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Did Paul Make a Fundamental Mistake in Athens? – Paul the Philosopher (Part I)

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 

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).[3]  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.”[4] 

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[5] (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).[6]
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).[7] 
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![8]

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.[9]

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.”[10]


[1] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 246

[2] William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892), 252.

[3] Bruce Winter makes this point in After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 57.

[4] See Anthony Thiselton, “Realized Eschatology at Corinth,” New Testament Studies 24 (July 1978): 510-26.

[5] The boldfaced portion is a quotation from Ex. 20:11/Ps. 146:6 (cp. Neh. 9:6).

[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.”

[7] 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.

[8] 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 . . . .”

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

21 Responses to “Did Paul Make a Fundamental Mistake in Athens? – Paul the Philosopher (Part I)”

  1. Good job. A truly detailed and helpful study of this was also done by Greg Banhsen. It appears in his book “Always Ready”.

  2. Good thoughts/post.

  3. Cornell Machiavelli April 25, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Paul,

    May I get your take on an earlier episode in Acts where I find the most basic redemption message (not Gospel) ever presented in all of Scripture. In 10.34,35 Peter learned:

    “Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, but in every nation the person who fears (reverences) him and does what is right is welcomed before him.”

    I have become quite liberal in my twilight years. I believe God is actually at work in everyone’s life, but in different ways, holding each accountable for the light/revelation/gospel they have received. I also believe that general revelation is enough for redemption. I don’t use the word “salvation” in this context because that term is usually reserved for membership into the Body of Christ, the Church. I DO believe one must put their faith in Christ to become a member of the Church. (So, I see multiple redeemed groups in both the OT and NT.)

    Anyway, what are your thoughts on these two verses and what Peter seems to have learned by his experience with Cornelius?

    CQ

  4. Thanks for the notes.

    CQ, I touch on the topic of the unevangelized in my book *True for You* (Bethany House–2nd edition). I argue that saints in the Old Testament certainly received salvation without explicit knowledge of Christ. Yes, God can use general revelation not only to hold people accountable, but to bring people to salvation/redemption–although Romans 1-3 doesn’t seem that enthusiastic that lots of people actually receive it. Salvation is accessible to all; no one is born “at the wrong place or at the wrong time,” and God certainly doesn’t reject someone just because he never had the opportunity to hear about Christ.

    Well, that’s the gist. I go into more detail in my book, including a middle-knowledge perspective on the question of the unevangelized.

  5. Paul,

    I am wondering the view you spoke of in your comment to CQ fits with Jesus statement that no one comes to the Father except through Him? I can’t see how or if the two mesh.

  6. Cheryl,
    All who come to the Father do so through the atoning, sacrificial blood of Christ. Exclusivists, Inclusivists, and even Biblical Universalists (as opposed to the more common Unitarian Universalist) agree on this point. The disagreement is over whether or not the blood of Christ covers only those who have explicit knowledge of Christ and have made an explicit confession of faith, or whether it is broader then this. Most people are inclusivists to some extent or another, believing that infants, the mentally handicapped, and Old Testament individuals are saved. The touchy area is when we start to ask if it is broader then this, for instance those who have never heard.

  7. Michael T,

    Yes, that is the touchy area all right. And I just can’t make it all fit in my mind.

  8. Cheryl,
    Yeah it certainly is complicated. I generally describe myself as an exclusivist who wants to be an inclusivist. Basically what I mean by it is that in practice I am an exclusivist. I treat Evanglicalism and Missions like those who don’t hear are doomed. Now on another level I hope that there is hope for those who haven’t heard. I hope that somehow the blood of Christ can be applied to them. The problem is I don’t know. There is nothing is Scripture which to me conclusively shows that there is hope for those who don’t hear (or that there isn’t for that matter imho – I know others disagree). Thus I believe the only responsible position is to approach things as an exclusivist. I would rather err on the side of missions being a heaven or hell thing when it isn’t then erring on the side of it being of lesser importance when it is a heaven or hell thing.

    That being said I never make the exclusivist vs. inclusivist an issue for those new to the faith or thinking about becoming a Christian. Many times this issue of those who haven’t heard is a big one for new converts or those thinking about converting. In such situations I generally share both views and tell them why I come down where I do as well as why the other side disagrees.

  9. Cornell Machiavelli April 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

    cherylu,

    Remember that ‘eternal’ condemnation is not based on personal sins! Matt 12.37 (by their words…) explains that condemnation is not based on actions or events. There is a ‘positional’ condemnation (in Adam) that all are born into, but that has no bearing on a person’s eternal destiny. If you look at the consequences of the Fall, all judgments by God were temporal in nature, and Adam and Eve did not become “unbelievers.” In other words, although they were now spiritually dead, they were still God’s children. They didn’t have to get “saved.”

