Paul’s Strategy


Acts 17:16-34

Text Comment

v.16

Athens was not on Paul’s missionary agenda, but while waiting there, he took maximum advantage of the opportunity. He was not a man for the vacation. Here he is an example of both that sensitivity to the lostness around him and the eagerness to make the most of every gospel opportunity that the gospel should produce in every Christian. Athens had once been the intellectual center of the ancient world, but it was now in decline, living on its reputation.

v.18

Athens very much like modern cities where sophisticated, urbane philosophy jostles cheek to jowl with the most naked superstitions: we have erudite defenses of evolution and naturalism in our mall book stores and university classrooms, and we have millions upon millions of people — including educated people — reading the horoscopes in their newspapers, calling psychic hotlines, and practicing their own private superstitions — TM, yoga — or devoutly following the tenets of various sects, cults, and religions, or simply fashioning their own private religious belief from a concoction of those available.

Stoicism and Epicureanism were the two major philosophical of the period. Stoicism stressed reason and self-sufficiency, had a pantheistic view of God as a world-soul, and thus an emphasis on the unity of mankind. It preached individual moral duty with earnestness. Epicureanism saw pleasure as the chief end of life, but pleasure in a more serious form, tranquility being the chief of all pleasures. It has sometimes been linked with sensuality, but that was not the idea. Epicureans attacked superstitions and irrational religious faith. Epicureans were generally materialists, who believed either that the gods did not exist or, if they did, that they were far removed from the life of man on earth, too far to exercise an influence. What Paul is going to do, we will see, is side with both and then demonstrate that neither goes far enough. And, of course, neither had any real hope of overcoming the sinfulness and failure of man in a crumbling world or of salvation after death — so the preaching of the resurrection was immediately to the point as well.
v. 19 The Areopagus was a court of philosophers in Athens which had authority over religion and morals. It was also the name of the hill where this court sometimes met.

v.21

A problem typical of unbelief. When deeds are difficult or unclear, talk is substituted. On “the latest ideas” here is C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, No. xxv.

“The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both. And, again, the more rapacious the desire, the sooner it must eat up all the innocent sources of pleasure.”

We are, of course, a culture with a fascination for the novel, the new. But, our fascination, like that of the Athenians in Paul’s day, serves chiefly to distract us from hard and clear thinking about the main issues. As Malcolm Muggeridge put it, “We have educated ourselves into imbecility and amused ourselves into impotence.” Luke here is similarly sarcastic. These folk have nothing better to do than to pursue intellectual titillation — we today can get our titillation still more easily and are committed to the pursuit of it as no culture ever has been. The TV shows change every half hour or hour, the movies every few weeks, the sports every few months — always something new to amuse us.

v.23

The Bible insists on a self-named God and in Holy Scripture God discloses his names to men. In fact, “name” becomes a virtual synonym for God. But there are only a few names given for God in the Bible. The Ancient Near East had literally thousands. The Babylonians had 50 for Marduk alone. This breeds uncertainty, of course. A Babylonian penitential prayer is addressed to “the God whom it may concern.” [When men begin naming God (e.g. the neuters of philosophy [‘Being,’ ‘the Unconditioned,’ ‘Absolute’ etc.], or the personal names of paganism [Baal, Astaroth], or modern feminism or new age pantheism, we have not true knowledge of God but simply projection — as Feuerbach taught Marx, all theology is really just anthropology.]

v.25

25a are words any Epicurean would resonate to and 25b any Stoic.

v.27

“reach out for him” or “grope for him” the idea is of men in the dark because of their estrangement from God.

v.28

Citations, in one case rather loose, from Greek poets who were expressing Stoic philosophy.

v.29

The point is that if man is God’s offspring, clearly images or gold and silver do not correctly represent God’s image or nature.

v.31

Paul now returns full circle to his earlier message: Christ the Lord and the coming judgment and the proof of it all in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The idea of resurrection, which places the body as the object of God’s interest and of man’s salvation, was increasingly alien to Greek thinking with its strong preference for the spiritual over the physical. It may be that Paul knew of the Greek poet Aeschylus, who, in his play about the inauguration of the Areopagus, had the god Apollo deny the possibility of resurrection.

v.34

A later tradition makes this Dionysius the first minister of the church in Athens.

