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Theories of Accommodation in the Theology of John Calvin

The term “accommodation” has undergone a series of changes in meaning within theological discourse. Most famous to Protestant theologians is the main sense in which Calvin used it, that God accommodated Himself to humanity by speaking in human terms and concepts. We will explain this in more detail below. There is another sense of the term, usually found in Roman Catholicism, which applies “accommodation” to the adaptation of Biblical verses by later persons, in new conditions and, sometimes, in new ways.1 The more common sense of the term today, however, refers to the relationship between Scripture’s use of ancient conceptions of the world and the cosmos and the findings of modern science. In what follows I would like to compare this last sense of “accommodation” with the kind of accommodation advocated by John Calvin, showing the important differences between them, but also highlighting the interesting parallels in some parts of Calvin’s writings. While Calvin is no kind of trump card, we believe his views are surprisingly broad on this subject and that a proper understanding of them will go a long way in opening new categories and resolving various dilemmas.

Accommodating the Present

The modern use of “divine accommodation,” describes the position that God and the biblical writers accommodated their speech to the historical context in which the revelation was given, presenting religious and theological message within a larger rhetorical matrix of terms, images, and even scientific and historical assumptions which were common to the times. This form of accommodation can even include certain falsehoods, though they are usually claimed as incidental to the theological idea.2 Some proponents of this view allow for the biblical author to be aware that he is indeed accommodating, and thus insulate him from intentional error. Others argue that the biblical author himself was in error about the incidental matters and that God was therefore accommodating Himself to the entire human audience, revealing Himself to humanity in the form of humanity, including its limitations and fallibility. This view has grown more and more common, though in a variety of appropriations, some which attempt to preserve the traditional understanding of Biblical inerrancy and others which desire to refashion or replace it.

Perhaps the most high-profile advocate of this form of accommodation, at least in Reformed and Evangelical circles as of late, is Dr. Peter Enns. He explains “accommodation” in the following way:

This is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place—he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that make sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people—he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are. The phrase word of God does not imply disconnectedness to its environment. In fact, if we can learn a lesson from the incarnation of God in Christ, it demands the exact opposite. And if God was willing and ready to adopt an ancient way of thinking, we truly hold a very low view of Scripture indeed if we make that into a point of embarrassment. We will not understand the Bible if we push aside or explain away its cultural setting, even if that setting disturbs us. We should, rather, learn to be thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later.  We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made. (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Baker 2005, p 56)

Later, Dr. Enns expands on this:

To be understood, he condescends to the conventions and conditions of those to whom he is revealing himself. The word of God cannot be kept safe form the rough-and-tumble drama of human history. For the Bible to be the word of God implies the exact opposite. (109)

Earlier, in the opening pages of the book, Dr. Enns actually presented this same observation in terms of “worldview shifts,” noting the now-ubiquitous cases of Copernicus and Galileo. Dr. Enns writes, “The scientific evidence showed us that the worldviews of the biblical authors must be taken into consideration in matters of biblical interpretation” (14). What we see from this is that “the worldviews of the biblical authors” were, in some ways, successfully critiqued by the later scientific evidence and a new understanding of what the Bible meant and how it is to be interpreted emerged. Dr. Enns believes that this process is continuing to this day, and his intent is to offer a new paradigm which transcends the supposed “problem.” This paradigm is a combination of the notion of accommodation with that of the incarnation, of God becoming man, and the result is Enns’s now infamous thesis of a two-fold doctrine of Scripture, a human meaning which contains historical errors and even (as argued by subsequent articles and books by Dr. Enns) evils, and a divine meaning which was always subverting and correcting that human meaning, becoming progressively clearer until its fullest manifestation appeared in the godman Jesus Christ.3

Dr. Enns’s parallel between the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of the incarnation is not entirely novel. B.B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck all use similar parallels (though all three affirm biblical inerrancy as well). There have even been those who, like Enns, use the concept of incarnation to imply a dual meaning or “sense” of the Biblical text.4 What does seem to be Dr. Enns’s special contribution to this conversation is his pairing of the concept of incarnation with accommodation to form a “paradigm” for understanding divine revelation.

