FIRST CENTURY POST-MODERNISM?
16 While Paul was in Athens awaiting his partners, he was being deeply agitated—provoked in his spirit—to see the city swarming with idols. 17 So he took to holding discussions in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and also each day in the public square with whomever was there.
The apostle Paul experienced a visceral reaction to what he saw in Athens. He was not a yokel from some rural backwater. He grew up in a major commercial city among gentiles. He was not academically cloistered. His acute mind had been highly trained not only in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also (as we shall see) in the pagan classics. He was not the victim of culture shock borne of an overly-sheltered background, or an insufficient exposure to paganism. He had made a couple of recent preaching tours through some of the leading cities in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. At one point in his travels, townspeople came close to offering sacrifices to him because they thought he was the god Hermes. Paul was not a naïve man, nor was he easily shocked.
What then stirred him so deeply? He seems to have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of idols, and by the power of ignorance and untruth in a city so renowned for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Not only had the quest for intellectual excellence not resulted in the refinement of civilization, it appeared that this quest had actually abetted the growth and acceptance of barbarism in Greco-Roman society.
Athens was the original university town. The days of its political supremacy were long gone, but in A. D. 50 it was still an intellectual and cultural center of the Western world, rivaled only by Alexandria, Egypt. What the apostle Paul found there startlingly resembles the environment that greets university students in the early 21st century. This environment included:
Pluralism. Why were there so many idols? Because there were so many different religions, none being considered higher or more authoritative than any other. The more, the better. Paul was amazed at the aggressiveness of the polytheism of Athens. It was as if polytheism was not just a fact, but a policy. Likewise, today in our society, complex pluralism is not merely a fact. It is virtually a moral norm in its own right, and a policy goal that is vigorously pursued—especially in the university. The people of Athens—including the Jewish populace, apparently—seemed comfortable with this state of affairs, but to the soul of Paul it was vexingly abnormal.
Relative Values. Any viable religion brings with it an interpretation of reality and a set of values for living. The acceptance of the validity of the veneration of all these graven images implies an acceptance of whatever lifestyle might come with it. What is not acceptable is to raise the question of what is true or what is right. Ironically the philosophers for which Athens was so famous had long ceased to ask the most basic questions.
Faddishness. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had sought ultimate truth. Sadly, their quest evolved among their successors into a voracious appetite for novelty and sensationalism. Consider Luke’s revealing and devastating description of the affluent Athenian culture (which, incidentally, is corroborated by other writers contemporary with Luke):
21All the Athenians and the visiting foreigners used to pass their time in nothing else than telling and listening to “the latest.”
I can’t help seeing a parallel here with our own fascination with endless talk permeating the radio and television airwaves, and our unquenchable thirst for news, information, and gossip. This kind of inquisitiveness is prompted by boredom and an obsession to be “in the know.” It is not a sincere pursuit of knowledge, but the arrogant condescension of an educated elite. It is an intellectual recklessness, which plays with ideas without regard for their consequences.
Skepticism. Why had the Greek academy so degenerated? Being unable to improve the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, yet unable to solve the dilemmas they raised, the philosophers became frustrated. Over time, Skepticism with a capital S—an insidious anti-philosophy in which the mind turns its sharpest tools against itself—crept in. Brilliant thinkers used their genius to gradually destroy all confidence in absolute truth, and finally even the desire to find it. All that was left was the thirst for a good argument.
TWO HUMANIST WORLDVIEWS
18 Then some of the Epicureans and Stoics, philosophers, began meeting with him.
Greek philosophy, splintered as it was, still dominated education in the Roman world. The splinters of Greek humanism tended to be grouped around two worldviews, represented by the Epicureans and the Stoics.
Naturalism. The Epicureans were materialists who believed that all reality is reducible to atoms or particles of matter. According to Epicureanism, there is no immortal soul, no life after death. Human life has no meaning or purpose beyond temporal happiness.
