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PAUL'S PURPOSE AT ATHENS AND THE PROBLEM OF "COMMON GROUND"
by R.K. McGregor Wright, Th.M., Ph.D.
This three-part article is continued from:
Pauls Purpose at Athens and the Problem of "Common Ground" - Part One.
Verse 29 - "Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising.
Paul then proceeds to argue that the Greek theory and the Greek practice are also inconsistent with each other. If our nature is derived from God, as his sons and daughters, how can God's nature be like these physical idols the Greeks adore? "You made these things yourselves! How can an infinite and eternal Creator be compared with mere bits of his finite, temporal creation? Idolatry is a crock! There is no great scale of Being in which God and the creation both participate! Mere human meditation will not reach the true God."
Paul is not only arguing that their worship reflects a lower view of God than their theology would warrant, but also implies that the natural human tendency is to make a god in the image of human ideas. Starting with man, we do not reach God, but we arrive at something even less than the worshiper himself. This is an important step in Paul's thought, and exactly reflects the material of Romans chapter 1.
Verses 30-31 "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead."
Paul moves to a conclusion, reminding them on the way of the admitted ignorance he had started with. It is really no wonder that the Greek worldview and worship were so inconsistent, for they were both based on ignorance. The whole project of arguing from the creation to the nature of the Creator is a failure; "natural theology" does not work, even thought there are revelatory implications in the structure and details of the Creation, sometimes referred to by theologians as "general revelation," and referred to by Paul in Romans 1.
The real solution to knowing God is to hear him identify himself to us in a divine Word from himself, directly given as a historical event. God has announced that this ignorance of God's real nature must come to an end in a specific historical revelation, requiring not more speculation, but repentance before the sovereign Creator himself. This revelation comes as an announced command to all men everywhere to repent, to change their minds about the source of religious truth. The Truth is to be found in a specific historical Messiah, who is not even a Greek! And God has identified him in time and space by the most startling miracle conceivable; by raising him from the dead.
The term 'apangello, translated "commands" in the NKJV, means to make a public announcement, such as the proclamation of the legal decrees of a king or of the governor of a city, or the orders and commands of a general transmitted through a subordinate officer. That is, God's revelation in Christ is an authoritative statement which must be obeyed. Everyone must change his mind about it all, and accept God's own interpretation of reality as the epistemological starting-point. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, of Knowledge, and of Instruction (Prov 1:7, 9:10, 15:33.)
Eschatology is found in all religions, but the Jewish tradition was of a coming Judgement Day foreordained by God himself, at which his Messiah would judge the whole world. Thus Paul's religion was no national or localized superstitio, no merely privatized opinion, but an all-embracing, comprehensive religious world vision, with an universal moral claim on all mankind, both Jew and Gentile (on "all men everywhere"). The unity of the human race is a remarkable theme in this sermon, and embraces not only the material on human origins in Genesis (such as 9:19) but the notations on human unity found in the book of Revelation too ("earth-dwellers" in 3:10, etc.)
Epistemologically, God's verbal revelation is to be made the starting-point for answering the question of how we know reality. Paul seeks to show the Athenians that they have begun in ignorance, and ended by worshiping objects made by their own hands. Then, ontologically, God himself as the Creator is the starting-point for understanding Being. There are only two levels of being, not one; they are the Creator and his creation. Nothing exists outside these two categories.
We are now additionally told that ethically, God's own righteousness is to be the standard for judgement. Contrary to Socrates, the Good is good because God himself is the standard; God does not approve of the Good because it is good independently of himself.
Finally, or teleologically, God has had a purpose in it all. History is not merely a meaningless series of cyclic returns, for all is moving towards an historical climax. History is linear, not cyclic, and so God controls the future too! Time is moving on from the Age of Ignorance to a coming Age of Truth, and you Athenians must move with it. Far from each immortal soul being finally reabsorbed into the One, everyone will be raised an individual with an immortal body.
