16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
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; 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: 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. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood[c] 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, 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; 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.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
In giving only one sermon addressed to Gentiles by the great Apostle to the Gentiles, namely the Aeropagus speech in Athens, his (Luke’s) primary purpose is to give an example of how the Christian missionary should approach cultured Gentiles.
Studies in the Acts Of The Apostles
St. Paul is brought before the Aeropagus to be examined about his bringing forth doctrines of strange gods. Note that now that Paul is in this formal setting their is no longer any ‘seed picker’ language being used. Instead what we find, fitting for a governing council, is a polite request ‘to know of this new doctrine of which you speak,’ and the reason give for the request is that the Apostle is bringing ‘strange things to their ears,’ and they want to know what these things mean. We would say immediately here that there was a reason that they found what Paul was saying was ‘strange.’ That reason is simply because they were thinking with a pagan plausibility structure while the Apostle was thinking according to a Biblical worldview. This recognition helps to understand the methodology of conflict and contrast that the Apostle uses to defend the Gospel. Precisely because their paradigms were so radically antithetical the Apostle could not appeal to brute facts because even though all the facts were shared between Paul and his opponents none of interpretation of the facts were agreed upon. So, as we shall see in the Apostle’s evangelistic methodology, when he engages his opponents he engages them both in regards to facts and in regard to proper interpretive paradigm in which those facts must exist in order to be seen as the facts that they are. This means that the metaphor for evangelism should be ‘train wreck’ and not ‘bridge building.’
The Apostle has been asked to give meaning to his proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection. We should immediately note here that the Apostle does not use a evidentialist approach in this apologetic. He does not try to build overwhelming evidence that would lead the Athenians to conclude that there was a very high percentage that indeed Jesus rose from the grave. Given the time + circumstance + chance theological framework of the Athenians such a presentation of the evidentiary fact of the resurrection could only have been seen as an absurdity. People without a biblical philosophy of fact will never embrace facts as having biblical meaning. Knowing this, what the Apostle does is to build the framework of a presuppositional approach which first provides a over-arching Creation narrative as a theological – philosophical backdrop against which the resurrection of Jesus makes sense. Just as Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t make sense in a Pirate movie, neither could the resurrection make sense in a Athenian Worldview, therefore the Apostle begins his defense of Jesus and the Resurrection with Creation.
Before we get to involved in the Apostle’s methodology, proclamation, and defense of the Gospel we should make some observations about his introduction. First, he notes that they were ‘very religious.’ The Greek word and concept is somewhat difficult to get into the english language. To translate it as ‘very religious’ is to complimentary but to translate it as ‘somewhat superstitious’ is to pointed. In the ancient world the term could be used as a compliment but more often it gave the meaning of an excess or strange piety. Who knows, maybe Paul used this phrase precisely because it could have been taken in different ways by the council. The ambiguity of the phrase could have made two points for him at one time. If the address was taken as ‘very religious’ the Apostle would have brought home the point that man cannot escape the idea of God (something that the Epicureans would have disagreed with) but if the address was taken as ‘somewhat superstitious’ then the Apostle would have brought home how it is that fallen man twists the supernatural to fit his God avoidance agenda. In short the term, by way of inference, teaches what the Apostle teaches in Romans 1 when he writes that man cannot escape the knowledge of God and precisely because he cannot escape the knowledge of God he perverts the knowledge of God so as to lie to himself that he has escaped the knowledge of God.
By appealing to their worship of the ‘Unknown God’ the Apostle continues with this subtle critique against them. Paul can appeal to this Unknown God not because he believes that in this appeal he has found neutral ground with the Athenians on the Character of God. He chooses this altar as his cultural preaching text on the basis that it provides common ground. The common ground is found in the ground shared between the Athenians and the Apostle where they have made provision for worship of some deity that might have slipped through the net of their god seizing culture and where the Apostle can proclaim to them the character of the one true God. However, it must be emphasized that common ground is not neutral ground. The Athenians and Paul share this common ground but the Athenians, unless regenerated by the Spirit of the living Christ, will deny everything that the Apostle has to say to them about this putatively Unknown God. In working from the Unknown God the Apostle most emphatically does not appeal to what they know of this Unknown God by way of a shared natural theology between himself and the Athenians. Quite to the contrary he begins not from what they know but from what they say they don’t know. He thus brings attention to their ignorance and not to their understanding gained about the gods from Natural theology. Indeed, in the ancient world, the whole idea about ‘Unknown God’s’ and the altars built unto was based on complete and total ignorance. Cases are recorded where peoples were sent some kind of deliverance and not knowing which god was responsible for interceding on their behalf they would build an altar to that god. Now unless there are those who wish to contend that Natural Theology is premised on complete ignorance of those practicing it, there is no way that Paul is appealing to some shared notion of Natural Theology by which to lead the Athenians to understand the God of the Bible given their God hating worldview.
In the end, the Apostle by noting their worship of the Unknown God is giving a subtle internal critique of the Athenian Worldview serving to expose their contradictions. If God is unknown then by definition he cannot be known to build altars to. They could not know what they could not know and they could not whistle it either. And yet, these gods which they say are unknown are known enough to be worshiped. In exposing this contradiction he could have have said that ‘although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.’
Whether one is dealing with Athenians, Academians, or Americans one cannot start with a perverted Natural Theology and reason to a pristine Biblical Theology. To insist that one can start with fallen presuppositions and arrive at biblical theology would be like insisting that one can start with horse manure and finish with Chocolate cake.