Acts 17: Paul’s Apologetic Methodology

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. Paul proclaims that God created all people specifically, and appeals to existing Greek belief here
  4. 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.
  5. This belief was unknown, but now God is doing something new, and calling all to repent and believe
  6. God will judge all those who refuse and all those who sin via one Man
  7. 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.

 

Biblical Justification for Classical Arguments

Since I am Reformed, I have often been criticised for my use of classical apologetics such as Cosmological Arguments on the basis that it has an unbiblical anthropology. The presuppositionalist claims that we shouldn’t grant the ground to the atheist that they can use reason, since reason is grounded in God and depends on God. Under their worldview, there is no God, so there is no justification for why they can use reason.

Further, claims the presuppositionalist, by doing this we allow man to sit in judgement over God. Man gets to weigh the evidence, and then use their reason (for which they depend on God) to judge whether God is God or not, whether God exists or not. But in reality, God is the judge, and we have no authority over Him.

I think there is some merit to this, but I do not think this disqualifies classical arguments. And indeed, I think there is biblical precedent for these arguments and a place for them in apologetic practice.

First and most obviously, we appeal to Romans 1. Here is the section I have in mind (please read the context yourself):

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Why are men without excuse? Because knowledge of God was freely available to them: His eternal power and divine nature are displayed in creation. But they did not approve of having God in their knowledge, so they suppress the truth and their foolish hearts were darkened.

This affirms what cosmological arguments claim: that we can look at the world, and reason about it, and deduce that there is a God. This also applies to fine-tuning arguments. Paul affirms that this kind of reasoning (though not individual arguments, just the kind of reasoning) is valid, and in fact, people are morally guilty for failing to accept the conclusions of this kind of reasoning.

Now the presuppositionalist claims that yes, this is the case. But their foolish hearts were darkened, and they cannot see this any longer, as they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The only thing that can undarken their hearts is God regenerating them, the hearing of the Gospel, and faith in God.

I agree. And I think that no apologetic encounter is complete without the Gospel, and in fact, the proclamation of the Gospel must always be central. Don’t get me wrong, if you walk up to someone, run them through the LCA, and leave, you’ve done them basically no good.

But I don’t think that means that cosmological arguments do no good. Part of the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is a God, there is a Designer and a Judge, and we have failed to live up to His standards. And if we must justify that claim, we will, and we will use cosmological arguments as part of that justification.

And of course, no-one will listen unless God regenerates their heart. But if God does regenerate their heart, as is His prerogative, then cosmological arguments which demonstrate to their mind the truth of God can be an effective part of Gospel witness. And if He doesn’t, then they expose inconsistency. More on that later.

The second main point I want to make is this. The presuppositionalist says that the atheist has no ground for using reason without appealing to God, no reason to believe that reason is reliable apart from God. I want to point out that that is precisely the same way cosmological arguments proceed, but in reverse. The presuppositionalist claims “Reason is reliable only if God exists”, and the classical apologist claims “If reason is reliable, God exists”. These two statements are logically equivalent. For we assume reason and conclude God, so reason entails God. And so when the atheist says they can use reason but have no God, then if the classical arguments are sound, we can say that they are inconsistent.

And notice that no matter which path we take, classical or presuppositional, we must appeal to reason at some point. If we do present a convincing argument that reason is grounded in God, the atheist must use reason to accept the argument. We both assume they are able to reason, even if they don’t have a sufficient ground for it.

Now it is true that discussions cosmological arguments can often get lost in what we might call meaningless minutia, and we lose our focus on God. But I submit that not only is this true for any kind of argument, but also that it isn’t a huge problem. While every conversation we have must have Christ at the centre, not every sentence needs to. Clearly, in negative apologetics, we know this, when we respond to a supposed contradiction in the Old Testament we normally don’t talk much about Christ in that particular subpoint.<

We also see from Paul at Mars Hill that it is valid to in a sense “enter into” someone else’s worldview in order to preach the Gospel. Paul begins his evangelistic and apologetic work at Mars Hill by appealing to a god the Athenians worshipped, the unknown God. He identifies this god with God, claiming that this God created the universe and everything in it. He then quotes parts of some works describing Zeus and attributes them to God. Paul enters into their worldview to make a point, to demonstrate the truth of God inside their worldview. Because of course, we know that any worldview without God is inconsistent. So if we enter their worldview and pretend that it is consistent, we ought to be able to prove God exists. This is what cosmological arguments do: let’s enter into the atheistic worldview, pretend that we can reason, and deduce that God exists.

But as we saw above, the dark-hearted fools who are unregenerate won’t accept it. More often than not, they admit they have no response to the argument, but retreat to “Well sure maybe God exists. But if He does, He is a moral monster and is evil and I would never worship Him.” And this is the appropriate place to quote Romans 9: “And who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”. We affirm, like our concerned presuppositionalist does above, that God is the judge and we are not. We point out their pride and wrong-headedness in sitting in judgement over God.

They pretend their disagreement with God is intellectual, not moral. But we know from our study of Romans 1 that it is indeed moral. Cut away their intellectual pretence, and they are forced to admit the truth. This is where we cut to the heart: man placing Himself above God. And if God grants them a regenerated heart to see this and repent, then they can turn and be saved.

This is why I think cosmological arguments, and other classical arguments, are valuable. Never do they comprise the entirety of our apologetic preaching or methodology, but they are valuable components. Paul affirms their soundness in Romans and applies a similar methodology (to Pagans rather than atheists) at Mars Hill. Not the only valuable arguments, but good ones to have in our bag when the need arises.

Presuppositional Apologetics: One Helpful Approach Among Many

This is the title of a good post from the blog Reflections. Being Reformed, many people expect me to engage exclusively in presuppositional apologetics. Unfortunately for them, I am primarily interested in and gifted in more classical arguments such as cosmological arguments. And so I often get criticised on the basis of having an unbiblical anthropology, appealing to reason which the atheist has no ground or basis for.

I am however strongly convinced that scripture allows us to use other apologetic methodologies. Soon I intend to write a post explaining the biblical basis for using cosmological arguments. But until then, let this post from Reflections be the start of my explanation.

I respectfully think the standard presuppositionalist apologetics presentation is usually high on proclamation and rhetoric but sometimes low in terms of actual apologetic argument. Kelly James Clark notes this criticism in Five Views on Apologetics and I think there is merit to it. Thoughtful nonbelievers are not going to roll over and just admit that without God there is no possibility of having a coherent, morally viable, and existentially livable worldview. Don’t get me wrong: I think most of our worldview competitors do indeed have severe problems in explaining life’s most meaningful realities, but to say that all non-Christian worldviews are logically deficient needs to be demonstrated, not just proclaimed. In terms of philosophy, enduring aspects of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Kantianism don’t strike me as absurd, and they do have unique elements that don’t appear to be merely borrowed from Christianity.

For example, is it possible that Jews and Muslims could presume the truth of their faith based upon their claimed revelation from God? And could Judaism and Islam attempt to justify a transcendental argument from their revelatory perspective? I know Cornelius Van Til appeals to the concept of the one and the many to support the unique unity and diversity with the Trinity. I appreciate his intuition, but again, I would like to see this kind of discussion furthered—especially when it comes to these two important revelatory-based world religions.

I have heard presuppositional apologists say that there is an appropriate time to use evidences for the Christian faith, such as support for the resurrection of Jesus. But in practice, I think this is seldom done. So could arguments from classical and evidential apologetics provide helpful elements to presuppositionalism? And, if so, when?