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Greek Philosophical and Theological Usages (§ 1).
Required by Ethics (§ 2).
Negative Accommodation (§ 3).
Positive Accommodation (§ 4).
Modern Theory of Accommodation (§ 5).
Untenableness of the Theory (§ 6).
When Accommodation is Admissible (§ 7).
Accommodation and the New Testament (§ 8).
Controversy in the Roman Catholic Church (§ 9).
1. Greek Philosophical and Theological Usages.
The word “Accommodation” is used in theology in two senses: (1) the wider, that of a general ethical conception; and (2) the narrower, by certain writers of the latter half of the eighteenth century, in reference to a particular method of Biblical exegesis. The ethical reserve denoted by this term was known to the Greek philosophers as synkatabasis, and the same word is used by the Greek Fathers for that method of teaching which adapts itself to the needs or to the preconceived ideas of the scholars; the expression kat’ oikonomian didaskein is also employed, whence the word “economy” is often applied to this method by later writers.
2. Required by Ethics.
Such accommodation or economy is required by ethics in two cases: (1) when, in a spirit of love, it spares a condition of ignorance existing in another’s mind, or (2) when, in the same spirit, it keeps back some truth which the imperfect state of development of the other is not ready to receive. Love bids to have patience with erring or weak consciences, so long as they are unconscious of their error or weakness, and therefore 23 might be more injured than helped by a too hasty attack (I Cor. viii. 9-13). The aim must be improvement, not punishment—that one may “by all means save some.” This consideration, however, is not due to conscious and obstinate sinners, in which case it would be a denial of duty for the sake of pleasing men. But this duty has its limits; it imports and enforces certain ethical requirements and certain spiritual truths; and in both cases its action must be adapted to the capacity of the receiver. The very nature of the human mind prescribes gradual progress in knowledge; and thus Christian teaching often requires reserve and silence, where strict enforcement of the command or full unfolding of the truth might give offense. Thus Christ kept back from his disciples certain things which they could not yet bear (John xvi. 12); and thus Paul does not exact the same requirements from all members of the churches under his care (I Cor. vii. 17, 26, 35 sqq.), feeding the “babes in Christ” with “milk, and not with meat” (I Cor. iii. 2). The Christian teacher can not, indeed, preach a different gospel to different hearers; but the manner of the preaching and the selection of material will vary with the stages in spiritual growth attained by the hearers. To this manner belong such things as the popular exposition of the truth, the use of comparisons and examples, and argumenta ad hominem. This kind of accommodation is not only not blameworthy, but is prescribed by the example of Christ.
3. Negative Accommodation.
The use of accommodation in matter, as distinguished from manner, is more disputable. It may be either negative, dissimulatio, when the teacher passes over in silence the existence of erroneous ideas in his scholars; or positive, simulatio, when he distinctly approves such erroneous ideas or consciously sets them forth as the truth, with the purpose in both cases of thus leading by an indirect road to the truth. Negative accommodation may be justified pedagogically by the fact that no teacher is in a position to remove all obstacles at one stroke, the gradual process being equivalent to a toleration of a certain amount of error for the time. Thus no reproach can lie against Christ because in some particulars he allowed his disciples to remain temporarily under the influence of false impressions, as long as he did this not by declared approval and with the distinct looking forward to the time when the Spirit of Truth should lead them into all truth; this covers the Jewish beliefs and practises which they were allowed to retain in his very presence. The apostles also tolerated the continued existence of numerous ancient errors in their converts, being sure that these would fall away with their gradual growth in Christian knowledge (I Cor. ix. 20 sqq.; Rom. xiv. 1 sqq.; Heb. v. 11 sqq.).
