s their relationship?

Vos’s basic argument is that “the old prefigures the new.” He then uses his famous triangle to illustrate this relationship: the heavenly reality typologically breaking into the Old Covenant era, and anti-typically arriving in the New Covenant era.

As a time of prefiguration, the Old Covenant era was inferior to the new. In what way?

  1. The place. The Old Covenant was located on earth, whereas the center of the New Covenant is heaven.
  2. The substance. The substance of the OC was flesh and the substance of the NC is (the Holy) Spirit.
  3. The Efficacy. One is fleshly, inert and doomed to failure. One is Spiritual, dynamic and abiding forever.

Vos points out that this contrast seems to leave the Old Covenant looking very useless. What did it actually accomplish? The types and shadows revealed to Old Testament saints the better things to come.

Finally Vos turns to the nature of revelation in these two covenants. He argues that religion in both covenants flows out of revelation, and that this revelation reaches its climax in Christ the Son of God (cf. 1:1). Hebrews sees revelation as serving the practical function of developing fellowship between God and man.



The Way God Reveals Himself

“Revelation is the speech of God to man. It forms one side of the covenant intercourse, therefore. Note the words used to express this intercourse [conversation] of God with man [in Hebrews 1:1]. We read that God lalei (talks), not that He legei (speaks). The word used is suggestive of the kind of talk used in addressing children, who cannot as yet understand ordinary adult speech. The word brings out the practical intent of the speech.” -Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews