Editors Note: Today, it is common to hear the argument that since Paul quoted pagan poets in Acts 17, it’s OK for Christians to quote those who teach false doctrine. Adherents of the emerging church and contemplative spirituality have basically turned Acts 17 into a license for a free-for-all kind of “I can quote anybody I like, because Paul did” attitude. In this article/booklet, Mike Oppenheimer takes a close look at this section of Scripture to see if this is really the example Paul was setting and also shows, on the grander scale, the outcome of practices where the Gospel is being diffused and Christianity is being absorbed into the beliefs of a particular culture.
When Paul spoke the Gospel to these religious pagans in Athens on Mars Hill for the first time, he didn’t wait to become friends first to “share his beliefs.” This is an absurd method to abide by. He took the time to explain their idolatry and the truth. No one knows how many chances he or she will get to speak to an unbeliever, so you speak as if it is your only time. You cannot be called an evangelist if your purpose is not to first bring the Gospel but instead to be friends and then give the Gospel. This is not how the apostles conducted their evangelism, nor how they taught the church to. This does not mean we ignore developing friendships, but to grow in a relationship takes time and time is not something that we all have. Friendships are not a necessity to speak the Gospel message. It wasn’t to Peter in Acts 2, and it was not to Paul on his missionary journeys.
There are those today who use Acts 17, Paul’s Mars Hill encounter with the Greek philosophers, to prove that truth is found elsewhere (or everywhere), and the Bible is not the only place that contains spiritual truth. Let’s examine the Scripture carefully and the other poets he quotes to learn the truth on this matter:
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing). (Acts 17:16-21)
Paul looked at the surroundings he was in, and all he saw was false worship. Athens was famous for their temples that were works of art. There was no other place on earth at the time where so many idols were exhibited. (Idolatry was the very thing that caused God to punish Israel over and over again.) Paul went to his brethren first as his policy was in every city (Acts 17:1-2). He reasoned with them by engaging in an argument from what the Scriptures teach. He also discussed openly the things of God with those who were not Jewish. He did not start with making similarities with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers; he started with teaching them of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. He did not begin with what they had but what they did not have. It was then that they identified him as one speaking about foreign gods (vs.18), something they had never heard of before. They prided themselves on being hip to the newest philosophy. Their interest perked; they were intrigued by Paul’s message and were eager to hear the latest teaching, so they brought him to explain to others this new teaching.
The Epicureans, named after their founder Epicurus (who lived in 341-270 B.C.), believed the chief end of living was pleasure. They believed in numerous gods who had no influence over the affairs of man, but they did not believe in the immortality of the soul.
Paul’s audience was very hard to preach to; the Epicureans believed everything evolved, as they did not have a concept of creation. The Epicureans believed that the world was made accidentally by atoms which having been in perpetual motion from the beginning had brought this form. Aristotle’s school held “that the world was from eternity, and everything always was from eternity, and everything always was what now it is.”1
The Stoics, founded by Zeno (c. 300 B.C.), believed that God who indwells all things is the world’s soul. God is in all men; all men are brothers. Furthermore, living in harmony with nature brings happiness. Stoics were men of high moral principle, yet they believed that human affairs are governed by fate.
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:22-34)
We have known this as Paul’s appeal to the philosophers on Mars Hill. Paul, though being courteous, does not compromise his message. He started with the idols as false religious worship. Their zealousness in their devotion was superstitious, and Paul points out that they even erected an idol to a god they do not know. Paul now becomes philosopher to them instead of the theologian he would be with the Jews who have the ordinances of God. He appeals to their conscience and reveals to them a knowledge of the true and living God, who alone is to be the object of their adulation. He lays a foundation, instructing them in the primary principle of the Christian faith, that there is only one God. And though they worshipped a myriad of gods, Paul appeals to them on the evidence that some of their poets acknowledged a supreme being—the knowledge of which God has planted in the hearts of all people (e.g. Romans 1:19-20), being that man is made in the image of God and though he is corrupted, still has a conscience of moral right and wrong.
Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 8:4-5: “[W]e know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.” To the believers, he instructs in 1 Corinthians 10:19-20: “What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.” Paul was considerate to their ignorance in that he did not call their idols demonic. However, with these pagan philosophers he takes a different tack. He tells them we are created beings countering the Greek thought that men were gods.
Paul defines God in vs.24. Some make a big deal out of the Greek word theos being used. Paul uses the common word for God (theos); he did not use any of their gods’ names. The focus is on an unknown god whom they were treating as all the rest. Theos is a generic word; it is not a name but a title. When he used theos, they understood what he meant, that his God (theos) was not any of theirs.
The Epicureans held the view that the world was not made by God. In vs. 24, Paul states that God made the world and all things—that this God could not be confined within temples made with hands, as He is the Lord who governs both heaven and earth. Paul built a foundation first to prove this by reverting to things they could understand.
Therefore, the gods whom they worshipped in their temples was not the true God. Paul’s basis was the Old Testament, Isaiah 66:1-2:
Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD.
But to infer the absurdity of their idolatry, he helps them see their own foolishness by appealing to the writings of their own poets. In vs.25, he tells them God does not need anything from man; in fact, we need him, as He is the giver of life. God gives life; He is the fountain of all He gives breath to—both man and beast. Paul also teaches that divine worship is not enacted and established for GOD but for the use of His creatures: He needs nothing that man can give Him; for man only has what he received from the hand of his Maker. Therefore, what they have made for God cannot be a fair or accurate representation of Him.
Vs.26: “[H]e hath made of one blood [meaning Adam] all nations of men.” Paul’s emphasis is to show our common origin and the right way. This same thought appears in Acts 14:17 in the speech to the Greeks at Lystra. Paul is telling them that God is in control, not man. Certainly, these men being knowledgeable on all the beliefs of their day would have heard about the Hebrews belief of Genesis or the flood.
Vs.27: The Gentiles were not familiar with God and His ways and needed a revelation; until then they must grope after God. The true God is Spirit; therefore, He is not an idol and He is closer than they think. In one sense, He is further off because creature and Creator are separate, yet in another sense as Spirit, He is closer. Therefore, Paul is saying they do not know this God he is speaking of, yet He may be revealed to them if they seek him.
In Romans 10:20, Paul quotes Isaiah who said very boldly, “I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Paul is giving them a principle that God has made known in times past, for Jeremiah also writes, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). It is in this attitude that Paul appealed to the philosophers on Mars Hill.
Vs.28: “[F]or in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”
They fashioned a tomb for you, O holy and high one—The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But you are not dead; you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being. (poem Cretica written by Epimenides (ca. 600 BCE)
God is the very source of our existence: the principle of life comes from Him. Therefore, we should not think of God as ordinary man, He cannot die like men. We are dependent on Him for our life. We need to understand that in speaking to philosophers, Paul was trying to give them the meaning of their own poets. What he did not mean is that we are all part of God or God is part of us. What he quoted was directly opposing the views of the Epicureans. Here Paul is citing poets whom they respect and brilliantly turns it on the idolatry they now practice. Paul has made a case that as men we have a necessary dependence on this God we do not know or see. He inserts their own poet’s statements as an added incentive to consider that their worship is wrong. He juxtaposes what was being said in the past for what they practice in the present.
Aratus was also a Greek poet, a Cilician who lived about 275 years before Christ. Paul was well acquainted with his and other writings because of where he was brought up. Aratus wrote a poem called “Phaenomena,” also quoted by Paul. The sentiment is found in several others, being very common among the enlightened philosophers of the day. By saying your own poets, he does not mean poets born at Athens, but merely Grecian poets, Aratus and Cleanthus being chief and in whose “Hymn to Jupiter” the same words occur.
With Jove we must begin; nor from him rove; Him always praise, for all is full of Jove! He fills all places where mankind resort, The wide-spread sea, with every shelt’ring port. Jove’s presence fills all space, upholds this ball; All need his aid; his power sustains us all. For we his offspring are. (emphasis mine)
Cilician poet Aratus also wrote: “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring” (Phaenonlena 5; emphasis mine).
