Somehow I had always suspected that Paul had rather stuffed it up in Athens.
From his experience in that city of idolatry, Paul had gone straight to nearby Corinth, arriving in ‘fear and trembling’, spurning human philosophy in favour of the power of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2). Charismatics and pentecostals tend to conclude therefore that Paul himself felt he had missed the mark in his last port of call. From now on he would trust God for signs and wonders to convince pagans of the truth of the gospel.
So what really had happened there in the Greek capital?
A few days ago, I stood on Mars Hill as the setting sun threw a red blanket over the dirty white urban sprawl of modern Athens. I tried to imagine the scene described in Acts 17, when Paul introduced the Council of the Areopagus to the Unknown God. Behind me rose the great rocky outcrop of the Acropolis, crowned by the many-pillared Pantheon, already five centuries old in Paul’s day. Below me spread the Agora, the civic centre of ancient Athens with its still-standing ‘stoas’ or colonnades where the philosophers – hence ‘Stoics’ – with which Paul debated hung out.
A large bronze plaque spelt out Paul’s whole address, as recorded by Dr Luke in Greek. Thousands of sermons had been based on his famous message preached on this very spot. Referring to their own gods and poets, Paul had tried to move his audience towards an understanding of repentance, judgment and the resurrection – before derisive laughter cut him short. A humbling experience for any preacher!
Luke tells us that some however believed Paul’s message. One was a member of the Council, Dionysius the Areopagite, later venerated as patron saint of Athens (and from whom we get the name ‘Dennis’). Another was a woman named Damaris.
But we hear nothing more about any church founded in Athens.
Some conclude that this Athens experience had taught Paul a valuable lesson. No more debating. No more philosophy. Just signs and wonders. For many, the Acts of the Apostles is really about the acts of the Holy Spirit, i.e. a book about miracles and supernatural interventions. The persuasion factor – apologetics – is seen as evangelism in the power of the human spirit, when what is really needed is clear demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Other evangelicals, however, uphold the Areopagus address as THE New Testament model for apologetics, the discipline of defending and presenting the Christian faith. Don Richardson begins his book ‘Eternity in their hearts’ unpacking Paul’s Areopagus address as a prime example of the use of redemptive analogies in cross-cultural evangelism. Many have named their ministries ‘Areopagus’ or ‘Mars Hill’ to identify with Paul’s apologetic methods.
I had flown into Athens directly from attending a leadership forum in Sopron, Hungary, organised by the European Apologetic Network. This event followed on from the inaugural EAN conference during HOPE.21 last year in Budapest. Like HOPE.21, the forum was a cluster of conferences dividing the 250 invited participants into networks equipping pastors, theologians, educators and leaders in society for the task of apologetics. Ravi Zacharias and Donald Carson addressed the plenary sessions. (See www.euroleadership.org). The Areopagus message had been referred to repeatedly. So as I stood there on Mars Hill, it was with a fresh awareness of the power of apologetics and of the truth and relevance of the Word.
Paul himself had sailed into Athens from Thessaloniki, where he and his friends had successfully planted a church which we know quite well, thanks to two of Paul’s letters. In Acts 17:1 we read,
‘Paul went into the synagogue, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.’ (vs 2-4)
Yes, God had used Paul to demonstrate signs and wonders on earlier occasions, but that was not the way the Thessalonians came to faith. Paul reasoned, explained and proved the truth about Jesus to both Jew and Greek, ‘as was his custom’.
So far so good. But wasn’t Athens a turning point for Paul? Didn’t he feel so humiliated by the scoffing mirth that he vowed only to go the “power encounter” route in the future? It might seem that way reading 1 Corinthians 2.
Yet a closer reading of Acts 18 reveals Paul pursuing the exact same strategy in Corinth as in Thessaloniki: “every sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (vs.4). After being rejected by the Jews, Paul continued teaching Greeks for the next eighteen months. Surprisingly, there is no mention of any ‘signs and wonders’ in Corinth at all! In chapter 19, Paul founded the famous Ephesian church after three months of persuasive argumentation among Jews, and another two years of daily discussions among Greeks. But then in verse 11, we do read about miracles of healing and deliverance which confirmed the word.
So it would seem the Holy Spirit affirmed BOTH signs and wonders AND the persuasive explanations of the Word; not EITHER the one OR the other.
Do we? In YWAM? in our church or organisation? Or are we lop-sided, one way or the other?
Reason for hope
Post-modern times have been hard on apologetics. That there is no Universal Truth has itself become a universal truth. People may listen to us for a while indulgently and say, “well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” And so we have tended to retreat from persuasion, debate, dialogue and discussion. We have tended to think that apologetics fitted the modern age of rationality, but with the post-modern emphasis on experience and feeling, signs and wonders were more appropriate and relevant.
Paul’s 1st century world with its supermarket of religions and gods bore much similarity to ours. Yet a major part of the early Christians’ strategy was to proclaim truth into a truth-less society. Our world also needs Truth to set it free. We too need to learn how to speak that truth in relevant and arresting ways, with a healthy conviction in the truth of Christianity and a confidence in the reliability and relevance of the Bible. Post-modernism’s attack on truth itself needs to be challenged, not accommodated.
Peter’s words are just as relevant for us as for his original readers: ‘Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). If Jesus is lord of all, and God is creator of everything, then his truth surely impinges on every area of life. We should be able to start from virtually any starting point and demonstrate the relevance of God’s Truth. Apologetics can be linked to events, situations and current realities. We need to learn how to ask questions and raise issues that help others realise the inadequacy of their own position; and how to explain our hope whatever the circumstance.
Greg Pritchard, one of the initiators of the EAN, illustrates this possibility by quoting some of the many questions raised by the September 11 attacks: “why did the terrorists attack?” “why do fire fighters risk their lives?” “why do we feel grief?” “why do strong leaders appeal to us in such times?” “where does evil come from?”
When Christians apply themselves to the hard work of articulating answers to such questions, others listen and begin to realise the relevance of God’s Word to daily life. Answers to the hard questions is what made such hard-headed men of the world as Augustine, Wilberforce, C.S.Lewis and Church Colson into history makers.
Pritchard sees Wilberforce as a great a
pologist addressing the social concerns of his day. We need new Wilberforces in politics, in f
ilm, in law, in medicine and
in education, as well as in the church, he argues.
Someone once said that the early Christians won over the Roman Empire because they out-thought, out-lived and out-died their contemporaries.
In Paul they had a great champion. And if apologetics was good enough for him…
Till next week,
P.S. Some really great websites on apologetics!
www.damaris.org – relating Christian faith and contemporary culture
www.connectbiblestudies.com – exploring what the Bible says about issues raised in popular films, TV, books and music
www.culturewatch.org – online study guides and articles offering Christian analysis of today’s world
www.lessonsonline.com – ready-made material for school lessons, drawn from popular youth culture
www.cmf.org.uk – The Christian Medical Fellowship website with files on medical ethics, and the Confident Christianity evangelism training course
www.jubilee-centre.org – papers on contemporary issues from a Christian perspective
www.relationshipsfoundation.org – materials and programmes applying biblical relational principles to society (applied apologetics)
www.citygate.org – the website of SEN, bridging the gap between the reality of Christ and everyday life in Central and Eastern Europe
www.ApologeticsNetwork.org – access to resources, initiatives, ideas and opportunities
Till next week,