I have formatted text taken from
Covenant Media Foundation’s
website. A search yielded the sug-gestion that Ashland Theological
Seminary pub-lished this as a pamphlet in 1980.
September 21, 2009
[Amended December 30,
Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there
between the Academy and the Church? . . . Our instructions come from
“the porch of Solomon”. . . . Away with all attempts to produce a
mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We
want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus . . . !
said Tertullian in his Prescription against Heretics (VII).
Tertullian’s question, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?,
dramatically expresses one of the perennial issues in Christian
thought—a problem which cannot be escaped by any Biblical interpreter,
theologian, or apologist. We all operate on the basis of some
answer to that question, whether we give it explicit and thoughtful
attention or not. It is not a matter of whether we will answer
the question, but only of how well we will do so.
does Tertullian’s question ask? It in-quires into the proper relation
between Athens, the prime example of secular learning, and Jerusalem,
the symbol of Christian commitment and thought. How does the
proclamation of the Church relate to the teaching of the philosophical
Academy? In one way or another, this question has constantly been
before the mind of the church. How should faith and philosophy
interact? Which has controlling authority over the other? How should
the believer respond to alleged conflicts between revealed truth and
extra-biblical instruction (in history, science, or what have you)?
What is the proper relation between reason and revelation, between
secular opinion and faith, between what is taught outside the church and
what is preached inside?
issue is particularly acute for the Christian apologist. When a
believer offers a reasoned defense of the Christian hope that is within
him (in obedience to 1 Peter 3:15), it is more often than not set forth
in the face of some conflicting perspective. As we evangelize
unbelievers in our culture, they rarely hold to the authority of the
Bible and submit to it from the outset. The very reason most of our
friends and neighbors need an evangelistic witness is that they
hold a different outlook on life, a different philosophy, a different
authority for their thinking. How, then, does the apologist respond to
the conflicting viewpoints and sources of truth given adherence
by those to whom he witnesses? What should he think “Athens” has to do
with “Jerusalem” just here?
Christians have long disagreed over the proper strategy to be assumed by
a believer in the face of unbelieving opinions or scholarship. Some re-nounce
extra-biblical learning altogether (“Jerusa-lem versus Athens”). Others
reject Biblical teach-ing when it conflicts with secular thought
(“Athens versus Jerusalem”). Some try to appease both sides, saying
that the Bible and reason have their own separate domains (“Jerusalem
segregated from Athens”). Others attempt a mingling of the two, holding
that we can find isolated elements of supportive truth in extra-biblical
learning (“Jerusa-lem integrated with Athens”). Still others maintain
that extra-biblical reasoning can properly proceed only upon the
foundation of Biblical truth (“Jeru-salem the capital of Athens”).
The Biblical Exemplar
it turns out that the Bible has not left us in the dark in answering
Tertullian’s important ques-tion. Luke’s account of the early church,
The Acts of the Apostles, offers a classic encounter between Biblical
commitment and secular thought. And appropriately enough, this
encounter takes place between a superb representative of “Jerusalem”—the
apostle Paul—and the intellectuals of Athens. The exemplary meeting
between the two is pre-sented in Acts 17.
Throughout the book of Acts Luke shows us how the ascended Christ
established His church through the apostles. We are given a selective
re-counting of main events and sermons which exhibit the powerful and
model work of Christ’s servants. They have left us a pattern to
follow with respect to both our message and method today. Thus,
it is highly instructive for contemporary apologists to study the way
the apostles, like Paul, reasoned and supported their message of hope
(cf. 1 Pet 3:15). Paul was an expert at suiting his approach to each
unique challenge, and so the manner in which he confronted the Athenian
unbelievers who did not profess submission to the Old Testament Scrip-tures—like
most unbelievers in our own culture—will be noteworthy for us.
know that Paul’s approach to such pagans—for instance, those at
Thessalonica, where he had been shortly before coming to Athens—was to
call them to turn from idols to serve the living and true God and to
wait for His resurrected Son who would judge the world at the
consummation (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1-10). In preaching to those who were
dedicated to idols Paul naturally had to engage in
apologetical reasoning. Proclamation was inseparable from de-fense,
as F. F. Bruce observes:
apostolic preaching was obliged to include an apologetic element if the
stumbling-block of the cross was to be overcome; the kerygma . .
. must in some degree be apologia. And the apologia was
not the invention of the apostles; they had all “received” it—received
it from the Lord.1
currently popular tendency of distinguish-ing witness from defense, or
theology from apo-logetics, would have been preposterous to the
apostles. The two require each other and have a common principle and
source: Christ’s authority. Paul’s Christ-directed and apologetical
preaching to pagans, especially those who were philosophi-cally inclined
(as in Acts 17), then, is paradigmatic for apologists, theologians, and
preachers alike today.
Although the report in Acts 17 is condensed, Luke has summarized the
main points of Paul’s message and method.
But is this Paul at His Best?
biblical interpreters have not granted that Acts 17 is an exemplar for
the proper en-counter of Jerusalem with Athens. Among them there are
some who doubt that Paul was genuinely the author of the speech recorded
in this chapter, while others think that Paul actually delivered this
speech but repudiated its approach when he went on to minister at
Corinth. Both groups, it turns out, rest their opinions on insufficient
non-evangelical attitude toward the Scrip-ture allows some scholars a
supposed liberty to criticize the authenticity or accuracy of its
con-tents, despite the Bible’s own claim to flawless perfection as to
the truth. In Acts 17:22 Luke identifies the speaker of the Areopagus
address as the apostle Paul, and Luke’s customary historical accuracy is
by now well known among scholars of the New Testament. (Interestingly,
classicists have been more generally satisfied with the Pauline
authenticity of this speech than have modernist theologians.)
Nevertheless, some wri-ters claim to discern a radical difference
between the Paul of Areopagus and the Paul of the New Testament
epistles. According to the critical view, the Areopagus focuses on
world-history rather than the salvation history of Paul’s letters, and
the speaker at Areopagus teaches that all men are in God by nature, in
contrast to the Pauline emphasis on men being in Christ by grace.2
These judgments rest upon an excessively narrow perception of the
writings and theology of Paul. The Apostle understood his audience at
Athens: they would have needed to learn of God as the Creator and of His
divine retribution against sin (even as the Jews knew these things from
the Old Testament) before the message of grace could have meaning. Thus
the scope of Paul’s theological discussion would necessarily be broader
than that normally found in his epistles to Christian church-es.
Moreover, as we will see as this study prog-resses, there are
conspicuous similarities between the themes of the Areopagus address and
what Paul wrote elsewhere in his letters (especially the opening
chapters of Romans). Johannes Munch said of the sermon: “its doctrine
is a reworking of thoughts in Romans transformed into missionary
impulse.”3 Finally, even given the broader per-spective on
history found in the address of Acts 17, we cannot overlook the fact
that it, in perfect harmony with Paul’s more restricted
salvation-history elsewhere, is bracketed by creation and final
judgment, and that it finds its climax in the resurrected Christ. The
speech before the Areopagus was a “plea for the Jewish doctrine of God,
and for the specifically Christian emphasis on a ‘Son of Man’ doctrine
of judgment”4 (not an “idealized scene” printing a
message about man’s [alleged] “dialectical relation to God”).5
The Paul on Areopagus is clearly the same Paul who writes in the New
Paul suddenly shift his apologetical stra-tegy after leaving Athens
though? It has some-times been thought that when Paul went on from
Athens to Corinth and there determined to know nothing among the people
except Christ crucified, repudiating the excellency of wisdom (1 Cor.
2:1-2), he confessed that his philosophical tactics in Athens had been
unwise. Disillusioned with his small results in Athens, Paul
prematurely departed the city, we are told, and then came to Corinth and
became engrossed in the word of God (Acts 18:5), never to use
philosophical style again.6 This out-look, while intriguing,
consists of more speculation and jumping to conclusions than hard
the first place, Paul is herein portrayed as a novice in Gentile
evangelism at Athens, experi-menting with this and that tactic in order
to find an effective method. This does not square with the facts. For
several years Paul had already been a successful evangelist in the world
of pagan thought; moreover, he was not of an experimental mindset, and
elsewhere he made plain that favor-able results were not the barometer
of faithful preaching. Besides, in Athens his results were not
completely discouraging (17:34). And of a prema-ture departure
from Athens the text says nothing. After leaving Athens, Paul can
hardly be said to have abandoned the disputing or “dialogue” for which
he became known at Athens (cf. 17:17); it continued in Corinth (18:4),
Ephesus (18:19), and Troas (20:6-7)—being a daily exercise for two years
in the school of Tyrannus (19:8-9). It is further inaccurate to project
a contrast between post-Athens Paul, engrossed in the word, and
Athenian Paul, absorbed in extra-biblical thought. Some Greek texts of
Acts 17:24-29 (e.g., Nestle’s) list up to 22 Old Testament allusions in
the margin, thus showing anything but a neglect of the Scriptural
word in Paul’s Athenian preaching!
Mention can again be made of the enlightening harmony that exists
between Paul’s writings, say in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 1, and his
speech in Acts 17. The passages in the epistles help us understand the
apologetical thrust of the Areo-pagus address, rather than clashing with
it—as the subsequent study will indicate. Finally, it is quite
difficult to imagine that Paul, who had previously declared “Far be it
from me to glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal.
6:14), and who incisively taught the inter-significance of the death and
resurrection of Christ (e.g., Rom. 4:25), would proclaim Christ as the
resurrected one at Athens without explaining that He was also the
crucified one—only later (in Corinth) to determine not to neglect the
crucifixion again. We must conclude that solid evidence of a dramatic
shift in Paul’s apologetic mentality simply does not exist.
Luke portrays for us by way of summary in Acts 17:16-34 can confidently
be taken as a speech of the Apostle Paul, a speech which re-flected his
inspired approach to Gentiles without the Bible, a speech consistent
with his earlier and later teachings in the epistles. His approach is
in-deed an exemplar to us. It was specially selected by Luke for
inclusion in his summary history of the early apostolic church. “Apart
from the brief sum-mary of the discourse at Lystra . . . , the address
at Athens provides our only evidence of the apostle’s direct approach to
a pagan audience.”7 With re-spect to the author’s
composition of Acts, Mar-tin Dibelius argues: “In giving only one sermon
ad-dressed to Gentiles by the great apostle to the Gentiles, namely the
Areopagus speech in Athens, his primary purpose is to give an example of
how the Christian missionary should approach cultured Gentiles.”8
And in his lengthy study, The Areo-pagus Speech and Natural
Revelation, Gartner cor-rectly asks this rhetorical question: “How
are we to explain the many similarities between the Areo-pagus speech
and the Epistles if the speech did not exemplify Paul’s customary
sermons to the Gen-tiles?”9 In the encounter of Jerusalem
with Athens as found in Paul’s Areopagus address, we thus find that it
was genuinely Paul who was speaking, and that Paul was at his best.
Scripture would have us, then, strive to emulate his method.
Before looking at Acts 17 itself, a short histor-ical and philosophical
background for the speaker of and listeners to, the Areopagus address
would be helpful.
was a citizen of Tarsus, which was not an obscure or insignificant city
(Acts 21:39). It was the leading city of Cilicia and famed as a city of
learning. In addition to general education, Tarsus was noted for its
schools devoted to rhetoric and philosophy. Some of its philosophers
gained signi-ficant reputations, especially the Stoic leaders Zeno of
Tarsus (who cast doubt on the idea of a universal conflagration),
Antipater of Tarsus (who addressed a famous argument against Carneades’
skepticism), Heraclides of Tarsus (who abandoned the view that “all
mistakes are equal”), and Athe-nodorus the Stoic (who was a teacher of
Augustus); Nestor the Academic followed Athenodorus, evi-dencing thereby
the variety of philosophic per-spectives in Tarsus. The city
surely exercised an academic influence on Paul, an influence which would
have been broadened later in Paul’s life when he came into contact with
its culture again for some eight years or so, three years following his
conversion. In his early years Paul was also educated by Gamaliel in
Jerusalem (Acts 22:3), where he excelled as a student (Gal. 1:14). His
course of study would have included critical courses in Greek culture
and philosophy (as evi-dence from the Talmud indicates). When we add to
this the extensive knowledge of Greek literature and culture which is
reflected in his letters, it is manifest that Paul was neither naive nor
ob-scurantist when it came to a knowledge of philo-sophy and Gentile
thought. Given his background, training, and expertise in Scriptural
theology, Paul was the ideal representative for the classic con-frontation
of Jerusalem with Athens.
Athens, the philosophical center of the ancient world, was renowned for
its four major schools: The Academy (founded ca. 287 B.C.) of Plato,
the Lyceum (335 B.C.) of Aristotle, the Garden (306 B.C.) of Epicurus,
and the Painted Porch (300 B.C.) of Zeno.
outlook of the Academy was radically al-tered by Arcesilaus and
Carneades in the third and second centuries before Christ; respectively,
they moved the school into utter skepticism and then probabilism.
Carneades relegated the notion of god to impenetrable mystery. When
Antiochus of Ascalon claimed to restore the “old Academy” in the first
century B.C., in actuality he introduced a syncretistic dogmatism which
viewed Stoicism as the true successor to Plato. The Platonic tradition
is remembered for the view that man’s soul is im-prisoned in the body;
at death man is healed, as his soul is released from its tomb.
anti-materialist emphasis was somewhat challenged by Aristotle’s
Peripatetic school, which denied the possibility of immortality and
invested much time in specialized empirical study and clas-sification of
the departments of knowledge. The in-fluence of this school had greatly
weakened by the time of the New Testament. However, its material-istic
proclivity was paralleled in the atomism of Epicureanism.
Democritus had earlier taught that the uni-verse consisted of eternal
atoms of matter, ever falling through space; the changing of
combina-tions and configurations of these falling atoms was explained by
reference to chance (an irrational “swerve” in the fall of certain
atoms). This meta-physic, in combination with an epistemology which
maintained that all knowledge stemmed from sense perception, led the
Epicurean followers of atomism to believe that a naturalistic
explanation of all events could and should be given. By their doctrine
of self-explanatory naturalism the Epicu-reans denied immortality
thereby declaring that there was no need to fear death. Moreover,
what-ever gods there may be would make no difference to men and their
affairs. Epicurus taught that long-lasting pleasure was the goal of
human behavior and life. Since no after-life was expected (at death a
person’s atoms disperse into infinite space), hu-man desires should
focus on this life alone. And in this life the only genuine long-term
pleasure was that of tranquility—being freed from disturbing pas-sions,
pains, or fears. To gain such tranquility one must become insulated
from disturbances in his life (e.g., interpersonal strife, disease),
concentrating on simple pleasures (e.g., a modicum of cheese and wine,
conversations with friends) and achiev-ing serenity through the belief
that gods never intervene in the world to punish disobedient beha-vior.
Indeed, whatever celestial beings there are, they were taken merely as
dream-like images who—in deistic fashion—care nothing about the lives of
men. Thus Philodemus wrote: “There is nothing to fear in god. There is
nothing to be alarmed at in death.” The Epicureans were, as is evident
here, antagonistic to theology. Epicurus had taught them to appeal to
right reason against superstition. Accordingly Lucretius denied any
need for recourse to “unknown gods” in order to explain the plague at
Athens or its alleviation.
Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, agreed that sensation was the
sole origin of knowledge, and that the mind of man was a tabula rasa
at birth. However, against Epicurean materialism, he taught that reason
governs matter in both man and the world, thus making man a microcosm of
the universal macrocosm. Man was viewed as in-tegrated with
nature—man’s reason seen as being of a piece with the ever-living fire
which permeates the world order. This was the “Logos” for the Stoics.
As a kind of refined matter that actively permeates all things and
determines what will hap-pen, the Logos was the unchanging rational plan
of historical change. Nature’s highest expression, then, was reason or
the world-soul, being per-sonified eventually as god. In addition to
this pan-theistic thrust, Zeno expounded a cyclic view of history
(moving through conflagration-regenera-tion sequences) which precluded
individual immor-tality. Being subordinated to immanent forces (the
divine world-soul and historical determinism) the individual was
exhorted to “live in harmony with nature,” not concerning himself with
matters which were beyond his control. If life was to be con-ducted
“conformably to nature,” and reason was nature’s basic expression, then
virtue for man was to live in harmony with reason. The rational
ele-ment in man was to be superior to the emotional. Epictetus wrote
that men cannot control events, but they can control their attitude
toward events. So everything outside reason, whether it be plea-sure,
pain, or even death, was to be viewed as in-different. Stoicism gave
rise to a serious attitude, resignation in suffering, stern
individualism, and social self-sufficiency. In turn, these achieve-ments
produced pride. Aratus and Cleanthes, two pantheistic Stoics of the
mid-third century B.C., viewed Zeus as a personification of the unavoid-able
fate which governs man’s life. Later Stoics either abandoned or
modified much of Zeno’s teaching. For instance, a century after
Cleanthes, Panaetius essentially became a humanist who saw theology as
idle chatter; and a century after Pana-etius another Stoic leader,
Posidonius (Cicero’s instructor), opted for a Platonic view of the soul,
the eternality of the world (contrary to the idea of conflagration), and
the dynamic continuity of nature under fate. The famous Roman Stoic,
Sene-ca, was a contemporary of Paul.
final line of thinking which was influential in Athens in Paul’s day
(mid-first century A.D.) was that of the Neo-Pythagoreans. In the late
sixth century B.C. Pythagoras had taught a mathe-matical basis for the
cosmos, the transmigration of souls, and a regime of purity. Mixed with
the thought of Plato, the Peripatetics, and Stoicism, his thought
reappeared in the first century B.C. with the Neo-Pythagoreans,
who emphasized an exo-teric and mystical theology which took a keen
interest in numbers and the stars. The Neo-Pytha-goreans influenced the
Essene community as well as Philo—Paul’s other philosophical
Paul’s day Athenian intellectual life had come to be characterized by
turmoil and uncertain-ty. Skepticism had made heavy inroads, which in
turn fostered various reactions—notably: interac-tion between the major
schools of thought, wide-spread eclecticism, nostalgic interest in the
past founders of the schools, religious mysticism, and resignation to
hedonism. Men were turning every which way in search for the truth and
for security. On the other hand, over four hundred years of
phil-osophical dispute with its conflicts, repetitions, and inadequacies
had left many Athenians bored and thirsty for novel schemes of thought.
Thus one can understand Luke’s accurate and insightful aside to the
reader in Acts 17:21, “Now all the Athenians and the strangers
sojourning there spent time in nothing else, but either to tell or to
hear some new thing.” The curiosity of the Athenians was indeed
proverbial. Earlier, Demosthenes had reproached the Athenians for being
consumed with a craving for “fresh news.” The Greek historian,
Thucydides, tells us that Cleon once declared, “You are the best people
for being deceived by something new which is said.” With this
background let us now examine Paul’s apologetic to secular
Paul’s Encounter with the Philosophers
(American Standard Version)
now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within
him as he beheld the city full of idols.
so he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons,
and in the marketplace every day with them that met him.
and certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered
him. And some said, what would this babbler say? Others, he seemeth to
be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached Jesus and the
and they took hold of him, and brought him unto the Areopagus, saying,
may we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by thee?
for thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know
therefore what these things mean.
(now all the Athenians and the strangers so-journing there spent their
time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.)
the early 50’s of the first century Paul was on something of a
“missionary furlough,” waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy. (Luke’s
rehearsal of this situation, Acts 17:14-16, is confirmed by Paul’s own
account in 1 Thess. 3: 1-2). However, his brief relief was broken when
he became internally provoked at the idolatry of the city, being
reminded anew of the perversity of the unbeliever who suppresses God’s
clear truth and worships the creature rather than the Creator (Acts
17:16; cf. Rom. 1:25). Paul’s love for God and His standards meant he
had a corresponding hatred for that which was offensive to the Lord.
The idolatry of Athens produced a strong and sharp emotional
dis-turbance within him, one of exasperated indig-nation. The Greek
word for “provoked” is the same as that used in the Greek Old Testament
for God’s anger at Israel’s idolatry (e.g., at Sinai). The Mosaic law’s
prohibition against idolatry was obvi-ously binding outside of
Old Testament Israel, judging from Paul’s attitude toward the idolatrous
society of Athens. Paul was thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and
strong emotion was gener-ated by the fact that this “city full of idols”
was “without excuse” for its rebellion (Rom. 1:20)—as also had been
Israel of old.
profligate Roman satirist, Petronius, once said that it was easier to
find a god in Athens than a man; the city simply teemed with idols.
Visitors to Athens and writers (e.g., Sophocles, Livy, Pausanius,
Strabo, Josephus) frequently remarked upon the abundance of religious
statues in Athens. According to one, Athens had more idols than all of
the remainder of Greece combined. There was the altar of Eumenides
(dark goddesses who avenge murder) and the hermes (statues with phallic
attributes, standing at every entrance to the city as protective
talismans). There was the altar of the Twelve Gods, the Temple of Ares
(or “Mars,” god of war), the Temple of Apollo Patroos. Paul saw the
image of Neptune on horseback, the sanctuary of Bacchus, the forty foot
high statue of Athena, the mother goddess of the city. Sculptured forms
of the Muses and the gods of Greek mythology pre-sented themselves
everywhere around Paul.11 What is today taken by tourists as
a fertile field of aesthetic appreciation—the artifacts left from the
ancient Athenian worship of pagan deities—represented to Paul not art
but despicable and crude religion. Religious loyalty and moral
consid-erations precluded artistic compliments. These idols were not
“merely an academic question” to Paul. They provoked him. As Paul
gazed upon the Doric Temple of the patron goddess Athena, the Parthenon,
standing atop the Acropolis, and as he scrutinized the Temple of Mars on
the Areopagus, he was not only struck with the inalienable religious
nature of man (v.22), but also outraged at how fallen man exchanges the
glory of the incorruptible God for idols (Rom. 1:23).
Paul could not keep silent. He began daily to reason with the Jews in
the synagogue, and with anybody who would hear him in the agora, at the
bottom of the Acropolis, the center of Athenian life and business (where
years before, Socrates had met men with whom to discuss philosophical
questions) (v.17). Paul’s evangelistic method was always suited to the
local conditions—and portrayed with historical accuracy by Luke. In
Ephesus Paul taught in the “school of Tyrannus,” but in Athens his
direct approach to the heathen was made in the marketplace. Paul had
already approached the unbelieving Jews and God-fearing Gentiles at the
synagogue in Athens. Now he entered the marketplace of ideas to “reason
with” those who met him there. The Greek word for Paul’s activity
recalls the “dialogues” of Plato wherein Socrates discusses issues of
philosophical importance; it is the same word used by Plutarch for the
teaching methods of a peripatetic philoso-pher. Paul did not simply
announce his viewpoint; he discussed it openly and gave it a reasonable
defense. He aimed to educate his audience, not to make common religious
cause with their sinful ignorance.
was well aware of the philosophical cli-mate of his day. Accordingly he
did not attempt to use premises agreed upon with the
philosophers, and then pursue a “neutral” method of argu-mentation 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 (or-iginally applied to gutter-sparrows) for a peddler of
second-hand bits of pseudo-philosophy—an intel-lectual 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).
rejected the assumptions of the philoso-phers in order that he might
educate them in the truth of God. He did not attempt to find common
beliefs which would serve as starting points for an uncommitted search
for “whatever gods there may be.” His hearers certainly did not
recognize com-monness with Paul’s reasoning; they could
not discern an echo of their own thinking in Paul’s argu-mentation.
Instead, they viewed Paul as bringing strange, new
teaching to them (vv. 18-20). They apparently viewed Paul as
proclaiming a new divine couple: “Jesus” (a masculine form that sounds
like the greek iasis) and “Resurrection” (a feminine form), being
the personified powers of “healing” and “restoration.” These “strange
deities” amounted to “new teaching” in the eyes of the Athenians.
Accusing Paul of being a propa-gandist for new deities was an echo of
the nearly identical charge brought against Socrates four and a half
centuries earlier.12 It surely turned out to be a more
menacing accusation than the name “seed-picker.” As introducing foreign
gods, Paul could not simply be disdained; he was also a threat to
Athenian well-being. And that is precisely why Paul ended up before the
the marketplace Paul had apologetically pro-claimed the fundamental,
apostolic kerygma which entered on Jesus and the resurrection
(Acts 17:18; cf. Acts 4:2). This summed up God’s decisive saving work
in history for His people: Christ had been delivered up for their sins,
but God raised Him for their justification (Rom. 4:25) and
thereby constituted Him the Son of God with power (i.e. exalted
Lord; Rom. 1:4). As mentioned previously, Paul’s approach to those who
were without the Scriptures was to challenge them to turn from their
idolatry and serve the living God, whose resurrected Son would
finally judge the world (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). This was the
burden of Paul’s message at Athens.
was determined to know nothing among men save Jesus Christ and Him
crucified . . . . in His resurrection through the power of the Creator
there stood before men the clearest evidence that could be given that
they who would still continue to serve and worship the creature would at
last be condemned by the Creator then become their Judge (Acts 17:31) .
. . . No one can be confronted with the fact of Christ and of His
resurrection and fail to have his own conscience tell him that he is
face to face with his Judge.13
was specifically the aspect of Christ’s resur-rection in Paul’s gospel
that elicited a challenge from the philosophers. At this they hauled
him before the Areopagus Council for an explanation and reasoned defense
of the hope that was in him (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 3:15).
tells us that Paul was “brought before the Areopagus” (v.19). The
Areios pagos literally means “‘the hill of Ares” (or “Mars’ hill”);
however, his referent is not likely a geographical feature in the local
surrounding of the agora. The Council of the Areopagus was a venerable
commission of the ex-magistrates which took its name from the hill where
it originally convened. In popular parlance its title was shortened
simply to “the Areopagus,” and in the first century it had transferred
its location to the Stoa Basileios (or “Royal Portico”) in the city
marketplace—where the Platonic dia-logues tell us that Euthyphro went to
try his father for impiety and where Socrates had been tried for
corrupting the youth with foreign deities. Apparently the Council
convened on Mars’ hill in Paul’s day only for trying cases of homicide.
That Paul “stood in the midst of the Areopagus” (v.22) and “went out
from their midst” (v. 33) is much easier understood in terms of his
appearance before the Council than his standing on the hill (cf. Acts
Council was a small but powerful body (probably about thirty members)
whose member-ship was taken from those who had formerly held offices in
Athens which (due to the expenses involved) were open only to
aristocratic Athen-ians. This Council was presently the dominating
factor in Athenian politics, and it had a reputation far and wide.
Cicero wrote that the Areopagus as-sembly governed the Athenian affairs
of state. They exercised jurisdiction over matters of religion and
morals, taking concern for teachers and public lecturers in Athens (and
thus Cicero once induced the Areopagus to invite a peripatetic
philosopher to lecture in Athens). A dispute exists over the ques-tion
of whether the Areopagus had an educational subcommittee before which
Paul likely would have appeared.15 But one way or another,
the Council would have found it necessary to keep order and exercise
some control over lecturers in the agora. Since Paul was creating
something of a disturbance, he was “brought before the Areo-pagus” for
an explanation (even if not for a specific examination toward the
issuance of a teaching license). The mention of “the Areopagus” is one
of many indicators of Luke’s accuracy as a historian. “According to
Acts, therefore, just as Paul is brought before the strategoi at
Philippi, the politarchai at Thessalonica, the anthupatos
at Corinth, so at Athens he faces the Areopagus. The local name for the
supreme authority is in each case different and accurate.”16
appeared before the Areopagus Council for a reason that probably lies
somewhere between that of merely supplying requested information and
that of answering to formal charges. After indicating the questions and
requests addressed to Paul before the Areopagus, Luke seems to offer the
motivation for this line of interrogation in verse 21—the proverbial
curiosity of the Athenians. And yet the language used when Luke says in
verse 19 that “they took hold of him” is more often than not in Acts
used in the sense of arresting someone (cf. 16:19; 18:17;
21:30—although not always, as in 9:27, 23:19). We must remember that
Luke wrote the book of Acts while Paul had been awaiting trial in Rome
for two years (Acts 28:30-31). His hope regarding the Roman verdict was
surely given expression in the closing words of his book—that Paul
continued to preach Christ, “none forbidding him.” An important theme
pursued by Luke in the book of Acts is that Paul was continually
appearing before a court, but never with a guilty verdict against him.
Quite likely, in Acts 17 Paul is por-trayed by Luke as again
appearing before a court without sentencing. Had there been the legal
for-mality of charges against Paul, it is inconceivable that Luke would
not have mentioned them or the formal verdict at the end of the trial.
Therefore, Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus Council is best
understood as an informal exploratory hearing for the purpose of
determining whether formal charges ought to be formulated and pressed
against him. Eventually none were.
the same city which had tried Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Socrates for
introducing “new deities,” Paul was under examination for setting forth
“strange gods” (vv. 18-20). The kind of apologetic for the resurrection
which he presented is a paradigm for all Christian apologists. It will
soon be apparent that he recognized that the fact of the
resurrection needed to be accepted and interpreted in a wider
philosophical context, and that the unregenerate’s system of
thought had to be placed in antithetic contrast with that of the
Christian. Although the philosophers had used disdainful name-calling
while considering Paul in the marketplace (v. 18), verses 19-20 show
them expressing themselves in more refined language before the Council.
They politely requested clarifi-cation of a message which had
been apparently in-comprehensible to them. They asked to be made
acquainted with Paul’s strange new teaching and to have its meaning
explained. Given their philoso-phical presuppositions and mindset,
Paul’s teach-ing could not even be integrated sufficiently into their
thinking to be understood. This in itself reveals the underlying fact
that a conceptual para-digm clash had been taking place between them and
Paul. Given their own worldviews, the philoso-phers did not think that
Paul’s outlook made sense. As Paul stood in the midst of the
presti-gious Council of the Areopagus, with a large audi-ence gathered
around from the marketplace, he set himself for a defense of his faith.
Let us turn to examine his address itself.
Paul’s Presuppositional Procedure
(American Standard Version)
and Paul stood in the midst of the Areo-pagus, and said, ye men of
Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are very religious (margin:
for as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found
also an altar with this inscription, to an Unknown God. What therefore
ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you.
the God that made the world and all things therein, he, being lord of
heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything,
seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on the face of the
earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of
that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find
him, though he is not far from each one of us:
for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of
your own poets have said, for we are also his offspring.
being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the godhead
is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man.
the times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth
men that they should all everywhere repent:
inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in
righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given
assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
must first be noted that Paul’s manner of addressing his audience was
respectful and gentle. The boldness of his apologetic did not
become arrogance. Paul “stood” in the midst of the Council, which would
have been the customary attitude of an orator. And he began his address
formally, with a polite manner of expression: “You men of Athens.” The
magna carta of Christian apologetics, 1 Peter 3:15, reminds us
that when we offer a reasoned defense of the hope within us, we must do
so “with meekness and respect.” Ridicule, anger, sarcasm, and
name-calling are inappropri-ate weapons of apologetical defense. A
Spirit-filled apologist will evidence the fruits of the Spirit in his
approach to others.
we see that Paul’s approach was to speak in terms of basic
philosophical perspectives. The Athenians had specifically asked
about the resur-rection, but we have no hint that Paul replied by
examining various alternative theories (e.g., Jesus merely swooned on
the cross, the disciples stole the body, etc.) and then by countering
them with various evidences (e.g., a weak victim of crucifixion could
not have moved the stone; liars do not become martyrs; etc.) in order to
conclude that “very probably” Jesus arose. No, nothing of the sort
appears here. Instead, Paul laid the pre-suppositional groundwork for
accepting the authoritative word from God, which was the source and
context of the good news about Christ’s resurrection. Van Til comments:
takes the fact of the resurrection to see its proper framework and it
takes the framework to see the fact of the resurrection; the two are
accepted on the authority of Scripture alone and by the regenerating
work of the Spirit.17
Without the proper theological context, the resur-rection would simply
be a monstrosity or freak of nature, a surd resuscitation of a corpse.
Such an interpretation would be the best that the Athenian
philosophers could make of the fact. However, given the monism, or
determinism, or materialism, or the philosophy of history entertained by
the philosophers in Athens, they could intellectually find sufficient
grounds, if they wished, for disputing even the fact of the
resurrection. It would have been futile for Paul to argue about the
facts, then, without challenging the unbelievers’ philosophy of fact.18
Verses 24-31 of Acts 17 indicate Paul’s recog-nition that between his
hearers and himself two complete systems of thought were in
conflict. Any alleged fact or particular evidence which was intro-duced
into the discussion would be variously seen in the light of the
differing systems of thought. Consequently, the Apostle’s apologetic
had to be suited to a philosophical critique of the unbeliever’s
perspective and a philosophical defense of the believer’s position. He
was called upon to conduct his apologetic with respect to worldviews
which were in collision. The Athenians had to be chal-lenged, not
simply to add a bit more information (say, about a historical event) to
their previous thinking, but to renounce their previous thoughts and
undergo a thorough change of mind. They needed to be converted in their
total outlook on life, man, the world, and God. Hence Paul reasoned
with them in a presuppositional fashion.
basic contours of a Biblically guided, pre-suppositional approach to
apologetical reasoning can be sketched from scriptures outside of Acts
17. Such a summary will give us sensitivity and insight into Paul’s
argumentation before the Areo-pagus.
Paul understood that the unbeliever’s mindset and philosophy would be
systemically contrary to that of the believer—that the two re-present
in principle a clash of total attitude and basic presuppositions.
He taught in Ephesians 4:17-24 that the Gentiles “walk in the vanity of
their mind, being darkened in their understanding” because of their
“ignorance and hardened hearts,” while a completely different epistemic
condition characterizes the Christian, one who has been “renewed in the
spirit of your mind” and has “learned Christ” (for “the truth is in
Jesus”). The “wisdom of the world” evaluates God’s wisdom as
foolishness, while the believer understands that worldly wisdom “has
been made foolish” (1 Cor. 1:17-25; 3:18-20). The basic commitments of
the believer and unbeliever are fundamentally opposed to each other.
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. Thus Paul refers
to thought which opposes the faith as “vain babblings of knowledge
falsely so called” (1 Tim. 6:20), and he insists that the wise disputers
of this age have been made foolish and put to shame by those called
“foolish” (1 Cor. 1:20, 27). Unbelievers become “vain in their
reasonings”; “professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom.
By contrast, the Christian takes revela-tional authority as his
starting point and controlling factor in all reasoning. In
Colossians 2:3 Paul explains that “all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge” are deposited in Christ—in which case we must be on the alert
against philosophy which is “not after Christ,” lest it rob us of this
epistemic treasure (v. 8). The Old Testament proverb had put it this
way: “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge, but fools
despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). Accordingly, if the
apologist is going to cast down “reasonings and every high thing exalted
against the knowledge of God” he must first bring “every thought into
captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), making Christ
pre-eminent in all things (Col. 1:18). Upon the platform of
God’s revealed truth, the believer can authoritatively declare the
riches of knowledge unto believers.
Paul’s writings also establish that, because all men have a clear
knowledge of God from general revelation, the unbeliever’s
suppression of the truth results in culpable ignorance. Men
have a natural and inescapable knowledge of God, for He has made it
manifest unto them, making his divine nature perceived through the
created order, so that all men are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20).
This knowledge is “suppressed in unrighteousness” (v. 18), placing men
under the wrath of God, for “knowing God, they glorified Him not as God”
(v. 21). The ignorance which characterizes unbeliev-ing thought is
something for which the unbeliever is morally responsible.
Given the preceding conditions, the appropriate thing for the apologist
to do is to set his worldview with its scriptural presuppositions
and authority in antithetical contrast to the world-view(s) of
the unbeliever, explaining that in prin-ciple the latter destroys the
possibility of know-ledge (that is, doing an internal critique of the
sys-tem to demonstrate its foolishness and ignorance) and indicating how
the Biblical perspective alone accounts for the knowledge which the
unbeliever sinfully uses. By placing the two perspectives in contrast
and showing “the impossibility of the contrary” to the Christian
outlook, the apologist seeks to expose the unbeliever’s suppression of
his knowledge of God and thereby call him to repen-tance, a
change in his mindset and convictions. Reasoning in this
presuppositional manner—refusing to become intellectually neutral and to
argue on the unbeliever’s autonomous grounds—prevents having our “minds
corrupted from the simplicity and purity that is toward Christ” and
counteracts the beguiling philosophy used by the serpent to ensnare Eve
(2 Cor. 11:3). In the face of the fool’s challenges to the Christian
faith, Paul would have believers meekly “correct those who are opposing
themselves”—setting Biblical instruc-tion over against the
self-vitiating perspective of unbelief—and showing the need for
“repentance unto the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).19
we look further now at Paul’s address before the Areopagus philosophers,
we will find that his line of thought incorporated the preceding
ele-ments of Biblically presuppositional reasoning. He pursued a
pattern of argument which was com-pletely congruous with his other
relevant New Tes-tament teachings. They virtually dictated his method
The Unbeliever’s Ignorance
Paul began his Areopagus apologetic, he began by drawing attention to
the nature of man as inherently a religious being (Acts 17:22;
cf. Rom. 1:19; 2:15). The term used to describe the Athenians in verse
22 (literally “fearers of the supernatural spirits”) is sometimes
translated “very religious” and sometimes “somewhat super-stitious.”
There is no satisfactory English equi-valent. “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. “Some-what 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.
Accordingly, in Acts 25:19 Festus refers to Judaism, using this term as
a mild reproach for its religiosity. It is not beyond possibility that
Paul cleverly chose this term precisely for the sake of its ambiguity.
His readers would wonder whether the good or bad sense was being
stressed by Paul, and Paul would be striking a double blow: men cannot
eradicate a religious impulse within themselves (as the Athenians
demonstrate), and yet this good impulse has been degraded by rebellion
against the living and true God (as the Athenians also demonstrate).
Although men do not acknowledge it, they are aware of their relation and
accountability to the living and true God who created them. But rather
than come to terms with Him and His wrath against their sin (cf. Rom.
1:18), they pervert the truth. And in this they become ignorant and
foolish (Rom. 1:21-22).
Paul could present his point by making an illustration of the altar
dedicated “To an Unknown God.” Paul testified that as he “observed” the
Athenian “objects of worship” he found an altar with an appropriate
inscription. The verb used of Paul’s activity does not connote a mere
looking at things, but a systematic inspection and purposeful scrutiny
(the English term ‘theorize’ is cognate). Among their “objects of
religious devotion”’ (lang-uage referring to idol worship without any
approba-tion) Paul finally found one which contained “a text for what he
had to say.”20 Building upon the admission of the Athenians
themselves, Paul could easily indict them for the ignorance of their wor-ship—that
is, any worship which is contrary to the word of God (cf. John 4:22).
The Athenians had brought Paul before the Areopagus with a desire to
“know” what they were missing in religious philosophy (vv. 19, 20), and
Paul immediately points out that heretofore their worship was admittedly
of the “unknown” (v. 23). Paul did not attempt to supplement or build
upon a common foundation of natural theology with the Greek philosophers
here. He began, rather, with their own expression of theological
inadequacy and defectiveness. He underscored their ignorance and
proceeded from that significant epistemological point.
presence of altars “to unknown gods” in Athens was attested by writers
such as Pausanias and Philostratus. According to Diogenes Laertius,
such altars were erected to an anonymous source of blessing. For
instance, once (ca. 550 B.C.), when a plague afflicted Athens without
warning and could not be mitigated by medicine or sacrifice, Epimenides
counseled the Athenians to set white and black sheep loose on the
Areopagus, and then to erect altars wherever the sheep came to rest.
Not knowing the specific source of the plague’s elimination, the
Athenians built various altars to unknown gods. This sort of
thing was apparently common in the ancient world. The 1910 excavation
at Pergamum unearthed evidence that a torchbearer who felt under some
obligation to gods whose names were unknown to him expressed his
gratitude by erecting an anonymous altar for them. Deissmann’s
conclusion bears repeating:
Greek antiquity cases were not altogether rare in which “anonymous”
altars “to unknown gods” or “to the god whom it may concern” were
erected when people were convinced, for example after experiencing some
deliverance, that a deity had been gracious to them, but were not
certain of the deity’s name.21
Athenians had a number of such altars on Mars’ hill alone. This was
testimony to the Athenian con-viction that they were lorded over by
mysterious, unknown forces.
these altars were also evidence that they assumed enough knowledge
of these forces to worship them, and worship them in a particular
manner. There was thus an element of subtle, internal critique in
Paul’s mention of the Athenian worship of that which they acknowledged
as unknown (v. 23). Moreover, Paul was noting the basic schizophrenia
in unbelieving thought when he described in the Athenians both an
awareness of God (v. 22) and an ignorance of God (v. 23). The same
condition is expounded in Romans 1:18-25. Berkouwer notes, “There is
full agreement between Paul’s characterization of heathendom as ignorant
of God and his speech on the Areopagus. Ever with Paul, the call to
faith is a matter of radical conversion from ignorance of God.”22
Knowing God, the unregenerate nevertheless suppresses the truth and
follows a lie instead, thereby gaining a darkened mind. Commenting on
our passage in Acts 17, Munck said:
follows reveals that God was unknown only because the Athenians had not
wanted to know him. So Paul was not introducing foreign gods, but God
who was both known, as this altar shows, and yet unknown.23
unbeliever is fully responsible for his mental state, and this is a
state of culpable ignorance. That explains why Paul issued a
call for repentance to the Athenians (v. 30); their ignorant
mindset was immoral.
The Authority of Revelational Knowledge
Having alluded to an altar to an unknown god, Paul said, “That which you
worship, acknowledging openly your ignorance, I proclaim unto
you.” There are two crucial elements of his apologetic approach to be
discerned here. Paul started with an emphasis upon his hearers’
ignorance and from there went on to declare with authority the truth of
God. Their ignorance was made to stand over against his unique
authority and ability to expound the truth. Paul set forth
Christianity as alone reasonable and true, and his ultimate
starting point was the authority of Christ’s revelation. It was not
uncommon for Paul to stress that the Gentiles were ignorant, knowing not
God. (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:20; Gal. 4:8; Eph. 4:18; 1 Thess. 4:5; 2 Thess.
1:8). In diametric contrast to them was the believer who possessed a
knowledge of God (e.g., Gal. 4:9; Eph. 4:20). This antithesis was
fundamental to Paul’s thought, and it was clearly elaborated at Athens.
Greek word for “proclaim” (“set forth”) in verse 23 refers to a solemn
declaration which is made with authority. For instance, in the Greek
papyri it is used for an announcement of the appointment of one’s legal
representative.24 It might seem that such an authoritative
declaration by Paul would be appropriate only when he dealt with Jews
who already accepted the scriptures; however, whether dealing with Jews
or secular philosophers, Paul’s epistemological platform re-mained the
same, so that even in Athens he “pro-claimed” the word of God. The verb
is frequently used in Acts and the Pauline epistles for the apostolic
proclamation of the gospel, which had direct divine authority (e.g.,
Acts 3:18; 1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Gal. 1:11-12). Therefore, we see that Paul,
al-though ridiculed as a philosophical charlatan, pre-sumed unique
authority to provide the Athenian philosophers with that knowledge which
they lacked about God. This was far from stressing common ideas and
beliefs. How offensive the Pauline antithesis between their ignorance
and his God-given authority must have been to them!
were sure that such a God as Paul preached did not and could not exist.
They were therefore sure that Paul could not “declare” this God to
them. No one could know such a God as Paul believed in.25
aimed to show his audience that their ignor-ance would no longer
be tolerated; instead, God commanded all men to undergo a radical
change of mind (v. 30). From beginning to end the unbe-liever’s
ignorance was stressed in Paul’s apolo-getic, being set over against the
revelational knowledge of God.
Culpable Suppression of the Truth
reasoned on the basis of antithetical presuppositions, a different
starting point and authority. He also stressed the culpability
of his hearers for that ignorance which resulted from their unbelief.
Natural revelation certainly played a part in his convicting them
of this truth. However, there is no hint in Paul’s words that this
revelation had been handled properly or that it established a common
interpretation between the believer and unbeliever. Rather, Paul’s
references to natural revelation were made for the very purpose of
indicting the espoused beliefs of his audience.
allusion to their religious nature has al-ready been discussed. In
addition, verses 26-27 show that Paul taught that God’s providential
government of history was calculated to bring men to Him; they should
have known Him from His works. Paul’s appeal to providence was
conspicuous at Lystra as well (Acts 14:17). The goodness of God
should lead men to repentance (cf. Rom. 2:4). Acts 17:27 indicates
that God’s providential governance of history should bring men to seek
God, “if perhaps” they might feel after Him. The subordinate clause
here expresses an unlikely contingency.26 The natural man’s
seeking and finding God cannot be taken for granted. Citing Psalm
14:2-3 in Romans 3:11-12, Paul clearly said: “There is none that seeks
after God; they have all turned aside and together become
unprofitable.” Returning to Acts 17:27, even if the unregenerate should
attempt to find God, he would at best “feel after” Him. This verb is
the same as that used by Homer for the groping about of the blinded
Cyclops. Plato used the word for amateur guess at the truth. Far from
showing what Lightfoot thought was “a clear appreciation of the elements
of truth contained in their philosophy”27 at Athens, Paul
taught that the eyes of the unbeliever had been blinded to the light of
God’s revelation. Pagans do not interpret natural revelation correctly,
coming to the light of the truth here and there; they grope about in
darkness. Hence Paul viewed men as blameworthy for not holding fast to
the knowledge of God which came to them in creation and providence. The
rebellious are left without an excuse due to God’s general revelation
Paul’s perspective in Acts 17 is quite evidently identical with that in
Romans 1. In both places he teaches that unbelievers have a knowledge
of God which they suppress, thereby meriting condem-nation; their
salvation requires a radical conversion from the ignorance of
heathendom. G. C. Berkouw-er puts it this way:
antithesis looms large in every encounter with heathendom. It is
directed, however, against the maligning that heathendom does to the
revealed truth of God in nature and it calls for conversion to the
revelation of God in Christ.28
it is that Paul’s appeals to general revelation function to point out
the guilt of the unbeliever as he mishandles the truth of God. He is
responsible because he possesses the truth, but he is guilty
for what he does to the truth. Both aspects of the unbeliever’s
relation to natural revelation must be kept in mind. When evidence is
found of the unbeliever’s awareness of the truth of God’s revelation
around and within him, Paul uses it as an indicator of the unbeliever’s
culpability, and the apostle shows that it needs to be understood and
interpreted in terms of the special revelation which is brought by
Christ’s commissioned representa-tive. Where natural revelation plays a
part in Christian apologetics, that revelation must be “read through the
glasses” of special revelation.
