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Divine Accommodation

November 5, 2012

This post is part of a series that Jawbone (specifically Eric) is doing with David of Brick by Brick. There will be posts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the two weeks this series is running. Posts will alternate between posts by Eric and posts by David.

I’d like you to imagine two sorts of people. The first sort of person is a person who thinks God is very much like us. In fact, God might just be our best ideas projected out into the universe, a sort of global human consciousness. God might not be “real”, per se, but God is certainly comprehensible. In fact, God and humans are, to this sort of person, separated by only a hair’s breadth, perhaps nothing more than the realization that being a jerk is a bad idea and the decision to buy all-organic free range hats instead of those factory-farmed ones.

The other sort of person believes that there is an immense gulf between God and humanity. Humans are broken and sinful, their lives crippled and stunted by their wickedness. God, by contrast, dwells in ineffable light where He contemplates all that is good and wise. In fact, God is so far beyond humanity that human words (which inevitably refer to human concepts) cannot really ever express what God is. Depending on the theological flavor of this sort of person, they may emphasize more of the gulf that sin places between our thoughts and God’s thoughts or they may focus more on the limits that make mystic contact with the divine so hard to describe. However, this person is quite sure that God is a very alien being to mortals.

Now, let us ask our hypothetical people whether the Bible is in baby-talk, whether it is not so much a direct record of events as I would speak to a colleague, but more of the sort of record I would pass on to a first-grader who asked about how science is done. Strangely enough, the first sort of person, who believes that God might be able to speak to us as one expert to another, is far more likely to believe that the Bible is accommodated to us than the person who believes that God is beyond all mortal thoughts or speech.

This idea that God talks down to us in the Bible was called divine accommodation by Calvin. Since we need a name for it that’s what we’ll call it too, although it predates Calvin by centuries and centuries and is used far beyond the Calvinist, or even Protestant, tradition. So why is divine accommodation so unpopular with an audience that might be expected to embrace it? Well, the answer probably goes back to two major controversies, first one with modernism and then one with postmodernism. When modernism attempted to brush Christianity under the rug as nice feelings and subjective stuff like that, the fundamentalists (who, later, would split into evangelicals and modern fundamentalists) objected stating that Christianity was as true as physics or chemistry and was knowable in the same way. When postmodernism attempted to make all of reality subjective and destroy any over-arching metanarrative, evangelicals and fundamentalists objected again, stating that Christianity is objectively true. Unfortunately, all of this has welded Christian truths rather firmly to a scientific model of truth. The end result is that the Bible is treated a bit like a textbook and one wouldn’t think much of a textbook that was “accommodated”. This is especially true when divine accommodation is invoked in large ways, like, for instance, claiming that Ecclesiastes wasn’t written by Solomon, that it’s just a writing trick to get us to hear it right.

What I wish to argue is rather simple: rather than drawing a line in the sand beyond which accommodation is unacceptable (because this line will ultimately be informed by our culture in powerful ways) we should ask what it is reasonable to believe about a particular text. Moreover, I wish to argue that all conservative Christians already invoke accommodation and so outright rejection of this concept cannot be done.

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