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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 Two.
A PARADIGM OF "PRE-EVANGELISM"?
In 1899, Dr. Robert Flint, one of the great apologists of Scotland during the previous century, gave an address on "Some Requirements Of A Present-Day Christian Apologetics." The very first thing he says is that the vindication of Christianity "seeks not merely to defend some portion of Christianity, but to justify it as a whole." His justly famous studies of atheism had made clear to Flint that Christianity cannot be defended piece-meal, but must be set forth and defended as a totally comprehensive worldview.
Sadly, the evangelical world did not listen to Flint, any more than they listened to his more popular contemporary in London, Frank Ballard. Cornelius Van Til was even more consistent than the other two, and modern Evangelicals have carefully ignored him as well. Francis Schaeffer himself excluded all reference to his extensive debt to Van Til in his apologetic writings.
It is the contention of this article that the task of constructing a fully comprehensive strategy is precisely illustrated by what Paul was doing at Athens. When placed in the larger context of Paul's views of God, Man, Sin, and Salvation as found in his epistles, the Areopagus address exhibits how the Christian story confronts and negates the non-christian mythical visions of experience in such a way that Christ is seen to be the only possible answer to the human dilemma in the areas of being, knowing, acting, and purpose.
It was never enough for Paul to seek merely to show the unbeliever that Christianity is "more logical" or "more probable" than the non-christian account of things. To claim that Christianity is "more logical" than, say, Hinduism, is to claim that it is not 100 % rational, and that there are some valid arguments in favor of Hinduism. To claim that Christianity is merely more probable than, say, Buddhism, is to also say that Buddhism is also "probably" correct to the degree that Christianity is not, and that at least some of the "facts" tell against the Gospel, in telling in favor of Nirvana as a solution to human suffering.
Can anybody who has read Paul's epistles really imagine Paul thinking such things? Paul sought to challenge the non-christian worldview in toto, rather than piece-meal, for neither logic nor facts have any bearing on the outcome as long as the question of presuppositions is ignored. Unless the Christian starting-point is repentantly accepted as the precondition of intelligibility, the facts cannot be related to each other, and logic cannot connect with the facts. For only if we have a sufficiently comprehensive reference-point to make the questions intelligible in the first place, can we know whether any particular answer is relevant.
This fact is surely implied when Jesus claimed to be himself "the way, the truth, and the life." Facts are fine, but they must be interpreted. Logic is fine, but it is worse than useless if our presuppositions are wrong. The facts are fine too, but they mean nothing alone, and until they are interpreted. Paul's reference-point for their interpretation is the infinite-personal Triune God of the Bible, existing eternally in himself as an ultimate Unity, and an ultimate Diversity, and therefore as a sufficient reference-point for interpreting the one-and-many of his creation.
The non-Christian's presuppositions must be challenged from the start. Trying to lead up to them after developing "common ground" leaves it too late. The Gospel is only relevant if it is the only possibility, for only then is repentance the true correlative of faith. If Christianity is allowed to remain merely the "best" answer among many, then the sinner is allowed to remain with Eve, to play the final arbiter of whether God or Satan is right about the future, and the sinner's apostate autonomism remains unchallenged. His fallen presuppositions about reality remain inviolate.
The ultimate aim of pre-evangelism must be to conclude with a choice between Christ, or the Void. People must be convinced of this, that they may be convicted of it. We must therefore pray continually that the Holy Spirit will take our valid arguments and impress them on the soul of the seeker to His own glory.
TO CONVICT AND TO CONVINCE
We come now to a complaint which continues to be voiced in the background of any apologetic endeavor, and which can only be silenced by appeal to Scripture itself. It is continually objected against apologetic efforts, that "you can't argue people into the Kingdom," and so we must "just preach Christ and him crucified" without arguing with unbelief.
We have already noted that some commentators have forwarded the claim that Paul's lack of success at Athens led him to abandon the attempt to dress the Gospel up in human philosophical terms, and that he reverted to "Christ and him crucified" at Corinth and thereafter. But once it is realized that Paul made no concessions to Greek philosophy, and no compromise with the Greek religious worldview, and that instead of trying to find common ground, was much more interested in offering a really different alternative to the seekers among his hearers, this "problem" falls away as simply Irrelevant.
At Athens Paul was actually demonstrating by contrasting the two worldviews so clearly, that he would be fully justified in his negative estimate of Greek philosophy and rhetoric by the time he reaches the situation addressed in 1Cor 1:18-2:16. The Paul of that epistle is intellectually identical to the Paul who before the Areopagus, had challenged that "wisdom" which "knew not God."
