Apologetics

The Apostle Paul the Babbling Beggar

“There is no wrong way to share your faith.”1 Is that accurate? Does the Lord look down from His throne in heaven and say, “I don’t care how you do it, just do it!” If the Holy Spirit commands that we are to “eat” and “drink” for His glory, and these are everyday activities that at first glance don’t seem like real spiritual issues, then it most certainly follows that whatever we seek to do, we are to do it for God’s glory (1Cor 10.31). Wouldn’t Christian witnessing fall under this umbrella?

The Lord is concerned with how we share our faith. There is a right and wrong way to represent Christ to the world. And, if you want plenty of examples of how it should be done, I would suggest you start studying your Bible’s. First look to Christ, then examine the apostles and prophets of old. There you will find exemplary models that need re-imaging.

However, this does not ignore we have difficulties before us doing so.

Christian Witnessing in our day…

We live in a post-Christian world. Our generation no longer sees or accepts the teachings of the Holy Bible as authoritative.  Our society is pluralistic and so it is wrong to assume that people will recognize one authority over and above all others. If we are going to reach people today with the truth, then we need to use other means to get them to that truth; rather than appealing to the truth from which we say we have obtained life.

Christian witnessing in the Apostles day

Paul lived in a pre-Christian world. Paul’s generation did not see or accept the Holy Scriptures (Tanakh) as authoritative over and above all others. The society he witnessed to—the Greco-Roman world—was pluralistic. But, what method (or means) did the apostle use to appeal to those he was witnessing to?

Two Choices…

For all the talk about how different our circumstances are in comparison with the 1st century apostles, an honest examination/reflection over the biblical texts and the historic context of the period reveal what we are seeing today is NOT a new thing. Now there are at least two options laid before the Christian witness2 at this point. First, pragmatism is believed to be the best method. That is to say, “What we did in the past no longer works, and so new innovative approaches are needed if we are going to reach people.” Second, an attempt at integrating the apostolic method is deemed the wisest. From the material that I’ve read on Christian evangelism/apologetics the latter approach is considered extreme naiveté.3

Now you may want to chop these categories up a little finer than I have done. That is fine, but I’ll leave you with the burden of doing so. I believe that there are sufficient grounds for labeling the two distinct approaches as I have done; realizing that the underlying issue is theological. In other words, the manner in which one pursues Christian witnessing is based upon their basic presumption about the current state of mankind.

If people are essentially good and their minds are relatively unharmed by the noetic effects of the fall (i.e. original sin), then some variant of pragmatic witnessing is inevitable. However, if the view is the opposite. If the human condition has been radically corrupted by the sin of our fore-parents (Adam and Eve), and this entails our mental faculties, then an attempt at applying biblical principles when witnessing to the lost will be the goal. With those things in mind, let the reader now approach Acts 17.

The Setting…

Paul enters Athens awaiting the rest of his ministry team (Acts 17.16). He has been to various places teaching/preaching Christ from the Scriptures; in particular Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17.1, 10). Each time he arrived at a location it wouldn’t be long before he was driven to the next. Everywhere he went “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17.2; cf. v. 10) that “Jesus [of Nazareth] …is the Christ” (Acts 17.3). Those who opposed Paul and his gospel complained to any and all that he was “turn[ing] the world upside down…saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6, 7), and they followed him doggedly until he finally found himself alone in Athens.

How Does Paul Appeal to the Athenians?

To identify Jesus as the Christ—the Anointed One of God—is synonymous with claiming His kingship. This bothered the unbelieving Jews, and it also negatively stirred the hearts of the Greeks. Only those who believed in Jesus as the Christ, understood that having Him as Lord is necessary and good. If Jesus is Christ and rightful King over all, then fealty to Him is absolutely necessary. Such truth will work differently upon the person in question, depending upon their inward disposition towards God.

If we are attentive to what we are reading here in Acts 17:16-34, we will notice the reason for Paul’s initial reaction in the city, the content of his message at the Areopagus, and the response of those in attendance that day. Here’s what I mean.

The Reaction…

When Paul enters Athens, we are told that “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16). Paul was loyal to Jesus, and these idols were an affront to his Lord’s lordship. Idols demand fealty, loyalty, reverence and worship, everything that is to be given to God alone. Paul was intensely irritated by what he saw, his inner heart was angered by such foolishness, and this prompted him to open his mouth.

Therefore, we find that he did in Athens as he had previously done in other Greco-Roman cities:

  • “…he reasoned in the synagogues with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17.17).

In other words, Paul argued for Christ in the synagogues and in the marketplace every day. It is an interesting admission that he did this “with those who happened to be there,” for the marketplace in Athens was the societal nexus of the people who lived there. The marketplace drew not only the common rabble, but the intellectual giants, the sophisticated philosophers of Athens. While, it is true that at this time Athens had lost some of its luster as the crown intellectual dynasty of the world, the truth remains that it had retained a significant portion of that notoriety.

Paul’s preaching eventually caught the attention of the elite men in Athens, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They too “conversed with him” that is “reasoned with him,” “argued with him,” “debated with him,” and it is here that we ought to notice their frustration. “Because [Paul] was preaching Jesus and the resurrection…” (Acts 17.18c) these Greek philosophers, when they could not gain any ground in their conversation resorted to ad hominem tactics. That is to say, they began attacking Paul mockingly by calling him a “babbler” or a gutter-sparrow. One that picks and chooses from this piece of trash or another in order to tie together their own private teaching. Therefore, “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’” (Acts 17.19).

