Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979, 191-239.

November 2, 2011 

The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics

The Basic Question of Method

The Socratic Outlook

The Christian Perspective

Paulís Apologetic Method: Acts 17

An Overview of the History of Apologetics

The Reformation of Apologetics 

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics (continued)

Greg Bahnsen


Paulís Apologetic Method: Acts 17

Some four hundred and fifty years after Socrates stood trial in Athens for subverting the youth and teaching new deities, the apostle Paul was brought before the Areopagus Council in Athens, the most venerable court of its day, in order to determine whether or not he was subverting the public welfare by his teaching of new deities.  The dissimilarity between his apologetic and that of Socrates is conspicuous.  Paul did not appeal to autonomous reason or stress that he had in common with his audience a lack of wisdom.  Paul did not attempt to bolster his contentions with factual demonstrations, logical exhibitions, references to social or personal betterment, or appeals to subjective guidance.

His hearers were noticeably aware of the antithesis between his outlook and their own: he brought to them new gods, strange things, and new teachings.190  In his address, Paul underscored the ignorance of his hearers in their religiosity.191  On the other hand, he emphasized his authority, his prerogative to proclaim the truth about God unto them.  ďThat which you worship openly demonstrating your ignorance I proclaim unto you.Ē192 In accord with his description of the unregenerate mind in Romans 1:23, 25, Paul characterized the Athenians as very idolatrous.193  He realized that he could not build the gospel of Christ upon the foundation of pagan natural theology.  Paul would not have his declaration of the truth from God absorbed into the immanentistic philosophy of heathen speculation, where the resurrection would merely be an oddity springing from the realm of chance.  Paul knew that, given their presuppositions, the Athenians were far more ignorant than they even thought.194  Thus, he directly attacked their philosophic assumptions, challenging them with the presuppositions of the Christian faith.

Against the common Greek assumption that all being is at bottom one, Paul clearly declared the doctrine of creation.195  While his hearers gazed upon the Parthenon, Paul asserted that God does not dwell in temples made with hands.196  Paul diametrically opposed the Epicurian notion of ateleological fate, as well as Stoic idolatry and its notion of an exclusive knowledge of divinity for the elite.  Instead, he proclaimed Godís providential control of history and His natural revelation within each man.197  Upon the founding of the court of the Areopagus, Aeschylus had said that Apollo declared, ďthere is no resurrection.Ē  Standing in that same court, Paul diametrically contradicted him, proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Godís assured pledge that Christ shall judge the world in the eschatological day198óanother doctrine which clashed with Greek philosophy: its cyclic view of history. Throughout his address, Paul undermined the presuppositions of his hearers and established the foundational doctrines of Christianity, standing forthrightly upon biblical ground, making abundant allusions to Old Testament passages instead of arguing from first principles in philosophy.199  The authority of God, rather than that of autonomous reason, stood behind his preaching of Godís demand that the Athenians have a ďchange of mindĒóthat is, that those living in ignorance repent.200

The themes which Paul rehearsed in Athens were the same as those discussed in Romans 1: creation, providence, manís dependence upon God, future judgment.  Paul knew that he had a point of contact with his hearers, and that they had abundant reason to acknowledge the truth of his words.  Just as he taught in Romans 1:18-20, Paul explained to the Athenians that God was already known by them through general revelation, even though they have suppressed and misused that knowledge.  Godís revelation of himself within and without man left the Athenians fully responsible to the truth.  They were very religious by nature and felt a duty to worship.201  Godís providential control of history was calculated to lead them into a knowledge of God.202  God had so engulfed men with the clear revelation of himself that He is not far from anyoneóso much so that even pagan poets, despite their suppression of the truth, cannot help having the revelation of God be reflected at isolated points in their teaching.203  God has given regular witness of himself to all men, and thus He holds all men under responsibility to repent of their culpable ignorance (i.e., their unrighteous and ineffective suppression of the truth about God).

In his apologetic before the Areopagus, then, Paul appealed to the truth held down deep within the heart of the unregenerate man, but insisted that this truth could only be properly apprehended when placed within the proper context of apostolic proclamation.  He attacked the religious presuppositions of his hearers with the voice of authority, indicting their rebellion against the proper knowledge of God.  He stressed ideological antithesis, recognized noetic depravity, made God the reference point of his interpretation of facts and logic, appealed to the revelation of God bearing constantly upon his hearers, avoided both a neutral method and the elevating of manís autonomous standards of piety or truth above God, and reasoned in terms of the ultimate epistemological authority of God.  While Socratesí apology was man-centered, piecemeal, and dependent upon certain autonomous and rootless tests for truth, the apologetic of Paul was God-centered, presuppositional, and rooted in the ultimate standard of meaningfulness and truth: Godís authoritative revelation.  In the Socratic outlook, God is subject to the self-sufficient testing of manís reason, while in the Christian perspective, God is the necessary presupposition for the use of manís reason and (through His self-attesting revelation) the final criterion of all truth.



190 Acts 17:18-20.

191 Cf. Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 18-23.

192 Acts 17:23.

193 Acts 17:16.

194 Cornelius Van Til, Paul at Athens (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Lewis J. Grotenhuis, n.d.).

195 Acts 17:24.

196 Ibid.

197 Acts 17:25-29.

198 Acts 17:31.

199 Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Defence of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 38ff.

200 Acts 17:30; cf. vs. 23.

201 Acts 17:22-23.

202 Acts 17:26-27; cf. Romans 2:4.

203 Acts 17:27-28.


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Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics


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