revelation

Divine Accommodation in the Early Church

One of the basic points made in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is that the Old Testament reveals how God adjusts his revelation and instructions to accommodate the weakness of his covenant people. This is actually not a new observation as is reflected in a variety of ways throughout Church history. For example, in the fifth century Theodoret of Cyrus reflected on the reason why God in the OT promises people immediate blessings and curses while in the NT they are all transposed to the eschaton. He answers that it was because of the immaturity of the people God was condescending to work with. Theodoret writes,

Since [the Israelites] were imperfect, needing to be fed milk and unable to hear of eternal things, he promised them an abundance of children, fertility of the soil, fecundity of flocks and herds, health of body, victory in war, and that sort of thing.[1]

Over time, Theodoret continues, God was able to wean his people off of immediate rewards and punishments and to instead teach them to patiently wait for, and yearn for, salvation in the future epoch.

Along slightly different lines, Origen discerned God’s accommodating will in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.[2] Origen correctly observed that God’s ideal, as expressed in I Corinthians 7, was for people to remain single (7:7)—though this already is a concession inasmuch as God’s ideal prior to the fall was for people to be married (Gen. 2). Origen notes, however, that Paul was aware that many people would “burn with passion” and be tempted to improper sexual behavior if they remained single, and so Paul taught that people in this situation should get married (7:9). But Paul taught this, Origen observed, as a “concession, not a command” (7:6). And he gave this concession “in view of our hardness of heart and weakness.”

The most insightful commentator on God’s willingness to adjust his appearances and requirements to meet people where they are is Gregory of Nazianzus. He writes that God is “like a Tutor or Physician” who “partly removes and partly condones ancestral habits,” the way nasty tasting medicine is “artfully blended with what is nice” by a wise doctor, for otherwise the patient might not be able to stomach the medicine. Hence, he argues, in the first dispensation God “cut off the idol, but left the sacrifices.” Then in the second dispensation he “destroyed sacrifices but did not forbid circumcision.” He notes that “once men had submitted to the curtailment, they also yielded that which had been conceded to them.” And by such means, Gregory argues, humans were “beguiled into the Gospel by gradual changes.”[3]

Early church theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus grasped that, because God refuses to coerce people into having true images of him, the way God often appears in the Old Testament says more about the spiritual condition of God’s people then it does about God. In keeping with their ANE culture, God’s ancient people assumed God demanded animal sacrifices. And God, the wise Tutor and Physician, left this false perception in place until they were ready to receive the truth that God actually doesn’t delight in sacrifices.

As he does on the cross, God stooped to bear the sinful way his people conceived of him, which is how the OT’s fallen and culturally conditioned portraits of God bear witness to the cross.

[1] Theodoret of Cyrus, “Questions on Deuteronomy,” in The Questions on the Octateuch, trans. R. C. Hill, LEC 2 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 170-259.

[2] The following paragraph is from Origen, Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, trans. A. Robertson, J. Donaldson (Red Pill Press, 2006), XIV.23, 246-47.

[3] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 5.25, NPNF, Vol. 2, 7: 325-26.

Photo credit: mugley via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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