Inerrancy and Divine Accommodation

21


September 2018

by Hans Madueme

Bible Study,
Biblical Interpretation,
& The Life and Ministry of Christ

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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.

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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.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1 (emphasis added). ↩︎
  2. 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). ↩︎
  3. 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). ↩︎
  4. 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. ↩︎
  5. 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.

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