Divine accommodation

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Divine accommodation is the doctrine that God accommodates himself to human capacity so that we may better comprehend his message. He adopts the assumptions of his audience even when these are mistaken in order to facilitate communication.[1] It follows from this that scripture may be reinterpreted as our knowledge of the natural world improves.[2] The doctrine is most closely with associated John Calvin (1509-1564), although it can also be found in the writing of earlier churchmen. The widespread acceptance of Calvin’s views by Protestants allowed them to assimilate the scientific revolution of the 16th century more readily than did Catholics.

In a commentary on Genesis, Augustine (354-430) advised Christians not to look to Scripture for answers to scientific questions:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.[3]

Instead, he hoped that Christian opinion would be based on the best scientific knowledge of the day:

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances... It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do what we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.[4]

Here Augustine may be thinking of Celsus, a pagan writer who gave a sarcastic description of the Genesis account.[5] In his own commentary on Genesis, Calvin agreed that it should not be used a scientific text:

He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.[6]

Calvin explains accommodation this way,

As it became a theologian, [Moses] had to respect us rather than the stars."[6]

John Milton (1608-1674) also argued that man’s growing knowledge of the world may require that Scripture be reinterpreted from time to time:

But yet more true it is, that God then raises to his own work men of rare abilities, and more than common industry, not only to look back and revise what hath been taught heretofore, but to gain further and to go some new enlightened steps in the discovery of truth. For such is the order of God's enlightening his church, to dispense and deal out by degrees his beam, so as our earthly eyes may best sustain it.[7]


  1. Sparks, Kenton, God’s Word in Human Words, 230–31. “Accommodation is God’s adoption in inscripturation of the human audience’s finite and fallen perspective. Its underlying conceptual assumption is that in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us."
  2. Hommel, Robert, Interpretation of Scripture. “The Bible is to be interpreted in view of the fact that it is an accommodation of Divine truths to human minds...We must be careful, then, not to push accommodating language about God and His nature to literal extremes."
  3. McGrath, Alister, Scientific Theology: Nature, p. 61.
  4. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram (the literal meaning of Genesis)
  5. Celsus wrote: “Isn't it absurd to think that the greatest God pieced out his work like a bricklayer, saying, "Today I shall do this, tomorrow that," and so on, so that he did this on the third, that on the fourth, and something else on the fifth and sixth days! We are thus not surprised to find, that like a common workman, this God wears himself down and so needs a holiday after six days." (On the True Doctrine)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Calvin, John, Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Comment on verses 1:6.
  7. Milton, John, The prose works of John Milton: with an introductory review, p. 118.

Further reading