ATHENS. 1st CENTURY AD. HISTORICAL CENTER OF CULTURE, LEARNING AND PHILOSOPHY... ENTER PAUL:
I remember this subject of Paul in Athens coming up in one of my Bible college classes.
This was not a surprise, of course, since the entire class was devoted to the book of Acts... But something struck me as odd when we arrived at chapter 17 and began to digest it. During our discussion, I brought up something about how seemingly different Paul's approach was compared to what you might expect (assuming "you" were, like me, a conservative Evangelical kid). Had I been completely honest and not worried about appearances at the time, I probably would have been less diplomatic and voiced my thoughts without reservation: Paul in Athens was immediately, well, awkward to me. The address he gave did not fit within my expectations at all.
For one thing, he had complimented their devout Athenian lineage, using the word "religious" to describe them without a negative connotation. Second, he had quoted their poet philosophers freely - as though there was truth to be found and championed within their art and spirituality. Third, Paul had maintained that God was near to everyone, and had told the Athenians that all people throughout time had been born in the best possible context in which they could know and reflect God. Paul had stated plainly and without reservation that these people of Athens already had a history with this God, rather than treating them like ignorant, godless folk, or like he himself was bringing God to "the lost" for the first time.
Also interesting to me was something he had not done: Paul had not warned them of hell, or hammered them with the idea of their "depravity" in order to wear them down or share what he believed was essential to share in that moment... In fact, he hadn't even mentioned the cross.
There was more to it, but those examples paint a good picture of why I felt exceptionally confused in class that week... It struck me that Paul's approach was pretty much the opposite of what Christian culture had raised me to think. It seemed to be dramatically different from "missions" as I had grown up understanding them. I mean, compared to what I had always known of "evangelism," Paul in Athens was this foreign, alien thing. In twenty years of sitting in church services, I had not heard this passage referenced much at all, and I began to see why. It simply did not fit within my tidy compartments and constructs for how we "share the gospel." And looking back now, I recognize that being exposed to it made me immediately defensive of my presuppositions.
Paul did not merely have a different method from what I had known... He had a different message.
So when I pointed this out to the instructor about Paul's whole approach being very different from what you would expect, I was fascinated by his response... Which went something like this:
"Actually, a lot of theologians believe Paul was in the wrong in Athens. I mean, if you think about it, there was no church established there. And it hadn't been a scheduled stop on his journey - he was there on his own, in-between his missionary work with the other guys..."
That's certainly one way to look at it. And, for a time, those words sowed just enough doubt in me to continue on without feeling implied by what Paul had said, or what it might mean for modern Christian "missions." They were soothing words of security which quelled my wonder, steadying my rocking boat, and dousing the spark which Paul's address in Athens had threatened to ignite...
But that time was short. The passage resurfaced in my mind a few months later, nagging me again. Probing with the same questions. It was around that time that our little megachurch was being visited by one of our movement's most respected voices in regard to missions and evangelism. We'll call this guy "Danny," since that's what his name is. (It turns out that Danny is cool, and does not need his name protected.)
After a midweek service where Danny had spoken as a guest, I was asked if I wanted to tag along to a dinner with him and a few others. I jumped at the chance (which isn't even my style). I wanted to hear him some more, since he spent his life in the subjects I was currently wrestling with. I wanted to see if anything he had to say might tip his hand in regards to how he saw what had been nagging at me.
At some point during dinner - sensing a connection to something else that was said - I asked him about the same thing I'd asked the Bible college instructor... "What do you think of Paul's address in Athens?" And I briefly explained what else I had heard and why I was asking. Without missing a beat, Danny replied,
"You know, if you throw out Paul in Athens, you're left with nothing. It's the ONLY account we have of how he was making a first contact in these big Gentile cities, or how he was introducing the gospel to these people as he traveled around."
We continued to talk, and Danny made some other good points that seemed to articulate a lot of what had been taking shape in my own perspective. More importantly, he raised a number of good questions... So Danny was there for me at the perfect time. And this is one of the first instances I can point to where I remember feeling a distinct and definite shift in my thinking and heart posture. It is one of the earliest examples I have of being aware that everything about me was beginning to change.
The passage in Acts 17 may seem simple enough regardless, but its implications are huge when it is compared to how our own religious culture and philosophy of missions tend to operate.
In addition to what I have already mentioned, consider:
Paul doesn't share the "Romans Road" or the "Four Spiritual Laws."
In fact, he assumes no formula at all.
He doesn't do an "altar call."
He doesn't ask for raised hands.
He doesn't lead anyone in a "sinner's prayer."
This is unlike much of "evangelism" or "witnessing" as we've come to know it... But another major difference is that his message is highly-attuned and specific to those he is addressing.
Even as he shares more general, unifying truths, he is still very much sharing them to a specific audience - an audience which he has bothered to get to know before presuming he has something they need to hear. Paul in Athens is, in fact, a lot like Jesus in this way, because he's only in Athens. He's nowhere else, and not trying to stick to any template. He enters their forum of philosophy with simplicity. He wanders around, considering things. Taking them in. Searching them for their truth and beauty. And when he finally speaks, he doesn't try to match pitch with the level of rhetoric or discourse, either. He just speaks what he believes they need to hear most in that moment.
He arrives with humility. And, though his message is bold and prophetic, he isn't pretentious or condescending. He is soft like a mystic, looking for common ground in the city of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle... and Zeus.
And he tells them that the temple of God... is people.
But for many Christians, Paul's message in Athens just doesn't cut it. There's a sort of dismissal I've observed, which amounts to, "Nice try, Paul, but we're not buying it. Evangelism and missions are too important for all of this fluffy dialog from you. You're just trying to sound smart. You should have hit them with the truth, the way we do." According to some pastors and theologians, Paul's message is compromised. Sold out. Watered down... For them, Paul in Athens is an example of Paul "in sin." And whether we realize it or not, we all likely experience the fruit of this sort of thinking to some degree. It must have had some influence on our teachers and leaders, as this whole passage has fallen from acclaim. Even for those who do not openly criticize it or speak against it... It's also fairly clear that they don't seem to think it has much to offer, or else they would probably apply it to discussions of the gospel more often. You know, like it was worth considering alongside topics they believe are important.
Instead, this exceptionally original, singular, thorough, and novel passage is seldom mentioned in church, taught in depth, used to derive a series, used to teach missions, evangelism or worship, or even used to encourage people. Some of us might go to Bible-teaching churches and never hear it brought up at all, in fact. So the question becomes... why? I can't say I'm certain, but I do see a few things contributing to the neglect and contradiction of it. Maybe the most obvious reason is that some of those in positions of authority over the past few hundred years were confused by it themselves. Perhaps a bit afraid of it, too. Whatever the case, we now have a longstanding tradition of ignoring it.
When I started to notice this myself, it was evident to me that the mistrust of Paul when it comes to Acts 17 is pretty odd. A sizeable number of theologians and leaders have reasoned why they think the passage should be met with doubt and skepticism - effectively preventing what happened there in Athens from having a say in how we see a lot of different things. It's a remarkable thing. Even for a great magician, it would take an incredible sleight-of-hand to make an entire city disappear. You would have to really want to do that trick. As illusions go, it's quite an impressive one.
You could say that many of our trusted theological minds have been great magicians. Somehow, they made Athens disappear... and we let them.
Thus, Acts 17 no longer does much to frame our understanding. It no longer informs our practice of missional living, our understanding of worship, or our way of sharing the beautiful news of the kingdom. At the seminary or bible college level, it has been met with a significant amount of criticism and doubt, while amongst regular churchgoing folk, it has been met with indifference... So it has been, essentially, stricken from the record by a religious culture's unease with it.
This is pretty funny stuff when you consider that mistrusting Paul in Acts 17 would be popular with the same crowd that believes everything in Paul's letters must be above error, or that no part in them is ever limited to its own context. So let's get this straight: If Paul SAYS something - his most extensive speech ever recorded in the spread of the early church, for example - and Luke writes it down to keep a record of that history... it's open to easy doubt and dismissal if we happen to be uncomfortable with the content of it. But if, on the other hand, Paul WRITES a letter, it must be 100% from the mouth of God for all time. And it's not all that hard to find evangelicals who would maintain this thinking, even though both communications from Paul ultimately end up in scripture.
(I guess these people are unaware of the fact that Paul dictated most of his letters...)
Beginning to process through some of these things proved pretty important for the fledgling revolution going on within me. This confrontation I had with Paul the Apostle and the Philosophers' Home (in which Paul brought the message he believed to be of prime importance to a bunch of people who were not all that different from us) coincided with my own first coming to know Jesus myself after years of being "very religious." And I realized something:
If Paul is right in Athens... then everything could change.
If Paul is wrong... we can comfortably stay the same.
