This article appeared in the January issue of our Thinking Matters journal. The author, Sarah Tennant, holds a Bachelor of Arts from Waikato University and is currently a freelance writer for Suite101 and other print magazines. For more articles from our journal, head to our Journal site.
There is a certain partisan spirit in Christian apologetics. Some leaders in the field propound evidential arguments, focusing on the historical verification of Christian truth-claims. Others teach presuppositional methods, pitting Christianity against other worldviews at a foundational level. Still others prefer classical approaches such as those characterized in the cosmological or teleological arguments.1
In evaluating how we ought to approach our task as apologists, however, we naturally look first to Scripture. And, in looking to Scripture, we naturally look to situations which most resemble our own. Thus, the paradigm example of the apologetic encounter is Acts 17:16ff:
16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for “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.”
29“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”
32Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33So Paul went out from their midst. 34But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
This is Paul’s speech to the Areopagus—a political body comprised of Greek aristocrats and thinkers in Athens. As a blueprint for our own apologetics, it emphasizes three main points:
1. That we must understand those we seek to refute.
2. That our arguments should be vehicles for the gospel.
3. That we must speak boldly.2
Knowing your audience
In his apologetics manual Tearing Down Strongholds,3 R C Sproul, Jr warns against battling the “dinosaurs” of obsolescent worldviews like Enlightenment philosophy, when the current foes are more likely to be postmodernism or relativism. Misdirected or vague apologetic endeavors, he argues, are a waste of effort and only succeed in making Christians look foolish.
Our blueprint confirms this. In his speech at Athens, Paul does not give a generic gospel message designed to appeal to some kind of ill-defined “unbelief”. Instead, he directly and specifically addresses his audience—Greeks who were largely Stoic or Epicurean (v 18)—and tailors his arguments to their beliefs. His address here is quite different to his sermon in Acts 13, where he is seeking to persuade a Jewish audience. There he demonstrates his knowledge of Jewish theology and thought; here he reveals his “great learning” (Acts 26:24) of the culture, customs and philosophy of Athens. Not only does he reference two Greek poets (17:28), but Ron Vince argues that many of his turns of phrase were written to specifically correspond to—or antagonise—Hellenistic thought.4
In fact, Paul seems very aware of how the major beliefs of the Athenians play off against the gospel message. For instance, the Greeks of his day had a very heightened sense of their superiority to the “barbarians” of surrounding nations, because they believed they were of a different origin.5 This would certainly have been a major hurdle for anyone preaching the gospel to them, and so it seems likely that this is why Paul targets it, preaching that God created the whole human race ex henos—”out of one stock” (namely Adam). Similarly, he attacks the Athenians’ pride in their philosophical achievements by equating their search for God with everyone else’s—the Greek word pselapheseian (v 27) connotes a blind, futile groping in the dark. In essence, he describes their entire quest for knowledge as a “time of ignorance” (v 30).
Yet, while Paul is here, as elsewhere, scathing of the “wisdom of the world” (cf 1 Corinthians 1:20–21; 3:19), he is not anti-philosophy. He rejects secular philosophy as blind and futile, not because it is philosophy per se, but rather because it does not lead to the truth as biblical philosophy does. Had he rejected philosophy altogether, he would not have stood before the Areopagus and presented a philosophical argument against Greek thought. Dominic Bnonn Tennant identifies a presuppositional thread running through Paul’s presentation which plays off the Athenians’ beliefs—both those which contradict the gospel, and those which complement it:6
1. He appeals to the inherent religious knowledge of man (vv 22, 23a; cf Romans 1);
2. then immediately contrasts it to his listeners’ lack of knowledge in religious matters (v 23);
3. then proclaims the basic elements of spiritual truth;
4. and uses this as a basis for an internal critique of the Athenians’ own beliefs, showing their absurdity (vv 23b–27);
5. but then comes back to point (i) to show that these beliefs do still reflect the truth he is proclaiming (v 28);
6. and then uses this common element of truth as an argument for God’s authority (v 29);
7. on which basis he proclaims the gospel of repentance, in light of the coming judgment (vv 30–32).
In other words, Paul is pointing out that the Athenians’ worldview makes no sense. On the one hand, they recognize that there are spiritual truths which need to be investigated and grasped. But on the other, their ideas about these truths are irrational. If God created the heavens and the earth, he cannot be contained in them; and if humans are his offspring, they cannot have created him. The Christian worldview, in comparison to theirs, recognizes God’s autonomy from his creation, and provides a sensible and believable account of his relationship to man.
Notice that although Paul’s argument is couched to engage with the Greeks’ presuppositions, he doesn’t restrict himself to a presuppositional approach as some might today. He also draws in elements of natural theology, like those used in modern classical arguments. Further, once he has laid his philosophical foundations he draws in historical evidence as well. He seems to consider all of these important in his approach. Therefore—with due deference to how our situations may differ from his—so should we. It should also go without saying that, like him, we must learn what our opponents believe before we try to engage them. For most apologetic encounters, this means we must do at least as much listening as speaking.
Sharing the gospel
In a sense, the whole of Paul’s address is a gospel message—as Bob Deffinbaugh points out, “It is the same message Paul preached to the Jews, except that he had to begin at a more elementary point—that of God’s existence, and of His power and sovereign control over His creation.”7 But it is not until verses 30 and 31 that Paul gets down to the nitty-gritty evidentials—the altar call of his address. As far as altar calls go, this one is remarkably lacking in emotionalism. With almost terse conciseness he challenges the Athenians to repentance, warning them of God’s coming judgment. He concludes with an appeal to the historical fact of the resurrection as proof of God’s power to do what he has promised. Although it is likely that the words Luke records in Acts are a summary of Paul’s actual message, it remains that this presentation is one which is decidedly more assertive than much of the gentle evangelism advocated today.
The response to Paul’s startling conclusion was less than flattering. To a large extent, the Greeks were happy to listen to something new in the way of philosophy. They were interested in hearing about new worldviews; in fact, they “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (v 21). But talk of judgment and repentance was a different matter. As for bringing up something as ludicrous as a man raised from the dead—! Commentators have suggested that the derisive reaction to Paul’s final words broke up his speech—and indeed, it is easy to imagine him hurrying through verse 31 in order to finish his address before being drowned out. The stumbling-block to the Jews had proven to be foolishness to the Gentiles, and Paul’s talk of a risen corpse cost him the respect of most of his listeners. Yet “some men joined him and believed” (v 34)—God’s foolishness prevailed (cf 1 Corinthians 1:21–25). The conclusion of his argument was too crass for many of his listeners; yet it held the ring of truth for others in whom the Spirit of God was working (cf 1 Corinthians 2:13–14).
Ultimately, Paul’s speech does not stand across time as a template for a foolproof apologetic argument. It isn’t an example of how to spectacularly triumph in our encounters with unbelievers and enjoy apologetic success—if we measure success by how many people we convince. Instead, it is a blueprint for obedience: for refuting unbelief and declaring the truth. God does not call us to win arguments, but to present his truth, removing all reasons to disbelieve. He does not guarantee that many people will listen; nor does he want us to judge our success based on numbers. He reminds us of this in the example of Paul which he has given us to follow. Salvation is not of us, but of the Lord.