The Epicureans were the custodians of dogmatic Naturalism in their day, on the same philosophical wavelength as the so-called Secular Humanists of our own day. And like the Secular Humanists of our day, they were disproportionately influential. There weren’t many “card-carrying” Epicureans, and most people were put off by their disdain for religious faith. Yet they held great sway over culture, ethics and education.
Pantheism. The Stoics, on the other hand, did talk about God, but not in a personal way. They were pantheists: All reality is essentially spiritual. God is the “World-soul,” all things are ultimately one, and every person has a divine spark. This life matters only for the attainment of virtue, for at death the soul survives by returning to the World-soul.
The Stoics became famous and admired for their ethic of discipline and self-sufficiency, and their passivity in the presence of either pain or pleasure. Perhaps the most celebrated Stoic was the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius—who was also one of the fiercest persecutors of Christians.
Both the Stoics and the Epicureans regarded themselves to be above the popular piety of polytheism. The Epicureans disdained the veneration of the gods, while the Stoics condescendingly spoke of metaphorical meanings. Yet both philosophies accepted polytheism as the norm, the basic template for religion and society. They did not regard the gods and the myths to be real, just indispensable.
HOW HUMANISTS INVESTIGATE CHRISTIANITY
They held one principle in common. Whatever their arguments with each other, the Naturalist and the Pantheist were (then as now) united regarding a fundamental principle: that man must begin from himself to find the meaning of life. Note their response to Paul once he drew their attention:
18 Some were saying, “What is this huckster trying to say?” Others responded, “He seems to be a preacher of alien deities,” because he was declaring the gospel story about Jesus and his resurrection. 19 They literally grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus (their forum), saying, “Could we know what is this new teaching that you are articulating? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.”
They assumed an attitude of superiority. They called him a huckster, literally a “seed-speaker”—a slang term for a peddler of ideas, someone who picks up some concept like a bird picks up a seed and tries to pass it off as a profound new insight. It would be gratifying to think that they were gripped by the possibility that Paul's message was the great breakthrough they sought. Not so. They dragged Paul into their public media out of their incessant thirst for intellectual entertainment. The truth is, they were probably hoping Paul would at least provide something new to argue about, and perhaps even be a foil they could subject to savage satire and ridicule. The crowd was formally polite, but hardly friendly.
They held false assumptions about the message. They were used to arguing about the immortality of the soul and about ethical issues, but Paul's message flustered them. Their problem was—and is—that the Humanist mind cannot on its own terms comprehend the Christian gospel. The intellectual problem is not one of mental capability, but of worldview sufficiency. Christianity does not neatly fit into humanistic categories of religion or philosophy, but transcends them both. (We would also hold, along with Paul, that there is a blindness on a deeper level that prevents not only the Humanist, but even the philosophical Theist from responding to the gospel—cf. I Corinthians 2:11-16—but that's another essay.)
HOW AN APOSTLE RESPONDS TO HUMANISM
With all their skepticism, they could not immediately dismiss Paul and his message. With a mixture of disdain, suspicion, and raging curiosity, the intelligentsia of Athens put the Jew from Tarsus on the spot, and he rose to the occasion.
22 And standing in the middle of the Areopagus, Paul said:
"Men, Athenians, I observe you are terribly religious about everything. 23 For passing through and observing your objects of veneration, I even found an altar on which had been inscribed, 'To an unknown god.' The One whom you revere unknowing, him I proclaim to you: 24 the God who made the world and everything in it.
"He, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by [human] hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, he himself giving life and breath to all in every way.
26 "And he made from one blood every nation of men to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, having determined prearranged times and the boundaries of their dwelling, 27 to seek the Lord, if perhaps they might grope for him and might find him—though indeed [he] is not far from each of us. 28 For 'in him we live and move and exist,' as even some of the poets among you have said—'for we are indeed his offspring.'
29 "Being, therefore, offspring of God, we ought not to think the Deity to be like gold or silver or stone, an artifice produced by the skill and imagination of man. 30 It follows that, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God surely now is commanding all peoples everywhere to repent.
