How much accommodation is too much?

In certain evangelical (and now Reformed) circles there has been a sea change in the way Scripture is viewed.  No longer do stout defences of plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy run off the presses.  Instead we are confronted with “the messiness of the Old Testament”, “the synoptic problem” and the need to “advance beyond the old liberal/orthodox impasse” etc.  In other words, the new doctrine of Scripture allows for the Bible to be shot through with historical errors and for certain portions to be “myth”.  Ultimately where this takes us is that, for example, the account of creation in Genesis has as much relevance to actual events asThe Silmarillion

This, you would think, would be an uncomfortable position to be in.  Apparently not.  For Scripture is still “the Word of God” and all this historical inaccuracy and “myth” is ok because that is how God wanted Scripture to be.  And, actually, Reformed doctrine has always pointed in this direction by speaking of the “accommodated” nature of revelation.  In Scripture, then, God has accommodated himself to man by revealing himself in ways that are “messy” i.e. incorporating human myths in the Bible.  To speak of errors in the Bible and myths is therefore standard Reformed doctrine – it is simply applying the doctrine of accommodated revelation faithfully.

The trouble for this new view is that Reformed theologians have reflected on the “accommodated” nature of revelation and defined tightly what this means and what it does not mean.  A classic example is the outstanding Scottish Biblical theologian Patrick Fairbairn (1805-74).  Fairbairn has a chapter in his Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament (Rept. Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005) entitled “Of False and True Accommodation; or the Influence that should be allowed to Prevailing Modes of Thought in fashioning the views and utterances of the Sacred Writers”.  I’d like to offer some reflections on his chapter to highlight how Reformed theology has understood the “accommodation” of Scripture.

A history lesson

Fairbairn begins by defining what he is seeking to discuss “In what relations did the sacred writers stand to the spirit of their age – to its prevailing modes of thought and popular beliefs.  Were they in any material respect modified by these?  Or did they pursue an altogether independent course – never bending in aught under the prevailing current, if this at all deviated from the exact and natural line of things?  Or, if they did to some extent accommodate themselves to this, how far might we expect accommodation to go?” (89).

Following from this we get a history lesson.  It is always encouraging to see exegetical theologians who are historically self aware.  Fairbairn discusses briefly the views of the early Church on “accommodation” before noting “It was reserved for modern times to apply the principle of accommodation to the teachings of Scripture in a full and proper sense, and to represent Christ himself and the apostles as pandering to mistaken views and narrow prejudices of their time.” (90).  Fairbairn highlights Wetstein’s work on New Testament interpretation (1724) as articulating a full doctrine of accommodation in arguing that the authors of Scripture should be read “as not always expressing their own opinion … but occasionally also expressing themselves according to the sentiment of others, or the sometimes ambiguous, sometimes erroneous, opinions of the multitude.” (90-1).  Thus some portions of Scripture are simply speaking ex vulgari opinione and not divine truth.  Fairbairn traces the historical outworking of this view of accommodation: “The door was thus fairly open for exegetical licence… By degrees everything was reduced to a subjective standard; and if in anything an interpreter found statements recorded, or doctrines taught, which did not accord with his notions of the truth of things, the explanation was at hand, that such things had found a place in Scripture merely on a principle of accommodation; the people were capable of appreciating nothing higher, or the writers themselves as yet understood no better.  And so … the proper teaching of the Gospel came to be reduced to the scanty form of a Sadducean creed.  The doctrines of the Trinity, of the Divine Sonship of Messiah, of the atonement, of the personality of the Spirit, of a corporeal resurrection and a final judgement, have all been swept away … as merely a mode of speech suited to the time of its appearance.” (91-2).

Steady on I wouldn’t go that far

Fairbairn then moves from what had been historically “the practical result of the accommodation theory” to consider those who stop short of totally evacuating revelation of any meaning.  So, for example, those who apply accommodation to “historical” and “chronological” errors in the Bible and also to “exegetical errors, or false interpretations of several passages of the Old Testament, which were erroneously supposed to contain what the words did not really indicate” which could be explained away by the New Testament authors accommodating themselves to a “Rabbinical style” (92-3).  Fairbairn rejects even this truncated view of accommodation, arguing “We hold it, therefore, to be contrary to any right views of the mission of Christ and his apostles, to suppose, that they in such a sense accommodated themselves to the modes of thought and contemplation around them, as to admit error into their instructions – whether in respect to the interpretation of Scripture, or in respect to forms of opinion and articles of belief.” (94).

But there is some room for accommodation

While rejecting any accommodation with respect to the “matter” of Scripture, Fairbairn is content to allow us to speak of accommodation as regards the “form” of Scripture.  Fairbairn defines this kind of accommodation as “falling in with prevalent modes of thought or forms of conception, so as, not to lend countenance to error, but to serve for the better apprehension of the truth.”

One example of this kind of accommodation is speaking of God having eyes and hands.  Such forms of speech are fitted to teach us truth but are accommodated to our weakness rather than expressive of a literal reality. (95-7).  Another example of accommodation is the expression and modes of speech Scripture uses which may not appear at first sight compatible with our usage.  Fairbairn gives an example of this in the genealogies where “X begot Y” does not necessarily indicate a father son relationship.  He also applies this principle to Stephen’s statements in Acts 7:15-6.  Realising that certain forms of expression were incorporated into Scripture in a manner consistent with their historical usage at the time can help us understand passages which might at first sight appear contradictory to us today.

But we must be careful for it is “to be borne in mind … that the accommodation has respect merely to the form and manner in which statements are made, not to the substance of the truth therein communicated; – its whole object is to render the truth mode distinctly comprehensible, or to give it greater force and prominence to the mind.” (102).


Accommodation in Reformed theology relates to the “form” of revelation only and not the “content”.  The “problems” and “messiness” of Scripture have themselves long ago received adequate answers e.g. many of the points that modern Evangelicals bring up as “problems” in the Bible receive discussion in Matthew Poole’s 17th C commentary on the Bible.  What is called for is a robust articulation of the old doctrine of infallibility and inerrency in modern and accessible ways and not recasting of old doctrine.

2 Responses to “How much accommodation is too much?”

  1. The Reformed Doctrine of Accomodation « Leviticus and Stuff Says:

    […] in their own words, but they were not free to deviate from the content revelation from God. At James Durham Thesis, he develops this with regard to the drift among some evangelical and reformed scholars to use […]

  2. Ben Dahlvang Says:

    Thanks for these words.

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