Christians have historically endorsed the doctrine of divine accommodation. This doctrine holds that since God is transcendent, He cannot communicate to us as equals in the language of pure, unfiltered, heavenly discourse. He is the triune Creator, whereas we are mere creatures. So when God talks to us, He stoops to our level. For instance, God’s Word came to us in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and now it is translated in countless other human languages. In fact, all of Scripture is accommodated to us. As John Calvin put it: “Who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.” Accommodation is also entirely consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy, which says that the Bible teaches only the truth. God communicates to our finitude, but His Word is still utterly trustworthy.
However, some scholars reject inerrancy by appealing to accommodation. They want to relieve the dissonance that Christians sometimes perceive between an inerrant Scripture and theories from the natural sciences, or they invoke accommodation as a way to play down the hard ethical passages in the Bible (e.g., God’s command to Israel to slaughter people such as the Canaanites, Amalekites, and Midianites). While they appeal to this doctrine of accommodation, they give it a radical new meaning: God speaks to us in and through the mistakes, in and through the fallible assumptions of ancient authors—in short, in and through their sin. To be sure, all biblical authors were sinners, just like us, but the Holy Spirit ensured that the inspired words of Scripture were miraculously preserved from any error or corruption (see 2 Peter 1:21). Yet, the revised understanding of accommodation implicitly denies this supernatural element. As one advocate puts it, “Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the human audience’s finite and fallen perspective.” For defenders of this new view of accommodation, Scripture contains flawed statements that reflect primitive ancient Near Eastern views of the biblical authors.
This new take on accommodation assumes that Jesus, as a first-century Jew, inherited common Jewish assumptions about creation, the material world, geography, and history. In this way of thinking, the incarnate God believed many things that were false when compared with what we know today. One scholar reassures us that we can trust Jesus’ salvation message even if it is packaged within erroneous baggage from the ancient world. Unfortunately, this is not a convincing position, and it is important to see why.
This rethinking of accommodation implies that errors pervade the Bible. Readers must therefore decide on their own which bits are true and which bits should be discarded. But if that is the case, on what basis can we know what is and is not reliable in the Bible? What guides us in making that decision? It cannot be Scripture itself, since parts of it (perhaps much of it) are unreliable. This means that our Western, post-Christian assumptions end up being the lens by which we judge which parts of the Bible are dispensable. Followed through consistently, this new approach to accommodation is a recipe for disaster, for the extrabiblical assumptions of readers are often imperfect and temporal, constantly shifting with the winds of culture.