1. Three Uses of the Term

2. The Importance of the Subject


1. Interpretation a Science

2. Scientific Accommodation


1. Allegory in Scripture

2. Hidden Truths of Scripture

3. Prophecy and its Fulfillment

4. Conclusion


1. General Principles

2. Accommodation a Feature of Progressive Revelation

3. The Limits of Revelation

4. The Outcome of Revelation

5. The Question as to Christ's Method


See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

I. Introductory.

1. Three Uses of the Term:

The term "accommodation" is used in three senses which demand careful discrimination and are worthy of separate treatment: (1) the use or application of a Scripture reference in a sense other than the obvious and literal one which lay in the mind and intent of the writer; (2) theory that a passage, according to its original intent, may have more than one meaning or application; (3) the general principle of adaptation on the part of God in His self-revelation to man's mental and spiritual capacity.

2. The Importance of the Subject:

Important issues are involved in the discussion of this subject in each of the three divisions thus naturally presented to us in the various uses of the term. These issues culminate in the supremely important principles which underlie the question of God's adaptation of His revelation to men.

II. Accommodated Application of Scripture Passages.

1. Interpretation a Science:

It is obvious that the nature of thought and of language is such as to constitute for all human writings, among which the Bible, as a document to be understood, must be placed, a science of interpretation with a definite body of laws which cannot be violated or set aside without confusion and error. This excludes the indeterminate and arbitrary exegesis of any passage It must be interpreted with precision and in accordance with recognized laws of interpretation. The first and most fundamental of these laws is that a passage is to be interpreted in accordance with the intent of the writer in so far as that can be ascertained. The obvious, literal and original meaning always has the right of way. All arbitrary twisting of a passage in order to obtain from it new and remote meanings not justified by the context is unscientific and misleading.

2. Scientific Accommodation:

There is, however, a scientific and legitimate use of the principle of accommodation. For example, it is impossible to determine beforehand that a writer's specific application of a general principle is the only one of which it is capable. A bald and literal statement of fact may involve a general principle which is capable of broad and effective application in other spheres than that originally contemplated. It is perfectly legitimate to detach a writer's statement from its context of secondary and incidental detail and give it a harmonious setting of wider application. It will be seen from this that legitimate accommodation involves two things: (1) the acceptance of the author's primary and literal meaning; (2) the extension of that meaning through the establishment of a broader context identical in principle with the original one. In the article on QUOTATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (which see) this use of the term accommodation, here treated in the most general terms, is dealt with in detail.


III. Double Reference in Scripture.

The second use of the term accommodation now emerges for discussion. Are we to infer the presence of double reference, or secondary meanings in Scripture? Here again we must distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate application of a principle. While we wisely deprecate the tendency to look upon Scripture passages as cryptic utterances, we must also recognize that many Scripture references may have more than a single application.

1. Allegory in Scripture:

We must recognize in the Scriptures the use of allegory, the peculiar quality of which, as a form of literature, is the double reference which it contains. To interpret the story of the Bramble-King (Jg 9:7-15) or the Parables of our Lord without reference to the double meanings which they involve would be as false and arbitrary as any extreme of allegorizing. The double meaning is of the essence of the literary expression. This does not mean, of course, that the poetry of the Bible, even that of the Prophets and Apocalyptic writers, is to be looked upon as allegorical. On the contrary, only that writing, whether prose or poetry, is to be interpreted in any other than its natural and obvious sense, in connection with which we have definite indications of its allegorical character. Figures of speech and poetical expressions in general, though not intended to be taken literally because they belong to the poetical form, are not to be taken as having occult references and allegorical meanings. Dr. A. B. Davidson thus characterizes the prophetic style (Old Testament Prophecy, 171; see whole chapter): "Prophecy is poetical, but it is not allegorical. The language of prophecy is real as opposed to allegorical, and poetical as opposed to real. When the prophets speak of natural objects or of lower creatures, they do not mean human things by them, or human beings, but these natural objects or creatures themselves. When Joel speaks of locusts, he means those creatures. When he speaks of the sun and moon and stars, he means those bodies." Allegory, therefore, which contains the double reference, in the sense of speaking of one thing while meaning another, is a definite and recognizable literary form with its own proper laws of interpretation.