Acts 17:27, heathen philosophers are said at best to grope in darkness
after God. This inept groping is not due to any deficiency in God or
His revelation. The philosophers grope, “even though God is not far
from each one of us.” Verse 28 begins with the word, “for,” and thereby
offers a clarification or illustration of the statement that God is
quite near at hand even for blinded pagan thinkers. The unbeliever’s
failure to find God and his acknowledged ignorance is not an innocent
matter, and Paul demonstrates this by quoting two pagan poets. The
strange idea that these quota-tions stand “as proof in the same way as
biblical quotations in the other speeches of Acts”29 is not
only contrary to Paul’s decided emphasis in his theology upon the unique
authority of God’s word, but it simply will not comport with the context
of the Areopagus address wherein the groping, unrepentant ignorance of
pagan religiosity is declared forcefully. Paul quotes the pagan writers
to manifest their guilt. Since God is near at hand to all men, since
His revelation impinges on them continually, they cannot escape a
knowledge of their Creator and Sustainer. They are without excuse for
their perversion of the truth. Paul makes the point that even
pagans, contrary to their spiritual disposition (1 Cor. 2:14), possess a
knowledge of God which, though suppressed, renders them guilty before
the Lord (Rom. 1:18ff.).
supports this point before the Areopagus by showing that even
pantheistic Stoics are aware of, and obliquely express, God’s nearness
and man’s dependence upon Him. Epimenides the Cretan is quoted from a
quatrain in an address to Zeus: “in him we live and move and have our
being” (Acts 17:28a; interestingly, Paul quotes another line from this
same quatrain in Titus 1:12). The phrase “in him” would have denoted in
idiomatic Greek of the first century (especially in Jewish circles) the
thought of “in his power” or “by him.” This declaration—”By him we live
. . . ”—is not at all parallel to Paul’s theology of the believer’s
mystical union with Christ, often expressed in terms of our being “in
Christ.” Rather, Acts 17:28 is closer to the teaching of Colossians
1:15-17, “in him were all things created . . . and in him all things
consist.” The stress falls on “man’s absolute dependence on God for his
existence,”30 even though the original writing which Paul
quoted had aimed to prove that Zeus was not dead from the fact that
men live—the order of which thought is fully reversed in
Paul’s thinking (viz., men live because God lives). Paul’s
second quotation is introduced with the words, “as certain of your own
poets have said.” His use of the plural is further evidence of his
educated familiarity with Greek thought, for as a matter of fact the
statement which is quoted can be found in more than one writer. Paul
quotes his fellow Cilician, Aratus, as saying “for we are also his
offspring” (from the poem on “Natural Pheno-mena,” which is also echoed
in Cleanthes’ “Hymn to Zeus”). Paul could agree to the formal state-ment
that we are God’s “offspring”. However, he would certainly have said by
way of qualification what the Stoics did not say, namely that we are
children of God merely in a natural sense and not a supernatural sense
(John 1:12), and even at that we are quite naturally “children of wrath”
(Eph. 2:3). Yes, we can be called the offspring of God, but certainly
not in the intended pantheistic sense of Aratus or Cleanthes!
Knowing the historical and philosophical context in which Paul spoke,
and noting the polemical thrusts of the Areopagus address, we cannot
accept any interpreter’s hasty pronouncement to the effect that Paul
“cites these teachings with approval unqualified by allusion to a
‘totally different frame of reference.’”31 Those who make
such remarks eventually are forced to acknowledge the qualification
anyway: e.g., “Paul is not commending their Stoic doctrine,” and he “did
not reduce his categories to theirs.”32
Berkouwer is correct when he says “There is no hint here of a point of
contact in the sense of a preparation for grace, as though the Athenians
were already on the way to true knowledge of God.”33 Paul was
well enough informed to know, and able enough to read statements in
context to see, that he did not agree with the intended
meaning of these poets. He was certainly not saying that these
philosophers had somehow arrived at unqualified, isolated, elements of
the truth—that the Zeus of Stoic pantheism was a conceptual step toward
the true God!
is to be explained only in connection with the fact that the heathen
poets have distorted the truth of God. . . . Without this truth there
would be no false religiousness. This should not be confused with the
idea that false religion contains elements of the truth and gets
its strength from those elements. This kind of quantitative analysis
neglects the nature of the distortion carried on by false religion.
Pseudo-religion witnesses to the truth of God in its apostasy34
Within the ideological context of Stoicism and pantheism, of course,
the declarations of the pagan philosophers about God were not true. And
Paul was surely not committing the logical fallacy of equivocation by
using pantheistically conceived premises to support a Biblically
theistic conclu-sion. Rather, Paul appealed to the distorted teach-ings
of the pagan authors as evidence that the pro-cess of theological
distortion cannot fully rid men of their natural knowledge of God.
Certain expres-sions of the pagans manifest this knowledge as
suppressed. Within the philosophical context espoused by the
ungodly writer, the expressions were put to a false use. Within the
framework of God’s revelation—a revelation clearly received by
all men but hindered in unrighteousness, a revelation renewed in
writing in the Scriptures possessed by Paul—these expressions properly
expressed a truth of God. Paul did not utilize pagan ideas in his
Areopagus address. He used pagan expressions to demonstrate that
ungodly thinkers have not eradicated all idea, albeit suppressed and
distorted, of the living and true God. F. F. Bruce remarks:
Epimenides and Aratus are not invoked as authorities in their own right;
certain things which they said, however, can be understood as pointing
to the knowledge of God. But the knowledge of God presented in the
speech is not rationalistically conceived or established; it is the
knowledge of God taught by Hebrew prophets and sages. It is rooted in
the fear of God; it belongs to the same order as truth, goodness, and
covenant-love; for lack of it men and women perish; in the coming day of
God it will fill the earth ‘as the waters cover the sea’ (Is. 11:9).
The ‘delicately suited allusions’ to Stoic and Epicurean tenets which
have been discerned in the speech, like the quotations from pagan poets,
have their place as points of contact with the audience, but they do not
commit the speaker to acquiescence in the realm of ideas to which they
demonstrated that even in their abuse of the truth pagans cannot avoid
the truth of God; they must first have it in order that they
might then distort it. As Ned B. Stonehouse observed,
apostle Paul, reflecting upon their crea-turehood, and upon their
religious faith and practice, could discover within their pagan
reli-giosity evidences that the pagan poets in the very act of
suppressing and perverting the truth presupposed a measure of awareness
Their own statements unwittingly convicted the pagans of their knowledge
of God, suppressed in unrighteousness. About the pagan quotations Van
could say this adventitiously only. That is, it would be in accord with
what they deep down in their hearts knew to be true in spite of their
systems. It was that truth which they sought to cover up by means of
their professed systems, which enabled them to discover truth as
philosophers and scientists37
are engulfed by God’s clear revelation; try as they may, the truth which
they possess in their heart of hearts cannot be escaped, and
inadvertently it comes to expression. They do not explicitly understand
it properly; yet these expres-sions are a witness to their inward
conviction and culpability. Consequently Paul could take advan-tage of
pagan quotations, not as an agreed upon ground for erecting the message
of the gospel, but as a basis for calling unbelievers to repentance for
their flight from God. “Paul appealed to the heart of the natural man,
whatever mask he might wear.”38
Acts 17:24-31 Paul’s language is principally based on the Old Testament.
There is little justification for the remark of Lake and Cadbury that
this discourse used a secular style of speech, omitting quotations from
the Old Testament39] Paul’s utilization of Old Testament
materials is rather conspicuous. For instance, we can clearly see
Isaiah 42:5 coming to expression in Acts 17:24-25, as this comparison
saith God Jehovah, he that created the heavens and stretched them forth;
he that spread abroad the earth and that which cometh out of it; he that
giveth breath unto the people upon it . . . (Isaiah 42:5). The God that
made the world and all thing therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth
. . . giveth to all life, and breath, and all things (Acts 17:24, 25).
the Isaiah pericope, the prophet goes on to indicate that the Gentiles
can be likened to men with eyes blinded by a dark dungeon (42:7), and in
the Areopagus address Paul goes on to say that if men seek after God, it
is as though they are groping in darkness (i.e., the sense for the Greek
phrase “feel after Him,” 17:27). Isaiah’s develop-ment of thought
continues on to the declaration that God’s praise ought not to be given
to graven images (42:8), while Paul’s address advances to the statement
that “we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or
silver, or stone, graven by the art and device of men (17:29). It
surely seems as though the prophetic pattern of thought is in the back
of the apostle’s mind. F. F. Bruce correctly comments on Paul’s method
of argumentation before the Areopagus:
does not argue from the sort of “first principles” which formed the
basis of the various schools of Greek philosophy; his exposition and
defense of his message are founded on the biblical revelation of God. .
. . Unlike some later apologists who followed in his steps, Paul does
not cease to be fundamentally biblical in his approach to the Greeks,
even when (as on this occasion) his biblical emphasis might appear to
destroy his chances of success.40
Those who have been trained to think that the apologist must adjust his
epistemological authority or method in terms of the mindset of his
hearers as he finds them will find the Areopagus address quite
surprising in this respect. Although Paul is addressing an audience
which is not committed or even predisposed to the revealed Scriptures,
namely educated Gentiles, his speech is neverthe-less a typically
Jewish polemic regarding God, idolatry, and judgment! Using Old
Testament language and concepts, Paul declared that God is the Creator,
a Spirit who does not reside in man-made houses (v. 24). God is
self-sufficient, and all men are dependent upon Him (v. 25). He created
all men from a common ancestor and is the Lord of history (v. 26). Paul
continued to teach God’s disapprobation for idolatry (v. 29), His demand
for repentance (v. 30), and His appointment of a final day of judgment
(v. 31). In these respects Paul did not say anything that an Old
Testament prophet could not have addressed to the Jews. As the Lord
Creator (cf. Isa. 42:5), God does not dwell in temples made by hand—the
very same point spoken before the Jews by Stephen in his defense
regarding statements about the Jerusalem temple which God himself
commanded to be built (Acts 7:48). Both Paul and Stephen harkened back
to the Old Testament, where it was taught that the heavens cannot
contain God, and so neither could a man-made house (1 Kings 8:27; Isa.