The reference to a resurrection of the body was the final straw for this sophisticated audience. At last it dawns on the listeners what anastasis really is. Resurrection is not a goddess, but a real event in history! In fact, it is the objective ground for identifying God's Chosen One, a proof offered publicly to all. Against Greek analytical skepticism, Paul asserts that it is possible to recognize an adequate ground of certainty, and this he identifies with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
The Greeks held that we are part chaotic matter, and part immortal soul. The body tends toward decay, finally to be dropped altogether in death, as the soul glides up the Chain of Being to immortal union with the unknowable divine One. The last thing the soul wants is to be tied to a physical body again. For a true philosopher to point to a physical resurrection as a mark of divine approval was the height of absurdity. The higher reaches of the evolving chain of Being have no need of the material body.
This is an error repeated over and over again on Star Trek (in all four series) in which higher beings without physical bodies, and barely distinguishable from demons, are always assumed to be more "evolved" than we mere humans are, with our awful material bodies. In one episode, Captain Picard is actually addressed by a bodiless entity as an "ugly bag of mostly water!" This quaintly literal description of a human body was intended to emphasize how far above us the entity was on the great scale of evolving Being.
Verse 32-34 - And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, "We will hear you again on this matter." So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
At this point, Luke reminds us that the preaching of the Gospel is a divisive affair. He leaves us with an important paradigm in his noting the three responses to the preaching. The first is derision; "This babbler is crazy after all." They laughed and walked away. A second group realized that they had just encountered the most earth-shattering, comprehensive intellectual challenge to the Greek Theoria ever heard in Athens, and they could not let it drop. They were captivated, threatened, and puzzled all at once; "We will hear you again about this stuff" they guardedly said. But a small group clung to Paul and believed. One was Dionysius of the Areopagus council itself. Another was probably a visiting foreigner, a woman named Damaris, in town on business or pleasure. There were others, but not many.
Sadly, Paul never had an occasion to write a "Letter to the Athenians." But on that fateful day before the Areopagus, half a dozen among the hundreds of Athenians heard a challenge which gripped them with irresistible power, and opened up to them an entirely different universe of reality. By God's grace they stepped into a new and saving worldview, and that forever. These were the third group, that believed and for them, the adventure of eternity had begun.
THE METHODOLOGY IMPLIED
No doubt Luke has given us only a summary of the full presentation Paul would have made to the Athenians. Perhaps Luke took notes, or Paul was later asked to give a summary. But we may be confident that the essence is all there, as to both fact and argument.
First, Paul seeks to contrast the Hellenic worldview with that of the Bible, with respect to God's nature (to Thelon, verse 29), the world's created dependence (verses 24-26) and our uniform moral responsibility (verses 30-31). The presuppositional under-structures of these two world visions are incompatible.
Second, Paul sought to make men's ethical divergence from God's character to be at the heart of the problem, not mere ignorance or finitude. The issue is sin and this can only be addressed by changing one's mind about the ultimate ethical reference-point, which is God in Christ as Judge. If sinners will not receive Christ as Judge and Savior now, they will be left with Christ as a Judge only, in the future.
Third, Paul sought to show that the Christian worldview focuses on two equally historical events, the past Incarnation and death of Christ on the one hand, and the future second coming of "this same Jesus" as final Judge. It is the resurrection that links these together. Between these two events and moving towards the second, are all of mankind, whether Jews, Greeks, or Barbarians. History is God's story, not ours. The world's diversity manifests God's plan, and its unity reflects the coherence of his creatorial sovereignty. Its future direction fulfills God's purpose comprehensively.
In the course of moving from God's nature to the status of the creation, and so on to the human dilemma, Paul contradicts at least two dozen popular Hellenistic religious and philosophical opinions. Greek notions are challenged in the areas of existence (ontology), knowledge (epistemology), moral action (ethics), and also with respect to the purpose of it all (teleology). The entire structure of the Greco-Roman worldview is meticulously subverted, and a coherent substitute is offered in its place. There is no way to make these two theoria, or visions of reality compatible. To accept the new one is necessarily to abandon the other. The two systems have incompatible presuppositions and conflicting methodologies, they disagree about what "the facts" are, they lead to different practical lifestyles, and finally to different expressions of worship.