Following Dr. Enns, Kenton Sparks has expanded on this specific notion of accommodation, arguing that the bible accommodates to the “false views” of humanity.5 He has even connected this, in part, to the teaching of John Calvin6 arguing, “Calvin tells us that whenever it appears that the Bible speaks ‘falsely,’ this reflects an accommodation to the false views of humanity” (Sparks, 236). Dr. Sparks’s reading of Calvin is of uneven quality. At some points he simply misrepresents Calvin entirely, and other times he presents Calvin’s view correctly but out of context and thus applies it in a way that Calvin does not. We will take up the details of these points below.

Now, we should say that while this website has been firmly committed to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, even the form advocated by the “Chicago Statement” (see the first point on Mr. Escalante’s list), Dr. Sparks is highlighting legitimate concerns and real and interesting findings in the orthodox Christian tradition. Even Dr. Enns rightly notes that the Reformers had a broader understanding of inerrancy that is often imagined today (Unfortunately, this is still not a sufficient reason for Enns to retain the doctrine for himself). The Reformers actually are quite imaginative and progressive, in the sense of being confident that the findings of natural revelation and the progression of true science will always affirm Biblical authority and Reformed doctrine. But they do not quite hold to the view of “accommodation” that is ascribed to them by Dr. Sparks. Since Calvin’s name is particularly associated with a doctrine of “accommodation,” confusion cannot help but set in, and so in what follows we will demonstrate what Calvin’s view of accommodation was. In doing so, we will refute, at least in part, the claims of Dr. Sparks, but we will also likely surprise some readers by showing a side of John Calvin that is not often understood, if it is known at all.

Two Kinds of Accommodation in John Calvin

John Calvin’s theory of accommodation has received lots of scholarly treatment over the years, and yet, despite such wide attention, it is still often confused on both academic and popular levels. The primary sense in which academic theologians speak of “accommodation” in John Calvin’s theology has to do with the nature of all divine revelation and is founded on the distinction between the infinite and the finite. It is an ontological claim about theology proper and anthropology. But there is also another sense in which Calvin will use “accommodation” to refer to the way in which the various human authors of scripture accommodate their speech to their audiences. It is this second use of the accommodation which is more relevant to the concerns of writers like Enns and Sparks, but it is the first form which is more widely-known and which is primarily assumed when Calvin’s name is invoked.

Divine Accommodation in All of Revelation

Richard Muller includes accommodation in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, demonstrating that it did come to take on a sort of “technical” status among the Reformers. Dr. Muller defines accommodation as follows:

accommodatio: accommodation; also attemperatio: adjustment or accommodation; and condescensi: condescension. The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This accommodation occurs specifically in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and the gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth or the lessening of scriptural authority. The accommodation or condescension refers to the manner or mode of revelation, the gift of the wisdom of the infinite God in finite form, not to the quality of the revelation or to the matter revealed. A parallel idea occurs in the orthodox Protestant distinction between theologia archetypa (q.v.) and theologia ectypa (q.v.). Note that the sense of accommodatio that implies not only a divine condescension, but also a use of time-bound and even erroneous statements as a medium for revelation, arose in the eighteenth century in the thought of Johann Semler and his contemporaries and has no relation either to the position of the Reformers or to that of the Protestant scholastics, either Lutheran or Reformed. See sensus accommodatitius. (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Baker 2006, p 19)

The sensus accommodatitius, which Dr. Muller says has “no relation” to this doctrine of accommodation, is, by contrast, defined as “the sense of a text of Scripture as interpreted, not literally, but with a view toward the reconciliation of problematic statements with historical-critical discoveries” (Muller, 279). It would seem, on the surface, that it is not really Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation which modern thinkers have in mind but instead this sensus accomodatitius.

