Inerrancy & the Language of Accommodation

My oldest daughter is working through Calvin’s Institutes as part of a multi-year homeschool course. I have the joy of (re)reading along with her. While reading something on providence (last part of book 1), I stopped at a comment by Calvin concerning the language of accommodation in the Bible. This got me thinking about this whole topic in relation to the discussion here.

Enns’ (et.al.) suggest that the use of error in the Bible (at least some) is an accommodation by God to the pre-scientific understanding of the original readers. E.g., God used ANE cosmogonies in Gen 1-11, not because they were historically factual, but because this was how Moses’ exodus generation had learned to think about such topics. The argument goes that in order to help his people understand the (underlying) spiritual truth of the text God accommodated his communication to their own erroneous scientific understanding.

I’d like to challenge this via the issue of God’s accommodating language.

First, it seems apparent that God does accommodate some of his communication in the Bible to the limits of human readers. The use of anthropomorphic descriptions of God fits this principle. E.g., God’s “hand” is such a use, ascribing physical qualities to a spiritual being for the sake of our understanding. I.e., such texts are not really saying God as Spirit has a real physical hand, but merely using that to describe an otherwise incomprehensible attribute in terms we recognize.

Second this is accommodation is not the same as what Enns (et.al.) is talking about. I think the critical difference, the distinguishing characteristic is seen the distinction between the transcendent nature of God’s being, and the immanent nature of the Cosmos. Usually this is described as the difference between God’s infiniteness and our finiteness.

Here’s the contrast:

> God uses language of accommodation for any subject that falls under the heading of transcendence. He does so because our finiteness limits our ability to understand his infiniteness.
> Contrarily, God does not use accommodating language for any subject within the realm of our finiteness, literally the created cosmos. This is because all such subjects are within our created abilities to understand.

Look at this from another angle. Enns (et.al.) posit God’s accommodating our fallenness in his communication. I.e., it is not because we are finite that we cannot understand the nature of creation, historical fact, etc. Rather (according to Enns) because the fall makes us prone to error, God willingly accommodates his communication of truth to our error-proneness.

Hopefully y’all will see that this goes completely contrary to the whole intention of God’s communication in the Bible:

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32

- Reed DePace

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7 Comments

  1. Pete Myers said,

    June 16, 2009 at 6:53 am

    God does accommodate some of his communication in the Bible to the limits of human readers

    Reed, shouldn’t that read “God accomodates all of his communication with creatures to their finiteness”? :)

    Every act of divine revelation is a condescending accomodation. Which isn’t a new idea either, the idea of accomodation is a very old one.

  2. Reed Here said,

    June 16, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Pete: no. Condescesion is not the same as accommodation.The latter is an example, we could say, of the former. Condescension involves more an ethical dimension – God does not owe us any communication. Accommodation involves a modal dimension – God accommodates his explanation of infiniteness to finite terminology.

  3. Pete Myers said,

    June 17, 2009 at 5:27 am

    #2 Reed,

    The condescension thing is a red herring, sorry, that wasn’t my point. The adjective just slipped in there.

    My point was that all of God’s revelation is an accomodation. Not just some of it.

  4. Reed Here said,

    June 17, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Pete: yeah, I expected I might not make my point clear enough (my fault.) Let me try to do so here.

    There are two different ways to use the phrase “accommodation”:

    1. As a synonym for condescension: any communication is a condescension (accommodation) because God owes us no communcation; – or -

    2. As a characteristic of Scripture itself. In some manner, God accommodates his communication to the needs of man.

    It appears you and I are talking about this second option.

    I’m seeking to clarify the answer to the question: what is God accomodating? What characteristic of man is God accommodating in Scripture? Answering this question will allow use to examine the extent of God’s accommodation in Scripture.

    The neo-errantists argue that God is accommodating his communication to a characteristic of man that flows from the Fall. Particularly, because of the Fall man is prone to believe error to be truth. Believing the First Lie, he is now a slave to believing any lie. The neo-errantists are arguing that God uses man’s error-believing potentiality as a method of communicating truth to man.

    I’m maintaing that God is not accommodating a Fall-rooted characteristic of man, but a creation-rooted characteristic. Finiteness is a characteristic prior to the Fall. It is this characteristic God is accommodating in Scripture.

    This particularly becomes focused with regard to the transcendant vs. immanent (spiritual vs. material) characteristics of our existence. The critical issue is with regard to the limits of the error-believing characteristic. Specifically, it is not absolute. It is not that Fallen man can never know a truth, can never see any lie for what it really is. E.g., without any outside help Fallen man can discover and know the truth 2+2=4.

