Let’s Talk About Divine Accommodation

Posted By on August 17, 2008

So far in my forays into inerrancy, on the heels of laying out my thoughts on inspiration, I’ve put forth the idea (with the help of Chet) that I just want to make sure the Bible is taken on its own terms, not terms that we, in the wake of Enlightenment empiricism, would want.  Let’s just take it for what it is.  Seems fair — and it’s also consistent with the Chicago Statement, though that statement has easier examples in mind than what we’ve been dealing with here.

On to the next key idea (I’m trying to lay out principles with the hope of going back and articulating something that works for inerrancy – that takes the data seriously).  The next key principle is divine accommodation. Evangelicals haven’t like this, so don’t comment back to me and tell me this – I already know it. What critics of this idea don’t know (or don’t seem to know) is how poorly their rebuttals to this idea have been.  I’m going to use Wayne Grudem’s rebuttal to illustrate (pp. 97-98 of his Systematic Theology). I’ve appreciate Wayne’s scholarship on a number of issues, but his arguments here are very poor.

I’ve pasted Grudem’s rebuttal below (entirely), and have blocked my own responses to it in places.

GRUDEM:

4. The Biblical Writers “Accommodated” Their Messages in Minor Details to the False Ideas Current in Their Day, and Affirmed or Taught Those Ideas in an Incidental Way.

This objection to inerrancy is slightly different from the one that would restrict the inerrancy of Scripture to matters of faith and practice, but it is related to it. Those who hold this position argue that it would have been very difficult for the biblical writers to communicate with the people of their time if they had tried to correct all the false historical and scientific information believed by their contemporaries. Those who hold this position would not argue that the points where the Bible affirms false information are numerous, or even that these places are the main points of any particular section of Scripture. Rather, they would say that when the biblical writers were attempting to make a larger point, they sometimes incidentally affirmed some falsehood believed by the people of their time.

To this objection to inerrancy it can be replied, first, that God is Lord of human language who can use human language to communicate perfectly without having to affirm any false ideas that may have been held by people during the time of the writing of Scripture. This objection to inerrancy essentially denies God’s effective lordship over human language.

MSH: The point is not GOD’s ability to use human language; he’s perfectly capable of that. Rather, this is about other points Grudem fails to consider.

1.      While God certainly knows how to use human language, does the human language in question have the vocabulary that would allow God to communicate scientific truths to the original recipients? Could God have communicated full, precise scientific information about, say, how human reproduction works (cf. the 1 Cor 11 article here, where Paul connects this to women’s hair; and the information has to be full and precise, lest God accommodate himself to humans!). So . . . what are the ancient Greek words for: zygote, oocyte, chromosome, DNA, etc.? It’s about an ancient language being insufficient for a host of scientific issues, not God’s ability.

2.      While God certainly knows how to use human language, do the human recipients have the capability to understand what is being said?  Let’s say there was a way for God to communicate 20th and 21st century science in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (think about that statement for a moment and ask yourself if you really want to side with Grudem here). Let’s say God uses those words – and he would certainly be capable if those words existed in the languages – and really spells out exactly how the cosmos was created (never mind the fact that the writers wouldn’t be aware of what a cosmos is) and where babies come from (it isn’t implanting a seed in a woman for it to grow – we need genetics here). So . . . who’s going to understand this?  Surely the wordings would have to be supernaturally given, since the authors don’t know any of this science.  But then how would their readers understand what was written?  And if readers can’t understand the revelation (it’s basically gibberish to their minds), what’s the point?  Doesn’t it undermine the whole idea of God wanting people to know truth and know about him? No, it’s not about God’s abilities; it’s about HUMAN inability at the time and place God initiated the process of inspiration.

GRUDEM:

Second, we must respond that such “accommodation” by God to our misunderstandings would imply that God had acted contrary to his character as an “unlying God” (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). It is not helpful to divert attention from this difficulty by repeated emphasis on the gracious condescension of God to speak on our level. Yes, God does condescend to speak our language, the language of human beings. But no passage of Scripture teaches that he “condescends” so as to act contrary to his moral character. He is never said to be able to condescend so as to affirm-even incidentally-something that is false. If God were to “accommodate” himself in this way, he would cease to be the “unlying God.” He would cease to be the God the Bible represents him to be. Such activity would not in any way show God’s greatness, for God does not manifest his greatness by acting in a way that contradicts his character. This objection thus at root misunderstands the purity and unity of God as they affect all of his words and deeds.

