Accommodation

Underlying Calvinist reflection on reason, revelation, and practicality in the seventeenth century was Calvin's idea of accommodation. Through the incarnation in Christ, through scripture, through the provision of visible and tangible means of grace that were adapted to the embodied nature of the creature, and through a willingness to respect the integrity and order of the creation, God continually displayed an accommodation to creatureliness. Unlike Calvin, New England Calvinists rarely used the word "accommodation" — Norton, for example, preferred the term "condescension" — but they employed the idea in precisely the ways that Calvin had.29

Divine accommodation was necessary because of human finitude, sinful-

ness, and inability. The creature could not conceive the essence of God ''because of the great distance between him and us.'' Finitude alone ensured the inconceivability of infinitude. Sinfulness imposed further limits on unaided human reason. Following the teaching of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament that every human being was born full of sin, with no power to do anything good, Calvinists taught that sinfulness distorted any seeming knowledge of God.30

They thought of sin as both original and actual. It was original because the race had fallen when Adam fell. Because Adam had been their representative, God had ''imputed'' his sin to his heirs: ''We are all in Adam,'' Shepard explained, ''as a whole country in a parliament man; the whole country doth what he doeth.'' The original sin then gave rise to an incessant round of actual sins. In asserting the doctrine of imputation as an explanation of original sin and guilt — and the true ground of condemnation — the New Englanders employed a concept, linked to a particular reading of Paul's letter to the Romans (Rom. 5:12-13), that came into prominence in the late sixteenth century. The idea that universal guilt for Adam's sin resulted from God's ''imputing'' it to Adam's posterity originated among late medieval interpreters of Paul, but it found its main support among a few sixteenth-century Catholics, a larger number of Lutherans, and a wide array of Calvinists, including Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Calvin's successor in Geneva. Debates over imputation would divide theologians in America for three centuries, but for the New England Calvinists the doctrine helped explain the need for divine accommodation.31

By the seventeenth century, Calvinists talked about accommodation with precise distinctions made possible by scholastic refinements. The New England ministers recovered, first, the medieval distinction between the potentia dei absoluta (the absolute power of God) and the potentia dei ordinata (the ordained power of God). According to God's absolute power, God might have done — or might do — anything consistent with the divine nature, even provide salvation apart from redemption in Christ. But God had determined, Norton observed, to work with finite creatures ''not according to his absolute Power, but according to the nature of the subject.'' By revealing the scheme of salvation in scripture and by entering into finite existence as a human being, God had so ordered his activity as to accept a self-limiting of the divine power. God had, in effect, promised to act always in accord with that limitation, ordaining limits on his own actions by declaring that he would conform them to the pattern revealed in Christ.32

The first-generation ministers spoke of Christ with the standard concepts of Reformed Christology. To them Christ was the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinitarian God. They understood him in accord with the way they understood the Trinity as the inner life of a God whom they described as ''increated being,'' ''a Being that is not from any Being,'' infinite, eternal, unchanging. This increated Being was without all internal composition — since composition and succession implied lack and imperfection—but its eternal perfection comprised three internal relations or ''Persons.'' Norton warned readers, however, not to be misled by the term Person, which was merely a similitude.33

The ministers sometimes tried to show that the three Persons were necessary in this unique kind of Being: an eternal Being with understanding had to understand something even when nothing else existed. The first Person, then, was God understanding himself; the second was God understood of himself, and the third was God beloved of himself. The three Persons — Father, Son, Spirit — therefore shared the same essence, the same Godhead, but they subsisted in different relations: the Father begot the Son, the Son was begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. The language came from the Christological controversies of the early church, but to the New England clergy it seemed a natural inference from the texts of the New Testament.34

Trinitarian speculation in Calvinist orthodoxy could become highly abstract, and the New England ministers read and cited the Trinitarian doctrines of such scholastic theologians as Francis Junius and Bartholomaus Keckermann, but in their sermons they appealed to Trinitarian themes mainly when they wanted to explain the practical doctrines of salvation. What was important for their congregations to know was that the glory of the Father consisted in creation and election, the glory of the Son in redemption, and the glory of the Spirit in ''the great work of application.'' The drama of salvation began when the Father and Son agreed to redeem the creation from the effects of the fall. The ministers sometimes described this inter-Trinitarian agreement as a covenant of redemption.35

They explained redemption, as well, through recourse to the standard formulas of Calvinist orthodoxy. The Son became incarnate in the God-man, Jesus Christ, whose dual nature as human and divine made him a fit mediator. He accomplished his mediation through his three ''offices'': as prophet (by teaching divine truth), priest (by sacrificing himself and interceding with the Father), and king (by governing the church and reigning at God's right hand). Through these offices he effected his mediatorial ''humiliation'' and ''exaltation.'' The humiliation consisted of his perfect obedience, active and passive. Through the active obedience he fulfilled the law that Adam and his progeny had broken; through the passive he offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross. The exaltation was his resurrection, ascension to heaven, and eventual return in judgment. To explain the significance of all this, the clergy returned to the explanation that Anselm of Canterbury had formulated in the twelfth century: because Jesus Christ was both a human being and the increated God, his obedience counted as a human satisfaction of an infinite debt beyond the capacity of any other human being to pay.36

