When I was in college, I remember reading F.F. Bruce’s superb work, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. I recall, however, Bruce’s suggestion that Paul’s preaching at Athens (Acts 17) had been something of a failure. Why? He hadn’t preached the “word of the cross.” Similarly, the late William Ramsay claimed that Paul, because of the apparently meager response to his Areopagus speech (which cited Stoic thinkers for reinforcement), was “disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by his experience in Athens. He felt that he had gone at least as far as was right in the way of presenting his doctrine in a form suited to the current philosophy; and the result had been little more than naught.”
Thus, in Corinth—Paul’s next stop—he determined that he wanted to “know nothing while I was with you but Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). No more philosophy or apologetics there! No more quoting of pagan thinkers to build bridges with his audience!
But is this what really happened? Not at all! In this first part of a series on Paul the philosopher at Athens, I want to probe further into his cross-centered approach rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures, but adapted to a pagan audience. (You can follow the text here.) I’ll offer a few responses to the assertion regarding Paul’s alleged failed, inferior methodology of placing philosophy and reason above the cross.
1. The charge is an argument from silence: We could ask why Luke would devote so much space to Paul’s speech when the message ran contrary to the preaching of the cross—and could undermine Luke’s own theological strategy in the book of Acts.
2. The claim reads into Acts a specific situation in Corinth: In 1 Corinthians, Paul was addressing the congregation’s arrogance and one-upmanship—a complete departure from dependence on the sufficiency of Christ’s cross-work and the Spirit’s power. They had emphasized their giftedness in knowledge and wisdom and rhetoric. They glorified speaking in tongues, elevating this over other spiritual gifts; they considered themselves as having “arrived”: “you have become kings without us,” Paul told them (1 Cor. 4:8). They elevated social status so highly that they were willing to tolerate—even boast about—gross immorality in one of its prominent members (ch. 5). And the new covenant blessings through the Spirit overshadowed any sense that a future bodily resurrection was still needed (15:12). The Corinthians’ skewed theological perspective emphasized the “already” but ignored the “not yet”—a view known as “over-realized eschatology.”
Yes, the Corinthians believed they had all blessings in Christ—and nothing was left for the new heaven and new earth! The point is this: we should treat Paul’s writing about the Corinthian situation on its own terms and not read Paul’s correspondence back into Luke’s theological strategy in Acts.
We could add that in 1 Corinthians itself, Paul is still quoting pagans! He cites Menander when he writes, “Bad company corrupts good character” (15:33). Paul uses the same strategy of quoting pagans in Corinth—just as he did in Athens! For good measure, we could also throw in Paul’s citing the Cretan thinker Epimenides in Titus 1:12.
3. A review of Paul’s ministry in Acts shows this charge to be inaccurate; Paul uses the same general approach before and after Athens: Before Athens, Paul would “reason” with people in an attempt to “persuade” them (cp. 28:23). He does so in Thessalonica (17:2) and during his visit to Athens (17:19). Also, Paul continues to do so after Athens—in Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19; 19:8,9).
4. When we compare Paul’s message at Lystra (Acts 14) with the one at Athens, the theological themes—rooted in the Old Testament—are the same. Paul’s apologetic at Lystra includes the witness of God in creation—among other themes echoed in Athens.
|PAUL AT LYSTRA: ACTS 14:15-17||PAUL AT ATHENS: ACTS 17:24-28|
|1. GOD AS CREATOR: “… preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (15).||“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (24).|
|2. GOD AS LIFE-GIVER TO (NON-DIVINE) HUMANS: “We are also men of the same nature as you” (15).||“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation. He Himself gives to all people life and breath . . .” (25-6).|
|3. THE WITNESS OF GOD IN CREATION: “and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (17).||“He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (26-7).|
|4. PREVIOUS IGNORANCE: “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways” (16).||“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance . . .” (30)|
|5. CALL TO REPENTANCE: “. . . turn from these vain things to a living God” (15).||“. . . declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (30)|
Paul used the same basic approach in both places. In fact, at Athens he even had opportunity to mention Jesus and his resurrection—which is more than he was able to do at Lystra!