4. Positive Accommodation.
The case is quite different, however, with regard to positive accommodation in the matter of the teaching. There is no purely objective system of commandments, the same for all alike. Ethical law is subjective, varying with the individual and his circumstances—position, calling, age, sex, and the like. One is not to be a slave to prevailing customs, but is bound to take them into account, so as not to offend others. The same thing applies to prevailing beliefs and views; a man has to consider that he will be judged by his contemporaries according to the standards of the time and place; nay, that if he is to be understood by them at all, he must accommodate himself to their standpoint, and speak to a certain extent as they speak. This leads to a point which has been in the past vehemently discussed by theologians. The truth just stated was pressed by certain writers for the purpose of rendering more acceptable their doctrines in regard to revelation. It is their attitude which gave rise to the narrower meaning of the word “accommodation.”
5. Modern Theory of Accommodation.
A transition to the theory that many things in the Bible are to be taken as spoken only in this accommodated sense is to be found in the treatise of Zachariä, Erklärung der Herablassung Gottes zu den Menschen (Schwerin, 1762): it asserted that the revelations of God in the Old Testament, the establishment of the old and new covenants, the incarnation of Christ—in other words, the facts of revelation in general—were only set forth as an “accommodation” of God to men. It was seen that this struck at the very root of the Christian faith; and the question was hotly discussed how far many Biblical expressions were mere concessions to the ideas prevalent at the time. The controversy lasted until the rise of the modern critical school, early in the nineteenth century, afforded an easier way of meeting the difficulties which these theologians had thus sought to avoid. With the help of their theory, such writers as Behn, Senf, Teller, Van Hemert, and Vogel sought to bring about a harmony between their views of reason and the Scriptural expressions. Thus, for example, they got rid of the Messianic prophecies which, they said, Jesus referred to himself merely to convince the Jews that he was the Messiah, without himself believing that they were written of the Messiah; the doctrine of angels and devils was simply a use of the common conceptions; that of the atonement becomes only a condescension of the same kind to popular ideas, intended to reconcile the Jews to the loss of their sacrifices.
6. Untenableness of the Theory.
In more recent times this theory has been increasingly recognized as scientifically and theologically untenable. It is of course, obvious that many expressions of Christ and the apostles relate to merely local and temporal circumstances, and do not contain permanent rules of conduct. The apparent contradictions between revelation and the facts of physics and chemistry offer no more difficulty; Christ did not come to teach natural science; and he was obliged to adapt himself to current forms of expression in order to be understood, just as one speaks of the rising and setting of the sun, when he knows it is the motion of the earth and not that 24 of the sun which is referred to. But there is no case of concession to real error, still less of assertion of error, in any of this accommodation.
7. When Accommodation is Admissible.
As to the general ethical use of accommodation, a case may arise in which one is bound by the law of love not to make use of a liberty which in the abstract he possesses, lest the weaker brethren should be scandalized. From this point of view Paul lays down his rule in regard to the eating of meats offered to idols (I Cor. viii. 13). In like manner one may be bound, like Paul again, by the love of his neighbor to do something he would not otherwise do (Acts xvi. 3, xxi. 17 sqq.). Paul’s acceptance of Timothy’s circumcision was no concession to error; he did not cease to teach that the rite was unnecessary for Gentile converts; and he stoutly resisted an attempt to impose it on Titus (Gal. ii. 3-5). Limitations which he willingly imposed on his own personal liberty in the accommodation of pastoral wisdom would have been unworthy weakness if he had yielded to them when imposed by others when the circumstances did not justify them. This is the standpoint of the Formula Concordiæ (art. x.) in reference to the Adiaphora. In such matters, what in itself is innocent and may be used with Christian freedom becomes, when it is sought to be imposed as an obligation, an attack on evangelical liberty which must be resisted.