66:1). And if God is not limited by a house erected by men, neither is
He served by the sacrifices brought to such temples (Acts 17:25). Paul
undoubtedly recalled the words of God through the Psalmist, “If I were
hungry, I would not tell thee; For the world is mine, and the fullness
thereof. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
(Ps. 50:12-13). The Areopagus address stresses the fact that “life”’
comes from God (v. 25), in whom “we live” (v. 28); such statements may
have been subtle allusions to the etymology of the name of Zeus (zao
in Greek, meaning ‘to live’)—the god exalted in the poetry of Aratus and
Epimenides. The genuine Lord of life was Jehovah, the Creator, who in
many ways was self-sufficient and very different from the Zeus of
popular mythology or of pantheistic speculation. God has appointed the
various seasons (or epochs) and boundaries of men (Acts 17:26)—even as
the Psalmist wrote, “Thou hast set all the borders of the earth; Thou
hast made summer and winter” (Ps. 74:17). Paul’s mention of “appointed
seasons” referred either to the regular seasons of the year (as in Acts
14:17, “fruitful seasons”) or to the appointed periods for each nation’s
existence and prominence.41 Either way, his doctrine was
rooted in the Old Testament—the Noahic covenant (Gen. 8:22) or Daniel’s
interpretation of dreams (Dan. 2:36-45). Another point of contact
between the Areopagus apologetic and the Old Testament is obvious in
Acts 17:29. Paul indicated that nothing which is produced by man
(i.e., any work of art) can be thought of as the producer of
man. Here Paul’s polemic is taken right out of the Old Testament
prophets (e.g., Isa. 40:18-20). No idol can be likened to God or
thought of as His image. God’s image is found elsewhere, in the work of
His own hands (cf. Gen. 1:27), and He thus prohibited the making of
other pseudo-images of Himself (“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven
image . . . ,” Ex. 20:4). Paul’s reasoning was steeped in God’s special
Consistent with his teaching in the epistles, then, Paul remained on
solid Christian ground when he disputed with the philosophers. He
reasoned from the Scripture, thereby refuting any supposed dichotomy in
his apologetic method between his approach to the Jews and his approach
to the Gentiles. In any and all apologetic encounters Paul began and
ended with God. “He was himself for no instant neutral.”42
“Like the biblical revelation itself, his speech begins with God the
creator of all, continues with God the sustainer of all, and concludes
with God the judge of all.”43 He had pre-viously established
his hearers’ ignorance; so they were in no position to generate
knowledgeable refutations of Paul’s position. He had also indicated his
authority to declare the truth; this was now reinforced by his appeal to
the self-evidencing authority of God’s revelation in the Old Testament
Scriptures. Finally, he had established his audience’s awareness and
accountability to the truth of God in natural revelation. Paul now
provides the interpretive context of special revelation to rectify the
distorted handling of previous natural revelation and to supplement its
teaching with the way of redemption.
Pressing the Antithesis
themes of Paul’s address in Acts 17 parallel those of Romans 1:
creation, providence, man’s dependence, man’s sin, future judgment.
Paul boldly sets the revelational perspective over against the themes of
Athenian philosophy. The statements of Paul’s Areopagus address could
hardly have been better calculated to reflect Biblical theology while
contradicting the doctrines of pagan philosophy. Paul did not appeal to
Stoic doctrines in order to divide his audience (a ploy used in Acts
23:6).44 Rather he philosophically offended both the
Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in his audience, pressing teaching
which was directly antithetical to their distinctives.
Against the monism of the philosophers, Paul taught that God had created
all things (v. 24; cf. Ex. 20:11; Ps. 146:6; Isa 37:16; 42:5). This
pre-cluded the materialism of the Epicureans and the pantheism of the
Stoics. Against naturalistic and immanentistic views Paul proclaimed
supernatural transcendence. As his listeners looked upon the Parthenon,
Paul declared that God does not dwell in temples made with hands (1
Kings 8:27; Isa 66:1-2).
needs nothing from man; on the contrary man depends on God for
everything (v. 25; cf. Ps. 50:9-12; Isa 42:5). The philosophers of
Athens should thus do all things to God’s glory—which is inclusive of
bringing every thought captive to Him, and thereby renouncing their
putative autonomy. Paul’s teaching of the unity of the human race (v.
26a) was quite a blow to the Athenians’ pride in their being indigenous
to the soil of Attica, and it assaulted their felt superiority over
“barbarians.” Paul’s insistence that God was not far from any would
deflate the Stoic’s pride in his elitist knowledge of God (v. 27b).
Over against a uniform commitment to the concept of fate Paul set forth
the Biblical doctrine of God’s providence (v. 26b; cf. Deut. 32:8); God
is not remote from or indifferent to the world of men.
the legendary founding by Athena of the Areopagus court, Apollo had
declared (according to Aeschylus): “When the dust drinks up a man’s
blood, Once he has died, there is no resurrection.” However, the apostle
Paul forcefully announced the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a fact which
assures all men that He will judge the world at the consummation (Ps.
9:8; 96:13; 98:9; Dan. 7:13; John 5:27; Rom. 2:16)—a doctrine which
contra-vened the Greek views of both cyclic and eternal history. The
Epicureans were deceived to think that at death man’s body simply
decomposed, and that thus there was no fear of judgment; the
resurrection refuted their ideas, just as it disproved the notion that
the body is a disdainful prison. Throughout Paul’s address the common
skepticism about theological knowledge found in the philosophic schools
was obviously challenged by Paul’s pronounced authority and ability to
openly proclaim the final truth about God.
Calling for Repentance and Change of Mindset
can hardly avoid the conclusion that Paul was not seeking areas
of agreement or common notions with his hearers. At every point he set
his Biblical position in antithetical contrast to their
philosophical beliefs, undermining their assump-tions and exposing their
ignorance. He did not seek to add further truths to a pagan foundation
of elementary truth. Paul rather challenged the foundations of pagan
philosophy and called the philosophers to full repentance (v.
new era which has commenced with the advent and ministry of Jesus Christ
has put an end to God’s historical overlooking of nations which lived in
unbelief. At Lystra Paul declared that in past generations God “allowed
all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16), although now He was
calling them to turn from their vanities to the living God (14:15).
Previously, God had shown forbearance toward the sins of the Jews as
well (cf. Rom. 3:25). However, with the advent of Christ, there has
been a new beginning. Sins once committed in culpable ignorance have
been made even less excusable by the redemptive realities of the
gospel. Even in the past God’s forbearance ought to have led men to
repentance (Rom. 2:4). How much more, then, should men now
respond to their guilt by repenting before God for their sins. The
lenience of God demonstrates that His concentration of effort is toward
the salvation rather than judgment of men (cf. John 3:17). This mercy
and patience must not be spurned. Men everywhere are now required
to repent. In Paul’s perspective on redemptive history, he can simply
say by way of summary: “Now is the acceptable time” (2 Cor.
6:2). As guilty as men had been in the past, God had passed over
confrontation with them. Unlike in Israel, messengers had not come to
upbraid the Gentiles and declare the punishment they deserved. God had
“overlooked” (not “winked at”’ with its inappropriate connotations) the
former times of ignorance (Acts 17:30). Whereas in the past He had
allowed the pagans to walk in their own ways, now with the
perfect revelation which has come in Jesus Christ, God commands
repentance (a “change of mind”) of all men and sends messengers to them
toward that end. Paul wanted the philosophers at Athens to not simply
refine their thinking a bit further and add some missing information to
it; but rather to abandon their presuppositions and have a complete
change of mind, submitting to the clear and authoritative revelation of
God. If they would not repent, it would be an indication of their love
for ignorance and hatred of genuine knowledge.
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.
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
be accurate, it is important for us to note that although the
resurrection was evidence in Paul’s argumentation, it was not the
conclusion of his argumentation. He was arguing, not for the
resurrection, but for final judgment by Christ. The misleading
assumption made by many popular evangelical apologists is that Paul
here engaged in an attempted proof of the resurrection—although nothing
of the sort is mentioned by Luke. Proof by means of the
resurrection is mistakenly seen in verse 31 as proof of the
resurrection.45 Others know better than to read such an
argument into the text and hold that detailed proof of the
resurrection was cut short in Paul’s address.46 He
would have proceeded to this line of reasoning, we are told, if he
had not been interrupted by his mocking hearers. Once again, however,
such an interpretation gains whatever plausibility it has with an
interpreter in terms of preconceived notions, rather than in terms of
textual support. F. F. Bruce remarks, “There is no ground for supposing
that the ridicule with which some of his hearers received his reference
to Jesus’ rising from the dead seriously curtailed the speech he
intended to make.”47 Haenchen says, “There is no hint that
Paul is interrupted”; the speech as it ap-pears in Acts 17 “is
inherently quite complete.”48 Paul proclaimed that Christ
had been appointed the final Judge of mankind, as His resurrection from
the dead evidenced. The Apostle did not supply an empirical argument
for the resurrection, but ar-gued theologically from the fact of the
resurrection to the final judgment. For Paul, even in apolo-getical
disputes before unbelieving philosophers, there was no authority more
ultimate than that of Christ. This epistemological attitude was most
appropriate in light of the fact that Christ would be the ultimate Judge
of man’s every thought and belief.
The Outcome of Paul’s Apologetic
(American Standard Version)
now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but
others said, we will hear thee concerning this yet again.
thus Paul went out from among them.
but certain men clave unto him, and believed: among whom also was
Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with
Paul spoken of the immortality of the soul, his message might have
appeared plausible to at least some of the philosophers in his
audience. However all disdained the idea of the resuscitation of a
corpse. When Paul concluded his discourse with reference to the
resurrection of Christ, such an apparent absurdity led some hearers to
“sneer” in open mockery of Paul. There is some question as to what
should be made of another reaction mentioned by Luke—namely, that some
said they would hear Paul again on this matter. This may have been a
polite procrastination serving as a brush-off,49 an
indication that this segment of the audience was confused or bewildered
with the message,50 or evidence that some wistfully hoped
that Paul’s proclamation might prove to be true.51 One way
or another, it should not have been thought impossible by anybody in
Paul’s audience that God could raise the dead (cf. Acts 26:8), but as
long as this philosophical assumption controlled their thinking, the
philosophers would never be induced to accept the fact of the
resurrection or allow it to make a difference in their outlook.