The sense of accommodation defined by Dr. Muller is also the doctrine that Calvin is describing when he speaks of God “lisping” to us. See for instance:

But although God, in order to keep us within the bounds of soberness, treats sparingly of his essence, still, by the two attributes which I have mentioned, he at once suppresses all gross imaginations, and checks the audacity of the human mind. His immensity surely ought to deter us from measuring him by our sense, while his spiritual nature forbids us to indulge in carnal or earthly speculation concerning him. With the same view he frequently represents heaven as his dwelling-place. It is true, indeed, that as he is incomprehensible, he fills the earth also, but knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity. And here we have a refutation of the error of the Manichees, who, by adopting two first principles, made the devil almost the equal of God. This, assuredly, was both to destroy his unity and restrict his immensity. Their attempt to pervert certain passages of Scripture proved their shameful ignorance, as the very nature of the error did their monstrous infatuation. The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height. (Inst. 1.13.1)

And again:

Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible. And the mode of lowering is to represent him not as he really is, but as we conceive of him.” Again we see that human knowledge is simply incapable of the most specific and truest understanding, and so God voluntarily lowers Himself not as he really is” but “as we conceive of him. (Inst. 1.17.13)

There are a few key points to notice here. 1) This accommodated speech is a feature of specific divine intent towards all humans. 2) This accommodated speech employs metaphors and other figures of speech to describe the God who is truly and really otherwise. 3) The human audience is supposed to know or be instructed that this speech is employing figurative language and is not literally true. 4) Those who would assert that this speech is strictly and literally true are engaging in something which is forbidden and which, according to Calvin, indulges carnal and earthly speculation. 5) The comparison to adult human speech is not actually that of parents teaching their children through story-telling but rather to nurses lisping or what we would call “baby-talk.” It has nothing at all to do with “truth” or even “literalness,” but instead to the quality of the speech as a whole.

This is what is usually meant by the term “accommodation” or “accommodationism” in Calvin’s theology, and it is what Calvin means when he speaks of the Scriptures as “God lisping to us,” “condescending to us,” and “lowering Himself.” We should make no mistake that the accommodated revelation is not strictly true in teh same sense as the knowledge possessed by God himself, and yet, at the same time, it is true for all humans, since they are finite and incapable of possessing God’s knowledge in an univocal manner. Humans thus ought not try to get around or beyond this accommodated revelation in order to find some stricter truth. To do so would be a form of idolatry. Instead they ought to humbly receive the accommodated revelation as the revelation given to them by God. This form of accommodation provides no basis for arguing that a certain passage of the Scriptures is either historical or not, nor does it have anything to do with historical context or enculturation. It applies to all divine speech as received by all humans, no matter the situation.

The Accommodation of the Human Authors to a Human Audience

The above is likely well known to a certain strand of Calvin scholars, but there also happens to be different and distinct sense of accommodated or adapted teaching in Calvin. This second sense is not divine speech accommodating itself to human speech, but rather divinely-inspired human speech accommodating itself to a general human audience. This second sense is relevant to the modern concerns of Scripture’s relationship to the findings of natural revelation, and it is closer to what writers like Sparks have in mind.

We see this second sense in particular forcefulness in Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1. Calvin explains that Moses adapted his speech to fit the common understanding of a general audience. In this regards Calvin writes:

I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. …since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Commentary on Gen. 1:16)

We will return to this passage below, after we account for some of Calvin’s other statements earlier in the Genesis commentary.For now let us note some basic points. The adaptation of speech is on Moses’ part towards Moses’ audience. It is not God’s adaptation of revelation to Moses. It is also not limited to historical or cultural context. Calvin claims that Moses is a teacher of both the learned and the unlearned and so he chose a mode of speech appropriate to all without intending to teach a scientific view. Calvin uses both past and present tenses in this section, and so the “uneducated” are not merely a primitive people limited by their time in history but also the general readers of Scripture in later days, to include Calvin’s own day. This is neither a case of divine to human, nor primitive to modern, but rather general and observational presentation, perhaps even a phenomenological descriptions.

