I’ve been thinking about the idea of divine accommodation a lot recently, due mainly to my research on the ancient Near East (ANE) creation and flood stories. Reading Richard Hess’ book, Israelite Religions, over Christmas break also sparked some thoughts.
Divine accommodation is an important doctrine, especially to evangelical OT scholars. As we discover more and more about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel, it becomes clear that many of the conventions of Israel—whether literary, religious, architectural, or otherwise—have striking similarities to those in the surrounding cultures. For instance, the structure of the book of Deuteronomy is similar to the structure of ancient Hittite treaties and the architecture of the tabernacle and the temple can be compared with temples in ANE. These are but two examples among many. When faced with these similarities, secular and liberal scholars typically claim that this is evidence that the OT is “merely” a human book or that “divine inspiration” concerns not the composition of the OT books, but the selection and appropriation of such books (i.e., God adopted entirely human compositions for his own purposes). Thus, we would expect humans, embedded within their own particular cultural and historical horizon to manifest their embeddedness by using the conventions of the day. Evangelicals respond with the doctrine of divine accommodation—namely, that the transcendent God “accommodates” himself to humans’ finiteness and particularity in order to have a relationship with them and to communicate with them. Thus, God uses the historical conventions of the day to communicate his eternal purposes and truths. It is often claimed that this illustrates the lengths to which God will go to have a relationship with his people. This works out in the following way: it is often suggested that God took the Hittite covenant structure, which would have been familiar to the Israelites, and used it to communicate to the Israelites the nature of his relationship to them. Another rubber-meets-the-road appeal to divine accommodation comes in regard to the creation story, in which (it is said) God “accommodated” himself to the “pre-scientific” views of the ANE, shared by the Israelites.
In this way, evangelicals are able to explain how such an apparently human book, completely captive to its own historical context, is actually divinely inspired. In other words, shared cultural and literary conventions between Israel and the nations of the ANE don’t have to indicate syncretism. Neither do they indicate that the Old Testament is just a human pastiche of other cultures’ conventions. Rather, the “borrowed” elements have divine intentionality; that is, God inspired the borrowing to communicate in an intelligible way, as opposed to an entirely human author’s uninspired borrowing from another culture.
Though this view deals well with God’s transcendence and immanence, it fails, in my opinion, to adequately integrate God’s sovereignty. Since the Bible presents God as sovereign over all nations and all history, it doesn’t make sense to talk about God “accommodating” himself to a particular context, since he sovereignly brought about that context. In other words, the view of accommodation outlined above unintentionally conveys the idea that God “worked with what he had” instead of making that with which he wanted to work. Consider an analogy: God often used other nations to punish Israel—most obviously Assyria and Babylon—and occasionally God used other nations to bless Israel—most obviously Persia, and specifically Cyrus, who issued the degree for the Israelites to return from exile (2 Chron 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4). When the Bible talks about these nations, it does not say that God used Assyria, Babylon, or Persia because they were powerful. It says that God made Assyria, Babylon, and Persia powerful so that he could use them. This is most clearly illustrated in the life of Cyrus: God, through the prophet Isaiah, said that he would raise up Cyrus to deliver his people Israel. It does not say that God used Cyrus because he was already in power. Consider the following quote from Isaiah 44:24–45:6, paying special attention to the bold text.
24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself,
25 who frustrates the signs of liars
and makes fools of diviners,
who turns wise men back
and makes their knowledge foolish,
26 who confirms the word of his servant
and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
45 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
One might say of this analogy that divine accommodation is typically applied to the text of the OT, whereas my example concerns simply the deliverance of Israel. To that I would respond that the Old Testament and Cyrus share a common purpose in the divine plan; that is, God’s raising up of Cyrus and his inspiring the authors of the OT to write (and inspiring their writing) are just two steps in God’s plan for the redemption of the world through Israel. God’s sovereign power over the nations of the ANE to bring Cyrus to power is identical to his sovereign power over those same nations to bring about the cultural conventions that he already planned to use. To
relate it to our practical example, God didn’t look down and say, “Ah, look at this Hittite treaty structure; I will use it to communicate the nature of my relationship to Israel through the book of Deuteronomy.” Rather, God had already planned before the foundations of the world to structure Deuteronomy in the way that it is. Then he worked sovereignly in history to ensure that the Hittite treaty structure already existed to make his structure of Deuteronomy intelligible to the Israelites. And likewise with the temple architecture and all other “borrowed” elements. Divine accommodation the way it is normally construed seems to limit God to what already existed, instead of seeing God as bringing into existence all things to suit his perfect plan. In other words, does God accommodate himself to human cultures, or does he accommodate human culture to his own eternal plan?