    This relates to the remaining image of God in man. It was broken, but not totally lost. From the Fall, we are given to irrationality. Yet in that God’s image (although broken) still remains, we are not necessarily, comprehensively, absolutely irrationational.

    What I am seeking to observe is what God is accommodating in Scripture. He is accommodating finiteness vs. infiniteness issues. Creation in Gen 1-2:3 does not fall into this category; history in Gen 1-11 (et.al.) does not fall into this category. Other categories of knowledge which the neo-errantists identify as God’s use of error do not fall into the finiteness vs. infiniteness.

    Note that there is a definable limit to accommodation, from either or both the position I’m maintaining and the position of the neo-errantists. Under neither type of accommodation can we say that this is a characteristic that is essential to all of Scripture. Yes accommodation is found throughout Scripture. This is not the same as saying all of Scripture is accommodation (that’s option 1, condescension language.)

    Inspiritation, inerrancy, infallibility are essential. They are necessary in all of Scripture. Accommodation is not essential; it is only present in those places in which God is communicating an infinite-rooted factor.

    Does this help?

  5. Pete Myers said,

    June 17, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Hmmm…

    Ok, I think I agree with you, though, there are some points of language that might just make this crystal clear. Sorry if I’m being pedantic, but I have a penchant for conversations about the doctrine of God.

    This is a key statement:

    it is only present in those places in which God is communicating an infinite-rooted factor

    Some thoughts:

    By “infinite-rooted” factor, I think we probably mean “any communication of the divine to the creature”. As we’ve noted, this is always a condescension (gracious unecessary bowing down to us). But this is always an accomodation (it is impossible for God to communicate anything about himself to us exhaustively). I’ve been thinking about this recently, and while the infinite/finite distinction is the primary category, there are other distinctions which don’t fit into that category. For example the Trinity is God relating to himself one and the same time… that’s not a problem of me being finite that means I can’t understand that… it’s a problem of me not being Trinitarian.
    But the entire of general and special revelation is a communication of God to us, and therefore there is an element of condescension and accomodation.
    God does accomodate to our sin, in fact he couldn’t reveal himself to the extent that he does without our sin (no sin = no cross).

    I think we need to do some more thinking on exactly how to define the way that God does and does not accomodate himself to us.

    You’re essentially right in identifying that Enns et al seem to want to say that God’s accomodation to sinful man means that scripture takes on attributes that are essentially sinful… and that position is wrong.

    I just want to “nail” the distinctions more carefully I think.

  6. Reed Here said,

    June 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Pete: exactly nailing it down. :-) Not to pick on you, but to hopefully nail it down further, your comment here helps move us forward:

    By “infinite-rooted” factor, I think we probably mean “any communication of the divine to the creature”.

    No, I do not mean “any” communication. That is what I am getting at; a narrowing of of this any to specific parameters in Scripture. Begin with considering looking at the Bible via the infinite-finite lense, maybe better, via transcendence vs. immanence. Of all the various ways to “slice up” Scripture, one way is to look at factors that in essence are rooted in transcendence vs. those rooted in immanence. (These may be more helpful at this point than infinite vs. finite.)

    The key distinction, without trying to be exhaustive, is to note this distinction between transcendence/immanence can be seen in any passage of Scripture. Let’s use the Exodus event. Via the transcendant/immanent lense, we can observe there are both types of elemtents:

    > Immanent: the actual material history of the event(s); i.e., the things that actually occured in the created order.
    > Transcendent: the actual spiritual elements of this event; i.e., the actions of God exercising his sovereignty in the material history of the event.

    Let’s look at one example from the history of the event:

    > Immanence: Pharoah hardened his heart. We recognize this as a metapor describing Pharoah’s exercising his will. Understanding this does not require any accommodating language from God. Through the use ordinary faculties generally available to man, we can understand this.

    > Transcendence: God hardened Pharoah’s heart. We recognize this as a use of the same immanence metaphor, but describing more than the immanence usage. In particular the transcendence usage is referencing the functioning of God’s sovereignty. God’s “hardening” function transcends the immanence function of Pharoah. God’s accommodates his communication of this using the same metapor, but communicating something more than the immanence usage. That something more cannot be understood without accommodating language from God. This is because as finite creatures we cannot understand infiniteness apart from some accommodating description in the communication.

    Thus, while all God’s communicating is condescension, only those factors rooted in transcendence will show marks of accomodation language.

    Better?

  7. Pete Myers said,

    June 17, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Yeah that is better, but give me a little while to think about it ‘cos I think we can do even better, but I can’t articulate my thoughts that well just yet.


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