Acts 17 and becoming all things to all people
Paul the Apostle said that...
"I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22b)
Acts 17 is an example where Paul becomes a philosopher to reason with philosophers. Of particular interest is Paul's willingness to provide reference to God with the idol of the unknown God.
Views of the Athenians»
Paul’s audience was likely varied in philosophical views. His speech was delivered at what is called the Areopagus. The Areogapus is a region near a marketplace at the foot of a large hill called the Acropolis. However, Luke is likely referring to a ruling council that meets at this location. The council appeared to have a supervisory role in the city advising in educational, religious, and possibly had an entertainment aspect. Verse 22 tells us that “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.” This might represent an enjoyment of hearing new ideas but not necessarily a search for truth.
Paul, in Athens, had discussions with Jews and God fearing Greeks (converts to Judaism) (v17) and these would have had a more biblical view of God and the world. He also and talked with anyone in the marketplace where he saw idols to various Gods including one to an Unknown God. The people of Athens were polytheistic. These idols were likely erected to typical Greek Gods (Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis) and the Unknown God may have reflected a willingness to expand the pantheon and provide an offering to a God that might have been missed.
However, the Areopagus also contained Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans were philosophers that followed the teachings of Epicurus (340 – 270 BC). They were basically materialistic in their beliefs. They would have claimed that the Gods did not exist or were not engaged in human activity at all and adhered to a form of atomism. The Stoics were followers of Zeno (340 – 265 BC) who cherished reason and logic and held virtue in high regard as a means to happiness. The Stoics had a pantheistic worldview.
Paul’s address was made to the Areopagus but I do not feel it was done so in a closed trial sense but in an open and public forum. The reason that this is likely the case is because of those named as converts. Only one was a member of the Areopagus, one was a woman , and several others were un-named. Paul’s audience was first the council consisting of various philosophies including Stoics and Epicureans but also the city at large that would have contained less educated and possibly more polytheistic persons than the council itself.
Engaging the Athenians»
Paul’s address was first and foremost biblical. He did not quote from the Old Testament due to his Greek audience but the allusions and concepts drawn from it are un-mistakable. Verse 23 draws from Isa 45:15 “For you are God, and we did not know”. Verse 24 is based on Gen 1:1 and Exo 20:11 “the Lord made the heaven and the earth and all that is in them”. Verse 25 is in Hellenistic language but contains ideas that are in harmony with Ps 50:7-15 and Isa 54:17. Verse 26 is a reference to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. Verse 27 draws from various passages (Ps 145:18, Jer 23:24, Deut 4:29). In the remainder of the address, the condemnation of man made images and the belief that God will judge the world in righteousness are drawn from the Old Testament.
Secondly, Paul’s address was contextualized. He drew concepts from the Old Testament but the communication was not for Jews; his language was Hellenistic. He found a cultural hook in the idol to the unknown God and used that to communicate how God can be known. He did so without condoning the use of idols or stating that God was that particular idol. He also quoted a Greek poet Aratus whom was educated in Stoicism. Paul is basically finding what common ground can exist by agreeing with the Stoics that God is not residing in idols and temples and quoted one of their poets to help with the argument.
Finally, Paul’s address was reasoned. He knew what pre-suppositions that he could count on in his arguments and built the gospel on top of those. In the context of the God that is unknown to them, he argues God’s real nature. That he is transcendent and created all things. However, he argues against the Stoics and posits that God is real in his personhood. He argues against the Stoics both claiming that God is not the world itself, but above it and beyond it. He also argues against the Epicureans that God is immanent and the idol is proof that they, in their hearts agree as the Athenians “search and grope for him”.
Challenge and Response of the Athenians»
The message is clear. God cannot be made of gold or silver or stone or by human imagination (v 29) and this is Paul’s challenge to idolatry. Paul challenges both philosophies on the ground that God will judge the world one day in righteousness. He sees the public display (Rom 3:25) of the death of Christ and the resurrection as proof that God has supplied of this fact. This is his challenge to both the Stoics, Epicureans, and the rest of the Athenians.
One day God will judge the world through one man and Paul is asking the Athenians to turn to God, quit groping for him in futility, and find him through “the man that he has designated having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead” (v 31). This is what he sees as the logical response to the arguments provided. The Epicureans believed that the body and soul consisted of atoms dispersed at death and the Stoics thought the body died and soul returned to a central place. Some reacted by scoffing at the notion of resurrection and others withheld judgment willing to hear Paul again on the matter (v 32,33).
Paul’s message may have been cut-off by the scoffing. He departed in what seems an abrupt manner. Perhaps the entertainment aspect to hear new ideas was of no interest to Paul and there is no record of his return. Still, one member of the council believed (Dionysius) and church tradition has it that he become the bishop of the church of Athens. Also, a woman named Damaris and others un-named believed Paul’s message.