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Divine Accommodation and the Fathers

November 7, 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. Today’s post is by David.

The notion that God, Who is infinite and eternal, necessarily tailors His language in Scripture to suit His finite, time-place-language-and-culture-bound audiences’ capacities is by no means new. Fundagelicals tend to think of the doctrine of accommodation as a newfangled innovation, an invention of crypto-liberals and wafflers on the inspiration of Scripture. Not so. This doctrine is traditional in as robust a sense as one might hope for a doctrine not outlined in the ecumenical creeds to be, being voiced by the leading lights of the Church in practically every era.*

Indeed, I would argue that the idea that God accommodates His speech to His audience is voiced by Our Lord Himself. Recall Jesus’s controversy with the Pharisees over the lawfulness of divorce in Matthew 19. When Jesus asserts that God made us to stick together, the Pharisees ask the obvious question:

Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?

To which Jesus responds:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

That is to say, the divinely revealed Torah does not necessarily reflect God’s perfect moral will, His highest aspirations for human living. Rather in the Torah God set the moral bar where hardhearted, fallen, fallible Israel could reach it. If that isn’t divine accommodation, I don’t know what is.

“In this way God reveals Himself proportionally to the weakness of those who behold Him.” ~John Chrysostom

In his Dialogue with Trypho the great second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr picked up on this dominical way of understanding the Torah. Explaining why Christians do not practice rites such as animal sacrifice, Sabbath-keeping, and circumcision, Justin says to Trypho his Jewish interlocutor:

We also would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all of your festivals, if we did not know why they were ordained, namely, because of your sins and the hardness of your hearts…. God enjoined you to keep the Sabbath and imposed on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your unrighteousness, and that of your fathers….[The] Lord, accommodating (harmosamenos) Himself to those people [who fashioned the golden calf in the desert], commanded that sacrifices be brought in His name lest you practice idolatry. (Dialogue with Trypho 18-19)

Note the allusion to Matthew 19, to Israel’s “hardness of heart.” In explaining the shape of Old Testament ethics and ritual as God accommodating His language to Israel’s moral capacities, Justin seems to see himself as drawing his interpretive inspiration from Jesus Himself.

But divine accommodation was not solely understood in moral terms. Our finitude must be accommodated as well as our fallenness. In language that will later be taken up by the great sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin, the third century theologian Origen of Alexandria explains biblical anthropomorphisms in terms of divine accommodation to out finite capacities:

Just as when we are talking to very small children we do not assume as the object of our instruction any strong understanding in them, but say what we have to say accommodating (harmosamenos) it to the small understanding of those whom we have before us…so the Word of God seems to have disposed the things which were written, adapting the suitable parts of his message to the capacity of His hearers and to their ultimate profit. (Against Celsus 4.71)

Similarly, the great fourth century Antiochene preacher John Chrysostom describes God’s communication in biblical revelation as His “condescension” to speak on our level:

What is condescension? It is when God appears and makes Himself known not as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself proportionally to the weakness of those who behold Him. (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 3.15)

To these references we could add the voices of the Cappadocian Fathers, Athanasius, Augustine and others, but the point ought by now to be quite clear: The doctrine of divine accommodation has a long and distinguished pedigree. Frankly, in my judgment it is the (nonsensical) Modernistic assumption that only scientifically and historically precise language–language that is supposedly without metaphor or symbolism or culture-specific trappings–is worthy of divine utterance that is the new idea on the block. The wisest thinkers of the Christian tradition have always recognized that God necessarily communicates with us on accommodated terms, utilizing myth, metaphor, anthropomorphism, symbol and poetry, and even bearing with our moral weakness in order to make Himself comprehensible. When we do not recognize that God has accommodated his language to speak in terms comprehensible to ancient people in particular times, places, contexts, and cultures, with particular capacities for comprehension and obedience, we inevitably wind up trying to read the Bible (anachronistically) as though it were a Modern work and making hash out of the text. I want to suggest that by exchanging our accommodationist birthright for a mess of Modernistic pottage, we Evangelicals have not only cut ourselves off from the grand theological Tradition of the Church but we have also turned ourselves into be aimless interpretive wanderers in the “strange new world of the Bible,” rather than natives of and heirs to that world. I suspect that unless we can recover our accommodationist birthright and bearings, American Evangelicalism is bound for another generations’ worth of interpretive wilderness wandering.

*I’ve cribbed most of these references from chapter 7 of Kent Sparks’s fantastic book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)

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