2. Hidden Truths of Scripture:

There is progress in the understanding of Scripture. New reaches of truth are continually being brought to light. By legitimate and natural methods hidden meanings are being continually discovered.

(1) It is a well-attested fact that apart from any supernatural factor a writer sometimes speaks more wisely than he knows. He is the partially unconscious agent for the expression of a great truth, not only for his own age, but for all time. It is not often given to such a really great writer or to his age to recognize all the implications of his thought. Depths of meaning hidden both from the original writer and from earlier interpreters may be disclosed by moving historical sidelights. The element of permanent value in great literature is due to the fact that the writer utters a greater truth than can exhaustively be known in any one era. It belongs to all time.

(2) The supernatural factor which has gone to the making of Scripture insures that no one man or group of men, that not all men together, can know it exhaustively. It partakes of the inexhaustibleness of God. It is certain, therefore, that it will keep pace with the general progress of man, exhibiting new phases of meaning as it moves along the stream of history. Improved exegetical apparatus and methods, enlarged apprehensions into widening vistas of thought and knowledge, increased insight under the tutelage of the Spirit in the growing Kingdom of God, will conspire to draw up new meanings from the depths of Scripture. The thought of God in any given expression of truth can only be progressively and approximately known by human beings who begin in ignorance and must be taught what they know.

(3) The supernatural factor in revelation also implies a twofold thought in every important or fundamental statement of Scripture: the thought of God uttered through His Spirit to a man or his generation, and that same thought with reference to the coming ages and to the whole truth which is to be disclosed. Every separate item belonging to an organism of truth would naturally have a twofold reference: first, its significance alone and of itself; second, its significance with reference to the whole of which it is a part. As all great Scriptural truths are thus organically related, it follows that no one of them can be fully known apart from all the others. From which it follows also that in a process of gradual revelation where truths are given successively as men are able to receive them and where each successive truth prepares the way for others which are to follow, every earlier statement will have two ranges of meaning and application--that which is intrinsic and that which flows from its connection with the entire organism of unfolding truth which finally appears.

3. Prophecy and Its Fulfillment:

(1) The principles thus far expressed carry us a certain way toward an answer to the most important question which arises under this division of the general topic: the relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament through prophecy and its fulfillment. Four specific points of connection involving the principles of prophetic anticipation and historical realization in the career of Jesus are alleged by New Testament writers. They are of total importance, inasmuch as these four groups of interpretations involve the most important elements of the Old Testament and practically the entire New Testament interpretation of Jesus.

(2) (a) The promise made to Abraham (Ge 12:1-3; compare Ge 13:14-18; 15:1-6, etc.) and repeated in substance at intervals during the history of Israel (see Ex 6:7; Le 26:12; De 26:17-19; 29:12-13; 2Sa 7:1-29; 1Ch 17:1-27, etc.) is interpreted as having reference to the distant future and as fulfilled in Christ (see Ga 3:1-29 for example of this interpretation, especially Ga 3:14; also QUOTATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT).

(b) The Old Testament system of sacrifices is looked upon as typical and symbolic, hence, predictive and realized in the death of Christ interpreted as atonement for sin (Heb 10:1-39, etc.).

(c) References in the Old Testament to kings or a king of David's line whose advent and reign are spoken of are interpreted as definite predictions fulfilled in the advent and career of Jesus the Messiah (Ps 2:1-12; 16:1-11; 22:1-31; 110:1-7; compare Lu 1:69, etc.).

(d) The prophetic conception of the servant of Yahweh (Isa 42:1 f; Isa 44:1 f; Isa 52:13 through Isa 53:12; compare Ac 8:32-35) is interpreted as being an anticipatory description of the character and work of Jesus centering in His vicarious sin-bearing death.

(3) With the details of interpretation as involved in the specific use of Old Testament statements we are not concerned here (see QUOTATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, etc.) but only with the general principles which underlie all such uses of the Old Testament. The problem is: Can we thus interpret any passage or group of passages in the Old Testament without being guilty of what has been called "pedantic supernaturalism"; that is, of distorting Scripture by interpreting it without regard to its natural historical connections? Is the interpretation of the Old Testament Messianically legitimate or illegitimate accommodation?