31 "Because he set a day in which he is about to judge the world in justice by a man whom he appointed, having given assurance to all [by] having raised him up from the dead."
We have already compared the university environment of today with that which Paul the Apostle encountered in 1st century Athens. Similarities include pluralism, moral relativism, faddishness, and skepticism. We have noted that humanism then, even as today, was divided into two basic views: Naturalism (the Epicureans), and Pantheistic mysticism (the Stoics).
We also observed how Paul, deeply disturbed by the rank idolatry that ruled the city, began preaching Christ. What particularly caught the ear of the “university” was Paul’s bold insistence that Jesus had literally risen from the dead (v. 18). Their curiosity thus stirred they actually compelled Paul to speak in their forum, the Areopagus (Mars Hill, if you prefer). This is the issue they wanted to hear about. What did he mean with this talk of a resurrection?
Paul’s address to the Athenian philosophers and pundits had a particular purpose. Though the sermon was apparently impromptu, it gives evidence of strategic thinking borne of experience. He had to establish a context in which the coming of a divinely appointed Savior could make sense to these humanists. Otherwise any gospel preaching would be pointless.
It would surely be a mistake to think that what we have in Acts 17 is a complete transcription of his address. We know that Paul was a voluble speaker (see, for example, Acts 20:7-9). We may assume that those who brought him almost forcibly to the Areopagus desired to hear him at length. We may even imagine that the audience was giving feedback and questioning Paul even as he was speaking. It seems best to regard the recorded verses as an accurate synopsis of Paul's words, as remembered by Paul himself and certain of those who heard the talk.
Structurally his speech is finely crafted and in line with the best communication techniques of his day. Though Paul was modest about his rhetorical abilities (1 Corinthians 2:3,4; 2 Corinthians 10:10), he was an able and experienced preacher who knew how to get his message across.
Not too clear in English translation is his subtle use of language to make listeners think and draw them in. For example, when he tells them how “terribly religious” he perceives them to be (v. 22), he chooses words that could be taken either as a complement for piety, or as a sarcastic slam for superstition. They might expect a Jew to be more straightforward in his condemnation of idols, but that is not the direction he follows. The phrase is intentionally ambiguous, doubtless chosen to make his listeners wonder how he meant it and therefore listen further in order to find out.
As much as possible, he seeks to address them on their own terms rather than requiring them first to learn his. He even illustrates his points with pagan literary references (v. 28. Compare I Corinthians. 15:33 and Titus 1:12.)
On the other hand, he does not quote the Bible. This omission puzzles some and bothers others. But what would have been the point? The Athenian humanists did not recognize the authority of the Hebrew scriptures, nor had they any interest in the Messiah of Israel. Paul believed in the power of Scripture but not apart from the understanding, as though merely quoting Moses would have ignorant gentiles quaking in the fear of God.
Much more should be made, however, about the content of the message, which is thoroughly biblical. Remember, Paul is seeking to answer their questions about the resurrection.
So the apostle gets “in their face” with a highly confrontational set of ideas.
Creation. The world and its inhabitants are the creation of a living God—not the products of spontaneous generation or chance evolution.
Absolutes. God is not only the personal Creator, but also the Lord over all the earth, the Ruler over human history, the Sustainer of life, and the Source of a universal morality. This means that God is also the ultimate reason for the universal experience of our badness as sin.
Judgment. All people are accountable to God, and will face a final judgment for the lives they have lived, he being both the Rewarder of their goodness and the Punisher of their badness. Somehow, the way Paul puts it, the latter seems to loom ominously over the former. This judgment to come is no myth or metaphor, but a real event which will occur in the future.
All of these issues Paul brings forth, not as supporting arguments, but as basic premises. So far from being defensive about his message, he sets forth all these principles without trying to defend any of them. He does not offer proofs or evidences. He makes no arguments for them. They comprise his argument! He assumes that their validity is self-evident, and that his hearers themselves recognize it. That is the point of his citation of their poets. Their lines do not serve as supportive evidence for the truth of his propositions, but rather as evidence that the philosophers themselves already know that what he says is true.
