For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!
Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:
There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:
- This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
- The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
- The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
- In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
- Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
- Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
- Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
- 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
-D.A. Carson, For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15
Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.
Soli Deo Gloria