MARS HILL: PAUL IN THE LIONS’ DEN

INTRODUCTION: Despite current appearance of the complete secularization of Western Society, religion is actually thriving.[1] This is one of those good news/bad news scenarios. Human beings are religious beings. Avoiding religion is thus impossible. But having said that we must recognize, as the acclaimed French thinker Jacques Ellul, has pointed out, that instead of the older faith of Christianity, modern man now places faith in modernity (technology and the advance of science to mention only two of the new god-substitutes).[2] To this, we must acknowledge that many new religious movements have emerged. Some are closely tied to mainstream Christianity but have departed in significant ways from historic Christianity with distinctives that put strong emphasis on experience (i.e., Charismatics involved in such things as ‘Holy Laughter’). Others range from groups that draw directly from Eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism) to New Age gnosticism and spirituality (Shirley McLaine). “Religion”, observes William Edgar, “is in one way quite uniform being derived from a sense of dependence on something or someone that has ultimate value. Much religion, however, has gone wrong. Instead of trusting the true God, people turn to other objects of devotion. Though extremely varied throughout the world, at heart is a universal dynamic, the paradox of knowing and yet imprisoning the truth. In other words, the essence of religion is neither ritual nor creedal formulation nor ethical code but faith.[3] The Apostle Paul on many occasions had to deal with the question of religion in his travels throughout the Ancient world. In Acts 17, we find him not only preaching the Gospel but giving an apologia for Christianity.

I.          PAUL’S VISIT TO ATHENS

Athens was the academic and cultural center of the ancient world. Its beauty was legendary—but Paul was not impressed. First and foremost, what he saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry. The adjective Luke uses (KATEIDŌLOS) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and has not been found in any other Greek literature. Although most English versions rend it ‘full of idols’, the idea conveyed seems to be that the city was ‘under’ them. We might say that it was ‘smothered with idols’ or ‘swamped’ by them. Alternatively, since KATA words often express luxurious growth, what Paul saw was ‘a veritable forest of idols’. As he was later to say, the Athenians were ‘very religious’. Xenophon referred to Athens as ‘one great altar, one great sacrifice’. In consequence, ‘there were more gods in Athens that in all the rest of the country, and the Roman satirist hardly exaggerates when he says that it was easier to find a god there than a man’.[4]

    A.  His Response. He immediately went about engaging the populace with the Gospel. First, in the synagogue and amongst the God-fearing Greeks and then into the market place. It was here that the Apostle came into dispute with the learned philosophers of the city.B.  His Method. Paul was well aware of the philosophical climate of his day. Accordingly he did not attempt to use premises agreed upon with the philosophers, and then pursue a “neutral” method of argumentation to move them from the circle of their beliefs into the circle of his own convictions. When he disputed with the philosophers, they did not find any grounds for agreement with Paul at any level of their conversations. Rather, they utterly disdained him as a “seed-picker”, a slang term (originally applied to gutter-sparrows) for a peddler of second-hand bits of pseudo-philosophy—an intellectual scavenger (v. 18). The word of the cross was to them foolish (1 Cor. 1:18), and in their pseudo-wisdom they knew not God (1 Cor. 1:20-21). Hence Paul would not consent to use their verbal “wisdom” in his apologetic, lest the cross of Christ be made void (1 Cor. 1:17).[5]

 

II.         PAUL’S PRESUPPOSITIONAL PROCEDURE (17:22-31)

Note carefully Paul’s manner of addressing his listeners. He is respectful and bold but not arrogant. Ridicule, anger, sarcasm, insults, and name-calling do more harm than good in encounters like this. The basic content of Paul’s apologetical method can be seen in his argumentation.

    A.  Paul understood that the unbeliever’s mindset and philosophy would be systemically contrary to that of the believer—that the two represent in principle a clash of total attitude and basic presuppositions.B.  Paul further understood that the basic commitments of the unbeliever produced only ignorance and foolishness, allowing an effective internal critique of his hostile worldview. The ignorance of the non-Christian’s presuppositions should be exposed.

    C.  By contrast, the Christian takes revelational authority as his starting point and controlling factor  in all reasoning. Upon the platform of God’s revealed truth, the believer can authoritatively declare the riches of God’s special revelation (the Bible) to unbelievers.