(c) It is a widely accepted canon of modern interpretation that the institutions of Old Testament worship and the various messages of the prophets had an intrinsic contemporary significance.

(b) But this is not to say that its meaning and value are exhausted in that immediate contemporary application. Beyond question the prophet was a man with a message to his own age, but there is nothing incompatible, in that fact, with his having a message, the full significance of which reaches beyond ins own age, even into the far distant future. It would serve to clear the air in this whole region if it were only understood that it is precisely upon its grasp of the future that the leverage of a great message for immediate moral uplift rests. The predictive element is a vital part of the contemporary value.

(c) The material given under the preceding analysis may be dealt with as a whole on the basis of a principle fundamental to the entire Old Testament economy, namely: that each successive age in the history of Israel is dealt with on the basis of truth common to the entire movement of which the history of Israel is but a single phase. It is further to be remembered that relationship between the earlier and later parts of the Bible is one of organic and essential unity, both doctrinal and historical. By virtue of this fact the predictive element is an essential factor in the doctrines and institutions of the earlier dispensation as originally constituted and delivered, hence forming a part of its contemporary significance and value, both pointing to the future and preparing the way for it. In like manner, the element of fulfillment is an essential element of the later dispensation as the completed outcome of the movement begun long ages before. Prediction and fulfillment are essential factors in any unified movement begun, advanced and completed according to a single plan in successive periods of time. We have now but to apply this principle in general to the Old Testament material already in hand to reach definite and satisfactory conclusions.

(4) (a) The promise made to Abraham was a living message addressed directly to him in the immediate circumstances of his life upon which the delivery and acceptance of the promise made a permanent impress; but it was of vaster proportions than could be realized within the compass of a single human life; for it included himself, his posterity, and all mankind in a single circle of promised blessing. So far as the patriarch was concerned the immediate, contemporary value of the promise lay in the fact that it concerned him not alone but in relationship to the future and to mankind. A prediction was thus imbedded in the very heart of the word of God which was the object of his faith--a prediction which served to enclose his life in the plan of God for all mankind and to fasten his ambition to the service of that plan. The promise was predictive in its essence and in its contemporary meaning (see Beecher, Prophets and Promise, 213).

(b) So also it is with the Messianic King. The Kingdom as an institution in Israel is described from the beginning as the perpetual mediatorial reign of God upon earth (see Ex 19:3-6; 2Sa 7:8-16, etc.), and the King in whom the Kingdom centers is God's Son (2Sa 7:13,15) and earthly representative. In all this there is much that is immediately contemporaneous. The Kingdom and the Kingship are described in terms of the ideal and that ideal is used in every age as the ground of immediate appeal to loyalty and devotion on the part of the King. None the less the predictive element lies at the center of the representation. The very first recorded expression of the Messianic promise to David involves the prediction of unconditioned perpetuity to his house, and thus grasps the entire future. More than this, the characteristics, the functions, the dignities of the king are so described (Ps 102:1-28; Isa 9:6-7) as to make it clear that the conditions of the Kingship could be met only by an uniquely endowed person coming forth from God and exercising divine functions in a worldwide spiritual empire. Such a King being described and such a Kingdom being promised, the recipients of it, of necessity, were set to judge the present and scrutinize the future for its realization. The conception is, in its original meaning and expression, essentially predictive.

(c) Very closely allied with this conception of the Messianic King is the prophetic ideal of the Servant of Yahweh. Looked at in its original context we at once discover that it is the ideal delineation of a mediatorial service to men in behalf of Yahweh--which has a certain meaning of fulfillment in any person who exhibits the Divine character by teaching the truth and ministering to human need (for application of the term see Isa 49:5-6,7; 50:10; especially Isa 45:1). But the service is described in such exalted terms, the devotion exacted by it is so high, that, in the application of the ideal as a test to the present and to the nation at large, the mind is inevitably thrown into the future and centered upon a supremely endowed individual to come, who is by preeminence the Servant of Yahweh.

