by Hans Madueme
Christians have historically endorsed the doctrine of divine accommodation. This doctrine holds that since God is transcendent, He cannot communicate to us as equals in the language of pure, unfiltered, heavenly discourse. He is the triune Creator, whereas we are mere creatures. So when God talks to us, He stoops to our level. For instance, God’s Word came to us in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and now it is translated in countless other human languages. In fact, all of Scripture is accommodated to us. As John Calvin put it: “Who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.”1 Accommodation is also entirely consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy, which says that the Bible teaches only the truth. God communicates to our finitude, but His Word is still utterly trustworthy.
However, some scholars reject inerrancy by appealing to accommodation. They want to relieve the dissonance that Christians sometimes perceive between an inerrant Scripture and theories from the natural sciences, or they invoke accommodation as a way to play down the hard ethical passages in the Bible (e.g., God’s command to Israel to slaughter people such as the Canaanites, Amalekites, and Midianites).2 While they appeal to this doctrine of accommodation, they give it a radical new meaning: God speaks to us in and through the mistakes, in and through the fallible assumptions of ancient authors—in short, in and through their sin. To be sure, all biblical authors were sinners, just like us, but the Holy Spirit ensured that the inspired words of Scripture were miraculously preserved from any error or corruption (see 2 Peter 1:21). Yet, the revised understanding of accommodation implicitly denies this supernatural element. As one advocate puts it, “Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the human audience’s finite and fallen perspective.”3 For defenders of this new view of accommodation, Scripture contains flawed statements that reflect primitive ancient Near Eastern views of the biblical authors.
This new take on accommodation assumes that Jesus, as a first-century Jew, inherited common Jewish assumptions about creation, the material world, geography, and history. In this way of thinking, the incarnate God believed many things that were false when compared with what we know today. One scholar reassures us that we can trust Jesus’ salvation message even if it is packaged within erroneous baggage from the ancient world.4 Unfortunately, this is not a convincing position, and it is important to see why.
This rethinking of accommodation implies that errors pervade the Bible. Readers must therefore decide on their own which bits are true and which bits should be discarded. But if that is the case, on what basis can we know what is and is not reliable in the Bible? What guides us in making that decision? It cannot be Scripture itself, since parts of it (perhaps much of it) are unreliable. This means that our Western, post-Christian assumptions end up being the lens by which we judge which parts of the Bible are dispensable. Followed through consistently, this new approach to accommodation is a recipe for disaster, for the extrabiblical assumptions of readers are often imperfect and temporal, constantly shifting with the winds of culture. Biblical religion is revelatory; the great things of the gospel are revealed from outside us. Share
The proper response to this new conception of accommodation is to insist that Scripture contains not merely human words but the very words of God, perfect and eternal. As the prophet reminds us, “The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). God’s Word is our final authority precisely because it reflects the character and trustworthiness of God. In reality, what is being offered by proponents of revising accommodation is, at least implicitly, a doctrine of limited inerrancy. On this view, the Bible speaks infallibly only on salvation and thus can’t be trusted on matters such as geography, history, and science. Since Christianity is a historical faith, however, limited inerrancy rests on an artificial and mistaken distinction. Biblical Christianity is not an esoteric religion or an abstract set of ideas but is based on historical and material realities: God became incarnate in our world; the Messiah was born in Bethlehem; He lived in Nazareth; His biological mother was Mary; many witnessed His miracles; He was interrogated by the fifth prefect of Judea—Pontius Pilate—and convicted by the Sanhedrin; He was crucified on Golgotha; and He rose again. You cannot separate the salvific or spiritual component of our faith from the historical and the material. The two categories are inextricably bound together in the biblical story. J.I. Packer grasped these issues clearly:
Christ’s claim to be divine is either true or false. If it is true, His Person guarantees the truth of all the rest of His teaching (for a divine Person cannot lie or err); therefore, His view of the Old Testament is true. If His claim is false, there is no compelling reason to believe anything else that He said. If we accept Christ’s claims, therefore, we commit ourselves to believe all that He taught—on His authority. If we refuse to believe some part of what he taught, we are in effect denying Him to be the divine Messiah—on our own authority.5
I have no wish to ignore challenges to the traditional doctrine of inerrancy. They are many, and some of them are subtle. Nonetheless, any doctrine of accommodation that offers an erring Jesus should be rejected by orthodox Christians. As the God-man, Jesus is fully divine—if we cannot trust His words without reservation, then we threaten the very idea of divine revelation. Biblical religion is revelatory; the great things of the gospel are revealed from outside us. How can we trust God’s Word if we retain the freedom to sit in judgment over it? Jesus says, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Following Jesus, then, we must ensure that our confidence rests on Scripture as God’s inerrant Word.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1 (emphasis added). ↩︎
- For example, see Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2011). For a more reliable approach, see Christopher Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2016). ↩︎
- Kenton Sparks, “The Sun Also Rises: Accommodation in Inscripturation and Interpretation,” in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics, eds. Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez, and Dennis Okholm (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), 112 (emphasis added). ↩︎
- Denis Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 173. See also Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2012), 153n19. ↩︎
- J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1958), 59. ↩︎
Dr. Hans Madueme is associate professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga.