Communicating the vision

Jonathan Chaplin, March 2007

This article is based on a talk given at the Winter School on 5 January by Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE). [1] Jonathan draws helpful lessons from Paul’s speech to the Areopagus about how we should engage with the surrounding culture, lessons as relevant for public ethics as for evangelism.

Paul was motivated by compassion to communicate in a way that built bridges, where possible, with the people of Athens.

Paul was motivated by compassion to communicate in a way that built bridges, where possible, with the people of Athens.


In Acts 17:16–17 we read: ‘While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there.’


I was particularly struck by the following words in those two verses: Paul was ‘greatly distressed…and so he reasoned…in the market-place’. In Acts 17:16–34 Luke gives us a powerful and suggestive portrait of Paul reasoning in the market-place, moved by deep emotion. I want us to think about what passionate public reasoning might mean for us today.


What’s especially interesting about this passage is that it records the first full-fledged engagement of Christian faith with the intellectual world of pagan culture. Up to now the apostles, including Paul, have found themselves preaching mainly to Jewish congregations, where they can speak the language of the covenant. But in our passage Paul finds himself at the symbolic heart of pagan culture, in what the text calls the ‘market-place’ (v.17), literally, the public square; and people get curious.


Among the groups hanging out in the civic centre were various pagan philosophers – two influential groups are singled out for mention, the Stoics and the Epicureans. Some among Paul’s hearers want to hear more, so they ‘took him’ (v.19) to address the Areopagus. There’s a very specific reason why. It was the unique task of the Council of the Areopagus to decide which new divinities to officially admit as members of the Parthenon, the assembly of the gods. So when they say, in verse 19, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting’, they’re not issuing an invitation to a seminar but summoning him to an inquest: they’re issuing a formal legal request for Paul to present the credentials of his new gods in order to assess whether they merited admission. Paul is about to take up the language of pagan thought to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he’s on a tightrope.


Astute Engagement

Paul knows that the tribal language of the Jewish covenant would not speak to the hearts and minds of the hearers assembled before him. He had to start where they were, if he wanted to take them to where they needed to be. And he was only able to do so because he was thoroughly fluent in their thought-forms. On the other hand, he knew that to tack too closely to pagan ideas, to make the Gospel palatable, inoffensive, would suggest that Jesus Christ was just one divinity among many, capable of easy assimilation into Athenian civil religion, submissive to the Empire.


Let’s look at how Paul negotiates this dilemma. We find here a remarkably astute engagement with the basic philosophical and religious assumptions of Paul’s diverse audience. Not only can he quote prominent Greek poets, seemingly off the top of his head, he also has a feel for Athenian popular religion and is evidently familiar with the writings of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in his audience.


Paul’s aim isn’t to showcase his knowledge. His aim is to open effective channels of communication, in order then to confront his audience with the radical otherness of the Gospel message, and invite them to respond. It’s a tough act, and as he presents his case, he deftly engages with first this and then that belief in his mixed audience, in order to expose the deficiencies in all of them and point them to the true God.


Paul’s Arguments In Context

Consider some of his key moves. Paul begins his speech by telling the members of the Areopagus that he is not, after all, seeking approval for a new divinity, but rather heralding one they already claim to know, for the Athenians had set up a shrine to ‘an unknown god’ (v.23). And with a stroke of rhetorical brilliance, Paul seizes on this god and explains that this god that they have officially licensed but don’t know, is in fact the true God who has now made himself known to all humanity.


The Epicureans themselves taught that God was knowable, so they would have been nodding in agreement at Paul’s suggestion that the unknown god could be known. And both the Epicureans and the Stoics denied that divinity lived in humanly-made shrines. So when Paul declares (v.24) that God does not need ‘shrines’ like the other gods of the Parthenon, they would have been warming to his theme.


Paul goes on to say that God doesn’t need an official feast day like those gods, in which the gods are served by humans offering animal sacrifices. God, says Paul in verse 25, is not ‘served by human hands…because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’ At this point Paul is pointedly rebuking the civil religion of the city, but also skilfully appealing to his Stoic hearers who also believed that god (or the gods) ruled providentially over the world. In verse 26 Paul takes on another widespread assumption among the Athenians, the belief that they were superior over other races. On the contrary, Paul tells them that all nations share a common origin – there is no racial hierarchy in God’s creation.


