Over the years I have spent a considerable amount of time studying apologetical systems and evangelistic approaches in relation to political leaders. Should a Christian leader avoid using the Scriptures as his or her authority if others do not view it as authoritative? More largely, above and beyond evangelism, should the believer argue from the Bible in an increasingly secular Capitol relative to policy matters?
What follows is a study on Paul’s approach to persuasion when speaking to a secular audience as recorded in the Book of Acts. Studying this passage will allow us to focus intently on this subject — and I should add up front, what we will learn there is not inconsistent with other passages and what they teach about this subject throughout the whole of Scripture.
Keep in mind too that Paul’s practice pertaining to this question led to at least one political leader coming to Christ as a result (Acts 17:34).
Read on, my friend!
In the Book of Acts, chapter 17:22-31, Doctor Luke records one of the Apostle Paul’s sermons. Studying this sermon is quite fascinating because it reveals how Paul went about the task of persuading non-believers with biblical truth. More specifically, herein we will witness the heralding of kerygmatic (“the act of publicly proclaiming the Gospel”) truths to Athenian secular philosophers, or better, ancient Greek ideologues. This passage of Scripture is quite informative and therefore profoundly important because it provides an exemplar and thesis for developing one’s own personal, foundational understanding of the biblically proper way to defend (cf. 1Peter 3:15) and proclaim (cf. Colossians 1:28) eternal truths to non-believers. It follows that:
AN IN-DEPTH STUDY OF ACTS 17 YIELDS GUIDELINES FOR COMMUNICATING TRUTH TO THE UNREGENERATE
This sermon reveals that the Apostle Paul’s apologetical (“to give a defense”) approach was presuppositional in nature. In other words, the sermon’s content and results presuppose the absolute and final authority of Scripture as it relates to his epistemological (“the philosophical inquiry into the nature, sources, limits and methods of gaining knowledge”)1 basis for argumentation. If Paul used Scripture as his basis in the first century world to a secular audience, does it not follow that believers today should use the Scriptures as our starting point and final authority for all reasoning, apologetical and evangelistic endeavors? I think so!
Why do I say Paul’s sermon in Acts chapter 17 is presuppositional? Why do I say you should presuppose the authority of God’s Word when you speak? Please peruse the following six-point outline to hopefully form similar convictions in your own heart.
The time-honored principle of the analogy of Scripture in the grammatical-historical-normative approach to interpreting Scripture (Hermeneutics) necessitates that the Bible, or any ancient book is not internally contradictory until it is proven to be internally contradictory. Another way of saying this is that every book and its author is innocent until proven guilty of contradicting itself. Still another way of saying this is, if God is characteristically veracious (“accurate and precise”) and immutable (“not experiencing change or development”), and if All Scripture is God-breathed (theopnuestos) (cf. 2Timothy 3:16), then it follows that because of the characteristic nature of God Himself, the Book He authored would not be internally contradictory! All sixty-six books of the Bible that are inspired (or better, “breathed”) by God, per His own testimony, contain an independent and inter-dependent integrity until proven otherwise. That is the underlying maxim of this hermeneutical (“the discipline of interpreting sacred texts”) principle known as The Analogy of Scripture.
At this point you are probably asking yourself, how does this apply to this study? I will tie this together in a moment. But first, notice what Paul states in Romans, chapter 1:18-20: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 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. The Apostle is declaring that men know of God, and that He is evident to them! However, even though He is evident to them, instead of acknowledging Him, they suppress the truth. This typical reaction is due to the fall of man and man’s rebellion against Him due to his inherent sin nature. Notice what John 3:19 states in this regard: “…. the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”
It follows that Paul’s recorded sermons in narrative, historical, chronological sections of the Bible (as in Acts 17) would in no way contradict that which he — through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — penned in theological sections, such as the Book of Romans, chapter 1:18-20. Important and related to the hermeneutical principle of the Analogy of Scripture, narrative sections of the Bible (The Book of Acts) should and do illustrate (in action) theological sections of God’s Word. In fact, it is difficult to think of Paul having any kind of personal integrity or serious believability if what he writes in Romans chapter 1 is not utilized principally and specifically in his preaching, such as in his sermon in Acts 17.
All that to say, the literary critic or the one attempting to understand what is meant by what is said in Acts 17 must import the hermeneutical principle of the Analogy of Scripture: What Paul means by his use of words in Acts 17 should be analogous (“resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike”)2 to his writings elsewhere, such as Romans 1:18-20. The author should be deemed innocent of self-contradiction unless demonstrable evidence exists to the contrary. A brief illustration of this principle is the alignment of Romans 1:18-19 and Acts 17:22-23. In this Acts passage, Paul states that the Athenians were both religious as well as ignorant. This is similar to the context and meaning of Romans 1:18-19 where he states that men know of God (that is they are religious) but that they suppress this knowledge (that is they are culpably ignorant).
Further, in passages of parallel meaning interpretive rules such as The Analogy of Scripture necessitate that the easier-to-understand passages help to aid in the clarification of the harder-to-understand passages, so as not to contradict one another.
Therefore, Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 must be interpreted in the context of his teachings elsewhere, this would include not only the Romans chapter 1 passage already sighted, but other passages such as 1Corinthians 1:17-25. The author should be given any benefit of doubt, versus the alternative of effacing his literary and nuclear integrity short of supporting empirical evidence. Summarily:
ACTS 17 MUST BE PREJUDGED AND INTERPRETED BY OTHER PAULINE PASSAGES
One must assume his integrity of thought and belief from one book to another until proven otherwise. Said another way, and in direct support of the argument I am about to make, Paul doesn’t herald one principle in one place and then another contradictory point somewhere else in his writings at a later date.
Now please allow me to tie this all together: In light of The Analogy of Scripture, Paul’s sermon of Acts 17 must carry with it the predisposition of presuppositionalism as taught by him in Romans, chapter 1. This is critically important to the argument forthcoming in this Bible study (otherwise I wouldn’t have used so much space making the point). One particular commentator of this sermon, Bahnsen, has aptly and wonderfully summarized all I have said in much tighter fashion regarding Paul’s Acts 17 sermon; “its doctrine is a reworking of thought in Romans transformed into missionary impulse.”3
In the earlier geographic settings of the Acts of the Apostles, specifically chapter 17, Paul was in Thessalonica and Berea respectively. Noteworthy is this: In each of these two locations immediately prior to his arrival in Athens, Paul singularly utilized the Scriptures to present the Gospel. Notice Acts 17:2, relative to his proclamation in Thessalonica, And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.
This passage indicates that reasoning … from the Scriptures was not something Paul just happened to decide to do in this one instance recorded in our home passage of Acts 17:22-31; it stands to reason that what Paul did when he spoke in Athens was also according to Paul’s custom. The word Luke uses here for custom (etho) means “to be accustomed to, or to be a part of.” It is used elsewhere to describe Jesus’ habit of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath to read (Luke 4:16), and His habit of teaching His followers (Mark 10:1). Paul’s habit wrought from conviction was to always reason from the Scriptures.
A bit later in Acts 17:11, Paul is brought to Berea where it is said of the Jews that from Paul: They received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
Once again, implicitly illustrated, Paul spoke from the word; it was the basis for making his declarations. It was not said of the Bereans that “they received Paul’s philosophy” or “they received his thoughts.” Rather, They received the Word ….
Upon arrival in Athens from Berea, Paul was on somewhat of a missionary furlough as he waited for Silas and Timothy to catch up, to come and join him (v.15, 16). During this time, he was provoked by all of the idolatry in the city. His response? He preached Jesus and the resurrection (v. 18). Likened to Peter’s sermon on the same subject in Acts 2, Paul undoubtedly spoke not about Christianity’s relation to Greek philosophy but about Christ’s victory over death and sin (cf. Acts 15:36; 16:17, 31, 32).
Nowhere in these passages prior to the Athenian sermon is there a trace of evidence suggesting that Paul played to the present positions of his listeners in order to relate to them philosophically and then subsequently reason apart from the Scriptures from that point forward. This is an important contextual distinction to make prior to interpreting his meaning at the front end of the Athenian sermon, which at a first reading may seem to contradict the point of this paragraph.
Athens was the cultural center of the Greek world. It was home to the historical purveyors of Greek philosophy including Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. Accordingly, this sermon contains and is a confrontation between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy by one of Christianity’s greatest spokesmen. Therefore, in a spiritual sense:
THE SETTING IS SIMILAR TO A PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, OR A CHAMPIONSHIP IN THE SPORTS WORLD
THIS IS A CLASH OF PHILOSOPHICAL TITANS IN AND OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
It should be viewed as nothing less! Relative to this study, it is important to identify whether Paul utilized Greek thought as a launching point of common knowledge, or utilized some other bridging devices to segue into a presentation of truth based solely on scriptural revelation. In particular and by way of application, how the believer is to approach philosophical paradigm clashes will be modeled for all would-be truth proclaimers throughout the coming centuries — and for you and me in the capital community.