Earlier in the same commentary, Calvin writes:

If any one should inquire whether this vacuity did not previously exist, I answer, however true it may be that all parts of the earth were not overflowed by the waters; yet now, for the first time, a separation was ordained, whereas a confused admixture had previously existed. Moses describes the special use of this expanse, to divide the waters from the waters from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. And truly a longer inquiry into a matter open and manifest is superfluous. We see that the clouds suspended in the air, which threaten to fall upon our heads, yet leave us space to breathe. (Commentary on Genesis 1:6)

Here Calvin is talking about the firmament, and he denies allegory or other sophisticated forms of interpretation, instead affirming a general phenomenological reading. Moses is not making a sort of “cosmological” or “astronomical” claim but is instead describing things according to the way that they look from the ordinary human perspective. Moses does not intend any strict claim about physical science, and thus there is no need to “embrace by faith” something which is not being asserted or taught. He is merely speaking of “the visible form of the world.”

Calvin explains the language of the sun, moon, and stars along similar lines:

It must be remembered, that Moses does not speak with philosophical acuteness on occult mysteries, but relates those things which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated, and which are in common use… But since it is manifest that Moses does not depart from the ordinary custom of men, I desist from a longer discussion. (Commentary on Gen. 1:14)

Again, no strict “scientific” claims are being made when Moses writes of the luminaries. He is merely using ordinary language to convey a common-sense meaning. Calvin continues:

It is well again to repeat what I have said before, that it is not here philosophically discussed, how great the sun is in the heaven, and how great, or how little, is the moon; but how much light comes to us from them. For Moses here addresses himself to our senses, that the knowledge of the gifts of God which we enjoy may not glide away. Therefore, in order to apprehend the meaning of Moses, it is to no purpose to soar above the heavens; let us only open our eyes to behold this light which God enkindles for us in the earth. By this method (as I have before observed) the dishonesty of those men is sufficiently rebuked, who censure Moses for not speaking with greater exactness. For as it became a theologian, he had respect to us rather than to the stars. Nor, in truth, was he ignorant of the fact, that the moon had not sufficient brightness to enlighten the earth, unless it borrowed from the sun; but he deemed it enough to declare what we all may plainly perceive, that the moon is a dispenser of light to us. (Commentary on Gen. 1:15) 7

Once more, Calvin argues that Moses speaks of the visible phenomena from the human perspective. He even states that Moses was not “ignorant” that moon “borrowed” its light from the sun. This fact was simply irrelevant to Moses’ purposes.

And then returning to Calvin’s statements on Gen. 1:16, we read in full:

The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God. (Commentary on Gen. 1:16)

Here we see the fullest expression of this “adapted” usage. Calvin does not actually use the term “accommodate” in this passage, though he will use it in other passages which refer to the accommodation of biblical human authors to their audiences. The key points are 1) Moses is not speaking in terms of natural philosophy, astronomy, or any of the other physical sciences but rather simply according to common phenomelogical perception. 2) Moses spoke in a common style according to what was “generally known” so that he would not distract or otherwise hinder an unlearned audience. 3) The findings of astronomy will differ in some respects from the description given by Moses—Saturn is larger than the Moon—and yet this gives no reason to criticize Moses. 4) The study of the natural sciences should in no way be discouraged or feared.

Indeed according to Calvin, Moses was purposely not speaking about physical science and, in some cases, Moses is said to know the difference between the “common sense” perception and the more sophisticated arts. For instance: “Nor, in truth, was he ignorant of the fact, that the moon had not sufficient brightness to enlighten the earth, unless it borrowed from the sun; but he deemed it enough to declare what we all may plainly perceive, that the moon is a dispenser of light to us.” and “Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art…” Calvin also states several times that Moses is describing the way things look from the perspective of the human eye, “If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently.” and “…he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes.” Those people who would make a serious problem or dilemma out of this are called “dishonest” and “janglers.” On the other hand, those who simply reject human art or “what is unknown to them” are “ignorant” and “frantic.”

Accommodating Error?

