Some Brief Ruminations on Areopagus (Acts 17)
by Dustin Salter

  • Introduction
  • Christianized Paganism
  • Biblical Revelations and Touch Points with the Greek Mind
  • 1 Corinthians: A Repudiation of Athens?
  • Conclusion: Engaging the Zeitgeist
  • Bibliography

  • Introduction back to top

    Since Tertullian inquired into the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, scholars have debated the role and value (if any) of pagan culture for the proclamation of the Christian worldview. This discussion often turns of the apostle Paul's Areopagus address to the cultured pagan milieu in Acts 17 (Adams, 1992, 135-149). Described aptly as "the museum of classical culture for the Hellenistic world"(Conzelman, 1966, 218), Paul's activities here are ostensibly paradigmatic for hi entire ministry.

    Numerous questions and interpretations have emerged from the Mars Hill speech. Among these is the suggestion that Paul's speech represents a capitulation to Greek religious notions of the day, offering little more to his audience than 'Christianized' paganism. Other shave submitted that the Apostle is able to remain on distinctively Christian ground while appropriating Greek culture for his purposes. Could Paul have been proffering a fundamentally Christian worlsdview while clothing it in the contemporary idiom? Further, did Paul, later in I Corinthians, repudiate his attempt on Mars Hill to capitalize on 'common ground' between biblical revelation and Stoic philosophy? These theological and cultural queries form the basis for Paul's speech.


    Christianized Paganism back to top

    The structure of the speech includes Paul's citation of two lines by Greek poets. (See Bruce, 1977, 242) Albert Schweizer held that the quotation, "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) espouses a God - mysticism wrapped in a distinctly stoic world view rather than the Christo - mysticism of the genuine Paul, and is , therefore, unhistorical. (Schweizer, 1931) Hanz Conzelman concurs, arguing that "the speech is the free creation of the author."(Conzelman, 1966, 218) The author "evidently took over an entire philosophical complex of ideas which in itself is incompatible with the biblical idea of creation." (Conzelman, 224) Martin Dibelius also questions the authenticity of the speech, arguing that the speech is more representative of Greek rationalism than the biblical Paul. (Dibelius, 1956)


    Biblical Revelation and
    Touch Points with the Greek Mind
    back to top

    Pagan Religiosity

    At the outset of his address, Paul focuses his attention on his audience's profound "cultic piety." (Stonehouse, 1949, 22), having viewed an altar bearing the inscription "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" (Acts 17:23), and utilizes this as his first point of contact.


    Pagan Poets and Biblical Parallels

    Contra Schweizer and Conzelmann, when Paul builds his apologetic bridge, he does not allow any concession to Hellenistic paganism. Rather, as Bruce observes, his doctrine of God is wrapped in the "very language of biblical revelation." (Bruce, 240) Paul's doctrine of man, which includes citation of the two pagan poets, teaches that mankind is the offspring of the Christian God. As Bruce explains, the context of the statement (Paul's audience) is absolutely essential for grasping Paul's use of the quotation:

    It is not suggested that even the Paul of Acts ... envisaged God in terms of the Zeus of Stoic pantheism, but if men whom his hearers recognized as authorities had used language which could corroborate his argument, he would quote their words, giving the a biblical sense as he did so. (emphasis added, Bruce, 240)

    Because men are made in the image of God, Paul could appeal to their sensus divinitatus (sense of the divine) in the dialogue with them. As Alister McGrath observes this sense of divinity is a "powerful apologetic devise that enables Paul to base himself on acceptable Greek theistic assumptions while at the some time going beyond them." (McGrath, 1993, 28) Even after the Fall, though obscured and darkened, there is a vestige of the image of God left in man, and indelible mark of the Creator that still remains. Precisely because of this, he is able to perceive some truth, albeit at a very rudimentary level. In this vein Cornelius Van Til has written that the pagan poets taught what is correct, despite the fact that their system of thought and belief was not in accord with revealed truth. (Van Til)


    Natural Revelation: Tensions with Romans 1

    A cursory reading reveals some ostensible disparity between Paul's view of natural revelation in Acts 17 and his view of the subject in Romans. Paul seemingly gives more credence to the concept in Acts 17 than in Romans 1, where the emphasis is placed on the inability of the pagan to respond to revelation. Again, context is crucial.

