Limits of Accommodation

I was trying to comment on Randy’s post regarding Bruce Waltke , but it didn’t let me click the Reply link. I think a new post would be better anyway.

Like others, I think it is a sad situation. But Randy asked several questions, among them: “Should our faith commitment ever be allowed to limit the honest pursuit and discussion of academic research, particularly scientific results? How can we reconcile academic freedom and unrestricted scientific inquiry with our faith? On one hand, if our statement of faith makes no reference to physical reality, then of what relevance is it? On the other hand, if our statement of faith dictates a description of reality, how can we avoid setting up a test of faith through scientific observation?” and, “What do we do when there is honest conflict?”

I have been thinking about the principle of accommodation, which is held by many to be a more appropriate explanation of early Genesis than concordism. That is, God accommodated his truth to the pre-existing knowledge, culture, bias, and worldview of the audience in order to convey spiritual truth; yet the words if taken literally by modern historical and scientific standards may not be strictly true. I agree that there is value in this point of view, but what are the limits of accommodation?

What if some highly respected Biblical scholar had come out with the following: “The historical evidence is overwhelmingly against the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus being actual facts of history. If the church continues to deny this, it will be denying God’s truth that is evident in the world, and runs the risk of becoming an odd cult, believing myth as if it were fact. Rather than a concordist explanation of holding the virgin birth and the resurrection to be facts of history as the text seems to say, a better explanation is accommodation. For many centuries before the alleged birth of Christ, ancient cultures from Babylon to Egypt and elsewhere had beliefs in a divinely born mythological deity, who died and was raised again from the dead. God’s revelation in the Bible used those pre-existing cultural understandings held by first century Jews and their contemporaries in order to teach a theological message of God’s love, His concern for mankind, and the need for mankind to come to God for salvation. The Church can, and should, begin to embrace this as the theological message of the New Testament, without requiring acceptance of a literal, historical Jesus to have been actual fact.”

First, in the context of Waltke’s situation, would Christian theological universities be justified in letting someone go for their willingness to engage in “freedom of academic inquiry” to this level? I think we could probably all agree that they would be justified in letting someone go who doesn’t accept the historical fact of Jesus Christ. If they are justified in this instance but not in the instance of Waltke, where do you draw the line?

I realize there are some good evidences and inferences that can be given for the literal existence of Jesus Christ in the first century, but I’m making the argument by means of suggesting, what if the evidence weren’t compelling? How much evidence does it take to be compelling? Would we still believe what the Bible says about Jesus *literally* regardless of the amount of evidence?

Many Christians in science, particular among the ASA, are quite comfortable accepting accommodation as a true principle when it comes to geology, astronomy, and biology. We are happy to say that the Bible wasn’t meant to teach “how the heavens go”, only “how to go to heaven”. When it comes to Adam, some argue that even Paul’s message about “one man, Adam” doesn’t need to be taken literally, but can be applied to mankind in general, and can be accommodated to include evolutionary development through a group of 1000 hominids instead of a couple. But when it comes to Jesus (unless we’re into extreme process theology) we believe that the Bible must be taken essentially literally as both a historical truth and theological message. If the Bible’s message of man’s sin is predicated on sin coming through a literal man, Adam, how can that be explained away through accommodation (based on scientific fact) as simply theological, not actual; but not in the case of salvation from that sin?

It is easy to see how young-earth creationists and others are concerned about the slippery slope of this type of argument. So what are the limits of the principle of accommodation?

