Paul and the Philosophers

We’re going to be continuing our study tonight of the Trinity. We’ve been going through the New Testament trying to come to passages where we can get ideas about this doctrine. We’re going to another one tonight as well as getting some idea about what kind of debater Paul was. We’ll be in Acts 17 and reading verses 16-20.

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

The focus I want to get at here is verse 18. When the foreigners thought Jesus was speaking about foreign gods, it was because they heard reference to Jesus and the Resurrection. For us, we wonder how resurrection could be seen as a god, but to the Greeks, it most likely was seen as the name of a female goddess, which could be seen as a consort for Jesus. The point I wish to bring out mainly in reference to who Jesus is is that he was the focus of Paul’s teaching. It was about Jesus and who he was and that he rose from the dead. What makes a Jew go from talking about the work of YHWH to the work of Jesus? I wonder….

I’d like to use this chance to bring out some practical advice however from the mention of Paul in Athens. Paul was debating with the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoics could be compared to the pantheists of today and the Epicureans were the materialists. However, Paul was debating them and based on what we read, we have reason to believe Paul knew what he was talking about. After all, he got invited to speak before the Areopagus, which is something that doesn’t happen if you’re an idiot.

While Paul is speaking to the philosophers there, he doesn’t quote Scripture. Scripture is fine. I have no problem with it of course. However, pagans do not accept Scripture as an authority and when Paul spoke, he used their authorities. He was familiar with the writers that they used and he quoted them back at them.

Now some say Paul despaired of this technique. D.A. Carson sees this as simply an example of post hoc in his work “Exegetical Fallacies.” There is no connection between the two and Paul’s mission was not a failure. He did have a convert and there are references today to the work of Paul that he did at this place in Athens.

What’s the message we can learn? Be familiar with the ideas. If you’re going to speak to the philosophers, know their language. I find this ironic as I just got a call from my Dad while I was sitting here typing this telling me he was looking up philosophy in the encyclopedia and wanted to know about some names he came across.

If you want to go talk to the scientists, learn science. I don’t really do scientific apologetics often because science just isn’t my forte. I’m thankful for people who do that however. If you like science and you like apologetics, by all means go for it.

The bottom line is that Paul was an educated man and we need to get past this idea that Christianity is anti-intellectual. God does not want his followers to be dumb. He’s not calling for all of us to be leading scholars, but he is calling us to love him with our minds. Learning to think well should be the work of all Christians.

Support Deeper Waters on Patreon!