    One’s eternal condemnation is based on “his words,” which would flesh out to mean by one’s acceptance or rejection of God’s light given to each of us, even general revelation. Rom 1 only discusses those who reject this general revelation, but there are many who accept it. Rom 1 does not address the issue of those who accept this general rev.

    Muslims who trust in God are redeemed, but they are not part of the body of Christ. For example, note in Revelation that after the Rapture the number of martyrs that come out of the tribulation are “too numerous to count.” It would seem that the “blindness” has been lifted and Muslims see Christ differently after the Church is gone. That is why I said there are redeemed people (like Rahab in OT that didn’t become a part of God’s chosen people; she preferred to remain separate.) In the NT, the same holds; there are multiple groups of redeemed people.

    Yes, all people enter heaven BASED ON THE WORK OF CHRIST. They may not have specific knowledge of that, but when someone outside the gospel turns to God, they become redeemed and God redeems them BASED ON the work of Christ on the Cross.

    An excellent transitional example of this is Cornelius. He was redeemed in the OT, but became a member of the Body of Christ. Even though he was a God-fearer, he had not accepted Christ as his savior. That’s what Peter learns in Acts 10, the passage I originally…

  10. Cornell Machiavelli April 28, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Paul,

    You wrote: Yes, God can use general revelation not only to hold people accountable, but to bring people to salvation/redemption–although Romans 1-3 doesn’t seem that enthusiastic that lots of people actually receive it.

    The idea of “lots of people” is interesting to me, especially in this passage. Is there any indication whether or not the percentages are small or large one way or the other? I noted that Paul highlights those who reject the light in Rom 1, but on what basis could we not conclude that “most” do accept the message. Just because he discusses the fate of those who reject the revelation really doesn’t give us a sense of how many reject compared to how many accept the revelation they have been given. Indeed, the number could equally be very small as it could be very large, right?

    cq

  11. Paul,

    thanks for the essay. Someone mentioned Greg Bahnsen. He of course would be diametrically opposed to your view here.

    You say in the comment section: Yes, God can use general revelation not only to hold people accountable, but to bring people to salvation/redemption–although Romans 1-3 doesn’t seem that enthusiastic that lots of people actually receive it. Salvation is accessible to all; no one is born “at the wrong place or at the wrong time,” and God certainly doesn’t reject someone just because he never had the opportunity to hear about Christ.

    How do you reconcile your view with Paul’s later statements in Romans 10:13-16? He seems to be saying that one cannot believe unless they hear about Jesus and thus that is why his mission and missions in general are necessary.

  12. Cornell Machiavelli April 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Ken,

    Reread the above posts. This was already answered. Nobody enters the Body of Christ without faith in him, but there are other redeemed people on earth, who turn to God and do what is right (Act 10.34,35) that are acceptable to him without having explicit knowledge of Christ. In fact, the Jews are blinded to this truth, and since God wants all to be saved, he certainly would not have blinded the Jews, or anyone for that matter, to redemption. Jews today turn to YHWH the same way they did in the OT. Some do turn to Christ, but that’s because the hardness is “in part.”

    cq

  13. Cornwell,

    But you still have not answered Paul’s assertion in Rom. 10 that one cannot call on one in whom they have not heard and calling on the name of the Lord is the way to salvation.

  14. Thanks for the comments and interaction. Yes, the inclusivist’s argument is that salvation–whether in the OT or for the receptive unevangelized–would be grounded in Christ’s cross-work.

    Now, the middle-knowledge perspective argues that salvation is accessible to all whether they hear the gospel or not (the reality of God’s presence being made available through general revelation); but it also states that anyone who would want to receive the gospel is placed in circumstances where he would have an opportunity to do so. The context of Acts 10:34-35 is that people like Cornelius (from another nation) aren’t excluded by God because they’re Gentile–that they shouldn’t be pronounced “unclean” (cp. the vision to Peter earlier in ch. 10). In this case, the person in “from [another] nation” actually ends up hearing the gospel of Christ!

    One could also add that many people in, say, Muslim areas are having visions of Christ and are turning to him in large numbers (I’ve met some of them!). Are they hearing without a preacher? Well, in this case, the preacher is Jesus! Whatever the means, whether through humans, angelic messengers, or Christ himself, God will make salvation available to those who (prompted by His Spirit) earnestly seek it. (Of course, people can resist the Spirit’s gracious promptings as well [e.g., Acts 7:51].)

    Of course there are passages like Matthew 7’s “narrow way” with “few who find it.” (Thus, the redeemed multitude would be “few” in comparison to those rejectiing God/Christ.) On the other hand, Romans 1-3 suggests a bleak picture of humanity in general–of none seeking God, doing what is right, etc.

    While I leave open the possibility of exceptions, I wouldn’t want to make sweeping pronouncements like “Muslims who trust in God are redeemed.” And Rahab *did* become incoroporated into the nation of Israel, as Matthew 1:5 suggests.