5. The “failure” charge misses the point of Paul’s own goal to contextualize the gospel: In 1 Corinthians itself, Paul declared himself a slave of all so that he might win some—a Jew to the Jew and a Greek to the Greeks (9:19-27). Paul adapted to his audiences. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the Athenian strategy would not have been far from his mind.
6. Paul’s approach in Athens resulted in a far more positive response than Paul has in other places in his travels: Paul and Barnabas at Lystra were worshiped as Zeus and Hermes—and then Paul was stoned when he and Barnabas resisted (ch. 14)! Paul’s speech to Jewish people would result in a riot in Jerusalem in chapter 21!
7. Luke refers to the gospel as “the word of God” throughout Acts, and this is the message of Jesus (in Luke) and his messengers (in Acts): The “word of God” (cp. the sower and the seed in Lk. 8:8; cp. Jesus’ message as the “word of God” [5:2]) multiplies and bears much fruit throughout the book of Acts (5:31; 6:7; 12:24; 13:7, 15,44, 46, 48, 49; 19:20). This is the general theme of Acts, and Paul’s speech at Athens is no exception. In fact, in 17:18, we’re told that Paul is preaching the good news about “Jesus and his resurrection.” Contrary to detractors, Paul’s preaching in Athens is quite orthodox.
8. Paul, who usually sought out any available synagogues on his journeys (where he reasoned, dialogued, and persuaded) needed to take a different strategy with pagans at Mars Hill—though he still carried out this task in dependence upon the Spirit. Notice that Paul quoted pagan thinkers, but he still ended with Christ and the resurrection, calling for repentance—the very theme that the other sermons in Acts called for.
In my experience, I regularly find Christians resistant to Christian philosophy (after all, doesn’t Colossians 2 tell us to “beware of philosophy”?!), and they view apologetics as a “work” that diminishes the “grace of God.” People need to hear “the gospel”—end of story. However, unless God’s Spirit works, “giving the gospel” or engaging in apologetics will amount to nothing. And why can’t God use objective, checkable evidences and arguments to reveal to people the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith? As we read the Scriptures, we see that proclaiming the gospel and evidences often go hand-in-hand. In the book of Acts we see the apostles engaging in a defense of the Christian faith on a regular basis, appealing to evidences and events that were not done in a corner.
And what about 1 Corinthians, which so strongly emphasizes the centrality of the cross and the Spirit’s power? In chapter 15, Paul gives his strongest apologetic for the resurrection, appealing to its historicity and objectivity—complete with lists of eyewitnesses, including Paul’s own testimony!
Paul’s Mars Hill address truly reflects the very heart of Paul’s cross-centered theological and missiological strategy. As N.T. Wright observes: “Much Pauline scholarship in the last generations has ignored this [Areopagus] speech . . . . But when we begin . . . with the Jewish doctrine of monotheism and its Christian redefinition, the speech makes a great deal of sense as a summary of exactly the kind of thing Paul might well have said.”
 F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 246
 William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892), 252.
 Bruce Winter makes this point in After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 57.
 See Anthony Thiselton, “Realized Eschatology at Corinth,” New Testament Studies 24 (July 1978): 510-26.
 The boldfaced portion is a quotation from Ex. 20:11/Ps. 146:6 (cp. Neh. 9:6).
 Interestingly, Stephen uses similar wording in his speech to the Jews earlier in Acts (7:48): “However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.”
 Here Paul speaks of the varied human cultures throughout the world (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 7; 10:5, 20, 31-2), all under God’s rule.
 However, the gospel is implied in Paul’s speech at Lystra (as at Athens): “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways” (16). Compare this with 17:30, where Jesus is specifically mention: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance . . . .”
 G. Walter Hansen, “The Preaching and Defence of Paul,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, eds. I.H. Marshall and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 298, 313.
 N.T. Wright, Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 105. A couple of helpful essays on Paul’s sermon at Athens are J. Daryl Charles’s “Paul before the Areopagus: Reflections on the Apostle’s Encounter with Cultured Paganism,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 7/1 (2005): 125-40; and his “Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model of Cultural Apologetics,” Trinity Journal 16 (1995): 47-62.