Paul used another pagan source to confirm the truth of the Bible, not the reverse; he was showing them how even their own poets had some knowledge (though corrupted) of the “unknown God.” If he was saying their poet spoke truth, then he would be endorsing Zeus, a false god, contrary to the very thing he was trying to prove.
If Paul meant that we literally are God’s offspring, He would be agreeing with the gods of Greek philosophy. He did not!
This is poetry he quoted—not doctrine or Scripture. Paul meant that all men are God’s offspring in the sense that they are His creation and dependent on Him for life. There is no biblical teaching of the universal fatherhood of God and a brotherhood of all men (John 1:12; and in the book of Ephesians, Paul teaches we must be adopted into God’s family).
Certainly, Paul’s main point is not to build a bridge to them. If Paul wanted to build a bridge, he certainly did not employ the new evangelistic ways we are seeing today. He told them what most would avoid. Paul was not making a bridge to their culture but to people who had various false beliefs on God and life. He used their poets to show a similarity in what he was conveying to be wrong, not what is right. Paul uses their own poets against their idolatry. He is not condoning their poets’ words as truth equal with the Bible’s revelation but dismantles their own views by using the poetry as a point of similarity to the Bible’s revelation.
Vs.29: Paul has taken one point of similarity and dismantled their mindset by concentrating on the unknown God—the real One that they do not know. So there is no bridging to what they believe but what they don’t believe or know. Because of what Paul has presented to counter their idolatry, he brings his argument to a conclusion that “we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” It is absurd to suppose that the original source of our existence (God) can be like gold and silver or stone and inanimate objects. We are living and intelligent beings; our nature is more excellent than the works of man’s hands, since we are like Him who formed us, so why would we even consider worshipping an object fashioned by men?
Vs.30: Paul’s invitation is for them to repent. This shows that he is not approving of anything they are doing. God is the creator of men, but to identify God with something man has made is ignorance (Romans 1:22-23). He indicts them; calling these wise philosophers ignorant is a strong accusation. In times past, God has overlooked this blindness but no longer. He commands men everywhere to repent, not just the Greeks but all people in every nation. At this point, Paul goes back to the Bible and preaches a righteous judgment coming by Christ who is the only man that was raised from the dead to eternal life.
Vs.32: “[S]ome mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.” Paul had to change the people’s belief system to bring them up to date with Christ. Their belief system was challenged first. The message of the Gospel goes out with only a few, not many, responding.
The Cross was “foolishness” to the Greeks; they had no background to this concept, especially that of the resurrection. Telling people the Good News of Jesus without telling them what is wrong with their religion or belief system rarely works. The apostles did not do this, and this was not what Paul did at Mars Hill despite that many use it as an example of making bridges. Methods of evangelism that do not deal with the issue of sin in a culture and God’s command to repent are ineffective. You can’t just preach the Gospel if the people don’t understand the language you are using. If they don’t understand the terminology, how can they understand the solution? The bad news from Genesis needs to be presented first before the Good News from the New Testament can be explained, just as Paul did in principle to these Greek philosophers. Paul started with Bible revelation and ended with the Bible’s revelation.
Humanism is the religion of our culture that explains everything without God. Our culture is permeated with philosophies. We live in a “Greek” culture today with evolution, pan-spermea, and various other concepts running rampant.
Instead of doing real evangelism, many model from Mars Hill with the opposite intent. Actually, we have a reverse of Mars Hill. Instead of Christians declaring the true God among the false, we have them accepting the false gods as true ones. They embrace the different religious beliefs as valid and a complement to Christianity. Within this unison stands a God who is still unknown to the lost. It is up to us to proclaim Jesus the Only Messiah to them.
Today’s “progressive Christianity” is not based on the Bible, and it is affecting the entire Christian body, not to mention the lost. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do” (Psalms 11:3)? We need to rebuild the foundations. It starts with Genesis, and the basics of sin and the history of man—so that the Cross can be understood by a culture that does not know God.
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1. From Matthew Henry’s Commentary
(photo from cover of Understanding Paul’s Appeal at Mars Hill booklet, from bigstockphoto.com; used with permission)