The Areopagus is often thought of as a location—i.e. Mars Hill—however, a better understanding is the premiere officials of the city, the ruling counsel if you will. The Areopagus was made up of the intellectual best, who weighed all things taught in the city, and made various judgments concerning them. They are the ones that killed Socrates for teaching strange doctrine many, many years before. They are the ones that will now hear the apostle of Christ speak.

The Grounds of Paul’s Appeal

It is here that many unwarranted assumptions are smuggled in by Christian leaders today (i.e. apologists, philosophers, theologians and ministers). The common assertion is that when Paul spoke to the Areopagus he did not appeal to these Greeks with Scripture, but chose more reasonable grounds. Rather he offered them natural proofs for God, even quoting their own poets to buttress his position, in order to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Some assume that Paul erred because he was laughed off the stage so to speak (when he got to Jesus), and so never really finished his gospel presentation.

Is it true that Paul quotes the Greek poets? Is it true that Paul leaves the Bible out of the discussion, because the Greeks do not “accept” Scriptural teaching? Is it true that Paul reasoned to them with evidences alone in order to prove Christ Jesus?

First, the answer is yes. It is true that Paul quotes Greek texts written originally in support of Zeus.  Here is what he said:

  • “…for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17.28).

If taken at face value, I can see why some would presuppose that this is a validation of using “whatever means necessary” in order to witness to the unbeliever. However, this verse does not sit in isolation.  Paul cites these Greek poets with a specific point in mind, which we shall see in a few moments.

Secondly, the answer is no. It is not true that Paul left the Bible out of his message to the Areopagus. Just because one does not make direct references to the biblical text does not necessarily mean that they are not starting, working out, and ending their argument from the Word of God. I find that many Christian’s are often confused over this point. What good does it do me to cite verse and text, unless my audience is familiar with those specific reference points? Eventually, those things will be drawn out in the conversation. However, my faith is drawn from God’s Word and it would be impossible to account for the hope within me apart from what is written.

The first thing that Paul establishes in his speech, after the cordial opening (i.e. “men of Athens), is a correction on the Athenian worldview. These philosophers claimed to know enough about the truth, about reality, to call Paul a “babbler,” but what he immediately shows them is their own ignorance.

  • “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23).

He then goes on to explain that this God is the Creator of all things (v.23-24a), the sovereign ruler over all things (v. 24), including all mankind whom He made from the blood of one man, namely Adam (vv.25-26), even going so far as determining the time and place of their dwelling (v.26b). Paul says, that none of us have anything to boast in because this God alone provides our very lives and being. He points out the foolishness of their idol worship (v.24b, 29), calling an end to this former period of ignorance (v. 30a).

Thirdly, the answer is yes. It is true that Paul used evidence to preach Christ, the chief among them being the resurrection. However, it is likewise false that this evidence is divorced from the teachings of Scripture.

**(Since that is the subject of my next post I am not going to defend that position now, only state it).

Paul tells the Athenians that God has commanded them to repent (v.30b), to turn from their sinful ignorance towards the one righteous man “whom [God] has appointed”; of whom “he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (v. 31). Three responses were given: “some mocked,” (v. 32a) others said they’d “like to hear more,” (v, 32b) and some “believed” (v. 34).

The Apostolic Position of Paul: Begging the Question

Careful exegesis of Acts 17 reveals to the observant reader the presuppositional method of Christian witnessing. When Paul was in Thessalonica he reasoned from the Scriptures. When Paul was driven to Berea he reasoned from the Scriptures. And, when Paul found himself in Athens, his inner-heart stirred because of the blatant idolatry in the land, he reasoned from the Scriptures. This is how the apostle of God proved Christ.

The flow of thought in this chapter is undeniable. Paul, knowing what the Athenians believe does a compare and contrast between worldviews. He argues for Christ and the resurrection from the Scriptures. He presupposes the God of the Bible, and makes various allusions to over 20 O.T. texts4 in order to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian worldview. Yes, he uses what they know but not to puff them up, but to knock them down. Not meanly, but to show them the folly of their position.

They claimed to be wise, but were in reality fools for they were worshiping what they did not know. Their beliefs are steeped in ignorance. What they did not know, Paul set about to show them with gentleness and respect. And, he did so on the grounds of Scripture, not apart from Scripture.  Paul presupposed Christ, argued from Christ’s Word in order to justify his position and nullify their own, eventually leading them to the Christ that all people shall be judged by. Then the apostle Paul the babbling beggar left the stage afforded to him.

____________________

ENDNOTES:

1 J. Mark Bertrand, (Re)Thinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 196.

2 I use the phrase “Christian witness” as encompassing both the evangelistic/apologetic efforts of the disciple of Jesus Christ. To be a disciple is to be the Lord’s witness (herald), and to herald the truth means both sharing the good-news (evangelism), as well as offering a reasoned argument (apologia) for the hope within.

3 Some of those difficulties stem from individuals in their ivory towers of academia.  When you have professors with PhD’s, but no pastoral experience teaching in Christian colleges/universities/seminaries you get reproductions of critical thought and philosophical meanderings, but no grass root realities.

4 Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Robert R. Booth, ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, [1996], 2001), 224, Adobe Digital Editions.

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