    First, Carson, Moo, and Morris explain that there in nothing in the theology of Roman 1 that would preclude Paul from trying to establish common ground with his pagan hearers. (Stonehouse, 24) Stonehouse argues that in Paul's instruction in Romans 1 and 2, revelation comes in two forms: creation and the constitution of man. With this in mind, Romans is complementary to Mars Hill. (Stonehouse, 24)

    Second, Bruce notes that the "letter was written to Christians while the speech was delivered to pagans." (Bruce, 244) The reader must bear in mind that Paul's speech in Acts 17 should probably be viewed more as pre-evangelism than evangelism per se. (Carson, et al., Bruce, 245) Karl O. Sandnes suggests that the speech is insinuatio, employing this rhetorical technique to make an indirect appeal for the purpose of introducing the Gospel, rather that propositio . Sandnes observes that "the intention of the this strategy was to promote curiosity and elicit questions." (Sandnes, 1993, 25)


    1 Corinthians: A Repudiation of Athens? back to top

    When Paul arrived in Corinth to continue his missionary endeavors, he makes the striking remark to "know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." (I Corinthians 2:2) This statement combined with the facts that Acts 17 contains no explicit "word of the cross," and the lack of fruit from the address, has had some commentators conclude that Paul changed his tactics in the Corinthian letters.

    In response to this, two points must be made. First, we have seen that Acts 17 contains no explicit "word of the cross" probably because the message was pre - evangelism rather than evangelism per se. Second, that Paul changed tactics because of the lack of fruit is highly unlikely. Stonehouse writes that:

    it is most precarious to engage in rationalizing from the number of converts to the correctness of the message ... Luke did not share the pragmatism of our day which judges the truth of the message by the criterion of outward success. (Stonehouse, 42)

    Further, Bruce notes that we are witnessing an Apostle who has become a veteran of Gentile evangelistic activities. He explains that "it is probable that Paul's decision at Corinth was based on his assessment of the situation there." (Bruce, 246)


    Conclusion: Engaging the Zeitgeist back to top

    We have seen, then that Paul was able to establish common ground and points of contact with Greek culture and intelligentsia while still remaining on uniquely Christian ground. With a rich cultural background himself, Paul could exploit the pagan culture, reclaiming it for the true sovereign of the universe. the dichotomy between Hellenistic and Biblical parallels is false. There is a third option: contextualization without accommodation. (See Charles, Trinity Journal, 1995, 16; Pratt, 199)


    Bibliography back to top

    • Adam, Marilyn McCord, "Philosophy and the Bible: The Areopagus Speech", Faith and Philosophy 9 (1992), 135-149.
    • Bruce, F. F., Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
    • Carson, D. A., Moo, Douglas J., Morris Leon, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
    • Charles, Daryl J., "Engaging the (Neo)pagan Mind; Paul's Encounter With Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (Acts 17:16)". Trinity Journal 16 (1995), 47-62.
    • Conzelman, Hanz, "The Address of Paul on the Areopagus" in Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martin, eds., Studies in Luke - Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966).
    • Dilbeus, Martin, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (London, 1956).
    • Jenkins, Daniel T., "Paul Before the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34)" Princeton Seminary Bulletin 64 (1971). 86-89).
    • McGrath, Alister, Intellectuals Don't Need God and Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).
    • Pratt, Richard, Every Thought Captive (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers).
    • Sandnes, Karl O., "Paul and Socrates: The Aim of Paul's Areopagus Speech," Journal for the Study of the New Testamnet 50 (1993), 13-26.
    • Schweitzer, Albert, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London, 1931).
    • Stonehouse, Ned B., The Areopagus Address (London: The Tyndale Press, 1949).
    • Van Til, Cornelius, Paul at Athens (Phillipsburg).