I’m quite enjoying this book of essays and reviews by Don Carson.  In chapter 2, he discusses “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture.”  This essay was first published in 1986, so it’s not quite “recent” anymore, but it’s still relevant.  He has a section on “accommodation.”  It’s defined in this way:

If the transcendent, personal God is to communicate with us, his finite and sinful creatures, he must in some measure accommodate himself to and condescend to our capacity to receive that revelation.  (82)

This is a point that has long been recognized in biblical hermeneutics.  However, in the last 20 or 30 years, this notion of accommodation has been revised and “frequently assumed to entail error.”  In other words, accommodation rules out inerrancy.  You cannot have both.  Scholars who have followed this track include Karl Barth, Bruce Vawter, and Clark Pinnock.

One of the ways in which Carson responds to this  is by appealing to previous generations.  He maintains that this approach is distant from the understanding of accommodation “worked out both in the early church and in the Reformation.”  Then he provides this helpful quote from Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:

The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself.  This accommodatio occurs specifically in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and the gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth or the lessening of scriptural authority.  The accommodatio or condescensio refers to the manner or mode of revelation, the gift of the wisdom of infinite God in finite form, not to the quality of the revelation or to the matter revealed.  A parallel idea occurs in the orthodox Protestant distinction between theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa.  Note that the sense of accommodatio that implies not only a divine condescension, but also a use of time-bound and even erroneous statements as a medium for revelation, arose in the eighteenth century in the thought of Johann Semler and his contemporaries and has no relation either to the position of the Reformers or to that of the Protestant scholastics, either Lutheran or Reformed.  (Muller, 19)

Carson strengthens his case with theological argumentation.  For example, he interacts with Pinnock’s claim that error in the Bible is restricted to the fields of history and science because of Scripture’s humanity.  Carson asks:  “Why does not human fallibility also entail error in the religious and theological spheres?  Or conversely, if someone wishes to argue that God has preserved the human authors from error in religion and theology, what prevents God from doing so in other areas of thought?” (84)

Later in that section, he also briefly discusses Calvin.  He concludes that, for Calvin, “whatever accommodation entails, it cannot entail sin or error: the costs are too high right across the spectrum of Christian theology.” (85)

In faithful biblical hermeneutics it is not a case of either accommodation or inerrancy.  It must be both…and.

One response to “Accommodation”

  1. Dave DeJong says:

    It’s true that accommodation is not opposed to inerrancy, when the latter doctrine is rightly understood. In fact, it guards the doctrine of inerrancy by keeping the focus on all that Scripture means to affirm.

    But surely accommodation provides a balance against some overly zealous articulations of the doctrine of inerrancy? For example some Reformed theologians (I believe Voetius was one) took a strong stance against the Copernican system because of his strong convictions of inerrancy. A better understanding of the implications of accommodation might have been helpful in that particular case.

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