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Divine Accommodation and Calvin

November 12, 2012
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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. This is David’s second post.

Last time I looked at the Church Fathers.  Today, John Calvin:

For 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.  To do this He must descend far beneath His loftiness. (Institutes 1.13.1)

The Bible is more or less God’s baby-talk to us.  So said the great sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin about the Bible’s unabashedly anthropomorphic descriptions of God.

Calvin was interested in going ad fontes and rereading the Bible with fresh (sixteenth-century Humanist) eyes.  But he was not interested in reinventing the theological wheel, and so, unsurprisingly, in this passage and others Calvin takes up the notion of Origen, Chrysostom and others of the Church Fathers that God accommodates His revelation to us to suit our finite, fallible, language-and-culture-bound capacities for comprehension.  According to Calvin, if God intends to communicate with finite creatures such as us, He imply must, as a matter of sheer logical necessity, accommodate His speech to His audience in this way:

For because our weakness does not attain to His exalted state, the description of Him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. (Institutes 1.11.13)

In previous posts I have examined some of the ways Calvin’s understanding of the Bible-as-divine-revelation-accommodated-to-human-capacities-and-customs played out for him in his interpretations of Genesis as a non-scientific text (here), the Gospels as quasi-“historical” documents (here), and 2 Peter as a ghost-written letter (here).  But Calvin applied the notion of accommodated Scripture more widely still.  On the way the Bible changes up the religious and ethical demands it makes on humans from one age and culture and context to another, Calvin writes:

I reply that God ought not to be considered changeable merely because He accommodated diverse forms to different ages, as He knew would be expedient for each…. Why, then, do we brand God with the mark of inconstancy because He has with apt and fitting marks distinguished a diversity of times?…In the fact that He has changed the outward form and manner, He does not show Himself subject to change.  Rather, He has accommodated Himself to men’s capacity, which is varied and changeable. (Institutes 2.11.13)

While, for Calvin, God is timeless, the Bible is not.  God’s revelations in the Bible were, however, always timely.  But they were not timeless–they were not contextless and cultureless.  No.  In each instance God spoke directly to the hearts of particular matters for particular peoples with particular proclivities in particular places and predicaments.  Thus His revelations varied in tone, content, and character from context to context as they addressed different audiences, all while still originating in the one eternal and immovable God.

So, as in the case of Genesis 1, it is sometimes the case that the Bible, having been addressed to ancient peoples and accommodated to their ancient, pre-scientific conceptions and conventions, does not always tally with modern scientific knowledge.  And that’s OK.  So, as in the case with the Sermon on the Mount, it is sometimes the case that the Bible utilizes ancient literary and historiographical conventions that modern historians would consider to be playing fast and loose with the facts.  And that’s OK.  So, as in the case of most of Scripture, the Bible can talk about God in crass anthropomorphic terms and not in the arcane but technically more precise idiom of philosophical theology.  And that’s OK.  So, to some extent, God can change His religious and moral demands upon His people so as to change with the times.  And that’s OK.  For Calvin, all of these things are to be found in Scripture and therefore they must be OK.  If you can get the hang of this a posteriori way of thinking about the Bible, then you will have gotten the hang of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation.

As should be clear by now, the doctrine of accommodation is nothing new.  In fact, it is the traditional mainstream approach to the Scriptures, even if American Evangelicalism has largely forgotten that fact.  It is simply wrong to think that to be a traditional Christian means interpreting the Bible with the most wooden literalism we can manage.  That is a weird quirk of modern Fundamentalism, not a tenet of the mainstream interpretive tradition of the Church.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 14, 2015 9:45 pm

    Thanks for this.

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