Next, Paul presses home the point that the God of creation and the God of history – who cannot possibly be captured in some humanly-made object is, nevertheless, not distant and unapproachable like the gods of the Epicureans. This God, he says, is ‘not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”’ (v.28) – a masterly use of a well-known poet, to convey to his hearers that God is constantly working in their lives and the lives of their nations to draw his wayward creatures back to himself (v.27).


But now note the crucial next sentence (v. 29): ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill.’ Paul is here pointing to a relation between our being God’s offspring, and the rejection of idolatry. What is that relation? For Paul the answer is clear: the one God who is Lord of creation has appointed human beings as his image-bearers. Only his human creatures can be his images, not some chunk of metal or rock.


Then in verses 30–31 Paul reaches a dramatic conclusion to his speech by challenging the very legal grounds on which he has been summoned to the Council. The members of this body suppose that they are standing in judgement over his god, but Paul tells them that the God he is heralding is their Judge, the one before whom they will have to appear on his appointed day. Paul calls on them to repent of their ignorance and place their faith in the one appointed as Judge of the whole world by the Creator of the universe, and now raised from the dead.


Not surprisingly, as verse 32 notes, Paul is greeted by sneers from some, most likely the Epicureans who had no time for the idea of resurrection. Yet some others wanted to hear more; and, Luke tells us in verse 34, a few believed – among them two named prominent public figures. Perhaps they were among those disillusioned with the emptiness of Athenian culture, looking for something more satisfying intellectually and spiritually.


Five Guidelines

So what might Paul’s example of passionate public reasoning mean for us today? Let me suggest five guidelines for articulating biblical truth in today’s secular, pluralistic culture.


First, patient attentiveness. We need to strive to understand the deep and complex motivations of our culture from within. Paul couldn’t have made this speech without years of immersion in the many streams of pagan culture. This isn’t primarily an intellectual task. In the first place it just involves very careful listening to the lives and stories of people around us, including those who disagree with us. And for public activists or scholars it involves meticulous discernment of what is really driving a viewpoint or an idea.


Secondly, respectful address. Here we can compare the rhetorical practices of Jeremiah, who could issue trenchant denunciations because his audience had no excuse for not knowing the law, with those of Paul, who didn’t weigh in with denunciations because he knew his audience were genuinely ignorant of God’s revelation. Our audiences today are much more like Paul’s, and we need to engage them with dignity and respect. Many are confused and searching, and, as with Paul’s audience, some will want to hear more.


Thirdly, imaginative engagement. Paul was successful because he could use the thought-forms of his audience so creatively as rhetorical vehicles for conveying his own meaning. For us as for Paul they may need to be modified or filled with different content, but they will be the natural bridges across which communication can at least begin.


Fourthly, communicative integrity. Paul could speak so effectively because he knew exactly what he wanted to say and didn’t trim his message just to suit his audience, being completely confident about the authority on which he was proclaiming it. Our task, as those engaged in public ethics, is to articulate some proposal which we think advances the public good, in ways that the public can receive, if not accept, and underlying that task will be a quiet, steady confidence in the truth of biblical revelation.


Finally, the fifth guideline is the most important: compassionate motivation . Recall that when Paul entered Athens, he was ‘greatly distressed’, deeply grieved, by the idolatry all around him. It cut him to the core to see the image of God in the people of Athens twisted and led astray by their rampant, self-destructive idolatry and their philosophical errors. Paul’s encounter with his pagan hearers was driven not by a desire to score intellectual points over the dominant schools of thought of his age, nor by a false ambition to replace a pagan intellectual establishment with a Christian one. It was inspired by compassion at the brokenness and lostness of human beings severed from a relationship with the true God.


Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE).

[1] In preparing this talk I drew from an article by Dr Bruce Winter, entitled ‘Introducing the Athenians to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17?’, Themelios 31/1, October 2005, pp.38–59.

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2007

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