Jon Tandy

10 comments to Limits of Accommodation

  • Seymour Garte

    I have very recently joined the ASA, and this is my first comment on an ASA blog, I therefore ask the indulgence of all who might read it. I believe that the question raised by Jon Tandy is profound and of critical importance, especially to scientists who are devoted to the message and worship of Christ. I believe this because I have had these sort of interactions with both YECs and atheists, where this issue was clearly behind many of the philosophical points of disagreement. The slippery slope argument of the YECs is a difficult one to counter. At the same time, when one admits that a Genesis day could have meant a much longer period of time, the atheist will demand to know why the resurrection account should not be similarly considered in an allegorical or accommodating context.
    I neither know the answer, nor do I know that there exists any single answer to the question of where does one draw the line. I personally draw the line at the New Testament. My faith includes belief in the literal truth of the Gospels and the testimony of the apostles. When asked how, as a scientist, I can admit to the occurrence of a virgin birth or a resurrection, I am comfortable answering that my faith includes a belief that natural law is  God’s law, and that the Creator has license to alter His laws in order to express His love for mankind. As has happened repeatedly, not only with the coming of the Messiah, but even during my own lifetime, and in my own life.
    While the Old Testament plays a fundamental role in setting the foundation for Christ’s arrival on Earth, to me there is more room for accommodation in many instances when interpreting these books. Perhaps I believe this because of the greater age, especially of the oldest books. The fact that a good deal of the Old Testament appears to be the historical record of the Hebrews, also allows me to think of some books (like Joshua) as being written for purposes more local and set in contemporary time. Finally, the book of Genesis is quite remarkable, because despite its age, it is incredibly consonant with our current understanding of origins (in fact, science has finally caught up to Genesis in many ways). When one compares the origin story in Genesis to that of various mythologies and other faiths, it shines as being truly unique as a narrative that comes so close to what we have learned from scientific investigation. The degree of accomadation we must make to interpret the word of these early books, is, to me at least, far less than one might expect, especially if one considers other contemporary (and even much later ) ideas of origins. This gives one a sense of confidence that the Holy Bible was in fact inspired by the word of God, and that the hand of man, working so many millennia ago, did in fact a remarkable job in getting so much of it right.     

  • Wayne Dawson

    Maybe this is like what we scientists have to ask ourselves when we operate on a hunch or intuition.  I don’t think most scientific and engineering progress happens solely by refining existing ideas to the ever more razor fine details.  Rather, it requires at least a minimum of finite leaps of creativity to make progress in the respective fields.  If scientists, engineers and mathematicians always insisted on having all the facts together before they tried anything, there would be hardly any progress at all, I suspect.  Yes, sometimes we do get it wrong, but that’s what the word “experience” means.
    The same would have to apply to the issue of “accommodation”.  When we’re faced with cognitive dissonance, especially matters where the science/engineering and a literal reading of scripture from an early 21st century vantage point come into conflict, our engineering/science attitudes force us to make a choice.  Some people chose the razor fine literalist path (sometimes trying to squeeze blood out of turnip), and some reach for intuition (sometimes falling down the slippery slope in the process).
    With the issue of the age of the earth, the razor fine approach of sticking to a 6000 year old earth is not working as far as I can tell.  It becomes a hopeless race of putting out an exponential growth in fires.  It’s like balancing an inverted pyramid.  Moreover, it doesn’t appear necessary to hang on to such a viewpoint to believe in God or to accept Jesus as Lord and savior.  In fact, it is a barrier to many serious scientists (at least).  Therefore, I would reason that using accommodation in such an instance is far more reasonable than trying to force an interpretation that seems impossible to reconcile with reality. Maybe some people will holler that if the Bible isn’t a book of pure facts, then it cannot be believed at all. Yet every measurement has tolerances. We cannot expect to produce micro-machinery with a hand drill, chisels and pliers or nanometer scale lithography with a power saw. Why should we expect a creation account in the Bible to speak modern science?
    Moreover, I don’t think enough can be said about the power of suggestion were the Bible to be this simple-minded book of facts we demand of science and engineering textbooks.  I think the first question I would ask is what is God trying to prove?  If we are supposed to find these things out, why would we find a bible written like a textbook?
    On the flip side, accommodation could be taken to the other extreme. For example, because we cannot explain a resurrection, therefore there wasn’t one.  Maybe it is God’s job to decide if people who insist on that are really Christian or not, but that conclusion is hardly consistent with the Apostle’s creed. It is a fundamental tenant of the Christian faith and was decided upon in the early years of the Church when they struggled with the question “who was Jesus?”.  The current form is later than the first century, but it has certainly been the central question of our faith.  Moreover, proclaiming that there was no resurrection would challenge our hope in salvation. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, our hope is in vain.  That is a risk we have to take in believing it.  We could be wrong.  That is why it is called “faith”.  When pressed to show it, of course I cannot.  Yet without it, the human race is almost without hope.
    Consider that Buddhists also share a common view with us that there is something meaningful and purposeful in life, that there are laws that can be broken.  Do they get that from engineering and science?  They have their enlightened folk also. I guess they are accepting “accommodation” in the history of their beliefs as well.  
    Perhaps the main difference then, is that, when we accept accommodation, we are also accepting that we don’t have all the answers and we cannot use the Bible as a club to split heads.  Maybe that is also intentional on God’s part.  We actually have to love those we differ with, not bludgeon them with our big black book.
    So I would say that it is an individual matter where we draw the line on accommodation and where we must adhere to a creed.  It is also important to weigh the cost of assuming a literal reading as opposed to a more flexible reading.  If I had to go on in faith accepting a 6000 year old earth, it would quickly strain my sanity.  Accepting that the early church concluded that Jesus rose from the dead and making that a part of my beliefs does nothing similar.  It is one miracle, one instance.  It would be a far greater price to pay to deny the resurrection than to just accept these conclusions of the early Church and wait for a final answer when we meet him.  If the atheists are really right, well, I cannot say I have done a lot of harm to do my own part to make the world better.  It’s not me, but it is Christ who lives in me that makes me want to live a righteous and purposeful life.  That seems like more than enough reason to go on in faith for me.
    By Grace we proceed,

