Paul's Apologetic Encounter at Athens

Here are some reflections on Acts 17 and how Paul’s confrontation with the philosophers at Athens is instructive for Christians today:

    The apostle Paul was a master of discernment. When faced with the impressive culture of Athens, Paul demonstrated how Christians today should interact with unbelievers. As Peter instructed (1 Peter 3:15,16), Paul showed “gentleness and respect” as he interacted with the Athenian philosophers of the first century. Yet, he was unwavering in his Christian faith. 

    At no point did Paul doubt his Christian worldview or put God on trial for the sake of supposed intellectual honesty. Rather, Paul assumed the truth of his religion and sought to bring its truthfulness to bear on the thinking and living of the Athenian philosophers.

    Paul was brought to the Areopagus to share and defend his Christian faith. The apostle opened his address by saying that the Athenians were superstitious. What did Paul mean by "superstitious?" Well, he meant that the Athenians, like all of us, were religious by nature. Yet, because of sin they were misguided in the object of their worship. 

    Paul was in Athens to authoritatively proclaim the true God, who is worthy of worship (v. 23). This God is the Creator of all things (v24). Then, in verse 27, Paul says that all men are groping for God, but in reality this God is not far from them. In other words, the Athenians were without excuse for their false worship; they knew the true God but denied him in their idolatrous worship.  

    In verse 28 Paul gives examples of this culpable suppression of truth by quoting two Greek philosopher-poets. The first quote comes from Epimenides whom Paul also quoted in his letter to Titus. The Cretans had come up with a story about Zeus’ death, so Epimenides wrote against the Cretans in response. Epimenides argued from living men and women to a living Zeus as he says, “in him we live and move and have our being.” If we are alive, this philosopher argues, so is Zeus. Paul is doing the exact opposite by moving from an independent God, who is the source of life, to living men and women (Acts 17:24-26). From this living God's existence we derive our very being! 

    Paul’s meaning for this quote, as well as the second quote by a Stoic writer, was that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all life. Paul was not adopting the false teaching of either Epimenides or the pantheist, Stoic writer who penned, “For we are indeed his offspring.” These pagan men could say what is right, not in accord with, but only in spite of their unbelieving worldviews. In fact, taken as the authors had intended (pagan motivation and pagan goal), their statements must be deemed false.  

    Paul, then, is re-locating these assertions, from a false and falsifying system, to the only worldview that can interpret such statements aright. This is a microcosm of what Paul is trying to do with his audience in this chapter. The Athenians are image bearers who worship wrongly and in ignorance, and so Paul longs for their worship to be relocated in Christ by completely replacing their pagan system of thought with a Christian worldview. Paul's intention with these Athenians is an entire shift from darkness, ignorance, and rebellion to light, knowledge, and faithfulness. This apologist doesn't want the Athenians to add Christianity to their paganism; he wants Christianity to supplant and totally replace their paganism. His goal is grand and requires divine assistance.

Christians, then, should remember these 5 key principles from Paul’s experience in Athens:

  1. Approach unbelievers with gentleness and respect, because they are image-bearers, they are your neighbors, and they are in need of the saving truth of the Gospel.
  2. Remain faithful to the Lord in your thinking as well as in your affections and actions.
  3. View unbelief and other faiths/worldviews through the lens of the Bible.
  4. Demonstrate for the unbeliever that any truth found in the non-Christian worldview can only find its natural home in the Christian worldview (think of what Paul did to Epicurus' quote). 
  5. Make the gospel call to repentance and faith your main goal (go read the end of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17 to see how Paul does it)

For further reading check out Paul at Athens by Cornelius Van Til and Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint

Pastor Scott