Calvin and "Baby Talk"

Should we believe that God sometimes ‘accommodates’ his message so that we can understand it? Surely Calvin agreed with this. He claimed that God sometimes needed to work within the understanding of a people’s culture, right? Actually, this is not true. Calvin’s somewhat well known passage about God using “baby-talk” to communicate with us means something quite different.

Calvin’s well known passage is as follow (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1): “The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.” This quote appears in the midst of Calvin’s discussion on the immensity and immateriality of God. His point is that the anthropomorphic expressions were not intended by God to be literal descriptions.

This sort of passage is hardly unique. You will find Calvin using this sort of argument elsewhere. The point is that God takes extra effort to communicate ideas to us. He uses whatever means are available for us to understand them. God has not accommodated himself to our understanding. He has accommodated himself to our ability to understand. Calvin is not claiming that God uses something that is strictly untrue to communicate his ideas. He is claiming that God uses a basic communication method to communicate true ideas. As Olsen writes in his comments, this accommodation was not limited to the interpretation of Scripture, but extended to God’s actions in history and his creation of the universe.