  • Jon Tandy

    Thanks Wayne.  Just to make it clear, I’m not in any way suggesting that the resurrection or the virgin birth need to be considered accommodations rather than literal fact.  I was just using them as extreme examples to make a point.

    My thoughts on this subject have been formulating for some time, but especially after listening to one or two lectures from the last ASA meeting, where accommodation was suggested in the matter of Adam, something like: “Paul’s and others’ statements in the New Testament about Adam being a literal and the first man were truly believed by them to be the fact, but we now know better from science; therefore, we should consider these merely first century accommodations and move on.” 

    I surely know all the difficult and thorny problems surrounding this subject, and I’m not in favor of considering such a position heresy; however, it got me thinking, and thus I posed the question to stimulate discussion.  I also know that some process theologians take a position somewhere between the above statement and full rejection of a literal virgin birth and resurrection, so it isn’t merely hypothetical.

  • Bernie Dehler

    Jon wrote:

    My thoughts on this subject have been formulating for some time, but especially after listening to one or two lectures from the last ASA meeting, where accommodation was suggested in the matter of Adam, something like: “Paul’s and others’ statements in the New Testament about Adam being a literal and the first man were truly believed by them to be the fact, but we now know better from science; therefore, we should consider these merely first century accommodations and move on.”

    The other day I was listening to Christian radio and it mentioned Jesus’ teaching… this passage:

    Luke 17:
    26″Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
    28″It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
    30″It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.

    Here’s the problem.  I think Denis Lamoureux and I would agree there was no worldwide flood and Noah’s Ark where a character named Noah saves the animals from extinction, including the birds.  We know from science that there was no (YEC) worldwide (global) flood, because of the testimony of the Earth (tree rings, varves, ice samples, radiometric dating, etc.).  We also know that a local flood makes no sense (there’s no sense in saving birds since they could all easily fly to higher ground to avoid a flood; people could also just as easily move to higher ground rather than go through the incredible pain and hassle of building a boat to escape as well as caring and feeding a bunch of animals).

    But here we have Jesus talking as though Noah was a real person and the flood was a real event.  If Jesus were here today, we’d ask “why would you say this knowing that the readers in our modern age would know that there was no worldwide flood?”  The accommodation hermeneutic assumes it is important for Jesus to teach the ancient listeners according to their understandings, but Jesus forgot about modern listeners?  This is a HUGE problem for accommodation, but the alternatives are even worse (accepting the worldwide flood as a YEC or a local flood as a OEC).  So it seems to me like the ‘accommodation hermeneutic’ is the best one available for evangelicals today… or else which hermeneutic would be better?  Certainly not YEC or OEC.  So I think it is YEC vs. OEC vs. TE (EC) accommodation.