We have before us the most extensive example of Paul’s preaching to a pagan audience (that is, with no Jewish background or familiarity with Scripture). He does not quote the OT as he does in his preaching to Jews but pagan poets and philosophers, both to gain a hearing for himself and to make his case clear and understandable to his hearers. If you are preaching to folk who are awaiting the Messiah promised to Abraham and Israel, you tell them he’s come. But to folk who know nothing of this….

He begins here a tradition (with certain OT anticipations, to be sure, such as Daniel in Babylon) that will continue through the ages. Justin Martyr writing his apology for Christianity to the Emperor; Patrick proclaiming the power of Christ to the Irish; Pascal to the rationalists of his day; Henry Martyn to the King of Persia; C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer lecturing on Christianity to unbelievers; and Ravi Zacharias delivering his wonderful lectures at Harvard a few years ago. In all these cases, we have men, like Paul in Athens, making the case for Christianity as the truth about God, man, history, and salvation. They are making arguments to persuade folk to embrace the Christian faith, and making those arguments in the fashion best calculated to persuade the particular people they are speaking to. There are many different ways to argue for the truth and all of them have been employed at one time or another.

So this is a very important text for Christian apologetics, for it is the only extensive example of making the case for Christianity to an audience that has not been prepared by a familiarity with the thought-world of the Bible. That, of course, is increasingly the case with our post-Christian culture.

You are perhaps aware of the long controversy among evangelical theologians and apologists in the 20th century — beginning with the debate between the Dutch reformed men such as Bavinck and Kuyper and the American Presbyterians, especially Benjamin Warfield, and continued especially through the writings of Cornelius Van Til, which has pitted various apologetic methodologies over against one another: the evidentialism of Warfield or Buswell or J.W. Montgomery, or C.S. Lewis, and lately by R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley’s Classical Apologetics — given in a popular form by Josh McDowell — over against the modified presuppositionalism of Gordon Clark and Francis Schaeffer, whose approach was still not sufficiently consistent for Van Til. An excellent new work on this debate has been published recently by John Frame on Cornelius Van Til that addresses this debate in an interesting and engaging way. As you can well imagine, discussions of Paul’s arguments here to the philosophers in Athens have played an important role in these debates.

I do not intend to reprise this discussion about methods of arguing for Christianity, but there are certain features of Paul’s approach that I want to draw to your attention. And I hope they will provide an encouragement for you and perhaps a new way of thinking about how you might speak to your non-Christian neighbors, many of whom may well know little more about Christianity and be little better prepared to receive it than these philosophers in Athens.

  1. First, Paul obvious assumes the fact of what Calvin calls the “seed of religion.”

There is a consciousness of God — a consciousness that comes from within and without Paul says in Romans 1-2 — that manifests itself in the religious life of man, as he says here in vv. 22-23, and in the voice of conscience and the importance of moral judgment (as revealed here in such things as the need to “worship” God, even if he is not known, for fear of his judgments, which Paul returns to in v. 31. Other things could be mentioned as evidence of this God-consciousness: e.g. the value attached to human life, etc.

This is Paul’s starting point, the “hook” he uses to engage them in reflection about God and the world. And, it is certainly no different today. Every poll indicates that most Americans believe in God — usually over 90% — and believe in an afterlife of some sort. Yet most of these are virtually as vague about all of this as the Athenians were and will settle comfortably for almost nothing in the way of knowledge and certainty about what one would have supposed were the most important realities of all.

Paul’s point has been put well by J.S. Stewart [Heralds of God, pp. 52-55]:

“Whenever you speak to men in the name of Christ, unseen instincts deep within them are reinforcing your words.”

Or, here is C.S. Lewis making similar use of this “seed of religion” in a letter to a seeker [A Severe Mercy, p. 93].

“At one time I was much impressed by Arnold’s line ‘Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.’ But surely, tho’ it doesn’t prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! i.e. if we were a species that didn’t normally eat, weren’t designed to eat, wd. we feel hungry? You say the materialist universe is ‘ugly.’ I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialist universe, how is it that you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or wd. not always be, purely aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (‘How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up and married! I can hardly believe it!’) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal. …I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you’ll get away!”

