CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS: What Is Accommodation Theory?

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In apologetics, accommodation theory can refer to either of two views, one acceptable and one objectionable to evangelical Christians. It can refer to God’s accommodation of his revelation to our finite circumstances to communicate with us, as in Scripture or the incarnation of Christ (see Bible, Evidence for; Calvin, John; Christ, Deity of). Both of these are forms of divine self-limiting accommodation in order to communicate with finite creatures.

Negative critics of the Bible (see Bible Criticism) believe that Jesus accommodated himself to the erroneous views of the Jews of his day in their view of Scripture as inspired and infallible (see Bible, Jesus’ View of). Orthodox scholars reject this form of accommodation.

Two Kinds of Accommodation. Legitimate accommodation can be more accurately called “adaptation.” God, because of infinitude, adapts himself to our finite understanding in order to reveal himself. However, the God who is truth never accommodates himself to human error. The vital differences are easily seen when these concepts are compared:

Adaptation

Accommodation

Adaptation to finite understanding

Accommodation to finite error

Finitude

Sinfulness

Partial truths

Actual errors

Disclosed truth in human language

Disguised truth in human language

Condescension with truth

Compromise with truth

Anthropomorphisms necessary

Myths necessary

God’s nature revealed

God’s activity revealed

What really is

What seems to be

The Bible teaches the transcendence of God. His ways and thoughts are far beyond ours (Isa. 55:9; Rom. 11:33). Human beings are infinitesimal in view of God’s infinity. God must “stoop down” in order to speak to us. However, this divine act of adaptation to our finitude never involves accommodation to our error. For God cannot err (Heb. 6:18). God uses anthropomorphisms (a true expression of who God is that is couched in human terms) to speak to us, but he does not use myths. He sometimes gives us only part of the truth but that partial truth is never error (1 Cor. 13:12). He reveals himself progressively, but never erroneously (see Progressive Revelation). He does not always tells us all, but all that he tells us is true.

Jesus and Accommodation. It is well known that Jesus expressed a high view of Scripture in the New Testament (see Bible, Jesus’ View of). He accepted the divine authority (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10), imperishability (Matt. 5:17–18), divine inspiration (Matt. 22:43), unbreakability (John 10:35), supremacy (Matt. 15:3, 6), inerrancy (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17), historical reliability (Matt. 12:40; 24:37–38), and scientific accuracy (Matt. 19:4–5). To avoid the conclusion that Jesus was actually affirming all this to be true, some critics insist that he was merely accommodating himself to the accepted Jewish belief of the day without attempting to debunk their views. These erroneous views were a starting point for what he wanted to teach about more important matters of morality and theology.

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Accommodation Contrary to Jesus’ Life. Everything that is known about Jesus’ life and teaching reveals that he never accommodated to the false teaching of the day. On the contrary, Jesus rebuked those who accepted Jewish teaching that contradicted the Bible, declaring: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt. 15:3, 6b).

Jesus corrected false views about the Bible. For instance, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirmed emphatically: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:21–22). This or the similar formula of “It has been said.… But I say unto you …” is repeated in following verses (cf. Matt. 5:23–43).

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He rebuked the famous Jewish teacher Nicodemus: “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:10). This is far from accommodating his false views. He even rebuked Nicodemus for not understanding empirical things, saying, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Speaking specifically about their erroneous view of Scripture Jesus told the Sadducees bluntly, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29).

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Jesus’ denunciations of the Pharisees were scarcely accommodating. “Woe to you, blind guides!… Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:16–33).

Jesus went so far from accommodating to the false beliefs and practices in the temple that “he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’ ” (John 2:15–16).

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Even Jesus’ enemies recognized that he would not compromise. The Pharisees said: “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are” (Matt. 22:16). Nothing in the Gospel record indicates that Jesus accommodated to accepted error on any topic.

Accommodation Contrary to Jesus’ Character. From a purely human standpoint, Jesus was known as a man of high moral character. His closest friends found him impeccable (1 John 3:3; 4:17; 1 Peter 1:19). The crowds were amazed at his teaching “because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:29).

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Pilate examined Jesus and declared, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4). The Roman soldier crucifying Jesus exclaimed, “Surely, this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). Even unbelievers have paid high tribute to Christ. Ernest Renan, the French atheist, declared about Jesus: “his perfect idealism is the highest rule of the unblemished and virtuous life” (Renan, 383). Renan also wrote, “Let us place, then, the person of Jesus at the highest summit of human greatness” (ibid., 386) and “Jesus remains an inexhaustible principle of moral regeneration for humanity” (ibid., 388).

From a biblical point of view, Jesus was the Son of God and as such could not deceive. For God “does not lie” (Titus 1:2). Indeed, “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). His “word is truth” (John 17:17). “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Whatever divine self-limitation is necessary in order to communicate with human beings, there is no error, for God cannot err. It is contrary to his very nature.

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An Objection Answered. Admittedly, God adapts to human limitations to communicate with us. Indeed, Jesus, who was God, was also a human being. As a human being he was limited in his knowledge. This is borne out by several passages of Scripture. First, as a child “he grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Even as an adult he had certain limitations on his knowledge. According to Matthew, Jesus did not know what was on the fig tree before he got to it (Matt. 21:19). Jesus said he did not know the time of his second coming: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36, emphasis added).

However, despite the limitations on Jesus’ human knowledge, limits on understanding differ from misunderstanding. The fact that he did not know some things as man does not mean he was wrong in what he did know. It is one thing to say Jesus did not know as a man the J-E-P-D theory of the authorship of the Law. But it is quite another to say Jesus was wrong when he affirmed that David wrote Psalm 110 (Matt. 22:43), that Moses wrote the Law (Luke 24:27; John 7:19, 23), or that Daniel wrote a prophecy (Matt. 24:15; see Bible, Jesus’ View of). Jesus’ limitations on things he did not know as a man did not hinder him from affirming truly the things he did know (see Pentateuch, Mosaic Authorship of; Prophecy, as Proof of the Bible).

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What Jesus did know he taught with divine authority. He said to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). He taught with emphasis. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said twenty-five times “Truly, truly …” (John 3:3, 5, 11). Indeed, he claimed his words were on the level of God’s, declaring, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). What is more, Jesus taught only what the Father told him to teach. He said, “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28b). He added, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). So to charge Jesus with error is to charge God the Father with error, since he spoke only what the Father told him.

Summary. There is no evidence that Jesus ever accommodated himself to human error in anything he taught. Nor is there any indication that his self-limitation in the incarnation resulted in error. He never taught anything in the areas in which the incarnation limited him as a man. And what he did teach, he affirmed with the authority of the Father, having all authority in heaven and earth.

Sources

“Accommodation,” ISBE

  1. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, chapter 18
  2. Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus
  3. John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible
  4. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).

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