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Biblical Accommodation

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We shall consider (1) what is meant by biblical accommodation; (2) its use in Sacred Scripture; (3) the rules which ought to regulate its use.

(1) What is Biblical Accommodation?

By accommodation is understood the adaptation of words or sentences from Sacred Scripture to signify ideas different from those expressed by the sacred author. Thus, if a sinner excuses his fault by saying, "The serpent deceived me", he applies the scriptural words of Eve ( Genesis 3:13 ) to express an idea which the sentence does not convey in the Bible . Similarly, a blind person might use the words of Tob., v, 12, "What manner of joy shall be to me, who sit in darkness, and see not the light of heaven ". Here, again, the words would have a meaning which they do not bear in Sacred Scripture . This accommodation is sometimes incorrectly styled the accommodated, or accommodative, sense of Scripture. From the definition it is clear that it is not a sense of Scripture at all. The possibility of such accommodation may arise, first, from some similarity between the ideas in the sacred text and the subject to which the passage is accommodated; secondly, from the fact that the words of Scripture may be understood in two different senses. The first is called extensive accommodation. Examples of it are found in the Church's offices, both in the Breviary and the Missal, when the praises bestowed by the Holy Ghost on Noah, Isaac, and Moses are applied to other saints. Thus the words of Ecclus., xxxii, 1, 5: "Have they made thee ruler? . . . hinder not music" are sometimes applied to College presidents assuming the burden of their office; we need not say that the words of Sacred Scripture have quite a different meaning. The second species of accommodation, called allusive, is often a mere play on words and at times seems due to a misunderstanding of the original meaning. The Vulgate text, Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis ( Psalm 67:36 ) means, in the mouth of the Psalmist, that God is wonderful in His sanctuary ( sancta, -orum ). The Latin words may also be translated " God is wonderful in his saints " ( sancti, -orum ), and they are employed in this sense in the Missal. As this second signification was not intended by the inspired writer, the English rendering of the text in the Douay version is a mistranslation.

(2) The Use of Accommodation in the Bible

It is generally held by Catholic authors that certain passages from the Old Testament have been used over again in the New Testament with a change of meaning. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (xiii, 5) the words spoken to Josue, "I will not leave thee, nor forsake thee" ( Joshua 1:5 ), are applied to all Christians. Other examples of accommodation are the use of Exod., xvi, 18 in II Cor., viii, 15; Zach., iv, 14 in Apoc., xi, 4; Ps., vi, 9 in Matt., vii, 2, 3; Mich., vii, 6 in Matt, x, 36. Evidently, the new meaning attached to the words is also inspired. Rationalistic writers have maintained that similar accommodations are to be found in every case where the Evangelists quote the prophecies of the Old Testament. Some few Catholic writers have been willing to grant this explanation for a few passages, but the words in which the Evangelists assert that events in Our Lord's life took place "in order that" the prophecies might be fulfilled are incompatible with the theory that they wished to indicate only a resemblance between the event and the prophet's words. It is probable that no prophecy is used in the Gospels merely by accommodation.

(3) Rules for Accommodation

The use of accommodation in the Liturgy and by the Fathers of the Church is sufficient to show that it is legitimate. Hence texts have been, and are frequently, accommodated by preachers and ascetical authors. Many of the sermons of St. Bernard are mosaics of Scripture phrases and owe much of their peculiar unction to his happy use of the sacred words. Latin writers and preachers have not been so reverent and careful in their accommodation, and this was one of the abuses condemned by the Council of Trent when it forbade the wresting of Scripture to profane uses (Sess. IV, Decret. "De editione et usu Sacrorum Librorum "). Interpreters are wont to give the following rules for guidance in the accommodation of Scripture :

  • Accommodated texts should never be used as arguments drawn from revelation ; for the words are not employed in the sense, either literal or typical, intended by the Holy Ghost . Violations of this rule are not rare, either in sermons or in pious literature.
  • Accommodation should not be farfetched. Allusive accommodations in many cases are mere distortions of the sacred text .
  • Accommodations should be reverent. Holy words should be employed for purposes of edification, not to excite laughter, much less to cloak errors.

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