A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34 What Paul said (continued).
As we reflect on Paul’s address to the Areopagus, we have to face two criticisms of it, first that it was not authentic, and secondly that it was not adequate. Earlier in this century Martin Dibelius concluded that the speech was intended by Luke to be a sample of the kind of preaching to pagans which he considered appropriate, that it was composed by Luke not Paul, and that it is a ‘Hellenistic’ speech about the knowledge of God, which is not Christian until its conclusion. Some years later Hans Conzelmann wrote: ‘In my own opinion the speech is the free creation of the author (sc. Luke), for it does not show the specific thoughts and ideas of Paul’. In 1955, however, the Swedish scholar Bertil Gartner decisively answered Dibelius in an essay entitled *The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation*. His thesis was (i) that the background to the speech is to be found rather in Hebrew than in Greek thought, and especially in the Old Testament; (ii) that it has parallels in the apologetic preaching of Hellenistic Judaism; and (iii) that it is genuinely Pauline in the sense that its main features reflect Paul’s thought in his letters (e.g. Rom. 1:18ff), although of course Luke has abbreviated it and put it into its present literary form. So it is not difficult to affirm with a good conscience that the voice we hear in the Areopagus address is the voice of the authentic Paul. Nor is it difficult to find Old Testament passages which anticipate the main themes of the sermon – God as Creator of heaven and earth, in whose hand is the breath of all living things, who does not live in man-made temples, who overrules the history of nations, who is not to be likened to graven or carved images, which are dead and dumb, and who warns of judgement and summons to repentance.
The second criticism concerns the adequacy of the sermon as a gospel presentation. Ramsay popularized the notion in his day that Paul ‘was disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by his experience in Athens’, since the results are negligible. So ‘when he went on from Athens to Corinth, he no longer spoke in the philosophic style’, but ‘”determined not to know anything save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2)’. This is a gratuitous theory, however, which I think Stonehouse was fair to pronounce ‘quite untenable’. First, there is no trace in Luke’s narrative that he is displeased with Paul’s performance in Athens, whether we are to regard his address to the Areopagus as a defense or a sermon or a bit of both. On the contrary, Luke records three of Paul’s speeches in the Acts as samples respectively of his proclamation to Jews and God-fearers (Pisidian Antioch, chapter 13), to illiterate pagans (Lystra, chapter 14) and now to cultured philosophers (Athens, Chapter 17), Secondly, it is inaccurate to dub Paul’s visit to Athens a failure. In addition to the two named converts, Luke says that there were ‘a number of others’ (34). Besides, ‘it is most precarious to engage in rationalizing from the number of converts to the correctness of the message’. Thirdly, I believe Paul did preach the cross in Athens. Luke provides only a short extract from his speech, which takes less that two minutes to read. Paul must have filled out this outline considerably, and his conclusion (30-31) must have included Christ crucified. For how could he proclaim the resurrection without mentioning the death which preceded it? And how could he call for repentance without mentioning the faith in Christ which always accompanies it? Fourthly, what Paul renounced in Corinth was not the biblical doctrine of God as Creator, Lord and Judge, but the wisdom of the world and the rhetoric of the Greeks. His firm ‘decision’ to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified was taken because of the anticipated challenges of the proud Corinth, not because of his supposed failure in Athens. Besides, as Luke shows in his narrative, Paul did not change his tactic in Corinth, but continued to teach, argue and persuade. (18:4-5).
Tomorrow: 5). How Paul challenges us.
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.