Accommodation Debate of 1761-1835It has been a week since I have successfully defended my dissertation. Currently, I am making some revisions before I submit the final copy. The project itself examined the accommodation debate of 1761-1835. Graham A. Cole, speaking to the history of biblical interpretation, writes, “one of the most fertile ideas generated in such discussion is the idea of divine accommodation” (Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, 63). Urging for a renewal of the doctrine of accommodation D. A. Carson states that a “restatement of that doctrine would be salutary today” (The Gagging of God,130).

The doctrine of accommodation contends that a chasm exists between God and his creation. Despite being created in his image, man is bound by his limited mental capacity. Thus, the dilemma: how does God communicate his religion of truth to humankind which lacks comprehension?

It has been argued since the patristic age that God condescended his revelation by accommodating the needs of humankind. God uses the same strategy in the Bible as a wise teacher adapting his lesson according to the learning ability of his student. Depending on the student’s level of comprehension, the teacher can alter the method of instruction in a manner that is best suited for the circumstances. Accommodation facilitates humankind’s encounter with revelation, while maintaining the integrity of divine truth.

God’s accommodation took the form of human words situated within a specific historical setting. As with the hypostatic union, where Jesus upheld his deity while living as a human, God’s revelation encompasses divine truth in human words. The Augustinian position contended that God’s accommodation utilized the thoughts and words of man in conjunction with divine truth, which resulted in a biblical text fully inerrant and authoritative. This meant that accommodation was an act in form and manner not material and matter.

In the sixteenth century, a Socinian reconceptualization of the doctrine challenged not only the Augustinian understanding of accommodation but also biblical authority. Socinian accommodation contended that in God’s adaptation to humankind, there was the introduction and use of human error within the text. In order to communicate divine truth, God accommodated it to the erroneous thoughts of ancient Israel.

With these two definitions of accommodation, the project traces the historical debate from the seventeen–century Dutch Reformed to eighteenth–century German Lutherans. Earlier discussion of the doctrine led to the accommodation debate of 1761-1835. It was marked by the high volume of works within a relatively short period of time. This concentration of works often took the form of full monographs dedicated to the doctrine and in direct dialogue with each other.

The central contention of the debate questioned the extent to which God accommodated his revelation. A major concern was that with Socinian accommodation any doctrine could arbitrarily be deemed an accommodation to error and to have no meaning for modern Christians.

While the debate addressed many issues the existence of demons and demon possession was a repeated topic of discussion. Accounts of demon possession in the New Testament were not actual historical occurrences of demonic activity. They were merely accommodations to the erroneous belief of a spirit world due to their misdiagnosis and lack of knowledge concerning mental health issues. What would be properly identified as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder could only be addressed as demon possession.

The atonement value of Jesus’ death was also put into question. Orthodox Christianity has maintained that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for sin with a blood sacrifice. Socinian accommodationists claimed that Jesus’ death was an accommodation to the erroneous pagan ritual of blood sacrifice found in the Old Testament. Jesus’ death does not have actual atonement value, but only served as a powerful image based on pagan expectations of ancient Israel.

Also contributing to the debate was the rise of historical criticism and the partnership between the hermeneutical method and Socinian accommodation. The two formed a partnership, which outlived the eighteenth century, to become the modern use of Socinian accommodation. Previous to this partnership the doctrine could be isolated or marginalized as only one aspect of biblical interpretation. With the rise of historical criticism, and the significant role Socinian accommodation played in this rise, the doctrine reached its apex. Accommodation provided historical criticism the theological justification for a critical approach to biblical interpretation, while historical criticism provided the doctrine with exegetical validity of an accommodation to error.

Since the disappearance of the doctrine, we have only recently seen recent rejuvenation of accommdoation. Beginning with Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, the doctrine of accommodation has once again returned to play a considerable role in biblical interpretation. Despite John Woodbridge’s Critique of Rogers’ and McKim’s understanding of accommodation, the doctrine continues to be misunderstood in contemporary scholarship.

Scholars such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks show little awareness of the doctrine’s history. As with Rogers and McKim, these recent scholars confuse the Augustinian definition with the modern use of Socinian accommodation. The likes of John Chrysostom, Calvin, and Luther are used to redefine the Augustinian position as the Socinian definition found in the eighteenth century. These authors make little mention, if any at all, of the various ways the doctrine has been understood. The accommodation debate is never discussed. Nor do they relay the differences between Augustinian and Socinian accommodation. Instead, the Socinian definition is assumed as the Augustinian definition, forced upon historical figures such as the Church fathers and the reformers.

Such a study can help prevent contemporary misunderstanding of the doctrine. A discussion of the accommodation debate offers readers the lessons of those who debated the doctrine over centuries. The hope is that after examining the accommodation debate one realizes the full implications of how one defines and uses the doctrine.


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