Now that seminary has wound down, I’m excited to return to this series, and to kick off a few over the next couple of weeks that have been percolating in the back of my mind.
For this post, I’m going to return to the passage last discussed in Part 2: Acts 17:16-32. The focus of the last post was on the need for Christians to develop the skill of discernment–this is not a unique spiritual gift, but a part of every Christian’s growth in maturity–and to apply that skill to the regular evaluation of the art forms of today. Particularly, I argued that Christians should view and evaluate film and television, as I have found that this is the area most Christians are most hesitant to integrate into evangelism. But how can we choose to partition off any portion of our lives from Kingdom activity?
In any case, I am turning in this post from a study of Paul’s practices and to a study of his words. In what follows, I want to present what I believe is a helpful breakdown of Paul’s presentation of the Gospel.
In the previous post, I focused primarily on the Paul’s activities. I looked at the physical behaviors that made up Paul’s approach to evangelism. They were:
- Study the Bible carefully and regularly.
- Study the false religions of our time.
- Study the various art produced by the world today with prayer and discernment.
- Regularly refer to these religious beliefs and these artistic creations while in discussion with outsiders.
In today’s post, I want to address Paul’s rhetoric. What form of argument does Paul rely on when dealing with a pre-Christian, highly paganized society?
I think it is possible to outline Paul’s comments as starting from agreement, moving through the logical conclusion of that agreement, and landing on worldview-transforming truth. This pattern repeats twice (22-27a; 27b-31; see fig. 1). Paul starts by pointing to a truth which the Athenians would accept. He then moves through an appropriate logical step and into the transformative conclusion. Ultimately, Paul makes use of the agreement to point to flaws in philosophical conclusions of his listeners.
Paul’s recognition of their religiousness in Acts 17:22 is not simple flattery. He has actually investigated their religious practices. To be “religious” in this context is to be sincerely involved in the pursuit of the divine. This, Paul agrees, is an excellent endeavor.
However, the existence of an altar to an unknown god gives pause and indicates that at some level, the Athenians realize that their general polytheistic practices leave them unsatisfied. If there is more than one god, there might well be thousands, and who would dare to leave those unknown gods un-worshipped?
He declares that there can only be one supreme God (in essence, a dissatisfying polytheism naturally leads to monotheism), and that a supreme God needs nothing from people. Rather, this God created all humankind. This would rub some Athenians the wrong way, as many held that they had literally sprung from the soil of their land–they were a unique and separate people. In essence, Paul is contradicting their notions of ethnic exclusivity; he’s putting them on level ground with all of humanity.
He is presenting a transformative notion of humanity as a unified group under the eye of a single God. This will necessarily have some consequences for moral behavior and choices, and it will necessarily result in a desire for relational reconciliation with this one all-powerful God.
Paul then appropriates the literature and background thought of the group to which he is preaching. He first quotes Epimenides (whom he will also quote in Titus 1:12) and then Aratus (Acts 17:28-29). In doing so, Paul effectively shores up the transformative comments at the end of the first cycle in a way that the Athenians are hardly likely to combat–will they challenge their own poets?–and he establishes the grounds for the second cycle.
In the second cycle, Paul moves from agreement with the poets of Greece—we are indeed close to God and created by Him—to the logical refutation of idol manufacture and worship. Paul turns this to a discussion of sin and judgment and the evidence of that impending judgment, specifically Jesus’ resurrection. It’s this statement that most clearly runs against the worldview assumptions of most in the audience.
Stoic and Epicurean philosophers made up the majority of Paul’s audience, as Luke tells us in Acts 17:18. Given this fact, it’s little wonder that his presentation was halted at the notion of a personal resurrection. The concept of an afterlife was dismissed by the Epicureans as a source of anxiety. Epicurus writes, for instance:
For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable…So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.*
So, this might explain the general mockery Paul receives in Acts 17:32. However, it is not the idea of judgment that bothers the Stoics. They believed that destruction was coming. However, they held that this was simply part of a cosmic cycle of birth, growth, destruction, and rebirth, and that all souls were consumed and reused. So they too are challenged by Paul’s words; rather than a cycle of fire, Paul anticipates judgment by Jesus.
In the end, some few did join Paul and believe the message (Acts 17:34). But what are we to make of his arguments today? As I mentioned above, I think there are three steps, and all three are easily transported into our own contexts today.
- Find a point of agreement in the observations or beliefs of the person with whom you are sharing the Gospel.
- Discuss the ramifications of that belief.
- State the conclusions which you have come to as a result of that observation.
In everyday practice, this might work as follows: “Jeff” sees a lot of suffering and evil and it bothers him. Since this also bothers you, discuss with him why it is that suffering or evil bother us. Why is it that disloyalty makes us desire judgment against the disloyal party? Why is it that horrific war crimes make us desire judgment against despots? Why is it that the murder of innocents bothers us internally if we have no tangible connection to the victims? It seems like we naturally reject the idea that the world is supposed to be full of evil–it doesn’t jive with what we desire. This naturally directs us to the possibility that we were created for a world that wasn’t full of suffering, and that something must have gone wrong. From this point, it’s almost too easy to explain the Gospel from Genesis through Revelation.
This was a long post, but I hope it was helpful. Feel free to post any questions or thoughts in the comments section.
Grace & Peace,
*Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” in Classics of Philosophy
(ed. Louis P. Pojman; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 358.