Though Calvin did not actually use the term “accommodate” to describe the nature of the adaptation of Moses’ speech, he does use that term in his commentary on Hebrews 11:21. This is noted by Dr. Sparks as an instance of “accommodation” along the lines of what Sparks himself is arguing for.8 Calvin does use the expression “accommodate” to refer to a potential error in the Epistle to the Hebrews, explaining the discrepancy between the actual text of Genesis 47:31 and the citation of it which appears in Hebrews 11:21. Calvin states:

And worshipped on the top, etc. This is one of those places from which we may conclude that the points were not formerly used by the Hebrews; for the Greek translators could not have made such a mistake as to put staff here for a bed, if the mode of writing was then the same as now. No doubt Moses spoke of the head of his couch, when he said על ראש המטה but the Greek translators rendered the words, “On the top of his staff” as though the last word was written, mathaeh. The Apostle hesitated not to apply to his purpose what was commonly received: he was indeed writing to the Jews; but they who were dispersed into various countries, had changed their own language for the Greek. And we know that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk; and in this there is no danger, provided readers are ever brought back to the pure and original text of Scripture. But, in reality, the difference is but little; for the main thing was, that Jacob worshipped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son.

This passage is cited by Dr. Sparks (see Sparks, 235) as evidence that Calvin allowed for an “accommodation to the false views of humanity.” Initially, the expression “And we know that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned,” in this context, seems indeed to suggest incidental error. John Murray noted the significance in writing, “As far as I am aware, this remark constitutes the most formidable difficulty in the way of the thesis that Calvin believed in biblical inerrancy.”9. And yet, when considered carefully in context, and along with the other statements Calvin makes on these matters, the dilemma is resolvable and, at minimum, something very different than the kind of accommodated error of the modern sort.

Notice that the error in question is the result of a non-inspired translation of the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek. This error was then appropriated by the quotation of the Greek text in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Calvin is clear that the Apostle was aware of the original text, but decided not to take the time to correct the Greek translation which was at the time current. To make the correction would have required an extended explanation and would have been a significant distraction, and thus the Apostle chose not to address it at all. “In this,” Calvin writes, “there is no danger, provided readers are ever brought back to the pure and original text of Scripture.” Thus, once the readers are able to understand the situation and correct the discrepancy, they should do so by consulting the Hebrew Old Testament. It is not the case, for Calvin, that the details of Genesis 47 are of no significance, incidentals which can be safely ignored. It is, rather, that they are of no significance for the specific purpose of Hebrews 11:21, and thus the divinely-inspired human author chose not to enter the dispute. The writer is neither teaching nor affirming that the citation is precisely accurate in that detail but rather omits any mention in order to make a limited point. Calvin does think that correct original version of Genesis 47:31 can be demonstrated by close textual study, and he believes that this should be done in the appropriate setting.

There is also a section in the Institutes where Calvin uses the term “accommodate” for something similar:

But before I begin to treat more fully of the nature of man (chap. 15 and B. 2 c. 1), it will be proper to say something of angels. For although Moses, in accommodation to the ignorance of the generality of men, does not in the history of the creation make mention of any other works of God than those which meet our eye, yet, seeing he afterwards introduces angels as the ministers of God, we easily infer that he for whom they do service is their Creator. Hence, though Moses, speaking in popular language, did not at the very commencement enumerate the angels among the creatures of God, nothing prevents us from treating distinctly and explicitly of what is delivered by Scripture concerning them in other places. (Inst. 1.14.3)

This passage is not as immediately striking as the Hebrews commentary, but the logic of the argument is the same. Moses omitted mention of the creation of the angels, yet we know that the angels were created from other passages in Scripture. We ought not to be afraid to interpret Scripture with Scripture and create a unified and consistent whole. In each of these cases of accommodating, the human author is fully aware that the accommodation is occurring. There is no suggestion by Calvin that God is accommodating an error held by the human authors of the biblical writings, allowing error to be intentionally recorded as divine revelation. Neither does Calvin suggest that the biblical writers ever assert a proposition that is historically or otherwise false.