The point is that Paul is not on defense, but offense. In his epistle to the Romans he writes, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ," which may be paraphrased, "I don't regard the gospel of Christ to be something I have to defend." In the same context he asserts that there is no such thing as simple ignorance of the truths he proclaims to the Athenians. Rather, "men unrighteously suppress the truth." (See Romans 1:17,18.)
Here, then, is the progression of his message thus far: There is a Creator, there are absolutes, and there is a coming judgment. He does not regard these points to be a matter of controversy. The fact that the crowd does not interrupt him or walk out on him so far indicates that he at least has their attention, if not their agreement.
What is controversial, in his mind, is the next point: The coming judgment is now at hand. God has let mankind go its way up to this point in history, but all that is changing. He has in fact appointed the man who will bring the world to judgment and restore universal justice.
The way Paul said it, it was clear that he had a specific man in mind, not one who was yet to be revealed but who had been revealed already. Perhaps someone in the crowd called out at this point, demanding how Paul knew the man to whom he referred is the very one chosen by God to call the world to account. It is here that the speech riles the audience. It is here that Paul brings up one more point essential to the worldview of biblical Theism: Resurrection. The belief that the dead shall be raised is the sine qua non of biblical Theism, revered in branches of Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity.
Paul certainly knew that the very mention of the word would be repellant to his audience, though indeed it was their curiosity about it that brought him to this platform. The pantheistic Stoics believed in the immortality of the soul, but were put off by the idea of a resurrection. Salvation to them was about deliverance from the material world. Why would anyone want to return to it? The materialistic Epicureans denied altogether the survivability of the person after death.
Nevertheless, Paul did not shrink from introducing the resurrection as a fundamental premise of his message, nor did he couch it in euphemistic terms or spiritualize it so as to keep the attention of at least half of the audience. No, he used explicit language to make it clear he was speaking of bodily resurrection "out from (the Greek preposition, "ek") the dead."
But what is most interesting is not that Paul brought up the resurrection from the dead. It is how he brought it up. It is not as a premise, but as a support. He offers the resurrection as evidence that validates his message. How can we know that the man Paul preaches is God's Appointed One (not far conceptually from Anointed One, i.e., Christ)? We can know because God raised him from the dead. The resurrection is presented not as a religious idea, but as a factual event.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This is the sine qua non of Christian Theism. This event authenticates the message: That there will be a resurrection and a judgment. That there is salvation. That Jesus' death on the cross is not just the execution of a rebel, but a sacrificial work of God. That Jesus Christ is Lord.
HOW HUMANISTS RESPOND TO THE GOSPEL
32 But as soon as they heard "resurrection of the dead," some were jeering, and others said, "We will hear you again concerning this." 33And so Paul left from among them.
34 But some men, joining themselves to him, believed, among whom was Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman by the name of Damaris, and others with them.
Had Paul blundered to bring up the resurrection? Should he have skirted the topic or couched it in metaphor and euphemism so as not to offend?
It seems that once the word "resurrection" was spoken, Paul's moment in the Areopagus was over. It was as though he had crossed a line with his audience. He had touched the proverbial "third rail" of philosophical discussion. Some began to heckle, breaking the mood and continuity of the address. Most demurred politely, in the manner of those who nervously look at their watches and say they have to catch a plane, but "let's do lunch." Some think these latter were sincere in their expression that they wished to hear more, but it is plain to me that their words were disingenuous. In fact, there were no follow up hearings. The subject was closed.
But remember that the very reason these philosophers wanted to "dialog" with Paul was their curiosity about this very subject. The whole point of bringing Paul before the Areopagus was to discuss the resurrection.
I propose that they lost their nerve. Apparently Paul's talk of accountability to the unknown God, in whose sustenance and by whose sufferance we all live and move and have our being, made them too uncomfortable to proceed. They were willing to discuss issues of metaphysics, but not of conscience. Members of the intellectual elite like to keep those at a distance. It is easier to retreat into prejudices than to grapple with real questions. It's easier to sneer at the resurrection than to contemplate the consequences if it is true. It is easier to play like the gods and the myths are real than to face the reality of absolutes.
