Saturday, March 20, 2010

Accommodating Error

It is widely claimed that the Bible is accommodated to the (erroneous) cosmological and historical knowledge of the original audience. Paul Seely, for example, asserts
The biblical Flood account is thus not accurate history. It is an accommodated Mesopotamian historical tradition revised to teach lessons of faith and morals.”  [“Genesis 1–11 in the Light of Its Second Millennial Worldview”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2008) 60:44-47].

Accommodation allegedly renders much of Gen.1-11 historically unreliable, its intended message being of a purely theological nature.

Seely, like many others, points to John Calvin as the source of such accommodation. Is this true?

Calvin does indeed talk much about the infinite, all-knowing God having to accommodate Himself to communicate with finite, fallen man. For example, God must speak within the confines of human language. Much of Calvin’s discourse about accommodation concerns God’s revelation about Himself using human terms.

What about Calvin's accommodation concerning history and science? We note first that Calvin thought that the creation itself was an accommodation by God to teach us about Himself. Regarding the creation days, Calvin argues against Augustine's notion that the creation occurred instantly but was described as happening over six days to accommodate the Israelites. Calvin asserts,
"For it is too violent a cavil to contend that that Moses distributes the work that God perfected at once into six days for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men." (Commentary on Genesis 1:5)

Let us call this accommodation1, where God adapts His actions, not the record of them, so that man might understand.

Calvin also speaks about accommodation in another sense, where God speaks in an observational rather than a scientific sense. For example, when the Bible depicts the Moon as being a greater light than Saturn, which the astronomers knew was intrinsically brighter than the Moon (see Calvin’s Commentary on Gen.1:16, Psalm 19 and Psalm 136). We shall call this accommodation2. Note that observational language is no less true than scientific terminology. In a sense it is more true, since science must conform to observation. Whereas scientific theories and explanations may change, the observations remain valid.

Clearly, the type of accommodation that Seely wants to apply fits neither of these two categories. Let us thus call this accommodation3, where God accommodates Hinself to human error.  Does Calvin ever use accommodation3? No. In a lengthy study on Calvin's usage of accommodation, Jon Balserak [Divinity Compromised: A study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin (2006) pp.163-168], concludes that Calvin's accommodation did not erode biblical authority. Unlike Seely, Calvin did not take accommodation to involve error. Calvin never considered the Bible to be accommodated to erroneous science or historical traditions. A similar conclusion is reached by James W. Scott [Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009): 129-83] in his detailed critique of the accommodation advocated by Seely and Peter Enns.

Accommodation3 conflicts with Calvin's unambiguous affirmation of biblical inerrancy:
"He [Paul] commends Scripture, first on account of its authority, second on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of Scripture, he declares it to be divinely inspired: for if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men should receive it with reverence. . . Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him first lay down as a settled point this—that the law and the prophets are not a teaching delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Ghost. . . . Moses and the prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke. . . . We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it. The full authority which they [the scriptures] obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceeded for heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them." (Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16)
Hence Seely's claim to be merely following Calvin is unwarranted.

It is noteworthy that the Bible itself nowhere suggests that God sometimes says something which is false, simply to accommodate Himself to human understanding.

Indeed, there is something acutely presumptuous about accommodation3.  It implies that there exists a higher standard of truth--human reasoning in the form of scientific theorizing--that can tell us which parts of the Bible are true and what God really intended to say but couldn't. Such reasoning in effect accommodates the Bible to modern worldly thought.

This brings to mind the words of Francis Schaeffer in his last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster:
"Here is the great evangelical disaster-- the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this – namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age. First, there has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches – truth not only in religious matters but in the areas of science and history and morality. As part of this, many evangelicals are now accepting the higher critical methods in the study of the Bible.  Remember, it was these same methods which destroyed the authority of the Bible for the Protestant church in Germany in the last century..." (p.37) 

This prophetic warning, written in 1984, is even more relevant today.

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