Acquiescing to God’s Judgment

Having shown Calvin’s generally capacious view of Scripture, we should also point out that he had his more pointed moments. As is often cited in these conversations, Calvin said of Scripture:

This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare. Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasure of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit. …This is the first clause, that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it. (Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16)

Once all of the arguments had been made, Calvin believed that man’s duty was to submit to the teaching of Scripture. If he was fully persuaded that the Bible was making a specific claim, no matter its topic, then Calvin believed that the claim was true and authoritative. If it appeared to challenge reason, then reason ought to be taught to wonder. This does not mean that actual contradictions should be embraced, but it does mean that no charge ought to be brought against the Bible. A particularly striking example of this side of Calvin is found, again, in his commentary on Genesis, this time on Gen. 1:20. There he writes:

It seems, however, but little consonant with reason, that he declares birds to have proceeded from the waters; and, therefore this is seized upon by captious men as an occasion of calumny. But although there should appear no other reason but that it so pleased God, would it not be becoming in us to acquiesce in his judgment? Why should it not be lawful for him, who created the world out of nothing, to bring forth the birds out of water? And what greater absurdity, I pray, has the origin of birds from the water, than that of the light from darkness? Therefore, let those who so arrogantly assail their Creator, look for the Judge who shall reduce them to nothing. Nevertheless if we must use physical reasoning in the contest, we know that the water has greater affinity with the air than the earth has. But Moses ought rather to be listened to as our teacher, who would transport us with admiration of God through the consideration of his works. And, truly, the Lord, although he is the Author of nature, yet by no means has followed nature as his guide in the creation of the world, but has rather chosen to put forth such demonstrations of his power as should constrain us to wonder. (Commentary on Gen. 1:20)

In this case, Calvin believes that the Scriptures are teaching that the birds were created from the waters. This is somewhat strange, since most modern conservative exegetes would not insist on this reading of Genesis.10 Still, Calvin’s response here is noteworthy. He says that for birds to come from water is no more absurd than for light to come from darkness, and therefore readers should be willing to submit to the teaching of Scripture and the majesty of God. Calvin adds a sort of “natural philosophy” or “physical reasoning” as well, but this is clearly secondary. And then, in what is bound to discomfort many modern accommodationists, Calvin says that the creation of nature did not follow nature. God’s creative works, even in physical matter, cannot be measured and judged by our understanding of nature and natural laws today. Thus the biblical account, on this point, is wholly unimpeachable. It is not theologically coherent to doubt it.

Conclusion

This extended consideration of Calvin’s uses of accommodation does not in itself prove modern versions to be either correct or incorrect. It does, however, highlight certain key differences in what is being argued. For modern writers like Drs. Enns and Sparks, the accommodation at work is God’s accommodation to ancient humanity. This accommodation can and did incorporate errors, and these errors can now be discerned by progresses in the arts and sciences. We ought to note them as errors but need not worry that they undermine biblical authority because they are incidental to the central religious and theological message. Instead of demonstrating God’s majesty by way of power and perfection, they demonstrate God’s humility in taking a human, limited, and fallible form.

In contrast to this, Calvin espouses two distinct kinds of accommodation. The first is God’s accommodation to all humanity: fallen and unfallen, inspired and uninspired, learned and common. This accommodation is a matter of the absolute ontological distinction between the infinite and the finite, and thus the accommodated revelation of God to man is the only possible form in which man can receive it. There is no way to move beyond this accommodated revelation to find a more strictly accurate sense. The accommodated is the real and true revelation for man.

The second kind of accommodation is on the part of the biblical authors. They accommodate in a variety of ways, some of which do show Calvin’s surprising flexibility and are no doubt troubling to the strictest contemporary proponents of inerrancy. But in each case of such accommodation, the human authors are aware of the accommodating, are not teaching or even affirming error, and thus the more precisely accurate truth can be discovered by a faithful use of reason, historical study, the natural sciences, textual criticism, and biblical hermeneutics. All of this also always occurs in a way that is consistent with the Biblical teaching and which always bows to the Bible as the ultimate authority on which it speaks.

This essay has not attempted to settle the modern disputes over the nature of Scripture, though our inerrantist sympathies are plain and asserted in other places. Instead we have compare a certain modern use of the term accommodation with the way in which Calvin viewed it. Hopefully this will clarify the meaning of the term, depending on who is using it, but hopefully it will also highlight the actual difficult questions and the options for answering them properly. Calvin is not without fault, nor is he the ideal standard by which all other thought must be measured, but he is, nevertheless, still a remarkably resourceful thinker, even on matters which seem to many to be too dangerous to consider.