MSH: So, if we dilute information in any way, we lie?  So when my four year old asks where babies come from, and I say “mommy and daddy get together and then there’s a baby,” completing omitting the details of sexual intercourse, I’m a liar?  Say what? What’s the alternative? To tell my four year old to go away? To tell her all about how mommy and daddy have sex? (Maybe a video would be better since her vocabulary is limited-besides, I wouldn’t want people to know I talk about this stuff to my toddler). Should I tell her she’s not old enough to understand, so forget it?  Wonder why God didn’t do that, since I’m not reading about genetics and embryology in 1 Cor 11 (i.e., he said SOMETHING to us).  No, this has nothing to do with God’s purity and holiness; it has to do with God being far superior to us and our frailty. God isn’t lying when he dilutes information and allows the human writers to think poorly about science.  We wouldn’t understand it anyway. We’d have no way to process it. Perhaps a parallel illustration will help.  The setting for what follows is different, but it goes to the issue of withholding information being appropriate and not lying. Where is it written in Scripture that we have to give full, precise answers to questions like, “Do I look fat in this dress?”; “Do you like my hair?”; “Doctor, did my little boy suffer before he died?”; “Where’s your mom, kid; I want to teach her a lesson?” Bunk. There is room for tact and protection from harm in the words we use. The command “thou shalt not bear false witness” refers to uttering words, and, in context, in a courtroom setting (the biblical “by two or three witnesses things will be known” idea).  The purpose of the law is NOT to allow evil to grow and take power over people – it is to stop evil.  When evildoers would use the law for evil, THAT is a distortion of the law.  Undoing or forbidding acts of heroism and courtesy is NOT the purpose of the ninth command. The command was not given to allow evil to proliferate, to have others suffer, to have children lose innocence, or to compel people to be rude.

GRUDEM:

Furthermore, such a process of accommodation, if it actually had occurred, would create a serious moral problem for us. We are to be imitators of God’s moral character (Lev. 11:44; Luke 6:36; Eph. 5:1; 1 Peter 5:1, et al.). Paul says, since in our new natures we are becoming more like God (Eph. 4:24), we should “put away falsehood” and “speak the truth” with one another (v. 25). We are to imitate God’s truthfulness in our speech. However, if the accommodation theory is correct, then God intentionally made incidental affirmations of falsehood in order to enhance communication. Therefore, would it not also be right for us intentionally to make incidental affirmations of falsehood whenever it would enhance communication? Yet this would be tantamount to saying that a minor falsehood told for a good purpose (a “white lie”) is not wrong. Such a position, contradicted by the Scripture passages cited above concerning God’s total truthfulness in speech, cannot be held to be valid.

MSH: This is quite misguided. If you think withholding information is lying, then go read 1 Samuel 16.  Frankly, I can’t wait to get to God’s use of deception for a thread on the blog. These objections are poorly argued. I could go into more detail, but this should be sufficient.

Thoughts, anyone?

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3 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Divine Accommodation”

  1. drew says:

    MSH: The point is not GOD’s ability to use human language; he’s perfectly capable of that. Rather, this is about other points Grudem fails to consider.

    Gday Mike
    ……………as i was reading the rest of the above, i thought of Ezekiel sitting on the banks of the river.
    Saying, Hey guys i just saw a Helicopter [if!! thats what he saw]
    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
    MSH: This is quite misguided. If you think withholding information is lying, then go read 1 Samuel 16.

    Did you mean this verse?
    1Sa 16:2 And Samuel said, How can I go? if Saul hear [it], he will kill me. And the LORD said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the LORD.

    Is it even withholding info? Looks just like a way round the problem. imho. Not unlike Moses; i cant speak! OK i will send you Aaron
    Drew

  2. MSH says:

    @drew: Yes, it’s withholding information, quite clearly. It was God’s idea to have Samuel tell them he was going to offer the heifer, so he didn’t to tell them the real reason he was coming. Samuel DID offer the heifer, so he didn’t utter a falsehood; but he also clearly deceived (at God’s suggestion), withholding information from his enemies. God actually uses deception a decent number of times to thwart evil, a fact that renders Grudem’s argument here nonsensical.

  3. [...] from God to man is a condescension and accommodation in some respect. See my comments on the weaknesses of Grudem’s arguments on [...]

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