Adapting the Biblical Discourse to Common Usage

Biblical literalism is an untenable exegetical option, as the view of the world it obliges a consistent exegete to hold is flatly contradicted by observable reality. The Earth is approximately 4600 million years old, orbits the sun and does not have a solid firmament overhead. Life on earth did not begin suddenly approximately 6000 years ago, but began over 3000 million years ago, and has been steadily diversifying since then.

The fact that the cosmological view of the Bible reflects that of the Ancient Near East (ANE) raises the possibility that God has accommodated His revelation to fit the worldview of the original audience. This concept of “Divine Accommodation” has a long pedigree in Christian Biblical interpretation, with John Calvin being one of its earliest exponents. In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin noted the incongruity of the Biblical description of waters “above the heaven”:

For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theatre which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. (Emphasis mine)1

Calvin’s first point, that the Bible is not a science text, is ignored by special creationists who insist without justification that the creation text needs to be scientifically accurate. This ignores the fact that our knowledge of the world is something of a moving target; less than one hundred years ago, there was still debate as to whether the Milky Way was the only galaxy in the universe, or whether it was one of many. Heliocentrism has been accepted for approximately 500 years, while the concept of a spherical earth was most likely unknown prior to the classical Greek era. Any ‘scientifically accurate’ model of the universe would run the risk of being incomprehensible to a pre-scientific audience, and that leads to his second point. The Bible needs to couch its message in terms that its audience understands. He continues:

Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honoured who have expended useful labour on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Emphasis mine)2

The question of how God created, or accuracy in the minutia is of secondary importance to the theological message, that God and not the false gods surrounding Israel was the creator of the universe.

Divine Accommodation is hardly foreign to Christadelphian interpreters of the Bible. The gospel narratives for example talk about demonic possession in a way that makes it clear elements of ancient Jewish society believed in the literality of demon possession, and saw them as the cause of diseases such as epilepsy and mental illnesses. What the narratives also show is that Jesus never bothered to correct the patently false belief, but accommodated it:

Mark 1:23-25 “Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out,  saying, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are— the Holy One of God!”  And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!”

Mark 5:9-13 “And He was asking him, “What is your name?” And he said to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain. The demons implored Him, saying, “Send us into the swine so that we may enter them.” Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

Demons of course do not exist, nor do they cause mental illness and epilepsy. Trying to disabuse a local population of its belief in the reality of demons would arguably be a step too much for those people to take, so Jesus accommodated this pre-scientific viewpoint. In fact, in Mark 2, Jesus explicitly pointed out that sometimes one needs to accommodate human limitations:

Mark 2:8-9 Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’”

The application to Genesis should be clear – it is easier to tell a pre-scientific audience that God created the world as they saw it, rather than strive for scientific accuracy.

Divine accommodation to human limitations is uncontroversial in the Christadelphian world with respect to explaining why the Gospel account treats demon possession as a reality. It also has a long, but lesser-known tradition with respect to Genesis. C.C. Walker, the second editor of The Christadelphian, replied to a correspondent who claimed (based on a literal reading of the Bible) that the Earth was flat and believing that the Earth was spherical meant denying inspiration:

Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). (Emphasis mine)3

Here we have Calvin’s concept of Divine accommodation, as well as proof that for at least the first 50 years of the formal existence of the Christdelphian community, Biblical literalism and YEC were the exception, rather than the rule.

Conclusion

Special creationists, to varying degrees, are not consistent in their Biblical literalism as they attempt to evade the fact that the Bible reflects the pre-scientific view of the world current four millennia ago. For those who believe in an inerrant Bible, the implication of scientific error in the Bible may appear threatening, hence the desperate attempt to deny the fact that a solid firmament and geocentrism really are in the Bible.

The existence of a pre-scientific cosmology in the OT should however be no more threatening than the existence of a belief in demon possession as a cause of disease in the NT era in parts of Israel. What we see, as Calvin and C.C. Walker point out is that the Bible was given to people who were not scientifically literate, and therefore was intended not to provide scientifically accurate information that the people of Israel would not understand, but rather to point out that God was the creator of the universe.

By recognising the reality of Divine accommodation of human limitation in the Bible, much of the desperate and futile battle to harmonise Bible and science, or deny the reality of modern biology, astronomy and geology in order to privilege an inconsistent literal reading of the Bible can be seen for what it is, a completely unnecessary battle.

  1. Calvin J “Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis” (Trans. John King 1847) Vol 1 p 80 []
  2. bid, p 87 []
  3. Walker C.C. “Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?” The Christadelphian (1913) 50:346-348 []

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