Acts 17:22 marks the beginning point of the sermon. After being hauled before the Areopagus (those who “controlled” Greek philosophy), Paul launches in. Relative to his earlier observations in the market places he states: “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.”
Paul’s opening remarks seemingly indicate his attempt to reach for common ground with his audience, as in making bridge-building statements and acknowledging the worthiness of some of their customs. But on closer investigation this is not the case at all! First, the Greek word for very religious (deisidaimonia) can also be interpreted as “somewhat superstitious.” Thus, rather than this being an attempt to achieve camaraderie, it was more likely the beginning of a mild indictment of their suppression of that which they inherently knew. This meaning of deisidaimonia seems to be the most likely intent of Paul, given the fact that he goes on to say that they worship an unknown god … in ignorance!! Used early on in any conversation, these last two word groupings, when taken together, are hardly endearing. Paul’s earlier use then of deisidaimonia was not intended to be a befriending statement of endearment lest he come across as schizophrenic from one earlier statement to another.
Secondly, to further add to this understanding of the passage, Paul is immediately emphasizing that the Greeks attested to some sort of theism as evidenced by their inscriptions on an altar, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Evidencing every man’s internal theistic predilections throughout history is the fact that Paul says they worshipped. Yet that which they sense a presence of, Paul says they choose to ignore. This understanding of what Paul meant by his choice and use of the word ignorance would be in keeping with the same way he uses the word in Ephesians 4:18: … being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.
The word choice of ignorance (agnoia, the same word as used by Paul in Acts 17:23) does not imply an intellectual deficiency, but rather one of culpability as Paul summarizes the Gentile mindset. To illustrate this difference, it is like a patrolman pulling a person over on the highway and asking, “Did you know you were speeding?” To honestly not know you were speeding (i.e. if your speedometer was broken) would indicate ignorance based on information deficiency. But to know deep down in your conscience that you were speeding, and then communicate supposed ignorance is a totally different matter. Definitively the latter is culpable ignorance, a suppression of truth. It is lying to oneself; it is blameworthy ignorance. This is Paul’s meaning here per his word choice. Accordingly, right from the get-go his Acts 17 vocabulary indicates he was asserting to his audience that they were guilty of a cover-up, or to incorporate the synonymous meaning of ignorance as it is found in Ephesians 4:18, they possessed a hardened heart. Said in analogy to Paul’s teaching in Romans 1, Paul’s opening salvo was heralding the fact that the Athenian philosophers were suppressing that which was evident to them (Romans 1:19) in their conscience.
Ernest Best, who has conducted intensive word studies on most every Greek word used by Paul in Ephesians states:
Ignorance seems to have a unique place over against knowledge of God … ignorance, sin and unbelief are closely linked [by the author of Ephesians].
He goes on to say,
[the interpretation of ignorance] expresses the same thought in another way as hardening of the heart.4
If this is the meaning of ignorance then it is hardly an appealing style to in essence begin a speech with: “you have a hard heart!” That method of communication doesn’t seem to serve the objective of broad audience receptivity! In fact, it is courageously bold communication that is empowered by none other than the Holy Spirit! Oh for men like this today in the capital community: both bold and loving! (Cf. Prov. 3:3.)
Paul’s then mention of their altar inscription, given these previous insights, now takes on a whole different flavor, i.e., “you may say publicly that God is unknown but deep down you know that isn’t true.”
The statement conveys Paul’s conviction that the Athenian secularists were suppressing the truth about God — truth that they knew inherently in their conscience! In a polite manner (in a way not violating 1Peter 3:15b) Paul was communicating that their ignorance was culpable. Their placard, to the trained seasoned evangelist, proved to be prima facie evidence for the existence of a hardened heart. Accordingly, Paul’s delineation of thought in Acts 17 exactly parallels that which he expresses in Romans 1:19-20: … that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them … so that they are without excuse.
The beginning of this sermon is crucial and revelatory. It displays no evidentiary apologetical attempts apart from the primacy of the use of Scripture. Immediately modeled and illustrated by Paul, all within the introduction of the sermon, is a quick and aggressive “pulling out of the rug” on man-invented Greek philosophy and epistemology. Stunningly and in contrast to most presentations of truth today, within moments of beginning his address, Paul states (my paraphrase):
Therefore, what you have chosen to falsely worship as a result of your suppressing, hardened hearts, in stark contrast I authoritatively proclaim this to you ….
