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Part One

by R.K. McGregor Wright, Th.M., Ph.D.

A Discussion of the question of what kind of common ground with the secular mind is implied by the Apostle Paul's Areopagus Address in Acts 17.












What was the Apostle Paul's apologetic methodology as he spoke before the Areopagus? Was it a search for common ground on which, together with the Athenian philosophers, he could approach the intellectual challenge of the Gospel with neutral objectivity? Or was it some kind of confrontation in which two incompatible worldviews touched momentarily, found no obvious bridge between themselves, and then fell apart again, never more to meet? Or is there some third position which picks up the advantages of each of these views without their supposed disadvantages?

That this is a live question among Evangelicals today may be gathered not only from the most-used textbooks on apologetics, but also from more popular publications. I received through the mall recently (this was in 1988,) a pamphlet called "Common Ground" which is distributed in large numbers to evangelical churches by Search Ministries Inc. This group is concerned with equipping believers with useful ideas and information about personal outreach, apologetics, and friendship evangelism. Their publications are always helpful, but are usually limited to a rather traditionalist form of "evidentialist" apologetics. Rarely do they face the problem of competing worldviews, based as they often are, on incompatible assumptions about God, Man, and salvation.

The August '88 edition however, took "Understanding Worldviews" as its topic. It followed roughly the outline found in James Sire's helpful IVP book The Universe Next Door. The tract opens with the example of a Christian being set back unexpectedly by the sudden awareness that the friend to whom he is witnessing is already possessed of a worldview very different from his own, as reflected in his pantheistic notion of God. Then, taking their cue from Paul's defense of the nature of God at Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), they moved to a list of important worldviews mentioned by Sire, and made some useful suggestions about how to respond to worldview issues.

I was struck however, by the problem implied by their final piece of advice; "What kinds of tools would you give to them" (that is, to the non-Christians you are witnessing to) "that would help them consider Christianity from the vantage point of their worldview?" It occurred to me that the unbeliever always and inevitably looks at Christianity and at everything else from the standpoint of his own worldview, so why would I want to help him to do this?

Surely the problem in evangelism is more like trying to get the unbeliever to look at things from the Christian point of view? Should we not be trying to get the unbeliever to see that on the basis of his own worldview, nothing makes much sense at all, including Christianity? What did the Search Ministries writer mean by his question?

More remarkable still, Paul's encounter with the Greco-Roman worldview in the Areopagus address in Acts 17 is not even mentioned, while Acts 14 is cited when it only has three verses dealing with the pagan worldview. Does Paul look more like he is appealing to "common ground" in Acts 14 than he does in Acts 17? We could compare Acts 14:17 with Matt 5:45, and raise the question of "common grace," but the Search article did not appeal to this doctrine either.

There is little doubt that the Areopagus Address is something of a puzzle to most Evangelicals. It certainly seems to lack the central themes of the usual Gospel message as commonly conceived. It makes no mention of the Cross or of the Atonement. There is no reference to being born again, to faith in Christ, to justification, to the significance of baptism, to the law-grace controversy, to the fulfillment of prophecy, or even to Paul's authority as an Apostle.

Nevertheless, his case does move from the nature of the true God to our responsibility as those beings who are morally answerable to him, and finally to the need for particular salvation through a human Judge who has risen from the dead. Four of the systematic divisions of Theology, Anthropology, Soteriology, and Eschatology are therefore touched on in their correct logical order.

Our central concern in this three-part article is to examine the contention that Paul sought to find "common ground" within Greek thought, in order to "build a bridge" across which the Gospel could pass. Sir William Ramsey and others have speculated that Paul not only tried to do this and failed, but also that he came to realize that his method of apologetics at Athens was a mistake, and that he had changed his tactics by the time he got to Corinth in Acts 18. At Athens he had tried to speak wisdom to the wise; at Corinth he repudiated this method and sought to preach only "Christ crucified" instead. The first two chapters of 1Corinthians would then reflect this change of heart. But is this scenario very likely?

Over against this odd theory, it will be the contention here that not only there is nothing in Acts 17 for the writer of 1Corinthians to repudiate, but rather the opposite. In both passages Paul opposes an autonomous Greek "wisdom." When preaching to pagans, Paul assumed a definite type of "common ground," and far from trying to establish any kind of philosophical "bridge" for the Gospel message, Paul was primarily concerned with setting forth a clear contrast between Paganism and the Gospel. Acts 17 therefore sets forth as clear a choice as possible between the Greco-Roman worldview of the Athenian culture, and Paul's own Christian view of Reality.


The occasion of Paul's appearance before the ancient and honorable council of the Areopagus is described in Acts 17:17-20. While he was preaching "Jesus and the resurrection" certain Stoics and Epicureans demanded that he present his credentials to the appropriate authorities, since some thought he was "a propagandist for foreign deities." The names lesous and Anastasis are male and female proper nouns in Greek, and a superficial hearer might easily have thought he was announcing a typical pair of foreign gods, a divinity and his female consort. Gods commonly went about in such pairs, even when they were only symbols of philosophic abstractions.