This incarnation in Christ therefore represented a divine condescension to human understanding. In choosing self-revelation by becoming incarnate in a human being, God revealed himself, as Norton put it, ''according to our manner and measure.'' Incarnation meant a decision to respect the integrity, the capacities, and the limits of the natural human creature.37

A second instance of the divine accommodation was manifest in the ordering of the world through ''second causes.'' The New England Calvinists taught that God normally governed the world through ''ordinary wayes and means,'' second causes, defined as natural and historical events that caused other events to occur. They distinguished between this ordinary providence and the ''extraordinary'' providence — the miraculous — by which God intervened directly in the world without employing secondary means. Because Catholics claimed that miracles in the history of the church confirmed the truth of Catholic doctrines, Protestants routinely argued that extraordinary providences designed to confirm church teaching had ceased after the apostolic period. It was true, Hooker conceded, that God could still use ''extraordinary'' means, and Shepard's autobiography contained reports of ''miraculous'' providences. Arguing against Catholics, Cotton claimed that the ministry of ''one poore Protestant Minister'' could evince ''bundels of miracles.'' Normally, however, Puritan theologians looked for God in the ''ordinary way of his providence.''38

Critics of Calvinism felt that the doctrine of predestination belied the idea of divine accommodation to human capacities because it seemed to negate the significance of the human will and understanding. One critic was a pastor and professor of theology at Leyden in Holland, Jacobus Arminius (1559-1609), who set himself in opposition to the ''high Calvinism'' of the Reformed scholastics. Against their doctrine of particular election, the view that God had eternally elected particular persons to salvation, he proposed that God decreed to save all believers and that Christ died for all people, so that grace sufficient for faith was given to all. He believed that faith was the fruit of grace and that the will had no power to believe unless empowered by grace, but the sinful will could resist, and the sinner bore the responsibility for the sin. The Synod of Dort in Holland (1618-19), which condemned Arminius, set one standard of Calvinist orthodoxy with its teaching that all human beings were totally depraved, that divine election was unconditional, that Christ died only for the elect, that saving grace was irresistible, and that true elect saints never fell away.39

The New England preachers subscribed to the tenets of Dort. The salvation of the elect and the reprobation of the damned resulted from an eternal decree of God, before time began, logically prior to any foresight of good or evil in the creature, prior to the decree to create a world, prior to the decree to permit the fall, prior to the decree to send the Son to redeem the world. Shepard said that he was willing to accept this belief even if it meant that only one in a thousand had been chosen to escape God's wrath. Cotton had some reservations during the 1620s, but the English scholastic theologian William Twisse set him straight.40

The doctrine seemed a proper inference from the New Testament. According to Paul, God would either harden the heart or display mercy on whomever he chose, molding the clay as he wished, to show either his wrath or his mercy (Rom. 9:19-25). God had "destined" the saints for adoption "according to the good pleasure of his will" (Eph. 1:5-6). Jesus had announced that no one could come to him unless "drawn by the Father" (John 6:44). Dozens of texts appeared to Calvinist theologians to confirm predestinarian doctrine, which also affirmed that saving grace came entirely as a gift.

Calvinist theologians were intent, however, on showing that predestination did not negate human volition and clerical exhortation to the unsaved. They turned, therefore, as a further implication of the idea of accommodation, to the doctrine of the means of grace. By assuming human nature, Norton said, God had declared an intention to deal with human beings through "external means'' adapted to human capacities. Christ had made use of audible words, visible actions, and tangible objects like bread and wine "for the calling home and building up of his Elect." He still called and nurtured the elect through such means.41

"Because we are reasonable creatures,'' the clergy taught, "God proceeds with us in the use of means.'' Accommodation meant that God dealt with men and women not as "stocks or senseless creatures'' but as creatures of will, understanding, and affection. This meant that regeneration usually began through an appeal to the understanding, since the will could "imbrace nothing but what the understanding presents to it.'' But the point of exhortation was to reach the will; the understanding was only the "underling of the will.'' This was Hooker's view: "For howsoever faith be begun in the understanding, yet the perfection of it is from the will.'' In the commencement disputations at Harvard, some students argued that the will always obeyed the dictates of the understanding; others argued for a voluntarist position that accorded the will both autonomy and self-direction. In sermons, the ministers blurred such neat distinctions, for they dealt there with the fallen will and understanding. Yet they still assumed that both faculties were active in salvation because the means of grace were designed to appeal to them.42

God's accommodation implied a certain kind of human freedom. One could speak of compulsion, Hooker noted, only if the will were forced against its own inclination, but God never compelled the will to act against its inclination. God rather changed the inclination. The point allowed the ministers to think of the human being as a ''cause by counsel,'' a creature who acted ''according to the free-motion of his own will.'' As long as people acted without external constraint, and according to their own will, human liberty remained intact, even though without divine grace the will inevitably chose evil. The determinism of sovereign grace also imposed no external necessity on the will; it rather inclined the will, Norton said, ''according to the nature and liberty of it'': God determineth the Will sutably and agreeably to its own Nature, i.e., freely. He so determineth the Will, as the Will determineth it self. . . . The Efficiency of God offereth no violence, nor changeth the nature of things, but governeth them according to their own natures.'' As Hooker put it, God would not save men and women ''against their will.'' The will was ''determined and undoubtedly carried to its object,'' but it never consented against its inclination.43

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