Rather than build up slowly from some supposed common foundations between Greek philosophy and Christianity, Paul lovingly launches words that serve to uncover the listener’s philosophical and theological impotence. Here then in print is an arresting argument (in this case related to the Gospel) supported singularly by, and reasoned singularly from Scripture.
Lastly as it relates to the conclusion of his first two verses in his sermon, when Paul states, this I proclaim to you. The Greek word he is invoking, kataggello, which is translated into the English word proclaim, is the same Greek word used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to the solemn authoritative proclamation of the Gospel based on Scripture (e.g. Acts 3:18; 1Cor. 9:14; Gal 1:11-12).
In summary of the first two stanzas of his sermon, Paul has set forth an epistemological antithesis between the ignorant, autonomous and independent bases of Greek philosophy and a God-given authority stemming from a God-given revelation of Himself and His incumbent truth.
Continuing in the same order of argumentation parallel to Romans 1:18-20, Paul now compounds the internal testimony of conscience (as mentioned previously by his use of the Greek word for the translated-into-English word ignorance in Acts 17:22-23) with the external testimony of general revelation a.k.a. creation. Acts 17:24-28a states: “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, Paul further substantiates to the Athenians that all of mankind — if they are living in denial of Christ — are without excuse. Scripturally speaking, it is not as if people just don’t know of God’s existence, conversely Paul says in line with Romans 1, He is not far from each one of us. Culpable ignorance is inexcusable in God’s eyes; He has made Himself known to everyone through both conscience and creation. If one responds to the general revelation that God has granted through conscience and creation He will be faithful to increase that revelation of Himself to the point of making Salvation in Christ always possible. This is appropriately theologically termed “God’s responsive, progressive revelation.” Here then is the answer to the often-posed question:
WHAT ABOUT THE HEATHEN IN AFRICA?
Both conscience and creation (or general revelation) attests to the fact of God’s knowableness. Paul’s appeal to general revelation here serves his purposes of further nailing down Greek culpability. God is not far off or impossible to know. This general revelation, if not masked or suppressed, creates a desire to seek God. Bahnsen summarizes this issue when he states:
[Man] is responsible because he possesses the truth, but he is guilty for what he does to the truth.5
God has revealed Himself to mankind internally (conscience) and externally (creation); that means He can be easily found — and on the flip side of the same coin, the Gospel of salvation is simple to proclaim and understand. Conversely however, the Greeks suppressed that which they knew to be true and instead as a diversionary tactic to the witness of their God-attesting internal conscience, worshipped their gods in the Parthenon, whom Paul fleshed out here in his sermon as those who dwell in temples made with hands. From the Areopagus one finds him or herself directly below the Parthenon; Paul could have easily motioned with his hand to illustrate that about which he spoke.
In summary of this section of his sermon, Paul has candidly and in straightforward pronouncement refuted the Greeks’ man-made gods. He has not utilized them nor built his sermon from some supposed common denominator; rather he boldly mortifies and rebukes their man-made ideas about theism.
Further on into the body of Paul’s sermon is a summary quotation, not from the Old Testament, but rather from secular sources per verses 28b: “… 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 …”
Why does Paul quote these extra-biblical sources when in fact the Scriptures were Paul’s singular basis of authority? Make no mistake what Paul is attempting to accomplish here: this is not an endeavor to establish common ground with Greek philosophy! The reason they are included is because they are Greek secular sources that serve to contradict their own Greek beliefs! One being the previous notion that Paul has already cited, that supposedly the Greek gods dwell in temples made with human hands! Paul is in essence arguing, “So which opposing Greek theistic understanding is correct?” These contradictory quotes are from the Cretan poets Epimendes and Aratus (who came from Paul’s home town). They both serve Paul’s purposes of emblematically illustrating the autonomy of Greek authority, or as stated in Romans, the ineptness of diversionary suppression, of seeking after and finding the true God. The poets themselves are people who know about God, but because of a lack of submission to the testimony of conscience and creation, their unrighteousness hindered their quest for Him. Again, John 3:19 states this proclivity of the sinful condition of man’s soul apart from the intervention of the redeeming Holy Spirit: Men loved the darkness rather than the light for their deeds were evil. Stonehouse adroitly comments on what these poets are in essence attesting to: “… the pagan poets in the very act of suppressing and perverting the truth presupposed a measure of awareness of it.”6
Paul’s importation of this secular thinking is meant to once again in yet another way illustrate that that which is known about God is evident within them (Romans 1:19) and that, For even though they knew [about] God, [through their conscience and general revelation] they did not honor Him as God (Romans 1:21). (The parenthetical inclusions are mine for contextual emphasis and to aid in understanding).