    At any rate, I try to address these nuances in “True for You.” You can have…

  15. As I mention in my book “True for You,” Old Testament saints like Abraham and Job were saved through what Jesus of Nazareth would do on the cross, even if they didn’t hear of him. Certainly Paul believed that these saints were saved without explicit knowledge of Christ. In Romans 4, Paul cites Genesis 15:6–that Abraham believed God (not “believed in Christ”) and it was credited to him as righteousness. Surely, Paul was aware of this when he talked about a preacher later in Romans 10!

    Now if things are different in the (post-)New Testament era–that a preacher is required–why couldn’t God configure matters such that those who would desire to hear end up hearing? And in light of what I said in an earlier post today, one could add: why think that the preaching must be restricted to a human preaching?

    Yet, as I mention in my book, Paul in Romans 2 leaves open the possibility that those outside the hearing of the gospel could find salvation. Even if the normative means of salvation comes through preaching and thus the Christian is commanded to proclaim the good news, this doesn’t mean God can’t use other avenues. Keep in mind that Paul doesn’t have infants and the mentally handicapped in mind either, but their disability (or inability to understand a preacher) doesn’t entail their condemnation.

  16. Paul,

    In my opinion, your desire to allow those who have never heard of Jesus to be included among the saved is driven by your moral intuition that it would be wrong to punish people who have never heard. That moral intuition is not something that I think can be found in the Bible. That is why Calvinists and fundamentalists typically will not allow that conclusion because they don’t find it in the Bible.

    I would be curious on CMP’s view on the matter because I would tend to think that your view would be at odds with his Calvinistic theology.

    One of the basic issues as I see it within evangelicalism is what constitutes the ultimate authority? Is it man’s reason and moral intuitions or is it Scripture? It seems to me that Philosophical Theology (as practiced by many of the EPS members) adopts the former while evangelical theologians for the most part adapt the latter. I would be interested in your thoughts.

  17. Ken,
    I believe Paul Copan is an Arminian. As to whether or not inclusivism is at odds with the Bible depends on one’s interpretation which then again largely depends on ones presuppositions.

  18. Ken,

    Thanks for your engaging comments.

    The Scriptures themselves indicate clearly that God judges people according to how they’ve lived their lives (“according to their deeds”). Not knowing about Jesus is not the standard for judgment, nor is it the basis of the unbeliever’s condemnation. Again, that theme seems quite clearly articulated in Scripture–a theme certainly in keeping with our moral intuitions.

    I’ll let CMP speak for himself, but I myself don’t identify with Calvinist predestinarianism. (Some will say I have a “Deformed” theology, but it appears that I simply haven’t been predestined to be a Calvinist!) I do think that Molinism (middle knowledge) offers a remarkably fruitful, biblically-supportable alternative on these questions.

    Keep in mind that we are not pitting intutions and reason against Scripture. The Scriptures indicate that certain moral intuitions should be recognized by Gentile nations (e.g., Amos 1-2), whether they have Scripture or not.

    Think, for example, of the Wesleyan quadrilaterial in which Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition a sources of guidance for the believer; yes, when push comes to shove, the Scriptures should guide and shape our experience and tradition rather than be subordinated to them.

    As Kevin Vanhoozer argues in his *Drama of Doctrine*, *sola scriptura* (“the Scripture alone”) doesn’t mean that we trash tradition or experience or reason–no more so that affirming *solus Christus* (“Christ alone”) calls us to ignore Father and Spirit! When it comes to “reason,” even here we should be cautious. The term may come to be twisted by naturalism or scientism due to certain smuggled-in assumptions; so insisting on following reason pure and simple isn’t always pure and simple! I would advocate a more holistic approach on the matter you’ve raised.

    I look forward to seeing you in November, Ken! I appreciate the good discussion!

  19. Paul,

    Thanks for the comments. I look forward to the conference in November as well.

  20. Interesting discussion on exclusivism/inclusivism. In response to the question of what percentage of people find redemption apart from explicit preaching of the Gospel, I would point out that even in a fairly inclusive perspective the story of Noah is instructive:

    In the time of the flood God found 1-8 people who could be redeemed in the total population of the Earth (whether only Noah or his whole family qualified gives us the range 1-8). It is possible there were others who were spiritually redeemed but would die physically in the judgement that came on the whole Earth, but there isn’t really an indication of this. So this suggests, at least in that time, that one in several thousand people found redemption by faith in the general revelation of God.

    Such a statistic also motivates the need for specific revelation. We all (everybody who commented here) agree that Christ’s work is necessary even for those who were redeemed before Jesus lived or who are redeemed apart from knowing His name. However, the words of Jesus and all of Acts and most of the Epistles show pretty clearly that the Gospel of Jesus has specific value and should be preached in its entirety and without adulteration, regardless of whether or not people can (possibly) find redemption apart from hearing it. There are several reasons for this value of the Gospel, but one of them could be simply the very small number of people who are redeemed by faith with a general revelation alone.

    -Demyan

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