This view of accommodation puts more distance between it and the liberal or progressive view. The progressives will say that God inerrantly adopted fully human fully errant texts. God took what already existed (human texts—i.e., the books of the Bible) and adopted them to suit his purposes (see Spark’s book, God’s Word in Human Words, for an example of this approach). Evangelicals have rightly seen the problems with this, but the view of divine accommodation outlined at the beginning is only two steps removed from this view. In divine accommodation, God’s adoption of fully human creations is not on the level of whole texts, but on the level of cultural and literary conventions. God “adopted” the Hittite treaty form to express his covenant with Israel. Likewise, he adopted temple architecture, and other religious conventions. Thus, the normal view of accommodation falls along the same continuum as does the progressive view of Scripture. Admittedly, there is an important distinction, namely that evangelicals don’t believe that these conventions were adopted without modification, whereas the progressive view is that God adopted “errant” texts and left them errant (hence justifying identifying errors in the text and discarding them). The view I have been advocating avoids this problem entirely while at the same time fully accounting for God’s sovereignty.
Many of the ideas in this post are not my own but either came to me in seed form or fully grown from other sources. Peter Leithart has written similar things (see here, here, here, and perhaps most provocatively here, for example), and my fellow contributor, Robbie Crouse, has also provided a lot of insight.
The question of scientific accommodation is related though not entirely identical to the sort of accommodation I have been addressing above. When issues of science come up, one evangelical response is to say that God accommodated himself to ancient cosmologies and views of the world. Everyone agrees that the Bible doesn’t describe most things scientifically. The rub comes in the fact that we have an implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias in favor of scientific ways of describing the world, as if scientific descriptions are more “accurate.” I would question the notion of ‘accurate,’ though. Accurate by what or whose standards? Why is scientific accuracy the only sort of accuracy? I think there are many different kinds of ways of speaking about the world and they don’t exist on the same spectrum of accurate to inaccurate. For instance, it is accurate to say that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, just as it is inaccurate to say that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east (though even this is relative to one’s latitude). Likewise, it is accurate to say that the earth revolves around the sun every 365 days and rotates about its axis every 24 hours, just as it is inaccurate to say that the earth revolves around the sun every 56 days. If the Bible said that the sun rose in the west and set in the east, we could say that the Bible was wrong. But since the Bible isn’t intending to communicate scientifically (as we are so often reminded), we don’t have to say that the biblical language is an ‘accommodation’ unless we assign greater truth value to scientific ways of speaking, but this is nothing more than a modern prejudice.
Furthermore, we ought to distinguish, in this case, from accuracy and precision. One can be more or less precise in these different ways of speaking, while still being accurate. For instance, it is accurate to say the sun rises in the east, but if we are in Wheaton, IL during winter, it might be more precise to say that the sun rises at X degrees southeast and sets at Y degrees southwest. Likewise, it would be more precise to say that the earth revolves around the sun every 365.25 days, instead of every 365 days.
Thus, we ought not to suppose that God accommodated himself to a lesser understanding of the universe. After all, God, in his sovereignty, could have caused the cultures of the ANE to develop the scientific ability to understand the universe in a way comparable to our own understanding. The description of creation in the Bible is not a result of God accommodating himself to some backward culture’s pre-scientific understanding, but is the result of divine freedom. God described the creation the way he wanted to describe it.
This addendum owes much to Leithart’s post.