How God Speaks in Scripture: Early Church Fathers

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Pet 1:20-21).

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16).

How did God communicate with human beings in order to produce Scripture? The Bible is inspired by God, but what did that actually entail? In this post, I explore concepts held to by the early church fathers on “accommodation.” Accommodation is the belief that God “stooped” to our level in order to impart revelation. Origen (c.185-254 C.E.) is one of the earliest Christians to comment on accommodation:

The incarnate Lord, like the written revelation in inspired scripture, is a veil that must be penetrated. It is an accommodation to our present capacities in this life. The Church’s present gospel will one day be superseded by that which the Seer of the Apocalypse calls the everlasting gospel, a heavenly comprehension of truth that will surpass our present understanding by at least as much as the new covenant surpasses the old.[1]

Several important points are worth noting here:

  • Revelation is a “veil that must be penetrated.” In other words, revelation is not fully clear.
  • Revelation accommodates to our human capacities. We are weak and ignorant, therefore the poor and humble style of Scripture meets us where we are (“He condescends and accommodates Himself to our weakness, like a schoolmaster talking a ‘little language’ to his children, like a father caring for his own children and adopting their ways” (Fragment on Deuteronomy 1.21).[2] However, Origen also believed that beneath the humble style of writing was “the hidden splendor of its teaching” that more mature readers, guided by God, can discover; On First Principles 4.1.7).
  • Revelation is progressive. The gospel in the New Testament provided greater comprehension of spiritual truth than the Mosaic covenant in the Old Testament, and the gospel will by superseded by the “everlasting gospel” (i.e. the eschatological revelation).

For Origen, the manner of revelation is pedagogical. The writing of Scripture is humble for the less learned, but contains hidden truth so as not to bore the more mature inquirer. God meets each “student” where she is at, imparting what that individual can handle.[3]

Many of the early church fathers held similar views as Origen, particularly as it relates to the Mosaic covenant. Eusebius (c. 260-340 C.E.) also describes three periods of revelation, but distinct from Origen. He saw the Mosaic covenant as an interruption in between the pure faith of the pre-Mosaic saints (e.g. Abraham) and the saints of the gospel. He considered the commandments of Moses to be “a nurse and governess of childish and imperfect souls” or “weak and sinful men.”[4] In addition to pedagogical purpose, Eusebius also saw the old covenant as a physician for healing the Israelites who became sick in their assimilation into Egyptian idolatrous practices.[5] Athanasius (c. 296-373), Basil (c. 330-379), and Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-389/90) also held to pedagogical and medical views. Basil wrote, “[W]e were first taught elementary and easier lessons, suited to our intelligence, while the Dispenser of our lots was ever leading us up, by gradually accustoming us, like eyes brought up in the dark, to the great light of truth” (De Spiritu Sancto 14.33). Gregory characterizes progressive revelation as part of God’s desire to persuade humanity with gentleness rather than divine force (Oration 31.25).

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) in Against Eunomius II offers a detailed and fascinating explanation for how this accommodation worked in the language of Scripture. It’s worth looking at several in-depth statements he makes. He is clear that the biblical authors did not write down revelation that conveyed the full essence of God. God’s essence is impossible to grasp:

But His very essence, as not to be conceived by the human intellect or expressed in words, this it has left untouched as a thing not to be made the subject of curious enquiry, ruling that it be revered in silence, in that it forbids the investigation of things too deep for us, while it enjoins the duty of being slow to utter any word before God. And therefore, whosoever searches the whole of Revelation will find therein no doctrine of the Divine nature, nor indeed of anything else that has a substantial existence, so that we pass our lives in ignorance of much, being ignorant first of all of ourselves, as men, and then of all things besides.

For Gregory of Nyssa, inspiration did not lead to complete knowledge of God in all respects. He also did not believe God necessarily chose the words biblical authors used to write Scripture even though what they wrote was the result of divine impulse. Instead he refers to the “doctrine of conception.” What is inspired is the concept or meaning to which the words point. He says, “[W]e are not told that God is the Creator of words, but of things made known to us by the signification of our words.” God created human beings with reasoning faculties, including the ability to use language and name objects. When a biblical author writes, “Thus says the Lord,” Gregory does not believe we are to understand God actually speaking the exact words that follow. It’s an anthropomorphic description and not literal:

But if any one would give a more sensuous interpretation to the words God said, as proving that articulate speech was His creation, by a parity of reason he must understand by the words God saw, that He did so by faculties of perception like our own, through the organs of vision; and so again by the words The Lord heard me and had mercy upon me, and again, He smelled a sweet savour , and whatever other sensuous expressions are employed by Scripture in reference to head, or foot, or hand, or eyes, or fingers, or sandals, as appertaining to God, taking them, I say, in their plain literal acceptation, he will present to us an anthropomorphous deity, after the similitude of what is seen among ourselves.

and . . .

