The Doctrine of the Scriptures (9): Inerrancy and Accommodation

Greg Strand – November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

There is a big push among many today, particularly OT scholars, in a revisionist understanding of accommodation, specifically in addressing creation and Adam and Eve. Proponents of this revised view claim God accommodated himself in his revelation but he did so through the cultural conventions of the day, even though they were inaccurate and consisted of errors. As an example, even though Moses did not have an accurate understanding or grasp of the creation, God used that inaccurate understanding to reveal and communicate truth. This is contrary to the way accommodation has historically been understood.

The reason this is important to understand and discern is that most who embrace a revisionist understanding of accommodation simply use the term and claim that this is consistent with the Reformers since they also referred to God accommodating himself in his revelation. But this reading undermines inerrancy and the truthfulness of the Scriptures.

I will give examples of both. First, I refer to Peter Enns as an example who refers to accommodation in this revised manner. I will follow this with a few explanations of how accommodation has been understood historically, in contrast with the revised view, which is the traditional view of Evangelicals.

Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012).

The most faithful Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place – not merely so, but unalterably so. . . .so is the Bible of ultimately divine origin yet also thoroughly a product of its time. (x)

To the contrary, it is clear that, from a scientific point of view, the Bible does not always describe physical reality accurately; it simply speaks in an ancient idiom, as one might expect ancient people to do. It is God’s Word, but it has an ancient view of the natural world, not a modern one. . . . If evolution is correct, one can no longer accept, in any true sense of the word ‘historical,’ the instantaneous and special creation of humanity described in Genesis, specifically 1:26-31 and 2:7, 22. (xiv)

Enns concludes his book by outlining nine theses that identify the core issues, of which I include one (137-148):

Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors – whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.

What follows are a number of definitions and explanations of accommodation as understood historically. Reading Enns and these reveals the huge disparity between the two understandings of accommodation.

Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 19.

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 gifts of the wisdom of infinite God in finite form, not to the quality of the revelation or to the matter revealed.

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.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (A Theology of Lordship, vol. 4) (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010), 175.

People sometimes think that if Scripture is the Word of God, it must be written in the most elevated language, language worthy of God. Can we imagine God speaking anything less than the King’s English? But that is a misunderstanding. God’s intent is to speak to ordinary people. He “accommodates,” as John Calvin put it; he “lisps” to us. (Footnote: Accommodation does not mean, as some have claimed, that God speaks error to us. Rather, it means that he speaks truth in such a way that we can understand it, insofar as it can be understood by human beings. Theologians often compare divine accommodation to a parent’s accommodation to his young children. But a wise parent, while choosing simple language to use with his children, does not lie to them.) So he speaks both in the elevated language of Luke the physician and in the simpler language of the fisherman Peter. If they or anyone else uses poor grammar in the judgment of modern linguists, that fact has no bearing on the Bible’s inerrancy.

Vern S. Poythress, “Three Modern Myths in Interpreting Genesis 1,” Westminster Theological Journal 76/2 (Fall 2014), 322.

The vehicle-cargo approach can say that God “accommodates” himself to the erroneous views of ancient addresses, and allows such views to find a place in the Bible. But we must be careful. The word accommodation has several usages. Several kinds of “accommodation” have occurred through the history of the church. In the ancient church, the classical doctrine of accommodation said that Scripture spoke in a way that took into account finite human capacities. But it maintained that Scripture did not “accommodate” error. By contrast, a more recent form of accommodation, associated with biblical criticism, allows the inclusion of error, and that is the decisive difference.

This is one of a number of important issues we will address at our upcoming Theology Conference as we study the history of the doctrine of the Scriptures.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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