There's a homely expression heard in country churches when the sermon hits too close to home: "Preacher, you've done quit preachin' and gone to meddlin'!" Of course the sophists of Athens would never say such a thing. They just cut him off, almost in mid-sentence. Some deflect their anxiety by hurling mockery, probably Epicureans (their contemporaries frequently observed them to be rude and abusive). Others simply give supercilious signals of the end of the discussion—clearing throats, shifting postures, adjusting clothes, moving into small cliques. The spotlight is turned off and the apostle leaves the stage before he ever gets to the truly controversial part of his message. Their reviews in tomorrow's edition will coldly size up Paul as a pretender, a pseudo-intellectual, a seed-speaker after all.
There were some, nevertheless, who did wish to hear more. One of them was Dionysius, who is called an "Areopagite," a member of the Areopagus Society. An intellectual himself, he did not join his colleagues who regarded Paul and his gospel to be absurd. He "believed." So also did a woman named Damaris. We don't know anything more about these persons (there are a number of interesting but unreliable traditions and conjectures about them), but the fact that they are named along with unspecified "others" indicates that Luke considered them to be significant individuals, noteworthy Christians—and sources who could document the story.
Paul did not stay long in Athens. He moved on to the commercial, culturally diverse and far more free-wheeling city of Corinth. There he found many from all walks of life who were willing to listen. What the Areopagus of Athens rejected, the streets of Corinth embraced. He stayed there for over a year and a half and founded a vital—if enduringly controversial—movement there.
What then should we take from this story? Permit me to propose, for now, two things:
Let us put our message forward positively. There is no need for us to be the least bit intimidated by the intellectual pretensions of our age. Truth is true, everywhere at all times.
Let us labor to put our message in terms our age can understand without compromising its content.
POSTSCRIPT: DID PAUL RETRACT HIS APPROACH IN ATHENS?
And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not in a manner of lofty speech or wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And in weakness and fear I was with you, and my speech and my preaching was not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not be in human wisdom, but in God's power.
Paul, First Corinthians 2:1-5
The passage above is an excerpt from Paul's reflections on his ministry in the city of Corinth. There are those who say that it expresses Paul's regrets over his failure in Athens. They say that when Paul went to Corinth he repudiated everything he said and did—in manner and presentation if not in content—in Athens, and determined not to repeat his errors.
Chief among these errors, they say, was his attempt to appease the intelligentsia with "lofty speech" and "persuasive words of wisdom." They say that he went to Corinth chastened, but energized with a stripped-down gospel message: "Christ crucified" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).
The lesson here, they say, is that we must stick with the basics, namely: soul-winning. Forget about trying to appeal to the minds of men. Strike straight for the heart. Preach the cross. Save souls, turning them from hell to heaven. Nothing else matters. Jesus died for our sins. That's all anyone needs to know. Everything else just muddies the water, confuses people, and dilutes the power of the gospel.
Now, I'm all for preaching the cross and saving souls.
I am also for interpreting the scriptures responsibly, and the above interpretation, for all its soul-winning zeal, is an irresponsible representation of Paul's mind.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to give an exegesis and exposition of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5—which of course does not stand alone, but in the center of an extensive passage where Paul rebukes the factionalism that has taken over the Corinthian church. For the time being let me explain why there is no ground for saying that Paul repudiated his sermon to the Areopagus in any subsequent writing.
First, his ministry in Athens was not a failure.
Failure is defined by objectives attempted. What was Paul's objective in Athens? It was not to establish a church.
It is clear in the Acts account that Athens was not a "targeted city" on Paul's missionary tour. He was there as a refugee, having been expelled from Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. He was there alone, having left his mission team with an assignment: to check on the infant churches he had been forced to desert so abruptly (Acts 17:14-15). He candidly writes of his anxieties for them in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5.
He did not enter Athens to start a church or to advance the Christian movement. He was biding his time until his team could re-group.