(d) The same principle may be applied with equal effectiveness to the matter of Israel's sacrificial system. In the last two instances this fact emerged: No truth and no institution can exhaustively be known until it has run a course in history. For example, the ideas embodied in the Messianic Kingship and the conception of the Servant of Yahweh could be known only in the light of history. Only in view of the actual struggles and failures of successive kings and successive generations of the people to realize such ideals could their full significance be disclosed. Moreover, only by historic process of preparation could such ideals ultimately be realized. This is preeminently true of the Old Testament sacrifices. It is clear that the New Testament conception of the significance of Old Testament sacrifice in connection with the death of Christ is based upon the belief that the idea embodied in the original institution could be fulfilled only in the voluntary sacrifice of Christ (see Heb 10:1-14). This view is justified by the facts. Dr. Davidson (op. cit., 239) holds that the predictive element in the Old Testament sacrifices lay in their imperfection. This imperfection, while inherent, could be revealed only in experience. As they gradually deepened a sense of need which they could not satisfy, more and more clearly they pointed away from themselves to that transaction which alone could realize in fact what they express in symbol. A harmony such as obtained between Old Testament sacrifice and the death of Christ could only be the result of design. It is all one movement, one fundamental operation; historically prefigured and prepared for by anticipation, and historically realized. Old Testament sacrifice was instituted both to prefigure and to prepare the way for the sacrifice of Christ in the very process of fulfilling its natural historic function in the economy of Israel.

4. Conclusion:

The total outcome of the discussion is this: the interpretation of these representative Old Testament ideas and institutions as referring to Christ and anticipating His advent is no illegitimate use of the principle of accommodation. The future reference which takes in the entire historical process which culminates in Christ lies within the immediate and original application and constitutes an essential element of its contemporary value. The original statement is in its very nature predictive and is one in doctrinal principle and historic continuity with that which forms its fulfillment.

IV. Accommodation in Revelation.

1. General Principles:

(1) It is evident that God's revelation to men must be conveyed in comprehensible terms and adjusted to the nature of the human understanding. That is clearly not a revelation which does not reveal. A disclosure of God's character and ways to men revolves the use and control of the human spirit in accordance with its constitution and laws. The doctrine of inspiration inseparable from that of revelation implies such a divine control of human faculties as to enable them, still freely working within their own normal sphere, to apprehend and interpret truth otherwise beyond their reach.

(2) The Bible teaches that in the height and depth of His being God is unsearchable. His mind and the human mind are quantitatively incommensurable. Man cannot by searching find out God. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.

(3) But, on the other hand, the Bible affirms with equal emphasis the essential qualitative kinship of the divine and the human constitutions God is spirit--man is spirit also. Man is made in the image of God and made to know God. These two principles together affirm the necessity and the possibility of revelation. Revelation, considered as an exceptional order of experience due to acts of God performed with the purpose of making Himself known in personal relationship with man, is necessary because man's finite nature needs guidance. Revelation is possible because man is capable of such guidance. The Bible affirms that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, but that they may become ours because God can utter them so that we can receive them.

(4) These two principles lead to a most important conclusion. In all discussions of the principle of accommodation it is to be remembered that the capacity of the human mind to construct does not measure its capacity to receive and appropriate. The human mind can be taught what it cannot independently discover. No teacher is limited by the capacity of his pupils to deal unaided with a subject of study. He is limited only by their capacity to follow him in his processes of thought and exposition. The determining factor in revelation, which is a true educative process, is the mind of God which stamps itself upon the kindred and plastic mind of man.

2. Accommodation a Feature of Progressive Revelation:

(1) The beginnings of revelation. Since man's experience is organically conditioned he is under the law of growth. His entire mental and spiritual life is related to his part and lot in the kingdom of organisms. The very laws of his mind reveal themselves only upon occasion in experience. While it is true that his tendencies are innate, so that he is compelled to think and to feel in certain definite ways, yet it is true that he can neither think nor feel at all except as experience presents material for thought and applies stimulus to feeling Man must bye in order to learn. He must, therefore, learn gradually. This fact conditions all revelation. Since it must deal with men it must be progressive, and since it must be progressive it must necessarily involve, in its earlier stages, the principle of accommodation. In order to gain access to man's mind it must take him where he is and link itself with his natural aptitudes and native modes of thought. Since revelation involves the endeavor to form in the mind of man the idea of God in order that a right relationship with Him may be established, it enters both the intellectual and moral life of the human race and must accommodate itself to the humble beginnings of early human experience. The chief problem of revelation seems to have been to bring these crude beginnings within the scope of a movement the aim and end of which is perfection. The application of the principle of accommodation to early human experience with a view to progress is accomplished by doing what at first thought seems to negate the very principle upon which the mental and moral life of man must permanently rest. (a) It involves the authoritative revelations of incomplete and merely tentative truths. (b) It involves also the positive enactment of rudimentary and imperfect morality.