Until the Holy Spirit regenerates the sinner and brings him to
repentance, his presuppositions will remain unaltered. And as long as
the unbeliever’s presuppositions are unchanged a proper accep-tance and
understanding of the good news of Christ’s historical resurrection will
be impossible. The Athenian philosophers had originally asked Paul for
an account of his doctrine of resurrection. After his reasoned defense
of the hope within him and his challenge to the philosopher’s
presuppo-sitions, a few were turned around in their thinking. But many
refused to correct their presuppositions, so that when Paul concluded
with Christ’s resurrection they ridiculed and mocked.
Acceptance of the facts is governed by one’s most ultimate assumptions,
as Paul was well aware. Paul began his apologetic with God and His
revelation; he concluded his apologetic with God and His revelation.
The Athenian philosophers began their dispute with Paul in an attitude
of cynical unbelief about Christ’s resurrection; they concluded the
dispute in cynical unbelief about Christ’s resurrection. However, Paul
knew and demonstrated that the “closed system” of the philosophers was a
matter of dialectical pseudo-wisdom and ignorance. Their view that God
dwelt in impenetrable mystery undermined their detailed teaching about
Him. Their view that historical eventuation was a matter of irrational
fate was contravened by their conviction that all things are
mechanistically determined, and so on. In their “wisdom” they had
become utterly ignorant of the ultimate truth.
knew that the explanation of their hostility to God’s revelation (even
though they evidenced an inability to escape its forcefulness) was to be
found in their desire to exercise control over God (e.g., v. 29) and to
avoid facing up to the fact of their deserved punishment before the
judgment seat of God (v. 30). They secretly hoped that ignorance would
be bliss, and so preferred darkness to light (John 3:19-20). So Paul
“went out from among them” (v. 33)—a statement which expresses nothing
about his apologetic being cut short, and which gives no evidence that
Paul was somehow disappointed with his effort. Such thoughts must be
read into the verse.
minds of the Athenian philosophers could not be changed simply by
appealing to a few disputed, particular facts, for their philosophical
presuppositions determined what they would make of the facts. Nor could
their minds be altered by reasoning with them on the basis of their own
fundamental assumptions; to make common cause with their philosophy
would simply have been to confirm their commitment to it. Their minds
could be changed only by challenging their whole way of thought with the
completely different worldview of the gospel, calling them to renounce
the inherent foolishness of their own philosophical perspectives and to
repent for their suppression of the truth about God.
a complete mental revolution, allowing for a well-grounded and
philosophically defensible knowledge of the truth, can be accomplished
by the grace of God (cf. 2 Tim. 2:25). Thus Luke informs us that as
Paul left the Areopagus meeting, “certain men clave unto him and
believed” (v. 34). There is a note of triumph in Luke’s observation
that some within Paul’s audience became believers as a result of his
apologetic presentation. He mentions conspicuously that a member of the
Areopagus Counsel, Dionysius, became a Christian, as well as a woman who
was well enough known to be mentioned by name, Damaris. These were but
some converts “among others.” Ecclesiastical tra-dition dating from
around 170 A.D. says that Diony-sius was appointed by Paul as the first
elder in Athens. (In the fifth century certain pseudepi-graphical works
of a Neoplatonic character made use of his name.) However Luke himself
mentions no church having been planted in Athens, as we would have
expected an educated Gentile to mention if a church had been started in
Athens. Indeed, a family residing in Corinth was taken by Paul as the
ecclesiastical “firstfruits of Achaia” (1 Cor. 16:15). Apparently no
church was immediately developed in the city of Athens, even though
patristic writers (especially Origen) mention a church being in
Athens—eventually getting under way sometime after Paul’s ministry
there, so it seems. The earliest post-apostolic apologists, Quadratus
and Aristides, wrote during the time of Emperor Hadrian, and both were
from Athens. However we choose to reconstruct the ecclesiastical
history of the city, it is plain that Paul’s work there was not futile.
By God’s grace it did see success, and his apologetic method can be a
guide and goad for us today. Would that we had the boldness in a proud
university setting, enjoying the highest level of culture of the day, to
proclaim clearly to the learned philosophers, with their great minds,
that they are in fact ignorant idolaters who must repent in light of the
coming judgment by God’s resurrected Son.
Observations in Retrospect
Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17 has been found to set forth a
classic and exemplary en-counter between Christian commitment and
secu-lar thinking—between “Jerusalem and Athens.” The Apostle’s
apologetical method for reasoning with educated unbelievers who did not
acknowledge scriptural authority turns out to be a suitable pattern for
our defending the faith today.
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 unbeliev-ing 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.
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 that the natural theology of the Athenian philosophers
was inherently a natural idolatry. He could not argue from their
unbelieving premises to Biblical conclusions without equivocation in
understanding. Thus his own distinctive outlook was throughout placed
over against the philosophical commitments of his hearers.
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 a brute historical—yet
miraculous—event, given then an apostolic interpretation. Argumentation
about a particular fact would not force a shift in the un-believer’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.
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 indis-putable eyeball facts of experience, not the satis-faction
or peace felt within his heart. God’s revela-tional truth—learned
through his senses, under-stood with his mind, comforting his heart, and
pro-viding the context for all life and thought—was his self-evidencing
starting point. It was the presup-positional platform for
authoritatively declaring the truth, and it was presented as the sole
reasonable option for men to choose.
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 for distorting and suppressing
the truth of God.
In motivation and direction Paul’s argu-mentation with the Athenian
philosophers was pre-suppositional. He set two fundamental worldviews
in contrast, exhibiting the ignorance which results from the
unbeliever’s commitments, and pre-senting 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
F.F. Bruce, The Defence of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), p.18.
E.g., H. Conzelmann, “The Address of Paul on the Areopagus,” Studies
in Luke-Acts, ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon,
1966), pp. 217ff. A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle
(New York: H. Holt, 1931), pp. 6ff.
Johannes Munck, The Anchor Bible: The Acts of the Apostles,
revised by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann (Garden City, New York:
Doubleday & Co., 1967), p. 173; cf. Adolf Harnack, The Mission and
Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), p.
Kirsopp Lake and Henry J. Cadbury, The Acts of the Apostles, vol.
4 (Translation and Commentary) in The Beginnings of Christianity,
Part 1, ed. F. J. Roakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1965 ), pp. 208-209.
Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, a Commentary
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971 [German, 1965]), pp. 528, 529.
E.g., W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen
(New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896), p. 252; cf. P. Vielhauer, “On the
‘Paulinism’ of Acts,” Studies in Luke-Acts, ed. Keck and Martyn,
Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament
Studies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 9-10.
Martin Dielius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), p. 79.
Bertil Gartner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation
(Uppsala: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955), p. 52.
For further details on the philosophical schools of the Hellenic and
Roman periods the reader can consult with profit the standard historical
studies of Guthrie, Brehier, and Copleston.
Cf. Oscar Broneer, “Athens: City of Idol Worship,” The Biblical
Archaeologist 21 (February, 1958):4-6.
For a comparison of the apologetical methods of Socrates and Paul see G.
L. Bahnsen, “Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian
Apologetics,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, ed. Gary
North (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976).
Cornelius Van Til, Paul at Athens (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: L.
J. Grotenhuis, n.d.), pp. 2, 3.
Contrary to Haenchen, Acts Commentary, pp. 518-519, 520.
For the affirmative position see Gartner, Areopagus Speech, pp.
64-65; for the negative see Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 519.
Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 213.
Van Til, Paul at Athens, p. 14.
Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley, New
Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), p. 293.
For further discussion of the presuppositional method, refer to the
earlier chapters of this book.
F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, in the New
International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1955), p. 356.
Adolf Deissman, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History
(London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1926), pp. 287-291.
G. C. Berkouwer, General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1955), p. 145.
Munck, Anchor Bible: Acts, p. 171.
J. H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New
Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), p. 324.
Van Til, Paul at Athens, p. 5.
Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepherd
Publishers, 1872), 2:198.
J. B. Lightfoot, “St. Paul and Seneca,” St. Paul’s Epistle to the
Phillipians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), p.
Berkouwer, General Revelation, p. 145.
Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 525.
Gartner, Areopagus Speech, p. 188.
Gordon R. Lewis, “Mission to the Athenians” part IV, Seminary Study
Series (Denver: Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, November,
1964), p. 7; cf. pp. 1, 6, 8, and part III, p. 5.
Ibid., part III, p. 2; part IV, p. 6.
Berkouwer, General Revelation, p. 143.
Ibid., p. 144.
F. F. Bruce, “Paul and the Athenians,” The Expository Times 88
(October, 1976): 11.
Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus, p. 30.
Van Til, Paul at Athens, p. 12.
Ibid., p. 2.
Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 209.
F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, pp.
Compare Gartner, Areopagus Speech, pp. 147-152, with Haenchen,
Acts Commentary, p. 523.
Berkouwer, General Revelation, pp. 142-143.
F. F. Bruce, “Paul and the Athenians,” p. 9.
Contrary to E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles, An Historical
Commentary, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G.
Tasker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 140-141.
E.g., R. C. Sproul, tape “Paul at Mars’ Hill,” in the series Exegetical
Bible Studies: Acts (Pennsylvania: Ligonier Valley Study Center), tape
E.g., Blaiklock, Acts, Historical Commentary, p. 142; Everett F.
Harrison, Acts: The Expanding Church (Chicago: Moody Press,
1975), p. 272.
F. F. Bruce, Book of Acts, p. 362.
Haenchen, Acts Commentary, p. 526.
Harrison, Acts, p. 273.
Lake and Cadbury, Acts of the Apostles, p. 219.
J. S. Steward, A Faith to Proclaim (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1953), p. 117.
Greg L. Bahnsen page