And this is proved by the fact that many terms in use are of a base and unseemly character, of which no man of sense would conceive God the inventor: so that, if certain of our familiar expressions are ascribed by Holy Scripture to God as the speaker, we should remember that the Holy Spirit is addressing us in language of our own, as e.g. in the history of the Acts we are told that each man received the teaching of the disciples in his own language wherein he was born, understanding the sense of the words by the language which he knew. And, that this is true, may be seen yet more clearly by a careful examination of the enactments of the Levitical law. For they make mention of pans, and cakes, and fine flour , and the like, in the mystic sacrifices, instilling wholesome doctrine under the veil of symbol and enigma. Mention, too, is made of certain measures then in use, such as ephah, and nebel , and hin, and the like. Are we, then, to suppose that God made these names and appellations, or that in the beginning He commanded them to be such, and to be so named, calling one kind of grain wheat, and its pith flour, and flat sweetmeats, whether heavy or light, cakes; and that He commanded a vessel of the kind in which a moist lump is boiled or baked to be called a pan, or that He spoke of a certain liquid measure by the name of hin or nebel, and measured dry produce by the homer? Surely it is trifling and mere Jewish folly, far removed from the grandeur of Christian simplicity, to think that God, Who is the Most High and above every name and thought, Who by sole virtue of His will governs the world, which He brought into existence, and upholds it in being, should set Himself like some schoolmaster to settle the niceties of terminology . . . . [A]s God, after giving animals their power of motion, no longer prescribes each step they take, for their nature, having once for all taken its beginning from the Creator, moves of itself, and makes its way, adapting its power of motion to its object from time to time (except in so far as it is said that a man’s steps are directed by the Lord), so our nature, having received from God the power of speech and utterance and of expressing the will by the voice, proceeds on its way through things, giving them distinctive names by varying inflections of sound; and these signs are the verbs and nouns which we use, and through which we signify the meaning of the things.

Gregory believes that use of human language was necessary for God to speak to human beings. In the same way that we use clucks and other sounds to communicate with animals so also God accommodates us at our level of understanding:

But since that which is by nature finite cannot rise above its prescribed limits, or lay hold of the superior nature of the Most High, on this account He, bringing His power, so full of love for humanity, down to the level of human weakness, so far as it was possible for us to receive it, bestowed on us this helpful gift of grace. For as by Divine dispensation the sun, tempering the intensity of his full beams with the intervening air, pours down light as well as heat on those who receive his rays, being himself unapproachable by reason of the weakness of our nature, so the Divine power, after the manner of the illustration I have used, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving; and thus in the various manifestations of God to man He both adapts Himself to man and speaks in human language, and assumes wrath, and pity, and such-like emotions, so that through feelings corresponding to our own our infantile life might be led as by hand, and lay hold of the Divine nature by means of the words which His foresight has given. For that it is irreverent to imagine that God is subject to any passion such as we see in respect to pleasure, or pity, or anger, no one will deny who has thought at all about the truth of things. And yet the Lord is said to take pleasure in His servants, and to be angry with the backsliding people, and, again, to have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and to show compassion— the word teaching us in each of these expressions that God’s providence helps our infirmity by using our own idioms of speech . . . .”

Of particular note is how Gregory interprets certain descriptions of God. He does not consider emotions of wrath to be literal. He understands this language to describe God in “our own idioms of speech.” Similarly, God “repenting” or God “walking” in the Garden of Eden are anthropomorphic. God does not have a body like human beings or act and feel in the way that human beings do. That Scripture describes God in these ways is to help human beings understand something about God in our own language; it does not arrive at a revelation of the essence of God. An interesting specific example of how his hermeneutic works is his reading of Psalm 147:4: “He counts the number of stars; he gives them all names.” Gregory does not understand this as God literally counting stars and naming them. Rather, the meaning conveyed by the Scripture is that nothing is unknown to God:

[I]n order that we may be taught by Holy Scripture that nothing is unknown to God, it tells us that the multitude of the stars is numbered by Him, not that their numbering takes place as I have described, (for who is so simple as to think that God takes knowledge of things by odd and even, and that by putting units together He makes up the total of the collective quantity?) but, since in our own case the exact knowledge of quantity is obtained by number, in order, I say, that we might be taught in respect to God that all things are comprehended by the knowledge of His wisdom, and that nothing escapes His minute cognizance, on this account it represents God as numbering the stars, counselling us by these words to understand this, viz. that we must not imagine God to take note of things by the measure of human knowledge, but that all things, however incomprehensible and above human understanding, are embraced by the knowledge of the wisdom of God. For as the stars on account of their multitude escape numbering, as far as our human conception is concerned, Holy Scripture, teaching the whole from the part, in saying that they are numbered by God attests that not one of the things unknown to us escapes the knowledge of God. And therefore it says, Who tells the multitude of the stars, of course not meaning that He did not know their number beforehand; for how should He be ignorant of what He Himself created, seeing that the Ruler of the Universe could not be ignorant of that which is comprehended in His power; which includes the worlds in its embrace? Why, then, should He number what He knows? For to measure quantity by number is the part of those who want information. But He Who knew all things before they were created needs not number as His informant. But when David says that He numbers the stars, it is evident that the Scripture descends to such language in accordance with our understanding, to teach us emblematically that the things which we know not are accurately known to God. As, then, He is said to number, though needing no arithmetical process to arrive at the knowledge of things created, so also the Prophet tells us that He calls them all by their names, not meaning, I imagine, that He does so by any vocal utterance. For verily such language would result in a conception strangely unworthy of God, if it meant that these names in common use among ourselves were applied to the stars by God. For, should any one allow that these were so applied by God, it must follow that the names of the idol gods of Greece were applied by Him also to the stars, and we must regard as true all the tales from mythological history that are told about those starry names, as though God Himself sanctioned their utterance. Thus the distribution among the Greek idols of the seven planets contained in the heavens will exempt from blame those who have erred in respect to them, if men be persuaded that such an arrangement was God’s. Thus the fables of Orion and the Scorpion will be believed, and the legends respecting the ship Argo, and the Swan, and the Eagle, and the Dog, and the mythical story of Ariadne’s crown. Moreover it will pave the way for supposing God to be the inventor of the names in the zodiacal circle, devised after some fancied resemblance in the constellations, if Eunomius is right in supposing that David said that these names were given them by God . . . .

And . . .

Since, then, it is monstrous to regard God as the inventor of such names, lest the names even of these idol gods should seem to have had their origin from God, it will be well not to receive what has been said without inquiry, but to get to the meaning in this case also after the analogy of those things of which number informs us. Well, since it attests the accuracy of our knowledge, when we call one familiar to us by his name, we are here taught that He Who embraces the Universe in His knowledge not only comprehends the total of the aggregate quantity, but has an exact knowledge of the units also that compose it. And therefore the Scripture says not only that He tells the number of the stars, but that He calls them all by their names, which means that His accurate knowledge extends to the minutest of them, and that He knows each particular respecting them, just as a man knows one who is familiar to him by name. And if any one say that the names given to the stars by God are different ones, unknown to human language, he wanders far away from the truth. For if there were other names of stars, Holy Scripture would not have made mention of those which are in common use among the Greeks, Esaias saying , Which makes the Pleiads, and Hesperus, and Arcturus, and the Chambers of the South, and Job making mention of Orion and Aseroth ; so that from this it is clear that Holy Scripture employs for our instruction such words as are in common use.

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) also adds an interesting perspective to understanding Scripture in light of accommodation. He suggested that children should read stories in the Old Testament until they are mature enough to advance to stories in the Gospels.[6] He considered the human race at earlier stages to be more immature and thus in need of the Mosaic Law. The Incarnation inaugurated a time of greater understanding as Christ showed the way to salvation. John believed some of the practices permitted under the old covenant were not the most advanced. He includes marriage among these; virginity is the ideal per his understanding of the prelapsarian state. The reason virginity, despite its superiority, was not dictated or recommended in Mosaic Law is because human frailty could not handle such a law at that time. Other less than ideal accommodations under the old covenant included hating enemies, vengeance, divorce, and bigamy, et cetera. However, John did not categorize only Old Testament texts in this way . He believed Paul condescended to the Romans more so than the Colossians as a result of their spiritual state. Similarly, Jesus’ teaching attended to the weaknesses of his audiences:

What I have often said I shall now repeat, and shall not cease to say. What is that? It is that Jesus, when about to touch on sublime doctrines, often contains Himself by reason of the infirmity of His hearers, and dwells not for a continuance on subjects worthy of His greatness, but rather on those which partake of condescension. For the sublime and great, being but once uttered, is sufficient to establish that character, as far as we are able to hear it; but unless more lowly sayings, and such as are near to the comprehension of the hearers, were continually uttered, the more sublime would not readily take hold on a groveling listener. And therefore of the sayings of Christ more are lowly than sublime. But yet that this again may not work another mischief, by detaining the disciple here below, He does not merely set before men His inferior sayings without first telling them why He utters them; as, in fact, He has done in this place. For when He had said what He did concerning Baptism, and the Generation by grace which takes place on earth, being desirous to admit them to that His own mysterious and incomprehensible Generation, He holds it in suspense for a while, and admits them not, and then tells them His reason for not admitting them. What is that? It is, the dullness and infirmity of His hearers. And referring to this He added the words, If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you of heavenly things? [John 3:12] so that wherever He says anything ordinary and humble, we must attribute this to the infirmity of His audience (Homily 27 on the Gospel of John).