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Jon Tandy


    I agree that accommodation is important, simply because we have to face the facts as we find them.  Now, it could turn out that modern science is wrong, and eventually data will be uncovered that provides incontrovertible evidence of a worldwide flood, etc., though history and current evidence are against it.

    I will say that the argument that “a local flood makes no sense” doesn’t really work.  That’s a judgment call you can definitely make, but what is the point in saying “God could have saved them in this way isntead of that”?  The answer is, yes He could have done a lot of things differently.  But if there are compelling reasons to believe the account as written, then I certainly would give due consideration to accepting it as such.  If it’s necessary to suggest accommodation, my feeling is to use it sparingly when necessary.  We could suggest that the entire recorded history of Israel up to king David was an accommodation, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to do this.

    In answer to Seymour’s comment, I think Bernie’s example gives pause to the idea of drawing the line on accommodation between the Old Testament and the New.  I think there are definitely examples where the New Testament writers were still operating under the assumption of an Ancient Near East or possibly later cosmology, and those may at least require some accommodation to understand rather than face-value literalism. 

    My original point didn’t rule this out, but rather asked where does it stop, and still be considered a belief that is faithful to Christian orthodoxy.  If someone can dismiss a literal “Adam as real person and origin of sin” through accommodation, then what’s to stop someone else from accepting a “non-literal Christ (or virgin-birth, or resurrection)” accommodation of redemption history?

    Is it based solely on evidence?  (I believe there are independent evidences of Christ’s real existence, and logical inferences that support the resurrection as a real event.)  Is it based on faith?  (I don’t think any empirical evidence can prove the virgin birth, but there is no logical reason to deny it, if one can allow the possibility of God being able to act in that way.)  If based on faith, then where does rational faith stop and irrational faith begin?  (i.e. believing things must have been so, despite a small or maybe a mountain of direct evidence against it)


  • Bernie Dehler

    Jon said:

    “Now, it could turn out that modern science is wrong, and eventually data will be uncovered that provides incontrovertible evidence of a worldwide flood, etc., though history and current evidence are against it.”

    I think the probability for the scientific community to change its mind and accept a worldwide flood would be about the same if they abandoned the heliocentric model for the solar system and went back to a geocentric model.  How can we go back when the ancients had their scientific belief because of a lack of scientific knowledge?  Since we have more facts at our disposal and therefore reject ancient science, I don’t see how we could go back.

