A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. What Paul said (continued).
Secondly, was Paul’s speech before the court of the Areopagus a defense or a sermon? Some students, especially those who consider his address to have been an inadequate presentation of the gospel (since the cross does not appear to have been central to it), try to protect Paul’s reputation by arguing that he was defending himself, not preaching Christ. This is certainly a possibility, since the court did still have some judicial functions. In particular, it had jurisdiction over religion in the city and, since Paul was being accused of introducing new gods (18), it would have to take cognizance and adjudicate. So the statement in verse 19 that *they took him* could be translated ‘they took hold of him’ (RSV) in the sense of arresting him. But the case against this proposal is strong. The ‘context is without a vestige of judicial process’. There seem to have been no legal charge, no prosecutor, no presiding judge, no verdict and no sentence. At the same time, although Paul was not subjected to any formal interrogation, he was asked to give an account of his teaching. One may therefore regard the situation as ‘an informal inquiry by the education commission’, who regarded him with ‘slightly contemptuous indulgence’, so that ‘he might either receive the freedom of the city to preach or be censored and silenced’. Consequently, he told the court what he believed and taught, but in so doing made quite a personal statement of the gospel. As we have already seen when Peter and John stood before the Sanhedrin, and as we shall see again in the trial scenes in Jerusalem and Caesarea, the apostles seemed incapable of defending themselves without at the same time preaching Christ. As for Paul in Athens, it required an uncommon degree of courage to speak as he spoke, for it would be hard to imagine a less receptive or more scornful audience.
*Then Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious (22). For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with the inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you’* (23). The apostle took as his text, or rather as his point of contact with them, the anonymous altar he had come across. Reference to such altars, inscribed to an unknown god, have been found in ancient literature. Pausanias, for example, who travelled extensively in about AD 175 and wrote in his *Tour of Greece* his admiring account of the glory, history and mythology of that country, began his itinerary in Athens. Landing on the rocky peninsular called Piraeus, five miles south-west of the city, he found near the harbor a number of temples, together with ‘altars of the gods named Unknown’. Having seen such an altar himself, Paul was able to make his opening courteous remark about their religiosity. He was not ready yet to challenge the folly of Athenian idolatry. But he did take up their own acknowledgement of their ignorance. How then shall we interpret his statement that ‘what’ they were worshipping ‘as something unknown’ he was about to proclaim to them? Was he thereby acknowledging the authenticity of their pagan worship, and should we regard with equal charity the cultus of non-Christian religions? For example, is Raymond Panikkar justified, in *The Unknown Christ of Hinduism*, in writing: ‘In the footsteps of St. Paul, we believe that we may speak not only of the unknown God of the Greeks but also of the hidden Christ in Hinduism’? Is he further justified in concluding that ‘the good and bona fide Hindu is saved by Christ and not by Hinduism, but it is through the sacraments of Hinduism, through the message of morality and good life, through the mysterion that comes down to him through Hinduism, that Christ saves the Hindu normally’?
No, this popular reconstruction cannot be maintained. We certainly agree that there is only one God. It is also true that converts, who turn to Christ from a non-Christian religious system, usually think of themselves not as having transferred their worship from one God to Another, but as having begun now to worship in truth the God they were previously trying to worship in ignorance, error or distortion. But N.B. Stonehouse is right that what Paul picked out for comment was the Athenians’ open acknowledgement of their ignorance, and that ‘the ignorance rather than the worship is thus underscored’. Moreover, Paul made the bold claim to enlighten their ignorance (a Jew presuming to teach ignorant Athenians!), using the *ego* of apostolic authority, and insisting thereby that special revelation must control and correct whatever general revelation seems to disclose. He then went on to proclaim the living and true God in five ways, and so to expose the errors, even horrors, of idolatry.
Tomorrow: What Paul said (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.