So there's a lot at stake in how Christians grapple with Acts 17. I'm not talking about just the chapter or its specific words, but the implications of the philosophy behind them. The heart at the root of them. The perspective and worldview which informs them... The essential message they convey. And so it is that many of us see Paul in Athens and sense a great liberty waiting to be unleashed, while others see Paul in Athens and are afraid, because it seems clear that Paul the apostle has some very different ideas compared to modern Christianity, and those ideas concern some very important things.
We think we derive a lot of of our gospel message and methodology from Paul, but if Paul was right in what he had to say in Athens, then it's only honest to admit that we actually ignore him quite a bit on those very things.
Full disclosure: I come from a subculture that made me spend many years feeling guilty for not wanting to do "street witnessing."
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to rescue/save/heal all kinds of people. And boy oh boy did that statement loom over us in a way which made us ashamed of ourselves. Paul's words are indeed powerful. I would hear them quoted in sermons, or be around a group of people trying to set up a time to "go out and witness," and I believed there must be something wrong with me... because I recoiled at the very idea of all that. I thought I was weak, and that I lacked the courage to "share the gospel," which would have meant I was ashamed of it... But at the same time, somewhere much deeper within, I can see now that there was another part of me that did not see the value in even believing in the same kind of God I was supposed to be selling. So what happens is that you end up in this back-and-forth, alternating between not doing what you're supposed to do as a "good Christian" because something about it seems wrong or off, followed by the self-condemnation, guilt, and shame imposed by religion... For those who have ever felt the same, you know as well as I do how much peace can be brought by a little freedom when it comes to those mind traps.
To know that, contrary to what religious culture was telling you...
It wasn't the gospel you were ashamed of. It was our own cheap version of it.
HONESTLY, A LOT OF THE "GOSPEL" I'VE HEARD IN MY LIFE I WAS ASHAMED ON SOME LEVEL, BECAUSE IT WASN'T TRULY GOOD NEWS. It was not the revolutionary message of God's radical embrace extended to all, or the announcement of God's kingdom beyond all social and political borders. It was not the religion-breaking revelation of God's equal inclusion without partiality, or the power of God to change everything and reach all kinds of people... It was the power of man to get "butts into heaven" for a privileged few. It was the power of man to have a "God" who only claimed to know our hearts, but was dependent on our structures of affiliation, and who was really looking for our mental agreement with doctrines, and our prayers of magic words... rather than our lives. It was the power of man to exploit formula to escape an angry God by technicality. It was the threat of hell by a God who taunted people for not getting the answer right on an incredibly difficult test which he himself set up. It was the power of man to keep people enslaved to the dominant systems of control and religiosity in this world, sickened by their own guilt and "unworthiness" even after they were "saved."
...And yes, I was ashamed of that "gospel." I am so glad that I was.
Those control systems prove themselves to have a vested interest in keeping Paul's message at the Areopagus out of the discussion when it comes to the gospel and evangelism. Unlike Paul, we assume that "the lost" we go out to "reach" are without God, and without a recognizable history of experiencing God or knowing truth at all.
My church used to host a major missions organization which would send a representative out to us once a year. He would stand at the pulpit, passionate and anguished at his own message, even as he would crassly declare to us that, without financial support for their missionaries, "thousands of people a day" were "plunging into hell, unreached." People cried. Checks were signed. Everyone would tell him how important the message he was spreading was in the hall and the lobby afterward.
One of the central ideas at the root of this organization (and others like it) was that if they had not reached somewhere, God had not reached that place either.
Where Paul shared with Athens as though he was complementing the work of God, Christian missions often share as though they are supplementing the work of God - making up for where God is lacking. The organization I'm referring to here had this whole thing about a specific "window" of latitude and longitude, where they said the vast majority of the "unreached" lived. It began to dawn on me that their God was tiny, and their Jesus... helpless. They could do nothing outside of eternity. Their hands were tied in the here and now. Apparently, Earth geography had proved to be too big a challenge for the God and savior of the universe... It should not be surprising, then, that people who believe God's only real concern is heaven in the sense of "the sweet by and by" - and not "the kingdom of heaven is at hand and in your midst" - will quickly bear the fruit of that belief in how they live out their lives.