    D.  Paul in Rom. 1:18-34 also establishes that, because all men have a clear knowledge of God from general revelation, the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth results in culpable ignorance. The ignorance, which characterizes unbelieving thought, is something for which the unbeliever is morally responsible.

 

III.        PAUL’S APOLOGIA

The Apostle does not begin by giving a personal testimony or by appealing to the felt-needs of his audience. He doesn’t mention how Jesus has made his life meaningful or appeal to the crowd to try Jesus for all your emotional aches and pains. Paul started with an emphasis upon his audience’s ignorance. He stated the obvious—we are inherently religious beings (17:22). Paul says they are very religious (from the Greek word DEISIDAIMŌN made from DEIDŌ to fear and DAIMŌN, a divine being). The term used to describe the Athenians in verse 22 (literally “fearers of the supernatural spirits”) is sometimes translated “very religious” and sometimes “somewhat superstitious”. There is no satisfactory English equivalent. “Very religious” is too complimentary; Paul was not prone to flattery, and according to Lucian, it was forbidden to use compliments before the Areopagus in an effort to gain its goodwill. “Somewhat superstitious” is perhaps a bit too critical in thrust. Although the term could sometimes be used among pagans as a compliment, it usually denoted an excess of strange piety.

    A.  The Unbeliever’s Ignorance. This was Paul’s starting point—their worship, even if done with great devotion and profound sincerity, was still idolatry and therefore Paul issues a call to faith, a call to turn from ignorance to the true and living God. B. The Authority of God’s word. The word translated proclaims in 17:22 (NIV) refers to a solemn declaration, which is made with authority. On the basis of God’s authority Paul aimed to show his listeners that their ignorance was culpable and would no longer be tolerated; instead, God commands all men to repent (undergo a radical change of mind (17:30)). Paul’s appeal to them to repent was grounded not in autonomous argumentation but the presupposed authority of God’s Son (v. 31), an authority for which there was none more ultimate in Paul’s reasoning. Paul’s hearers were told that they must repent, for God had appointed a day of final judgment; if the philosophers did not undergo a radical shift in their mindset and confess their sinfulness before God, they would have to face the wrath of God on the day of final accounting. To whom would they have to give account? At this point Paul introduced the “Son of Man eschatology” of the gospels. The judgment would take place by a man (literally, a ‘male’) who had been ordained to this function by God. This man is the “Son of Man” mentioned in Daniel 7:13. In John 5:27, Christ spoke of himself, saying that the Father “gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” After His resurrection Christ charged the apostles “to preach unto the people and to testify that this is He who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Paul declared this truth in his Areopagus apologetic, going on to indicate that God had given “assurance” or proof of the fact that Christ would be mankind’s final Judge. This proof was provided by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.[6]

 

IV. THE OUTCOME OF PAUL’S APOLOGETIC (17:32-34)

Upon mentioning the resurrection, some of those in the crowd began to sneer and mock. Some said they would like to hear more and some responded in true faith.

Conclusion:

Observations in Retrospect

    1.  Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17 has been found to set forth a classic and exemplary encounter between Christian commitment and secular thinking—between “Jerusalem and Athens.” The Apostles’ apologetical method from reasoning with educated unbelievers who did not acknowledge scriptural authority turns out to be a suitable pattern for our defending the faith today.2.  Judging from Paul’s treatment of the Athenian philosophers, he was not prepared to dismiss their learning, but neither would he let it exercise corrective control over his Christian perspective. The two realms of thought were obviously dealing with common questions, but Paul did not work to integrate apparently supportive elements from pagan philosophy into his system of Christian thought. Because of the truth-distorting and ignorance-engendering character of unbelieving thought, Paul’s challenge was that all reasoning be placed within the presuppositional context of revelational truth and Christian commitment. The relation “Athens” should sustain to “Jerusalem” was one of necessary dependence.

    3.  Rather than trying to construct a natural theology upon the philosophical platform of his opponents—assimilating autonomous thought wherever possible—Paul’s approach was to accentuate the antithesis between himself and the philosophers. He never assumed a neutral stance, knowing the natural idolatry. He could not argue from their unbelieving premise to Biblical conclusions without equivocation in understanding. Thus, his own distinctive outlook was throughout placed over against the philosophical commitments of his hearers.

