My church is currently preaching through Acts, and the week before last we covered Acts 17. I think this is quite an important passage for aspiring apologists, as we are given a record of how Paul engaged with pagan philosophers in the preaching of the Gospel. Clearly what’s given to us is a summary of his time in the aeropagus, and I think it is worthwhile spending some time “filling in the gaps” so to speak: trying to reconstruct some of the flow of his no doubt detailed and nuanced argument from the summary that the Spirit has delivered to us via Luke.
Here is the section in question, Acts 17:22-31:
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 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; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and 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, 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; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Here are the stages of argumentation and rhetoric that I see present here:
- Altar to an unknown god. Paul appeals to the place of God in their own worldview. In a sense, they already know there is a God.
- Paul proclaims that there is a God who created and sustains all things, something like a cosmological argument (which had already been invented and used)
- Paul proclaims that God created all people specifically, and appeals to existing Greek belief here
- Paul argues that it cannot be any of the Greek Gods that did this. If God created us, then we cannot create temples and idols for that God.
- This belief was unknown, but now God is doing something new, and calling all to repent and believe
- God will judge all those who refuse and all those who sin via one Man
- God proves Himself through the resurrection of this Man
Calvin’s commentaries are helpful here. Calvin rightly points out that quoting scripture at the Greeks would be useless, since they do not accept it. Instead, Paul proves the nature of God through natural theology, through reasoning about the world and about God. To all those who say that this is not a valid apologetic methodology, it seems that Paul does make use of it here. This is the second time we’ve seen Paul do something like this, he also does so in Romans 1.
In fact, two of Paul’s primary arguments are also two of my primary arguments. First, proving via reason that there is a creator God who desires worship. This is precisely what we do with the various cosmological arguments we deploy. Second, appealing to the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate that God is in some way connected with Christ. Paul uses it to demonstrate that it is via Christ that God will judge the world. Today, we use it to demonstrate that Christianity is the correct monotheistic practice, since cosmological arguments could equally demonstrate the truth of other monotheistic practices. But Paul shows us that the use of the resurrection as an apologetic argument is valid.
There is of course far more in this passage here that the modern apologist can learn from. I just wanted to point out the use of these two arguments, and encourage us to think carefully about Paul has engaged in his apologetics.