Paul is not naive about this “seed of religion.” He knows how powerful is the urge of the human soul to suppress the truth it knows about God. But it emboldens him to engage unbelief on the assumption that unbelief is fundamentally irrational, even if the unbeliever will not admit it to be so.

  1. Second, this “seed of religion” is expressed by unbelievers in all manner of malformities, inconsistencies, and denials.
  1. A God great enough to account for the world and for the life of mankind, is worshiped by means of little man-made idols, thought to be somehow contained in man-made buildings, and somehow linked to a particular tribe or city. This is Paul’s approach in vv. 24-29, to reveal these inconsistencies and to proclaim a more consistent view of God.
  1. A God so great as to produce the worship of man and yet remains so vague, uncertain, unknown. So Christianity proclaims a God who has spoken and made himself known, as is only to be expected of a God who gave us speech, ears to hear, the ability to read; of a God who made us to relate, to know others, will of course make himself known.
  1. And so much more, here only in a nutshell — the hunger for life after death, yet all live for the moment; a moral conscience, yet such immorality of heart and life. These grand inconsistencies are the places to strike! Schaeffer did such a good job of this. Can you justify what is so important to you that you cannot live without it, if the God of Scripture does not exist! Your life borrows the Christian truth you deny! What men and women care about, what gives their lives meaning, are all those things that paganism cannot account for and cannot justify. Lewis used to say I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun, not only because I can see the sun but, by means of the sun, I can see everything else as well.

In other words, the consciousness of God is clear in all of the poignant evidence of our estrangement from him — and so from reality itself.

  1. Third, Paul’s strategy is to proclaim biblical truth by both declaring and explaining things as they actually are and as the honest conscience will admit they are.

The God large enough to explain my conscience, my human self-consciousness, my relatedness to others, my penchant for the worship of that which is larger than myself, my capacity to communicate, is too great for idols of my own making, will not be persuaded to do me good by my paltry services, and cannot be pleased with or indifferent to my failure to live up to that conscience that he has placed within me that speaks with such a clear voice.

Again the point is not that men will easily see this, only that because it is true, it lends the proclamation of the gospel a special power and should endue the Christian with a special confidence when he speaks of his faith to unbelievers.

Unbelievers are made in the image of God. They have a high purpose and know it, even if they cannot seem to discover a purpose high enough to satisfy them. They know human life is sacred but cannot explain how and why they know this. They know right and wrong are real things, orders of being, and not simply social conventions, but they can’t explain that either (Kant’s argument: no judgment, no right and wrong! simply tastes!). They know they have done much that is wrong, and it bothers them, estranges them from life, but they don’t know where to find relief. And so come Christians saying, here is an explanation and a solution to the great realities of your life, an explanation that is really sufficient, adequate.

Take an example: not so many years ago the evangelical psychiatrist, Armand Nicolai, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, conducted a survey of practicing psychologists on the subject of the basic requirements for a well-adjusted, happy personality. These were not Christian psychologists! They came back, not unpredictably, with four requirements:

  1. Acceptance of the inevitability of death;
  1. Self-identity and purpose;
  1. Sensitivity to the needs of others;
  1. Developed sense of personal standards.

Now we can ask a number of interesting questions about that list. Why is it that such things should be so important to human beings? Why should personal relationships or the fact of death loom so large in human happiness? Why do we struggle so at each of these points? Why is that which is so crucial to our happiness so doubtful in our lives? And so on. Christianity with its doctrine of creation, of man in the image of God, of the fall, has explanation for all of this and these are all the kind of hooks for conversations with unbelievers. These are issues of immediate and essential importance to human beings and their happiness, which happiness all men crave.

As Pascal put it: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going [one] way, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

Which is to say, these issues, just like the issues Paul raised in Athens, are not of mere theoretical interest. They concern what matters deeply and fundamentally to people. This is the way to present Christianity, to argue for it. It explains what most must be explained; and it resolves the problems that loom most threateningly on the horizon of life. We all should be often in such conversations and should enter them boldly, knowing as we do, that we have allies in the hearts of even the most convinced unbelievers, when we speak of God and man and the hope of life eternal.