    4.  Nothing remotely similar to what is called in our day the historical argument for Christ’s resurrection plays a part in Paul’s reasoning with the philosophers. The declaration of Christ’s historical resurrection was crucial, of course, to his presentation. However, he did not argue for it independently on empirical grounds as an abrupt historical—yet miraculous—event, given then an apostolic interpretation. Argumentation about a particular fact would not force a shift in the unbeliever’s presuppositional framework of thought. Paul’s concern was with this basic and controlling perspective or web of central convictions by which the particulars of history would be weighed and interpreted. Without the proper theological context, the resurrection would simply be a monstrosity or freak of nature, an absurd resuscitation of a corpse.

    5.  In pursuing the presuppositional antithesis between Christian commitment and secular philosophy, Paul consistently took as his ultimate authority Christ and God’s word—not independent speculation and reasoning, not allegedly indisputable eyeball facts of experience, not the satisfaction or peace felt within his heart. God’s revelational truth—learned through his senses, understood with his mind, comforting his heart, and providing the context for all life and thought—was his self-evidencing starting point. It was the presuppositional platform for authoritatively declaring the truth, and it was presented as the sole reasonable option for men to choose.

    6.  Paul’s appeal was to the inescapable knowledge of God which all men have in virtue of being God’s image and in virtue of His revelation through nature and history. A point of contact could be found even in pagan philosophers due to their inalienable religious nature. Paul indicated that unbelievers are conspicuously guilty from distorting and suppressing the truth of God.

    7.  In motivation and direction Paul’s argumentation with the Athenian philosophers was presuppositional. He set two fundamental worldviews in contrast, exhibiting the ignorance which results from the unbeliever’s commitments, and presenting the precondition of all knowledge—God’s revelation—as the only reasonable alternative. His aim was to effect an overall change in outlook and mindset, to call the unbeliever to repentance, by following the two-fold procedure of internally critiquing the unbeliever’s position and presenting the necessity of the Scripture’s truth. Through it all, it should also be observed, Paul remained yet earnest. His manner was one of humble boldness. In addition to humble boldness, note the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message. The Gospel cannot be understood unless it is set in its biblical context—we cannot preach Jesus without the doctrine of God. We cannot preach the grace of God without the doctrine of God’s judgement. We cannot preach forgiveness without the doctrine of sin. Why is it that we today do not follow Paul in this regard? “We do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had the paroxysm of indignation which he had. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray ‘Hallowed be your Name’, but we do not seem to mean it, or to care that his Name is so widely profaned. Why is this? It takes us a stage further back. If we do not speak like Paul because we do not feel like Paul, this is because we do not see like Paul. That was the order: he saw, he felt, he spoke. It all began with his eyes. When Paul walked round Athens, he did not just ‘notice’ the idols. The Greek verb used three times (16, 22, 23) is either THEŌREŌ or ANATHEŌREŌ  and means to ‘observe’ or ‘consider’. So he looked and looked, and thought and thought, until the fires of holy indignation were kindled with him. For he saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving to idols the homage which was due to him alone.”[7]

Endnotes

  1. Noted sociologist Peter Berger says that churchly religiosity (that is religious belief and practice within the traditions of the principal Christian churches) has been on the decline in modern society. “In Europe this has generally taken the form of a progressive decline in institutional participation (attendance at worship, use of the sacraments, and the like), though there are important class differences in this. In America, on the contrary, there has been an increase in participation (as measured by church membership figures), though there are good reasons to think that the motives from participation have changed greatly from the traditional ones.” A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Doubleday & Co., 1969), p. 5. Recent studies confirm this assessment. People often exaggerate their involvement to pollsters. cf. Karen Owen, “Church-attendance figures ungodly high? Many say they go when truth is no” Arizona Republic Sept. 16, 1999.
  2. J. Ellul, The New Demon (Seabury, 1975). Neil Postman speaks of “Scientism”–the growing sense of absolute confidence of science to solve all our problems. Faith in science can serve in this sense as a religious substitute providing a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and over immortality cf. his Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage, 1992), p. 147.
  3. W. Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion (Baker, 1996), p. 53.
  4. J.R.W. Stott, The Spirit, The Church and the World: The Message of Acts (IVP, 1990), p. 277.
  5. Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), p. 246. The main points in my outline have been adapted from Bahnsen’s chapter “The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens” pp. 235-274.
  6. Ibid. p. 268.
  7. Stott, op. cit. p. 290.

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