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Accommodation (or condescension) is the theological principle that God, while being in His nature unknowable and unreachable, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way which humans can understand and respond to. The concept is that scripture has accommodated, or made allowance for, the original audience's language and general level of understanding.
The 16th-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin is a key developer of the concept, in response to that century's discoveries in natural science, foremost Copernicus' theory of heliocentrism that conflicted with medieval theological traditions of reading the Bible "through geocentric spectacles". The concept of accommodation is thus an alternative method of Bible interpretation to the tradition of Biblical literalism. Literalism and an insistence on traditional Bible interpretation formed the basis for the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo Galilei in the early 17th century.
Accommodation is not an innovation of the Reformation Period, but "has a long tradition of use within Judaism and subsequently within Christian theology, and can easily be shown to have been influential within the patristic period."
It appears almost contradictory that the Christian God, as revealed in the Bible, is often described in terms of his supreme transcendence and the inability of limited, finite man to comprehend and know the God who is unlimited and infinite – the contradiction being that even this knowledge can be known by humanity and recorded in scripture.
Although this may appear on the surface to be an illogicality, the status of the Christian God's unknowability is only true insofar as God acts not to reveal himself. In this line of thinking, no human being can ever hope to even understand or know God via their own powers of discernment. The principle of accommodation is that God has chosen to reveal aspects of himself to humanity in a way which humanity is able to understand.
This principle helps to underline other parts of Christian theology, especially the role of God in supervising the writing of the Bible. While the Bible itself claims that humans are limited and sinful and can make mistakes, God has nevertheless supervised the writing of the Bible to ensure that no mistakes were made. This belief was generally held throughout the historical Christian church, and is still held by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians today.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, it has been generally held that the Bible – both the Old Testament and the New Testament – were divinely inspired. The principle of accommodation allows for both the ability of the Bible to communicate objective spiritual truths about the nature of God, as well as the ability of the human authors to act as God's means by which this is to be communicated to humanity. While it is true that the authors themselves were limited and prone to mistakes, accommodation allows for the perfect and truthful God to work in and through his human agents in order to reveal information about himself that is sufficient and complete.
It is obvious that even the means which God uses are imperfect and limited: Ezekiel 1:28 finds the author struggling to put down in words what he was experiencing as he stood in the presence of God; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 mentions that what we see now – what God has chosen to reveal to us – is "but a poor reflection". The fact that God has chosen to use the limited in order to reveal the unlimited may seem hard to understand, but is easy to accept once the notion of an infinite, all-powerful God is presupposed.
Linked to this idea is the added complication of human languages. Church tradition (including more recent statements of faith like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Cambridge Declaration) holds to the belief that only the original Hebrew Old Testament text and the original Greek New Testament text can be clearly identified as God's word. Therefore, any human translation of the original language will automatically not be considered God's inspired word – which naturally includes the 5th century Latin Vulgate, as well as today's more contemporary translations.
Yet accommodation allows for the belief that despite this natural linguistic barrier, God still has the power to use such translations in order to reveal his nature to people. This means, of course, that Christians don't have to learn Ancient Hebrew and Greek in order to hear what God has to say.
This all may seem to be a contradiction:
- Only the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament can be considered the word of God.
- God will use translations of the original languages to present the truth of himself to human beings.
Yet it could also be argued that, given that this is correct, we as human beings, by our very nature, are incapable of understanding why it is true.
Traditional Christian theology asserts that it is through the work of the Holy Spirit within the individual that God the Father is able to communicate to them via the words of the Bible.
The belief that God has been able to sufficiently communicate to humanity, despite the failings and limitations of the latter, is given its supreme form in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Traditional Christianity, as expressed in the historic creeds, proclaims the Trinity as being part of the orthodox Christian faith. The divinity of Christ, who is believed to be fully man and yet fully God, shows how the Godhead has accommodated itself to human minds and experience. Many Christians, especially those from a Reformed background, see in the person and work of Christ not only the supreme form of accommodation, but the centre and reason for it as well.
By becoming human, Jesus Christ accommodates himself to the human condition. Through his life, his teaching and ministry, Christ can be considered as literally God speaking and communicating sufficiently to humanity – not via the abilities and strength of human beings, but via the ability and strength of God. In this sense, man is fully passive and God is fully active – it is not man who "discovers" Christ, but Christ who reveals himself to man.
While many Christians debate the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection, Christians who proclaim a substitution-based theology of atonement believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world as an atoning sin-substitute, and that his resurrection from the dead brings new life to all who have faith in him. This message, common in evangelical churches, is also considered as a form of accommodation when it is proclaimed publicly.
The Holy Spirit
The work of the Holy Spirit is as a "counselor" for the Christian person. Biblically, the Spirit lives and works inside each Christian, as well as works inside those who are in the process of coming to faith. By dwelling and working within the life of the individual, the Trinitarian God is again accommodating himself so that humanity may experience and know him.
When an individual comes to understand the message of the Gospel and the knowledge of God, it comes only because God is choosing to make that knowledge known. But since humanity is both limited in understanding and blinded by sin, it is God himself who actively makes the knowledge known to them. This knowledge is imparted directly through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In most Protestant churches, only two sacraments are recognised, Baptism and The Lord's Supper. Both have a special significance in that they were symbolic representations instituted by Jesus. In the sacraments, therefore, God is able to accommodate himself and his gospel in the sacramental actions to sinful and limited human beings. Through the corporate imbibing of the wine and the bread, God is able to commune with his people in a special and unique way – not in terms of transubstantiation, but within the participants of the whole ceremony.
Preaching of the Gospel
Through the communication of God's Word (logos and rhema) comes the message of the Gospel (euangelion). As an individual listens to Word and Gospel, God as Holy Spirit (pneuma) moves and works in people's hearts and minds. It is through the regenerative work of the Spirit that the listener is able to then respond to this message in repentance and faith. Such a concept is sometimes called monergism.
Gospel preaching, therefore, is one of the most important facets of the principle of accommodation, for in it humankind can experience God's redemptive power through the work of the Spirit. Through this monergistic activity, God is able to effectively cause people to come to faith.
It is in the preaching of the Gospel that the hearers can experience God as Trinity:
- The message, or word, is given to us by the Father.
- The message is about what the Son, Jesus, came to do.
- The message is only able to be received through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Thus preaching the Gospel is of prime concern to evangelical Christians, for it is "The power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). It explains also why many evangelical Christians view the Bible so highly – for to remove sola scriptura is to essentially remove everything we can know about God. It explains why the New Testament was written, and why churches need people to teach and build up the body of Christ. It also explains why evangelism and missionary activity was and is necessary – both by the Apostles and by the church today.
- McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.208-9.
- McGrath. op.cit. p.207-10.
- McGrath. op.cit. pp. 210-12
- McGrath. op.cit. p. 208.
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