Much of the uncertainty about the relationship between apologetics and evangelism is caused by anti-intellectualism. Believers who have little grasp of what the Bible actually teaches about the human intellect, often think that their faith operates somehow apart from their minds. They often speak of "mere human logic" and that spiritual things are finally of "the heart" rather than of "the head." Such people behave as if truth were a luxury unconnected with personal holiness, that God is more concerned with how we feel than with the intellect, that in fact the intellect is not really involved in regeneration, being a purely "natural" thing for which the believer has no particular responsibility.
Yet if any of these crass absurdities were true, Christianity would be just another arbitrary superstition. A brief glance down the concordance list of the occurrences of "heart" in the Bible soon confirms that the Greeks never associated the Head with the intellect, but that "heart" and Mind" are virtual synonyms in the Biblical parlance. Not realizing this, sincere unbelievers turn away from the Gospel without ever coming to see what It really is.
One common manifestation of this anti-intellectualism is the pious insistence that because "you can't argue a person into the Kingdom," there is no point trying to convince a person that Christianity is true, since what they "really" need is to be convicted by the Holy Spirit. This "conviction" is supposed to be of "the heart," while to "convince" someone would be merely of "the head."
The difficulty with this pseudo-spiritual nonsense, is that in the original text, the words translated "convince" and "convict" are the very same Greek word! Even in English, a moment's thought reminds us that a defendant is convicted in court only when the judge and jury are convinced by the facts and arguments of the prosecutor that the person is guilty. In a law-court, the conviction is merely the judge's proclamation that the jury is convinced of the defendant's guilt. In fact, the Greek word 'elencho and its cognates means to convince a person he is wrong by pointing out his error, and is best rendered "rebuke" or "reprove" in almost all instances.
There is therefore no biblical ground for the popularly imagined disjunction between being "convicted" of sin, and being "convinced" of the truth. We shall now attend to some of the evidence in Scripture for the close relationship in the apostolic practice between Gospel proclamation and apologetic argument.
PAUL'S METHODS OR OURS?
A glance at the occasions and descriptions of preaching the Gospel in the book of Acts soon shows how far removed from the apostolic practice are our modern methods. The Apostles both courted and encouraged questions and dialogue with their audiences, and rare was the time when they got no verbal response at all. The following samples from the middle of Acts are representative, and the list could easily be doubled from the rest of Luke-Acts by including the practice of Jesus himself.
Acts 14:15-17, Paul and Barnabas contrasted the common facts of God's mercy and providence with the pagan practices of the Lytsrans, to convince them not to worship them as gods. And the argument worked.
15:5-21, in response to the false teaching of the judaizers, the Apostles Paul and James used carefully-reasoned theological arguments and convinced the apostolic council to correct the errors by letter.
17:2, Paul for "three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures."
17:17, he disputed with the Jews.
17:22-31, is the Areopagus address, an extended argument.
18:4, Paul reasoned and so persuaded.
18:11, "teaching the word of God." Does any one really think that this teaching was merely the bare recitation of facts without the accompanying reasoning and arguments he always includes in his letters?
18:13, "persuading men."
18:19, "reasoned with the Jews.
18:28, "he mightily (thoroughly) convinced the Jews."
19:8, "disputing and persuading boldly."
19:9, "disputing daily" in Tyrannus' philosophy school.
19:26, "persuaded. . .many people."
19:33, "defended" himself by stating his case in public.
22:1, Paul "makes his defense" or apologetic in court.
This list can be vastly expanded by inclusion of such terms as persuade, give assurance, prove, etc., as well as by examples of reasoned argument and apologetic discourse from Jesus and the Epistles.
To convict then, we must also seek to convince. Anything less ignores the New Testament model, and is simply intellectually irresponsible. It creates an unbiblical disjunction between apologetics and evangelism in our churches. In the meantime, here as elsewhere, what God hath joined together, let no anti-intellectual put asunder. We should leave the "whole counsel of God" whole!
When the tract called "Common Ground" said that the witnessing Christian should try to help his unbelieving friends to "consider Christianity from the vantage point of their worldview," we must press for an answer to the question, "But why?" Are they not already doing this? is this not their fundamental error? From the vantage point of the Biblical worldview, is not the fact that the believer looks at things from his own point of view the very thing he must give up in order to accept God's interpretation of reality? Does not the very essence of repentance from sin involve a change of view-point, of reference-point, of presuppositions?