Incidentally, Evangelicals are often so busy signing people up for "going to heaven when they die," we have precious little time for "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This does not end at the moment of conversion either, for we continue on in how we begin. The mindset persists, subverting Paul's example of sacred vision, and his belief that all truth belonged to the same God and should not be feared. Instead of maintaining this way of life, we might instead be encouraged to isolate ourselves and embrace only "Christian" sources of art and philosophy. Thus, we do not live as though we can encourage the truth others come across. Rather, we slander it and consider it a threat. Unlike Paul, we seem to think that we must be the exclusive dispensers and purveyors of truth... This is poison enough on its own. We are led to contradict other sources of truth due to the source alone, and to insist that they are hopeless without first conforming to our understanding.
Ultimately, the institution and culture of Christianity itself can become our God.
We are told to be suspicious of anything that even appears "secular." We hide away from the world and its "agendas," and miss out on all the beauty it has to offer for those with eyes to see. We miss out on the crucial role we play in being present, and encouraging the beauty we find. And (contrary to Jesus) the greatest expression of "worship," for us, becomes something we do in separation as we sing in a room together, rather than how we integrate and bloom within the great tapestry of life on earth... As Richard Rohr says, a lot of Christians are so busy "worshipping Christ" that they have no time to follow Jesus.
Now, whether or not you personally have ever encountered a list of reasons given to support the idea that Paul was just obscuring or watering down the message of the gospel while he was in Athens... I think it can still prove beneficial to tackle the common ones to show how little merit they have.
Let's consider the arguments against Paul here:
1) PAUL WAS "OFF COURSE" FROM THE "OFFICIAL" MISSIONARY ROUTE...
This is the idea that Paul was wrong in what he said in Athens because he wasn't technically scheduled to be there in the first place. It's true that Athens was not part of the journey he had plotted with Silas and Timothy. He was only sent there to wait for the other two - while they helped the Bereans withstand an onslaught of angry religious Jews from Thessalonica, who were trying to undo the message of the good news of Jesus' kingdom and get everyone enslaved to the Law of Moses again. The brothers and sisters in Berea had insisted on Paul waiting safely ahead until his companions rejoined him, at which point, they could all continue on to Corinth together... This is a lot of places and names, but that's the gist of it. And as for the argument? Well, it's a poor one. Does speaking the good news of the kingdom need to be scheduled? Does it need to only be done in an "official" capacity and in "official" venues? Of course not. And it's sad to consider that this argument has been made by people who otherwise claim to be open to the leading of the Spirit of God moment-by-moment... Some of these people run some of the most influential Christian institutions in the world.
So does Paul being "off course" cast doubt on his Athens message? Not at all. In reality, some of our greatest and most powerful moments in life come when we are willing to be interrupted, and willing to move with God when we had not even planned to.
2) THERE WAS NO MAJOR RESPONSE IN ATHENS...
This criticism suggests that Paul's message is in question because there was not a huge number of people who became disciples that day. And it's a bad argument on many levels. (God save us from the way Christians like to measure "success" in the western world.) Often, the work we do in ministering the kingdom is not in the reaping, but in weeding, tilling, sowing, watering, lighting, etc... Paul himself says this when writing to the Corinthians. It doesn't matter what part you play in a person coming to know and follow Jesus. And not seeing the ultimate fruit of something does not negate the love which went into helping anyone else see the beautiful revolution of the kingdom. Regardless, the response of a people does not by default call to question the messenger or message anyway. By that logic, we'd have to assume Stephen was equally in the wrong, since his challenge of the Jewish council had led to them killing him rather than becoming disciples of Jesus... Speaking of Jesus, was he in the wrong too? He didn't seem to have much "success" in his response from the religious leaders or the officials of Rome.
Obviously, this is a poor argument. The response of the people says nothing to the quality of the message or messenger by default. It's certainly not something we can point to as evidence.
3) THERE WAS NO CHURCH ESTABLISHED AFTER PAUL'S ADDRESS...
This one is completely untrue, unless we only recognize "churches" that are big, powerful or wealthy institutions. If, on the other hand, we recognize church as any community of Jesus' disciples, then there was absolutely church happening in Athens that day in the Areopagus. In fact, according to the text, "some believed" and "others wanted to hear more" (which often leads to belief as well). An assembly of Jesus was there that day and beyond. To say that Paul was misguided in what he said in Athens because you can't immediately point to a big institution or cathedral is more telling of your own misconceptions than it is of anything wrong on Paul's part. However few there were at first, Paul's presence and willingness to be a voice in the wilderness that day made all the difference in the world to some people. And, no matter how small the response, it only takes a few to turn the world upside-down anyway. The kingdom isn't coming with a big show. It spreads like leaven, and grows like a mustard seed.
