Did Paul take a “same God approach” at Athens?

Paul begins his Areopagus address: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with the inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23 ESV). 

Is Paul saying that the unknown god is the same as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? In short, no, he is using it as a point of contact, not common ground. He acknowledges that they are very religious but points out that their worship displays a lack of knowledge. Their objects of worship included an acknowledgement that there was a god that they did not know. Paul proclaims to them the God they do not know and that God is nothing like the other gods they worship. Eckhard J. Schnabel notes, “The reference to the altar of an ‘unknown god’ (v.23) is a critique of the Athenians’ ignorance.”( Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, Downers Grove: IVP, 2008, p. 175.) Paul begins with their impulse to worship, corrects their misconceptions, and fills in their lack of knowledge by describing the God revealed in the Old Testament.

The God Paul proclaims (Acts 17:24-29) is the one who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth. He does not live in temples made by man. He is not served by human hands; he doesn’t need anything. He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. He made from one man every nation determining periods and boundaries of their dwelling places, so that they should seek God. He is not far from each of us, we are his offspring. We should not imagine God as an image formed by man.

All that Paul proclaims establishes the biblical worldview. Paul is not building his message on the Greek understanding of God or gods. Rather he is announcing the self-revealing God of the Bible. “Paul does not trim the gospel to make it acceptable to the worldview of his listeners.” (D.A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. By D.A. Carson, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, p. 395) While he does quote from Greek sources, he does so to communicate Old Testament truths. The point of contact is the Greek religious worship but the message is aimed at correcting the religious understanding of the Greeks.

Paul concludes his address: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31 ESV). The times of ignorance for the Athenians is now over. They are now commanded to repent. Their temples, altars, and gods (known and unknown) are to be abandoned.

Paul was not saying that this “unknown god” was the same God that he was proclaiming. The Areopagus address identifies the religious worship of the Greeks as the time of ignorance. The nature of God, mankind and the relationship between them all had to be corrected. As D. A. Carson points out, “…the people we wish to evangelize hold some fundamental positions that they are going to have to abandon to become Christians.” (“Athens Revisited”, p. 386).

I encourage you to read D. A. Carson’s article, “Athens Revisited”. He identifies nine aspects of the biblical worldview that Paul develops in this address. This biblical worldview is essential to understanding the gospel. Contextualizing the gospel is about making it understandable not about making it acceptable.

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