Specifically, the Hellenic worldview is internally inconsistent with itself in both its theory and its practice, and the practice does not even reflect what truth there is in the illogical theory. That is, Paul applies the Coherence Test to Greek thought. Further, it cannot cope with either the facts of history (such as the unique life and death of Jesus), or the acts of God (such as Christ's resurrection). That is, it stands in sad need of a divinely-given reference-point; a place to stand for handling the ancient and vexed problem of how an ultimate unity can relate to an ultimate diversity. Paul therefore also made use of the Correspondence Test.
Paul was not looking for a class of innately spiritual people to autonomously evaluate and accept his Gospel. He spoke openly to all in the marketplace, and offered Christ freely to all. Anybody at all might be a potential convert. After all, even a nasty little fanatical Jewish theological student could be thrown off his horse on the road to Damascus and brought to his senses spiritually! Did not Paul know of such a case?
Pauls methodology in this address is primarily one of describing the confrontation between his own worldview with the non-christian vision of reality as it happens to be expressed at that moment in history as the Hellenistic worldview. He makes the basic religious concepts of salvation and worship depend as personal responsibilities on correct specific concepts of both the divine and human nature, with the divine nature being the origin of the meaning of the human and not vice versa, as Strato of Lampsacus would have had it. Thus Paul also raises the issue of the Location of Ultimacy, which is the test of one's ultimate Presuppositions.
Further, he is anxious to point out the self-contradictory nature of the non-christian worldview as well as its inability to cope with historical facts which tell against it. The non-christian worldview is up against both logic and fact. It cannot bring them together, and it cannot make them intelligible separately.
Again, the non-christian worldview produces absurd results (such as idolatry) despite what degrees of sincerity and the desire for God the heathen can muster. Heathen religion, far from lifting man up to connect with God, debases God to the level first of human intellectual failure, then below man to animals, and below that again to material images. From this, the idolator proceeded to violate his own body (Rom 1:24-26). This is the Test of Ethical Fulfillment.
The cause of this whole debacle is the non-Christian's fallen starting-point. Presuppositions function as one's ultimate reference-point, and they control everything across the board, much like the rules in a game of chess. They predetermine what is "possible" for every move on the board. The dilemma is that while not to have presuppositions is not to begin the interpretational enterprise at all, to begin with unacknowledged axioms is quickly to become a slave to the unknown. One's presuppositions must be knowable, they must actually be known, and they must be self-consistent. And since we all must begin with ignorance, we must either get our axioms from God himself by revelation, or we must set up our own arbitrary absolutes, which then function for us like epistemological gods, and demand an obedience they do not deserve.
For the Apostle Paul, it is much more important that his hearers recognize they have been significantly challenged, than it is to search out a "common ground" to build on. It is absolutely vital for this evangelist that his hearers know they have confronted a significantly different vision of reality when they turn their backs on Christianity, and that they know what they are rejecting when they reject it. For Paul, preaching the Gospel must Involve a real choice between alternatives, and not just a comfortable adjustment along a common spectrum of mere probabilities.
COMMON GROUND ASSUMED, NOT SOUGHT
There is an even more fundamental reason why Paul shows no interest in finding a "common ground" within the Athenian religious culture, which we must now explore. Paul does not seek common ground because he already assumes an idea of common ground which is only intelligible from within the Christian's Theoria. This Pauline perspective is made explicit in such passages as Romans 1, and in those parts of the epistles which mention the intellectual results of sin, and the renewal of the image of God in the believer. Although we cannot give a full exposition of these issues now, the following points are crucial;
1) All of us confront God in every fact and moment of awareness. We cannot escape his omnipresence, nor reach up to apprehend the divine being. The movement to save us must come from God to us, and not from us to God. This is a corollary of the doctrine of "grace alone."