In both these particulars Scripture has accommodated itself to crude early notions and placed the seal of authority upon principles which are outgrown and discarded within the limits of Scripture itself. But in so doing Scripture has saved the very interests it has seemed to imperil by virtue of two features of the human constitution which in themselves lay hold upon perfection and serve to bind together the crude beginnings and the mature achievements of the human race. These two principles are (c) the idea of truth; (d) the idea of obligation.

(2) It is mainly due to these two factors of human nature that any progress in truth and conduct is possible to men. What is true or right in matter of specific fact varies in the judgment of different individuals and of different ages. But the august and compelling twin convictions of truth and right, as absolute, eternal, authoritative, are present from the beginning of human history to the end of it. Scripture seizes upon the fact that these great ideas may be enforced through crude human conceptions and at very rudimentary stages of culture, and enforcing them by means of revelation and imperative law brings man to the test of truth and right and fosters his advance to larger conceptions and broader applications of both fundamental principles. Canon Mozley in discussing this principle of accommodation on its moral side, its necessity and its fruitfulness, says: "How can the law properly fulfill its object of correcting and improving the moral standard of men, unless it first maintains in obligation the standard which already exists? Those crudely delineated conceptions, which it tends ultimately to purify and raise, it must first impose" (Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, 183; compare Mt 5:17 with Mt 21:1-46,27,33).

3. The Limits of Revelation:

Since the chief end of revelation is to form the mind of man with reference to the purpose and will of God to the end that man may enter into fellowship with God, the question arises as to how far revelation will be accommodated by the limitation of its sphere. How far does it seek to form the mind and how far does it leave the mind to its own laws and to historical educative forces? Four foundation principles seem to be sufficiently clear: (a) Revelation accepts and uses at every stage of its history such materials from the common stock of human ideas as are true and of permanent worth. The superstructure of revelation rests upon a foundation of universal and fundamental human convictions. It appeals continually to the rooted instructs and regulative ideas of the human soul deeply implanted as a preparation for revelation. (b) Regard is paid in Scripture to man's nature as free and responsible. He is a rational being who must be taught through persuasion; he is a moral being who must be controlled through his conscience and will. There must be, therefore, throughout the process of revelation an element of free, spontaneous, unforced life in and through which the supernatural factors work. (c) Revelation must have reference, even in its earliest phases of development, to the organism of truth as a whole. What is actually given at any time must contribute its quota to the ultimate summing up and completion of the entire process. (d) Revelation must guard against injurious errors which trench upon essential and vital matters. In short, the consistency and integrity of the movement through which truth is brought to disclosure must sacredly be guarded; while, at the same time, since it is God and man who are coming to know each other, revelation must be set in a broad environment of human life and entrusted to the processes of history.


4. The Outcome of Revelation:

It is now our task briefly to notice how in Scripture these interests are safeguarded. We must notice (a) the principle of accommodation in general. It has often been pointed out that in every book of the Bible the inimitable physiognomy of the writer and the age is preserved; that the Biblical language with reference to Nature is the language of phenomena; that its doctrines are stated vividly, tropically, concretely and in the forms of speech natural to the age in which they were uttered; that its historical documents are, for the most part, artless annals of the ancient oriental type, that it contains comparatively little information concerning Nature or man which anticipates scientific discovery or emancipates the religious man who accepts it as a guide from going to school to Nature and human experience for such information. All this, of course, without touching upon disputed points or debated questions of fact, involves, from the point of view of the Divine mind to which all things are known, and of the human mind to which certain facts of Nature hidden in antiquity have been disclosed, the principles of accommodation. Over against this we must set certain contrasting facts:

(b) The Scripture shows a constant tendency to transcend itself and to bring the teaching of the truth to a higher level. The simple, primitive ideas and rites of the patriarchal age are succeeded by the era of organized national life with its ideal of unity and the intensified sense of national calling and destiny under the leadership of God. The national idea of church and kingdom broadens out into the universal conception and world-wide mission of Christianity. The sacrificial symbolism of the Old Testament gives way to the burning ethical realities of the Incarnate Life. The self-limitation of the Incarnation broadens out into the world-wide potencies of the era of the Spirit who uses the letter of Scripture as the instrument of His universal ministry. It is thus seen that by the progressive method through a cumulative process God has gradually transcended the limitation of His instruments while at the same time He has continuously broadened and deepened the Spirit of man to receive His self-disclosure.

(c) More than this, Scripture throughout is marked by a certain distract and unmistakable quality of timelessness. It continually urges and suggests the infinite, the eternal, the unchangeable. It is part of the task of revelation to anticipate so as to guide progress. At every stage it keeps the minds of men on the stretch with a truth that they are not able at that stage easily to apprehend. The inexhaustible vastness and the hidden fullness of truth are everywhere implied. Prophets and Apostles are continually in travail with truths brought to their own ages from afar. The great fundamental verities of Scripture are stated with uncompromising fullness and finality. There is no accommodation to human weakness or error. Its ideals, its standards, its conditions are absolute and inviolate.

Not only has Israel certain fundamental ideas which are peculiar to herself, but there has been an organizing spirit, an "unique spirit of inspiration" which has modified and transformed the materials held by her in common with her Semitic kindred. Even her inherited ideas and Institutions are transformed and infused with new meanings. We note the modification of Semitic customs, as for example in blood revenge, by which savagery has been mitigated and evil associations eliminated. We note the paucity of mythological material. If the stories of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Samson were originally mythological, they have ceased to be such in the Bible. They have been humanized and stripped of superhuman features. (See Fable,"HGHL , 220 ff.)

If we yield to the current hypothesis as to the Babylonian background of the narratives in Gen, we are still more profoundly impressed with that unique assimilative power, working in Israel, which has enabled the Biblical writers to eradicate the deep-seated polytheism of the Babylonian documents and to stamp upon them the inimitable features of their own high monotheism (see BABYLO NlA). We note the reserve of Scripture, the constant restraint exercised upon the imagination, the chastened doctrinal sobriety in the Bible references to angels and demons, in its Apocalyptic imagery, in its Messianic promises, in its doctrines of rewards and punishments. In all these particulars the Bible stands unique by contrast, not merely with popular thought, but with the extra-canonical literature of the Jewish people (see DEMON, etc.).

5. The Question as to Christ's Method:

We come at this point upon a most central and difficult problem. It is, of course, alleged that Christ adopted the attitude of concurrence, which was also one of accommodation, in popular views concerning angels and demons, etc. It is disputed whether this goes back to the essential accommodation involved in the self-limiting of the Incarnation so that as man He should share the views of His contemporaries, or whether, with wider knowledge, He accommodated Himself for pedagogical purposes to erroneous views of the untaught people about Him (see DCG , article "Accommodation"). The question is complicated by our ignorance of the facts. We cannot say that Jesus accommodated Himself to the ignorance of the populace unless we are ready to pronounce authoritatively upon the truth or falseness of the popular theory. It is not our province in this article to enter upon that discussion (see INCARNATION and KENOSIS). We can only point out that the reserve of the New Testament and the absence of all imaginative extravagance shows that if accommodation has been applied it is most strictly limited in its scope. In this it is in harmony with the entire method of Scripture, where the ignorance of men is regarded in the presentation of God's truth, while at the same time their growing minds are protected against the errors which would lead them astray from the direct path of progress into the whole truth reserved in the Divine counsel.


(a) For the first division of the subject consult standard works on Science of Interpretation and Homiletics sub loc.

(b) For second division, among others, Dr. A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy; Dr. Willis J. Beecher, Prophets and Promise.

(c) For the third division, the most helpful single work is the one quoted: Mozley, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, published by Longmans as "Old Testament Lectures."

Louis Matthews Sweet

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