There was a church established because there were followers of Jesus there together in community. And the presence of a church community continued to grow in that city and around it for hundreds of years.
4) PAUL'S MESSAGE IS TOO DIFFERENT TO BE CONSIDERED ORTHODOX OR SEEN AS A LEGITIMATE DECLARATION OF THE GOSPEL...
Let's be honest: This is the real problem for a lot of people. It might be the only real problem... It's the argument which says, "I'm not sure about Paul here. He sounds like a "universalist," and he complements "secular" things, and that makes me uncomfortable." But it's more a reflection of our incredibly limited use of language and formula than it is the scope of teaching in the New Testament. Jesus shared in more odd ways than anyone, and was never anything short of pure gospel. His method was never the tired formulas that Evangelicalism is so quick to cling to and regurgitate. His message was never cliché. Jesus was exceptionally peculiar, in fact. And his early disciples picked up on that. They sought to attune themselves in the same way to the situations they encountered, and to speak (and act) accordingly by the Spirit. They approached many an important moment as though the Lord they had been taught by was a poet and a mystic and a storyteller... because that's exactly what had happened. The New Testament is incredibly varied in its approach to communicating what different people needed to hear. That's why it's an expansive collection of twenty-six books - historical narratives, letters, even apocalyptic poetry - and not a gospel tract shoved in your windshield wiper.
If you have a problem with Paul in Acts 17, but not Peter in Acts 2 (one example)... You're just having a convenient problem. Because, when it comes to Acts, all of the addresses are foreign compared to our modern formulas and clichés. All of them seem strange next to what many of us are hearing on Sunday mornings.
So the only thing we can say for all of these arguments and criticisms of Paul's message is that none of them hold up. Not under any level of scrutiny. This means we're left back at square one, and faced again with the same question: What is going on with Paul in Athens?
Is he watering down the truth of the gospel like a scared sellout just because his words make us uncomfortable? ...OR... Is he declaring something beautiful and true in a way many Christians are uncomfortable with only because they have so reduced and cheapened the gospel themselves?
(In my opinion, the answer is the latter.)
So I want to tell you the same gospel that Paul told some of the most brilliant philosophers and religious minds in history.
I want to update some of the language, and I want you to consider this message we seldom pay attention to with new eyes. I want you to consider that it might be the single best example we have of the way Paul the apostle actually began his conversations with non-Jews. And I want you to ask yourself whether you see Jesus in it or not. I want you to ask yourself if what he has to say about God isn't very much like what Jesus reveals about God. Ask yourself if it's not a better message than the one we've concocted by selectively editing verses out of Paul's own letters to present the case we tend to consider more "biblical" without question.
I want you to ask yourself what this message sounds like to your soul.
Dearest human people of the world:
I don't know about you, but that's a gospel message I'd like to see make a comeback. It's as revolutionary a thing to say in a Christian church as it is in a crowded marketplace or a college philosophy classroom...
It is a message that changes everything.
It changed everything for me and the community I was a part of. We put away the fear and paralyzation of tribalism, and we learned to have sacred vision. We learned to see that all truth belongs to God regardless of its source. It empowered us to embrace what should be embraced even if it came from outside of our bubble, and to challenge what should be challenged even if it came from within. This message had powerful results.
It is a message that is exclusive only in its radical inclusion. It is a message that embraces and unifies. It is bigger than religion. Bigger than Christianity even. That's what makes the gospel of Jesus Christ so brilliantly, wonderfully different. That's what makes Jesus himself so different - as the express image of God, his arms were open wide enough to embrace so much more than anyone had ever known. Jesus made God bigger. Paul of all people knew what is like to be on the other side of that: tribalistic, always looking for who is "in" and who is "out." But when Paul encountered Jesus, his entire lens for understanding the universe changed. He went from being someone who was on the road to Damascus in order to persecute and kill by the Law, to being someone who could walk into Athens as a Jew and talk about the brotherhood of mankind by the Spirit.
I'd say that's an element of this story worth preserving in Christian teaching. Worth championing in Christian missions. Worth clinging to in Christian gospel... It's the freedom to walk into any religious forum free of pride, and not declare "My truth is the only truth and yours is nothing," but instead, "God is behind all of our truths, and we have so much in common, and I want to tell you why."
Maybe a few magicians were able to talk us into forgetting that. As a result, Athens disappeared - dissipated and vanished from the whole evangelism conversation.