2) Salvation is a divine accomplishment, not just the result of a human struggle. It is by grace through faith in a sufficient Savior, not the achievement of a religious or cultural elite. All need God's undeserved grace both to initiate and then to consummate the drama of salvation. As the hymn puts it, "Thou must save, and Thou alone."
3) All start out as rebels who must be subdued and turned around to face their Origin of meaning, who is also their Judge. The sinner must sooner or later confront God personally. If Christ is not received as Savior in this life, he will be met as Judge in the next. These are the only alternatives in the long run, and we are unfaithful to our charge if we do not preach it as part of our apologetic.
4) All know the true God innately by virtue of their consciousness having been created as a finite image of the divine self-awareness; to know self is to know that God is there in the same moment of awareness. This awareness of God's reality is then suppressed in the fallen by the sin of nature, by the sin of choice, and by sins of habit. Sinners approve of the Fall and are thrilled to bits to be sinners. That is, until they encounter the concept of God as Righteous Judge. Then suddenly sin becomes a "problem" of the philosophy of religion, like God himself.
5) All fell wholly in Adam, and so no part of human nature can rise above sin's thralldom by itself. Because created, we are not autonomous, and because we are sinners we are not morally free, but are slaves to our sin. Sinners therefore have their slavery in common. Those of us who are "being sanctified"' (Heb 10:14) remember what it is experientially to be a rebel. We can therefore sympathize with sinners without approving of their sin any more than we approve of our own.
6) All share the need for divine revelation, the sinner to get started, and the saint to continue on the path of life.
7) All have an awareness of, and a capacity for, the Good. The unbeliever's consciousness of God as the ethical standard of righteousness (the ''conscience") may be compared to an ungraduated thermometer. It can tell the difference between hot and cold, but not the exact temperature of either. The believer's conscience however, has been "graduated" by God's revelation of New Covenant law, so that he can not only tell the difference between good and evil in general, but also what specific acts are good or evil. The image of God within us includes also the awareness of God as the origin of ethical meaning, and so of moral standards particularly.
8) Because God is fully sovereign, no human heart is inaccessible to him. At the same time, the rebel is in existential confrontation with the reality of God even as he exists in God's creation. The Jewish existentialist Franz Kafka once said of Christ, "He is an abyss of light. We must close our eyes lest we fall into it." So the prodigal son is afloat in his little boat upon the great Sea of Being at midnight. In the distance he can still see the lighthouse, the visible beacon which his father built near his house by the shore, from which the escape to the far country was planned. In order to be certain that he is going away from the shore and not towards it, he must keep the lighthouse in view even as he pulls away from it with his oars. For it is the only flicker of light in the darkness, a darkness which threatens every moment to engulf him.
Paul assumes then, that all of us have the imago Dei, the image of God, in common, and with it elements of self-consciousness, rationality, and an ethically sensitive conscience. But he cannot assume that we have worldviews in common, for our presuppositions differ from those of the unbeliever, and so facts and logic sustain different relations to each other in the outworking of the two worldviews. As a result, the more consistent the unbeliever is to his fallen assumptions, the further will he remove from the reality of God's world into the nightmare of his own meaninglessness.
When Paul quotes Epimenides and Aratus, it cannot be that he agrees with their intended meaning in context, for neither the polytheism of the one nor the pantheism of the other are possible on Paul's basis. The quotations merely document the fact that the Greeks were well aware of the problems which both Stoics and Epicureans sought to answer, and that the various non-christian answers are actually in conflict with each other. Paul then gives a meaning to the two quotations which brings them together intelligibly. It is clear then, that these quotations mean different things according to which worldview they are placed in. Far from trying to "build a bridge" from heathen "common ground" to the Gospel, Paul redefines the question so that only the Christian worldview allows the possibility of Truth. Did not Jesus do the same thing in his Parables?
This three-part article is concluded at:
Pauls Purpose at Athens and the Problem of "Common Ground" - Part Three.
Pauls Purpose at Athens and the Problem of "Common Ground" © November 1993 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center. Originally read as a Paper at the Denver Reformed Round Table, August 1988, and revised for publication November 1993.
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