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Paul Seely

    The question of the limits of accommodation is an old and frequent question especially since the strict absolute inerrantist  view has a rationalistic epistemology (cf philosophical idealism) so that if one part fails to dovetail with the rest, all is lost. This view dictates to empirical reality rather than being subject to empirical testing as Scripture’s epistemology demands: “Test all things” (IThess 5:21), which goes back to testing whether an alleged revelation about the empirical world is really a divine revelation or just human imagination (Deut 18: 21, 22).
    When it comes to the history (and science) in Gen 1-11, Deut 18:21, 22 must be applied. That is, some “prophet” (which is what “conservative” theologians are in principle) comes telling us that the history (and science) in the Bible is a revelation from God. Well, is it? If you apply Deut 18:21, 22, the empirical data as interpreted by qualified humans, that is, the data of  geology, archeology, and anthropology repeatedly show that this “history-science“ is not reliable. According to the teaching of Deut 18:21, 22 (1Thess 5:21), this means this history-science in Gen 1-11 is not a revelation from God. Ergo, it must be a divine accommodation. And the literature of the ANE confirms this by showing that the history-science in Gen 1-11 is a revision of ANE traditions and motifs. The theology of these chapters is very different from that in the ANE in that it is monotheistic with the implications of monotheism, which suggests it is the theology which is the divine revelation.
    In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, there is no data from archeology or any other science which disproves the Gospel claims that it is an historical event. Further , the Holy Spirit so employs this message in the lives of those willing to do the truth, that its truth is subjectively sealed. Naturalism will complain, but naturalism is an autonomous presupposition, not a scientifically proven philosophy. There are in the ANE and NT times stories of gods that rose from the dead, from Dumuzi in Sumerian literature to Osiris in Egyptian literature. But, these gods are very different from Jesus: They have no historical foundation, no time of birth, no datable lives on earth, no eye-witnesses. They are myths from beginning to end. The virgin birth is similar. I would recommend, Gresham Machen’s The Virgin Birth and Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eye Witnesses.
    Empirical evidence thus sets one boundary for what is and what is not accommodation. This still leaves questions, which I would refer to the teachings (not human assumptions) of Jesus, as a canon within the canon. And we must realize we have no need to solve every problem. There will always be some mystery, just like there is in life in general. We must always trust God.  He is our Rock. As for the “slippery slope,” Jesus set it forth years ago when he taught that the law on divorce in Deut 24 (Matt 19; Mark 10) was an accommodation to human sinfulness. Calvin rightly concluded that some of the OT laws about slavery were also accommodations to human sinfulness.  So, the “slippery slope” is inevitable if one is a follower of Jesus. For, if we cannot trust the inspired word of God to always be morally inerrant and not an accommodation to human sinfulness, then we are on the “slippery slope” regardless of Scripture’s accommodation to ancient historical traditions and “science.” And if the morals in Scripture are not always inerrant, why would we expect the history and science to be so?
    Certainty about Christian doctrine is based in Scripture on the response of the heart and will of humans to the will of God (John 7:17). It is not based on a rationalistic foundation. Christians not only can freely affirm divine accommodation in Scripture, those familiar with the scientific data must, in the light of Deut 18:21, 22 and 1Thess 5:21, affirm it with regard to Gen 1-11.

  • Bernie Dehler

    Paul said:
    “Certainty about Christian doctrine is based in Scripture on the response of the heart and will of humans to the will of God (John 7:17). It is not based on a rationalistic foundation.”

    It depends on specifically which doctrines you are referring to.  You can’t reasonably make a blanket statement like that.  For example, the traditional doctrine of Adam and Eve bringing death into the world because of their first sin has been disproven by science, I think we both agree (old earthers and evolutionary creationists would reject this origin explanation for death).

    When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, I agree that goes beyond science. They are just claims that are either believed or rejected. There is no way to cross-examine the witnesses today. For example, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus appeared to over 500 at one time. Who were they, where was it, when was it, etc.? It couldn’t be checked if you wanted to. Did Jesus even live? That is possible to research. Did he rise from the dead? That’s impossible to check. I’ve heard some people even in modern times get visits from Jesus personally… but they don’t seem to be believed (I remember a woman from my old church claim it)…

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Paul Seely

    Yes, the resurrection of Jesus goes beyond science; but I am not sure what you are saying, and I want to make it clear that this does not imply that it is “just claims” which are arbitrarily believed or only subjectively based. Paul’s list of witnesses as well as those mentioned in the Gospel accounts constitute empirical historical evidence. There is a strong emphasis especially in Acts upon their being eye-witness accounts. Like all history and especially ancient history, probability is all they can give; but, this is enough to save Christianity from being a merely subjective religion. Gary Habermas debated the (at that time) atheist Antony Flew on the evidence for the resurrection, and won the debate according to an academically neutral body of judges (See Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, ed. Terry L. Miethe; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003). Yet certainty only comes via a personal decision to follow the teaching of Jesus and walk with God.

  • Bernie Dehler

    Paul said:
    “Paul’s list of witnesses as well as those mentioned in the Gospel accounts constitute empirical historical evidence.”

    Sure, it is evidence.  But once evidence is admitted into a court of law, it has to be evaluated as to if it is significant.  The Apostle Paul’s claim (1 Cor. 15:6) that over 500 saw Jesus at one time can in no way be checked because it is so vague.  It doesn’t say who, when, where, etc.

    (Friend of the ASA)

April 2010
« Mar   May »

Email Notifications for Posts