  1. For instance: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Biblical_Accommodation
  2. For a recent presentation of this position, see Kenton Sparks, God’s Words in Human Form: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker, 2008) For a typical critique, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1995) p 97. It should be noted that B.B. Warfield himself noted and vigorously critiqued an earlier variation of this same argument; see Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Baker 1970) p189-195.
  3. Dr. Enns has become a lightening rod for controversy in this regard and, as a result, a sort of bogeyman within the conservative Reformed world. Many now would not recognize him as a credible representative of any “acceptable” position. While we share a very critical evaluation of Dr. Enns’s theology, it is not fair to apply a sort of Godwin’s Law to citations of him in controversial discourse. When Inspiration and Incarnation was published, Dr. Enns had been teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary for eleven years, self-identified as Reformed and Evangelical, and affirmed the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. He has since become a critic of the term inerrancy (see Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. ed. J. Merrick, Zondervan 2013) because he feels it is inseparable from the problematic conceptions of it that he was once hoping to solve, but these need not mean that he was previously disingenuous in his attempt to hold to inerrancy. The scars of battle may have simply persuaded him to drop the nomenclature.
  4. This is arguably the case with Karl Barth, but, additionally, Jelle Faber notes that there was an ongoing conversation within the Christian Reformed Church in the late 1970s to this same effect. See J. Faber, “Christ and Scripture: Incarnation and Inscripturation” in Essays in Reformed Doctrine, Inheritance Publications 1990, p 22.
  5. see Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker Academic  2008).
  6. Dr. Sparks is not uncritical of Calvin, of course, but he makes a case that Calvin is an important step in a progression towards a modern view and away from stricter views of inerrancy, see God’s Word in Human Words p234-236.
  7. Interestingly, Calvin does goes on to engage in some astronomy here, denying that the moon is a “dark body” but affirming that it is indeed a “light” though one less than the sun. In doing this, however, he lays claim to natural philosophy and not biblical exegesis.
  8. Sparks highlights at least three instances of Calvin using “accommodation” in the case of a potentially false scenario. The first instance is in the Genesis commentary, though Calvin does not actually make such claim about accuracy or inaccuracy. Commenting on Gen. 1:5, Calvin writes, “Further, he begins the day, according to the custom of his nation, with the evening. It is to no purpose to dispute whether this be the best and the legitimate order or not. We know that darkness preceded time itself; when God withdrew the light, he closed the day. I do not doubt that the most ancient fathers, to whom the coming night was the end of one day and the beginning of another, followed this mode of reckoning. Although Moses did not intend here to prescribe a rule which it would be criminal to violate; yet (as we have now said) he accommodated his discourse to the received custom. Wherefore, as the Jews foolishly condemn all the reckonings of other people, as if God had sanctioned this alone; so again are they equally foolish who contend that this modest reckoning, which Moses approves, is preposterous.” This seems to obviously not be a problem for Calvin, and it is not the same sort of “accommodating” as is relevant for Dr. Sparks. In fact, Calvin argues that the darkness did originally precede the light, and so there is no contradiction between natural history and Moses’ speech.

    Dr. Sparks also points to Calvin’s commentary on Acts 7:14, a case of an apparent inaccurate citation by the New Testament. Calvin is actually somewhat agnostic on the best explanation, but he holds open the possibility of scribal error, certainly in the case of the Greek-source from which Luke was quoting, but also of the original Acts manuscript itself. So again, this is a poor text for Dr. Sparks to rely upon. Also with Calvin (but not cited by Dr. Sparks), there is also the case of Matthew 27:9, where Calvin claims to “not know” how an apparently erroneous citation appears. For an extended consideration of that passage, as well as these others from Calvin’s commentaries, John Murray’s essay “Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture” is helpful, as is J.I. Packer’s “Calvin’s View of Scripture.” Philip Edgcumbe Hughes’s “The Inspiration of Scripture in the English Reformers Illuminated by John Calvin” also provides a good presentation of how Calvin was able to maintain a remarkable openness to textual criticism while still retaining a clear doctrine of inerrancy.

  9. see “Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture” cited above
  10. Indeed, some of the earlier “dilemmas” which Calvin explains by way of scribal error are now explained different, again even by conservative bible scholars.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.