Finally, Augustine (c. 354-430), like Gregory of Nyssa, was concerned with words and what they signify. Ordinary teachers use words, but Jesus who dwells within provides both words and the meaning behind the words.[7] Augustine believed Scripture is to be plunged for its depth, contemplated, and like many other church fathers, explored for its spiritual meaning that is not always at the surface. He also tried to grapple with the changes from the old covenant to the new by referring to it as a change in terminology. The old covenant contained the hidden truth of the Christian religion; it is the words to signify the realities that have changed not so much the religion per se. In other words, he seems to suggest the gospel is an improved way of speaking about previously existing realities:

Whoever denies that both Testaments come from the same God for the reason that our people are not bound by the same sacraments as those by which the Jews are bound and still are bound, cannot deny that it would be perfectly just and possible for one father of a family to lay one set of commands upon those for whom he judged a harsher servitude to be useful, and a different set on those whom he deigned to adopt into the position of sons. If the trouble is that the moral precepts under the old law are lower and in the Gospel higher, and that therefore both cannot come from the same God, whoever thinks in this way may find difficulty explaining how a single physician prescribes one medicine to weather patients through his assistants, and another by himself to the stronger patients, all to restore health.

And . . .

The art of medicine remains the same and quite unchanged, but it changes its prescriptions for the sick, since the state of their health changes. So the divine providence remains entirely without change, but comes to the aid of mutable creatures in various ways, and commands or forbids different things at different times according to different states of their disease (De Vera Religione XVII, 34).[8]

It seems clear that many of the church fathers did not consider Scripture completely transparent revelation. God is transcendent and even though God does speak to humanity, there is much mystery. The level of insight a person has into spiritual matters seems to be related to the maturity of the individual or community. God gives greater and weightier truths to those who have the ability to accept it. The church fathers held to this understanding of revelation while simultaneously affirming Scripture is completely truthful, and according to Augustine without error. For them, the human finitude evident in the Bible did not in any way diminish it as the Word of God. Instead, the human fingerprints—the language, idioms, cultural perspectives—contained in Scripture demonstrate that God stooped to our level to speak to us where we are at. God did not give us greater insight at various times because we did not have the ability to receive it.

The New Testament seems to support some of these assertions. For example, Paul says, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly” (I Cor 3:1). And as John Chrysostom pointed out, Jesus said: “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Peter seems to understand inspiration in subtle terms as well: “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (1 Pet 1:10-11). There seems to be a seeking out and discernment of what God is speaking through the Spirit. Paul says “For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away . . . . For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (I Cor 13:9, 12).

This raises a few questions, however. Why is it that we only know in part even after the Incarnation? What does it mean that God does not reveal God’s self more forthrightly? Is it that we cannot understand the sublime? Even Jesus did not reveal all things, full revelation comes at the end of the age. The early church fathers largely attributed this phenomenon to the human condition. When we are sinful or frail or ignorant, we can only tolerate so much spiritual insight and demands. Jesus did seem to indicate that some laws given by Moses were not always ideal (Matt 19:8). He attributed Moses’ allowance of divorce to hardness of heart. Unfortunately, when church fathers applied this view to the Israelites and Torah, it sometimes led to anti-Semitic opinions that Jews and Judaism are inferior. Whatever we make of the Mosaic Law, its clear that Jesus said the Law and Prophets spoke of him. Similarly, all the first Christians were Jews and they preached from the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, while the early church fathers focused particularly on the distinction between Mosaic Law and gospel, there is much more to the Old Testament than Mosaic Law.  It should also be pointed that Jewish thinkers have offered their own perspectives on accommodation, many that are similar to what has been described above.[9] Jewish theologians have worked through questions of revelation, including issues of language like anthropomorphism, etc.

So, what does this mean for how Christians engage Scripture, particularly the Old Testament? There is more to be explored here, but I think one primary take away is that Scripture in its complete truthfulness is partial revelation. Similarly, contrary to many Protestant misconceptions, the Bible is not an easy book to understand. Comprehending its spiritual truths requires wisdom and discernment. Too often, there are appeals to the “common sense” or “plain meaning” of Scripture. Even though Scripture is not completely veiled—it is revelation after all—a more humble posture toward certainty of knowledge is warranted.

In the next post, I will explore a contemporary scholar’s proposal of the “adoptionist” model of inspiration.

[1] Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) 92-93.

[2] Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) 12.

[3] Benin, Footprints, 11.

[4] Benin, Footprints, 16-17.

[5] Benin, Footprints, 21.

[6] Benin, Footprints, 59-71. The following discussion on John Chrysostom draws from Benin.

[7] Benin, Footprints, 94.

[8] Translation in Benin, Footprints, 98.

[9] See Benin, Footprints, for Jewish understandings of accommodation.