Paul's ministry there was incidental, the product of his restlessness. He was no idle tourist. The grotesque idolatry of the city provoked him. He had not intended to preach, but he could not contain himself.
The account explicitly says that Paul preached in the synagogues also, as he did in every other city. No report is given of the response there, though it was probably no different from the response he usually got from synagogues (i.e., negative). The point is, Paul's ministry in Athens must not be seen primarily as an evangelistic assault to "take" Mars Hill.
He did not seek an audition at the Areopagus—indeed, it was thrust upon him. "They literally grabbed him" (v. 19; or, if you prefer a more dignified but no more accurate translation, "they took hold of him"). It was, of course, an offer he couldn't refuse, an unplanned but irresistible one-of-a-kind opportunity. By any fair reading, Paul made the most of it.
So this episode cannot be called a failure because there was no objective that was not achieved.
The sermon itself that Paul preached on Mars Hill was not a failure.
It would certainly be strange for Luke to spend so many words reporting the details of a sermon whose content Paul would repudiate. By comparison, how many words does Luke expend to report Paul's preaching in Corinth, where he ministered for over eighteen months? None.
The resurrection of Jesus as the "clincher," the authentication of Jesus as Lord and Christ, is nothing new in Paul's missionary preaching (cf. Acts 13:32-37)—or for that matter in the book of Acts (starting with Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:29-36).
Far from falling flat, Paul's address was cut short precisely because it was hitting the mark.
There were some who listened and believed. Whatever happened to the old saying, "If even one person believes and is saved, it is worth it"?
Jesus' Parable of the Sower (more accurately, the Parable of the Soils; cf. Luke 8:4-15) lays down a clear principle: how the gospel is received says more about the condition and preparation of the heart than the power of the message.
Third, Paul did not retract what he said and did in Athens because there was nothing to retract.
Paul never demonstrated a naïve optimism that more people would believe in Christ if he could put forward more persuasive arguments—no more before he went to Athens than when he left. Neither does the pessimism about the "natural man" that he expresses in 1 Corinthians 2:14 appear only after he leaves Athens. It comes rather out of Paul's own conversion experience, from whose eyes scales fell before he could see who Jesus Christ is.
Paul's appeal to God's providence toward all men in Acts 17 was not an innovation of the moment. He had previously done so on at least one recorded occasion (Acts 14:15-17).
"Jesus Christ crucified" was not new to Paul's preaching once he arrived in Corinth, but had always been a central theme. (See for example Galatians 3:1.) But neither was it a naked slogan presented without content or context. It is a significant part of a comprehensive message about life and reality. The theme is not quite so central to Luke's historical account, however. Therefore it does not follow from Luke's account that Paul was sidestepping the cross in the presence of intellectuals. We pointed out that Luke did not attempt to give an exhaustive account of every word Paul spoke. It is possible that Paul's sermon did include the story of Jesus' crucifixion. It is probable, though, that he never got that far because the Athenians didn't let him.
The sermon does not represent an attempt to dress up the plain gospel in "persuasive words of wisdom" at the expense of the power of God. On the contrary, Paul's confidence clearly does not rest in his ability to argue his points, but in his belief that their truth is self-evident and unavoidable.
Romans 1:18-32 (written long after Paul's trip through Athens), far from repudiating the Mars Hill theology, expands and amplifies it.
Why is this important? Because misconstruing Paul's rejection of "men's wisdom" can lead us, as it has led whole generations of zealous Christians, to abdicate our responsibility to think under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Previous generations may have been able to let that go because they lived in a world dominated by a Christian worldview in which "everyone" agreed with the basic tenets of biblical monotheism, and believed in the existence of a Creator and the reality of sin. Our own generation is more like the polytheistic age in which the gospel first appeared than any other since that time. We now must stand and affirm biblical truth to a world that has no idea what we are talking about. We need role models for that. Paul in Athens gives us such a role model.
Paul and the Humanists:
A Clash of Worldviews
An Examination of Acts 17:16-31*
*The translation is my own.
Garry D. Nation