Be that as it may, Paul was certainly setting forth the risen Christ as the solution to the city's problem of idolatry. And certainly the two most popular schools of philosophy, the Stoics and the Epicureans, had failed to wean Athens from extreme superstition, and they had had three centuries to do it in. Neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism had any solution to the problem of idolatry, a problem they were quite conscious of, and which they both exposed in their own philosophical writings, as well as in their plays and poetry. Sophisticated Greeks actually thought that they were "enlightened" by Wisdom herself, and were above the foolishness of idolatry. Paul, It seems, did not think so.

We shall now examine this confrontation, verse by verse. Recall that we are looking for evidence of common ground and "bridge-building." Verses will quoted from the New King James Version (NKJV).

Verse 22 - Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious;

Paul begins by saying that from his point of view, ("I perceive" - from theoreo, which means to behold, view as a whole) the Athenians are overwhelmingly religious, even "superstitious in everything." Religion seems to be the dominant influence in their lives. The Greek adjective deisidaimonesterous has 19 letters and must be one of the longest words in the Greek New Testament. It is not very flattering, and corresponds exactly to the Latin superstitiosus, and means extremely fearful of the gods.

The force of this word should not be weakened by rendering it "very religious" as in the NKJV and other recent translations. The term is decidedly not a compliment, even in 25:19, where the noun form refers precisely to a contemptible ethnic religion (the Judaism of Paul's accusers) as distinct from reverence for the state religion.

The Greeks and Romans both distinguished between formal state religion and the private "superstitions" or religions of the masses, and much disgust could be shown for ethnic religions when they conflicted with official formalities. This was one of the main causes of contempt for Christians (and for Jews before them) throughout the Empire, that they refused to bow to public Idols. They were therefore occasionally accused of "atheism" or rejection of the gods.

Since the Epicureans were rather cynically "agnostic" about the gods, believing them to be too high up the chain of existence to be interested in human affairs, while the Stoics believed that their philosophy was a sophisticated substitute for popular superstition, it can hardly be claimed that Paul's opening gambit was a good example of bridge-building! On the contrary, he puts his finger on a well known sore spot straightaway—the pagan philosophers had failed to diminish the abuses of idolatry in Greece, and their culture was still wholly given over to it, as verse 16 indicates. Paul was enraged by its obvious dominance.

Verse 23 - "for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:

Paul opens his explanation by saying that he observed their objects of worship (they worshiped things, these people!) The images were large and overpowering physical objects, for he says that he had to gaze up at them. Those of us who have seen pictures or even the originals of Greek statues have seen just a marble carving. The Greeks however, did not leave the marble bare; they painted their images realistically to look like the real thing. Greek idols therefore combined the art of the sculptor with that of the painter to produce a very powerful piece of art.

But one altar was devoted by an inscription "to an unknown god." This, he says, is self-confessed ignorance, which he is there to correct. Far from sounding like a bridge-builder seeking common ground, Paul has stated a very clear contrast, and set up the Athenian religion for a broadside attack. The best the Hellenistic world can provide is about to be challenged on its own home turf!

One is reminded of Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman in John 4:20-23, when she wanted to argue about which city one should worship in; "You don't know what you are worshiping; salvation is of the Jews." If Paul had wanted to establish philosophic common ground in the Hellenistic worldview, he would better have begun by complimenting the Athenians on their valid religious insights and agreeing specifically with certain of their teachings. He could then have moved from the areas of agreement to the more unique claims of the Gospel. In fact, he did the very opposite.

Verse 24 - "God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.

Not only is the true God knowable says Paul, but he is actually known as the Creator. God is not an unknowable Theion (an indefinite divine Being) back behind the appearance of the world, and contrary to the Epicureans, he is the sovereign Lord, maker of "the Cosmos and everything In it." This shoots down Greek polytheism, in which various phases of the world are made and ruled by various finite deities. And contrary to the Stoics, God is not merely the rational principle immanent in an otherwise impersonal world. On the contrary, he is the one infinite-personal character behind the very meaning of the word "being." This offsets Greek pantheism, with its ultimately monistic presupposition that "All is One."

Paul starts where God's own interpretation of reality starts, with the Creator-creature distinction of Genesis 1:1. Both the visible heavens and earth, and the invisible life of the human soul are God's. He is omnipresent, and therefore cannot be located in a man-made temple. Localization of demonic manifestations was very important to Greek piety. Paul sets this aside as being logically inconsistent with God's creatorial sovereignty over the space-time universe.

Verse 25 - "Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.

Worse still, Paul insists that what we contribute with our human efforts at worship is simply unnecessary. Contrary to the Greek notion of the gods' needing our spiritual support and ministrations, Paul's God needs nothing. We can add nothing to God's power or value by what we do.