We have demonstrated in this article that Paul had no need to seek or establish "common ground" in Athens by trying to find things in the Greek worldview that he could agree with and borrow to build an epistemological bridge from the agreed-upon things to the unique truths of the Gospel. On the contrary, from his epistles we know that he believed in an ontological common ground identified in Scripture as our being all made in God's image. The "common grace" of General Revelation guarantees that both the sinner and the saint confront the true God in every moment of consciousness. The unregenerate sinner continually suppresses this awareness in order to maintain the illusion of his own autonomy.
Further, in creating humanity in his own image, God guarantees an epistemological common ground in our capacity for knowledge based on our encounter with God's orderly creation, coupled with our innate capacity for language and logic. Unfortunately, this situation is not in practice as optimistic as it sounds at first. In practice the sinner only thinks logically when he thinks his reasoning supports his personal autonomy from the all-encompassing sovereignty of God. And logic is no help anyway, if one is controlled by false presuppositions.
The more logically consistent the sinner is with his fallen presuppositions, the further he removes himself from the truth as God sees it, and the less capable he becomes of recognizing and admitting God's reality. This is the progressive state of affairs outlined so clearly by Paul in Romans 1. The sinner will abandon both facts and logic without hesitation if his autonomy is threatened by its required conclusions. Sinners have an axe to grind.
Again, God has implanted an ethical awareness in each of us, which, like an ungraduated thermometer, can tell that cold tap water is cooler than hot coffee, without telling us exactly how hot they are. The conscience can tell the general direction of good and evil without being clear on what particular actions are acceptable to God. And the unregenerate will suppress this data also when it suits them.
Teleological common ground is also found between believer and unbeliever; we all want to be comfortable and fulfilled and have a secure future. We may even agree that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." But no sooner do we begin to define the terms in the statement, than the underlying and essential divergences become apparent.
We cannot agree about what God is like, what counts as glorifying to him, or how to go about it. We cannot even agree which mountain our diverse paths are supposed to meet at the top of, for it is really the nature of Ultimacy itself which is the thing in question! The blind men are not even looking at the same elephant. Some of them seem to be examining a platypus.
Confrontation is therefore inevitable between the Christian and the non-christian visions of reality. The really pressing question is the one avoided by the Search article. Should we have the confrontation at the outset, putting all the cards on the table from the start, and to proceed to compare worldviews and presuppositions as the essence of the differences between believer and unbeliever, or shall we create an artificial common ground, and then wait until the papered-over gulf rips open from the tensions generated from incompatible axioms, and yawning unbridgeable before us, precipitates the by now heavily compromised dialogue into the Void?
Acts 17 shows that the Apostle Paul opted for the first of these alternatives. In this way, the Athenians knew exactly where they stood. The choice between the Christian and the non-christian worldviews was not between two more or less factual and probable positions, but between Christ and the Void; its Jesus or nothing. If the unbeliever will not accept reality as God sees it, he cannot have it at all. In the meantime, while judgement awaits, the unbeliever has at his disposal a great deal more of reality than he deserves, or can logically retain on the basis of his own fallen presuppositions. Finally, "even that which he hath shall be taken from him" (Mat 13:12, Mk 4:25, Lk 19:26, etc.), when at last he will face that Resurrected Man whom God has appointed on that coming Day (Acts 17:31).
In other words, Common Grace stops at the gates of Hell; "Abandon hope, all Ye who enter here." In the meantime a gap in the history of judgement remains open for the healing of the sinner.
"All that the Father hath given to me shall come to me, and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out," remains the promise of the Lamb upon the Throne (John 6:37-44).
A BRIEF BIBLIOGRAPHY
Ballard, Dr. Frank. The Miracles Of Unbelief. T & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1900. Mine is the Eighth (popular) Edition of 1913.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts, Erdmans, Grand Rapids, 1968.
Bruce, F. F. The Acts of The Apostles; the Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Press, London, 1951.
Common Ground. Search Ministries, Inc., August 1988.
Flint, Robert. Sermons and Addresses. William Blackwood, London, 1899.
Jackson, F.J. Foakes, and Lake, Kirsopp. The Beginnings Of Christianity. Five Volumes; Macmillan, London, 1920-1933.
Kafka, Franz. Letters to his Father.
Luke, Saint. The Acts of The Apostles, In any New Testament.
Meyer, H. A. W. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles. Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1889.
Ramsey, Sir William. St. Paul the Traveller, and Roman Citizen. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1898, pp. 249-252.
Stonehouse, Ned. Paul Before the Areopagus. Tyndale Press, London, 1957.
Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Vintage Books, New York, 1944, reprinted often.
Van Til, Cornelius. Paul At Athens. privately printed, n.d.
Van TIl, Cornelius. A Survey Of Christian Epistemology. Den Dulk, 1969.
The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.
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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.
The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.
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