Sandwiched in the middle of Paul’s singular thesis regarding the existence of culpable ignorance are these two secular guys, twins in thinking, who serve Paul well; these are convenient utilitarian quotes illustrating — evidenced in and by their own cultural writings! — the exact point of Paul’s sermon. Paul skillfully uses their own authoritative source to drive home his point.
Paul is not commending Stoic doctrines or utilizing pagan ideas to round out his sermon with worldly verbosity and “secular digestibility” as those in the Evangelical “seeker sensitive movement often postulate. To do so would be internally and theologically contradictory to Pauline clarity as previously cited and found elsewhere in Scripture. It follows that this portion of the sermon cannot be taken as an acquiescence or attempt to identify with a pagan audience.
The last section of Paul’s address is a call to repentance and a warning of coming judgment: “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.
This section is anything but an attempt to find common ground with the Greek philosophers. Herein is the apex of antithesis to their secular Greek ideas. Herein is a bold call to abandon their unfounded philosophies and turn to Christ! “Paul wanted the philosophers to not simply refine their thinking a bit further and add some missing information to it; but rather to abandon their presuppositions and have a complete change of mind, submitting to the clear and authoritative revelation of God”7 Acquiescence to repentance meant to live without culpable ignorance and noetic conflict. Failure to repent would mean a prolongation of epistemological autonomy, or better, clinging-on to an arrogant, self-centered pride where one remains the imperial authority and arbitrator in all things. It is that unrepentant person, says the Apostle, who will undergo the judgment of God. Perhaps this describes you?
DO YOU “CREATE GOD IN YOUR OWN IMAGE?”
ARE YOU “THE FINAL ARBITRATOR OF ALL BELIEF?”
DO YOU “MAKE GOD WITH YOUR HUMAN HANDS?”
Such humanistic hubris! “I am the final authority as to what is true! I need no other source because I am my own god!” These are those who need to repent and come to Christ lest they undergo the judgment of God. Your suppressed conscience testifies to what I am saying — that what I am saying is true about your present condition.
These six facets of Paul’s Acts 17 sermon represent parallel truths to his theology of Romans 1:18-20. The fact that this is a vivid portrayal and presentation of presuppositional apologetics is evidenced by
Robert Reymond in his book, The Justification of Knowledge summarizes best the communication philosophy of Paul:
Only a cursory reading of Acts will disclose that Peter, Stephen, Philip and Paul, in their missionary sermons to the nations, never urge lost men to do anything other than to repent of sin and bow in faith before God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ for men’s salvation. They never imply in their argumentation that their hearers may legitimately question the existence of the Christian God, the truth of Scripture, or the historicity of the death and resurrection of Christ prior to personal commitment. Never do they by their appeal to “evidence”…imply that such “evidence” vindicates their message…Repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ can be the sinner’s only proper response to the whole apostolic witness.8
Should you argue from the Bible in a Secular Capital? Illustrated by the Acts 17 sermon is the model for the capital relative to using Scripture as the final authority for truth and or evangelizing and defending the faith: In every capital of the world people already know that Christ is God, that the Bible is true, and that they need to repent of their self-appointed authority and autonomy and fall on their knees in submission to God’s authority. They know this in their heart of hearts via the witness of their conscience and the surrounding creation of God. Therefore, it is the believer’s job not so much to convince and persuade, evidence and support, as it is to aid and lovingly coach the unconverted to quit suppressing that which they already know to be true! May the Spirit aid us in such a ministry.
Likened to Paul, the use of the Scriptures, and one’s ability to reason based on scriptural truth, need be one’s final and complete authority. I challenge you to begin arguing from scriptural precepts to make your point relative to policy matters (assuming Scripture directly or its principles come to bear directly on a matter). When challenged with “Well, I don’t view the Bible as authoritative” answer with, “Oh yes you do; it is just that you are suppressing it.” Another one of my favorite responses when arguing about this is: “Should I believe what you proclaim about you?”
Hebrews 4:12 is an apt capstone: For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Unbelievers know Scripture is true. So, use it on them even if they say they don’t believe it; in reality they do — even if, like the Athenians on Mars Hill, they tried to convince others outwardly that they did not! Lovingly help your modern-day Athenian colleagues to quit suppressing what they know to be true! That’s the presuppositional premise of which Paul operated his ministry under — and so should you!