Paul is here dismissing the entire panoply of pagan liturgical and temple activity as useless in the search for God. He indicates that God was utterly complete before he created the world, for he is the sole Origin of all being and life, and meaning. In particular, this includes the entire human race.

Verse 26 - And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,

The whole human race is a unity. Contrary to Greek mythology, all the races derive from one original human being; we are not the physical offspring of a variety of gods who came to earth at various times in the heroic past. In addition, God has sovereignly predetermined the structure and distribution of the migrations of the nations, even down to where they will finally live.

God controls history by his own predestination. Contrary to both Greek religion and Greek speculation, nothing happens by mere chance, for God’s plan and purpose is back of everything. This not only eliminates human free will as the Greeks understood it, but also the free will of the gods themselves. The Greek gods have no power to influence the flow of Reality.

Verse 27 - "so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

There is a sovereignly predetermined purpose in all this. God's ontological support of the process of human activity is in order that they might seek him. It is man who needs God, not God who needs man. It remains an open possibility that at least some people might "grope for" God and even "find him." All human beings have this potential, for surely every human heart is accessible to a sovereign God.

And far from only being found after a prolonged spiritual struggle or mystical quest, God is "not far from each one of us." The Epicureans in particular, were wrong about the gods having no interest in human life. God is close to the individual, and can be known by anyone who wants to know the truth. There is apparently no elitism in Paul's view of spirituality.

Paul's vision was very different from the Greek outlook. Their tradition taught that there were three kinds of people, the fleshly people, enmeshed in their material bodies (called the sarkikoi), the soulish or average natural people (the psuchikoi), and the innately spiritual people (the pneumatikoi), who were the ones most likely to respond to higher truth.

The fleshly were thought of as hopeless, being slaves to a material existence. The soulish ones were difficult to convert, but they might come around if they had enough opportunity and education. That is, they were worth pursuing, but one should not waste too much time on them. The "spirituals" responded almost immediately, having more "logos" or "spirit" than the others. In contrast to this spiritual snobbery, for the Apostle Paul there were only two kinds of people, the believers and the idolaters, the saved and the lost.

Verse 28 - "for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'

For Paul, God's omnipresent being is the ontological support for our finite existence from moment to moment, as his epistles teach clearly. He quotes from the Greek poets in order to demonstrate their contradictory Ideas, not because he agrees with them.

He quotes Aratus (a Stoic poet) "'For we are also His offspring," in order to characterize the polytheism so common In even the best Greek thought. It was widely believed that different races and types of mankind owed their differences to their being descended from different deities who mated with humans so creating the age of Heroes. Epimenides (an even earlier authority appealed to by the Epicureans) supplies an often-quoted line, "in Him we live and move and have our being," to identify the pantheism underlying so much of their popular worship.

The quotes are rather cleverly used, because he quotes a verse sounding polytheistic from a pantheist (the Stoic Aratus), and a verse sounding pantheistic from a polytheist (Epimenides) in order to confute both parties. Paul was very capable of playing off one part of a hostile audience against another, as we observe in Acts 23. He may be quoting poets rather than philosophers because the poets were better known.

Paul could not possibly have agreed with the views of the divine nature expressed in either poets in their original context, for he had already excluded these views in the previous few verses. Paul's interest is in showing from their own authorities that the Greek views of God are self-contradictory. He is exposing the internal incoherence of Greek thought by playing polytheism off against pantheism.

More technically, he is forcing his audience to confront the "One-and-Many" problem as it applied to their ultimate source of meaning, the gods. He demonstrates from their own literary sources that the world by its own wisdom, "knew not God." No doubt there is a search for truth to be followed in Greek thought, and some must have had clear intimations of what God must be like. Certainly it may be a dubious "groping for," and a very approximate "finding," but it is real enough in the religious experience of paganism, and deserves the clarification which only a fresh theoria can provide.

The Athenians needed a completely new "beholding," an alternative "worldview," in order to have a workable truth about God. Archimedes had said that all he needed was a place whereon to stand, a pou sto, and he could have moved the earth with a lever. But where can a mere mortal stand to move the world, much less to grasp God? The Greek seeker is likewise looking for a fixed reference-point in the flow of Being, but how can it found in Heraclitus' ever-flowing river? Meanwhile, the discovery that one's basic outlook is internally contradictory is a powerful reason for seriously considering another viewpoint.

This three-part article is continued at:
Paul’s Purpose at Athens and the Problem of "Common Ground" - Part Two.


Paul’s Purpose at Athens and the Problem of "Common Ground" © November 1993 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center. Originally read as a Paper at the Denver Reformed Round Table, August 1988, and revised for publication November 1993.

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The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.

General Theology and Apologetics
Paul in Athens: General Theology and Apologetics

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