8. Accommodation and the New Testament.
The theory of theological accommodation, so far as it is drawn from the New Testament, grows out of a particular conception of the knowledge of Christ and the scope of inspiration. (1) If one holds that Christ possessed complete knowledge of all matters relating to the natural world, the Old Testament, the events of his own time, and the future of the kingdom of God on earth, he may affirm either that all of Christ’s teaching on these subjects is authoritative and final, or else that in many instances he fitted his teaching to the immediate needs of his hearers; in the latter case, one could not be sure as to the precise nature of the objective fact. (2) If, how ever, it be alleged that Jesus’s intelligence followed the laws of human growth, that he shared the common scientific, historical, and critical beliefs of his day, and that for us his knowledge is restricted to the spiritual content of revelation, then his allusions to the natural world, to persons, events, books, and authors of the Old Testament, to demons, and the like are to be interpreted according to universal laws of human intelligence; thus the principle of accommodation drops away. (3) In like manner, inspiration may be conceived of either as equipping the sacred writers with an accurate knowledge concerning all things to which they refer, and yet leading them to fit their communications to the temporary prejudice or ignorance of their readers, or as quickening their consciousness concerning spiritual truth, while they were left unillumined about matters which belong to literary, historical, or scientific inquiry. It is thus evident that the question of theological accommodation in the New Testament turns in part on a solution of two previous questions—the content of our Lord’s knowledge, and the scope of inspiration in the authors of the various books (cf. C. J. Ellicott, Christus Comprobator, London, 1892; J. Moorhouse, The Teaching of Christ, ib. 1892; H. C. Powell, The Principle of the Incarnation, ib. 1896; G. B. Stevens, The Theology of the New Testament, New York, 1899; L. A. Muirhead, The Eschatology of Jesus, London, 1904).
9. Controversy in the Roman Catholic Church.
Under the title “Accommodation Controversy” is also frequently understood the long and bitter dispute between the Jesuits and the Dominicans as to the extent of lawful concessions to the prejudices of their pagan hearers by missionaries. The Jesuits were the first to preach Christianity in China—Xavier went there in 1552. They were attacked by the Dominicans and Franciscans, when, forty years later, these orders entered the same field, on the charge of having made an improper compromise with Chinese beliefs, especially in regard to the practise of ancestor worship and to the name adopted to designate the Supreme Being in Chinese. They maintained, however, that such concessions were an inevitable condition of the toleration of Christian missions in the empire. The “Chinese rites” were provisionally forbidden by Innocent X. in 1645, but were again tolerated by Alexander VII. in 1656, on the ground that they might be regarded as purely civil ceremonies. Clement IX. took a middle course in 1669; but at the end of the century the controversy broke out with renewed violence, to be terminated only by a bull of Clement XI. in 1715, absolutely prohibiting the “Chinese rites.” The legate Mezzabarba attempted to mitigate the strict enforcement of this ruling; but Benedict XIV. confirmed it in 1742, with the result of provoking a severe persecution which almost exterminated Christianity in China. A somewhat similar controversy raged in the eighteenth century over the so-called Malabar rites, terminated in the same sense by the bull Omnium sollicitudinum of Benedict XIV. (1742), the pope refusing, even at the cost of imperiling the future of missions, to permit any compromise with paganism. A heated controversy on the general subject of accommodation was provoked in England by the publication of No. 80 in the Oxford Tracts for the Times, On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge, written by Isaac Williams, which caused the author to be accused of Jesuitical and un-English insincerity, and provoked additional antagonism to the Oxford movement.
Bibliography: On the general subject: K. F. Senff, Versuch über die Herablassung Gottes zu den Menschen, Leipsic, 1792; W. A. Teller, Die Religion der Vollkommern, Berlin, 1792; P. van Hemert, Accommodation, Dortmund, 1797. On the Accommodation Controversy: G. Daniel, Histoire apologétique de la conduite des Jésuites de la Chine, in Recueil des divers ouvrages, vol. iii., 3 vols., Paris, 1724; T. M. Mamachi, Originum et antiquitatum christianarum libri xx, ii. 373, 424, 425-426, 441-442; 6 vols., Rome, 1749-55; G. Pray, Historia controversiarum de ritibus sinicis, Budapest, 1789.25
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