A different sort of missional theology from Paul’s address to the “men of Athens” in Acts 17

Generative AI summary:

Paul arrives in Athens and engages in debates with Jews, God-fearing gentiles, and philosophers about idolatry. He addresses the Athenians, noting their religious devotion, and introduces the “unknown god.” He preaches about the one true God who created everything, criticizing idol worship. Paul predicts judgment on idolatry and urges repentance. He believes Jesus, raised from the dead, will execute judgment. His message aligns with Romans, but more diplomatic. Some are convinced, but the future post-judgment isn’t specified. Paul traces idolatry’s origins to Greek culture’s deviation from recognizing the creator God. He envisions a restored humanity seeking God, guided by a priestly people amidst cultural shifts.

Read time: 8 minutes
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515 + Fotor

Paul is in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. His spirit is troubled by the profusion of idols in the city, and he gets into lively disputes about the phenomenon with Jews and God-fearing gentiles in the synagogue on the Sabbath and for the rest of the week with philosophers and other layabouts in the agora. This is the real Paul—not the letter writer so much—of whom we get no more than a glimpse in Acts and in the reconstruction of his quarrels with the Jews in Romans.

Presumably, his message to the Jews was the apocalyptic one about YHWH’s impending judgment on the pagan world, which we will get to shortly, but we don’t hear what their response was. He has piqued the curiosity of the philosophers, however, and they invite him to tell them more about these novel eastern divinities, Jesus and Resurrection, that he has been going on about.

The Areopagus speech (Acts 17:22-31), addressed to the “men of Athens” (and perhaps also to the foreigners who lived there), is definitive for Paul’s mission to the Greek world in the same way that Peter’s address, on the day of Pentecost, to the “men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem,” was definitive for the continuing mission to Israel.

The God who made the cosmos…

He begins by noting that the Athenians are very devout or religious, literally “fearful of the gods” (deisidaimonesterous), but he has seen an altar to an “unknown god” and he proposes to make this unknown god known to them.

There is one God who made the world and everything in it. He does not live in man-made temples, he does not need the service of priests—quite the opposite, he gives “life and breath and everything” to all people. He made the nations and has determined their “allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). In those times and spaces, the nations were in a position to seek and grope their way towards the living creator God, who is indeed “not far from each one of us.”

In that case, the whole Greek idolatry thing must be regarded as a massive error and distraction. If, as the poet says, “we are indeed his family” (Acts 17:28), it makes no sense to think that the divine is “like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29).

A visitation upon the idols of the nations

The God who determined (horisas) the times of the nations is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to the sort of religious “ignorance” represented by all the temples, statues, and shrines that Paul had been so disturbed by. He has it in mind to put an end to the civilisation that has, for a long time, dominated the geographical space that has Athens at its centre. Therefore, he has sent out emissaries to command people throughout this world, from Jerusalem to Spain, to repent and turn to God “from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

Paul was not alone in believing that this would happen:

Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the idols of the nations, because, though part of the divine creation, they have become an abomination, a stumbling–block for the lives of human beings and a trap for the feet of the foolish. For the invention of idols was the beginning of fornication, and the discovery of them the corruption of life. (Wis. 14:11-12)

Where Paul differed from the standard Jewish critique was in his conviction that the judicial process was already in hand, with a most unlikely person designated as the one who would execute judgment. God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness, by a man whom he appointed (hōrisen), having provided assurance to all, having raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:31*).

Jesus, note, for the purposes of this argument, is not an exotic eastern “divinity” (daimonion); he was a Jewish “man” (andri), whom the God worshipped by the Jews had raised from the dead.

The message of Luke’s Paul to the men of Athens is fully consistent with Paul’s own argument about wrath against the Greek in Romans, just a little more diplomatic. He doesn’t accuse them to their face of “dishonourable passions” and “a debased mind.” His expectation is that sooner or later—he doesn’t say when—the Greek system of religion, with its associated malpractices, will be swept away. Judgment is God putting things right, destroying what is ungodly and unrighteous, and remaking what was broken.

And then what?

Luke’s Paul has nothing to say about what will come after judgment—he might have mentioned every knee bowing and every tongue confessing, but he doesn’t. So what were his hearers to suppose? A few were convinced by his argument that the classical pagan order was running on borrowed time and joined him (Acts 17:34). Others may have inferred from the speech that the purpose of the judgment was to restore the oikoumenē to the condition it was in before the invention of idols by the Greeks.

It is important to recognise that here, as in Romans 1:19:25, the problem with the Greeks is traced back, not to the tragic miscalculation made by Adam and Eve, but to a moment when the Greeks, specifically, exchanged an intuitive sense of God as creator of all things, who might be honoured (edoxasan) and thanked, for the pointless and corrupting practice of idol worship. According to Sibylline Oracles 3, it all went horribly wrong fifteen hundred years earlier:

Greece, why do you rely on mortal leaders who are not able to flee the end of death? To what purpose do you give vain gifts to the dead and sacrifice to idols? Who put error in your heart that you should abandon the face of the great God and do these things? Revere the name of the one who has begotten all, and do not forget it. It is a thousand years and five hundred more since the overbearing kings of the Greeks reigned, who began the first evils for mortals, setting up many idols of dead gods. On account of them you have been taught vain thinking. But when the wrath of the great God comes upon you, then indeed you will recognise the face of the great God. (Sib. Or. 3:545-557)

The judgment envisaged in Acts 17:30-31, therefore, should be understood as a historical readjustment—at one level, at least as the restoration of pre-idolatrous, “natural” anthropology, allowing the nations to “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27), unhindered, undistracted by the false beliefs and material culture of Greek religion.

The biblical narrative as a whole, however, and indeed subsequent history, require us to introduce a priestly people into the repristinated oikoumenē—the first decent of the new Jerusalem to be present in the midst of the nations, I think.

The New Testament does not bring history to an end. It describes a massive upheaval in the story of God’s people—a rebuilding of the community from the ground up in order to function first as an eschatological sign of the oikoumenē to come, then as a priesthood for this new political-religious order. But history would keep driving forwards, change would keep happening.

A different sort of missional theology?

So I wonder if we can give some structure to this quite elaborate biblical arrangement.

1. There is an underlying and somewhat “innocent” anthropology—human societies with the innate capacity to seek God and feel their way towards him. Arguably, this takes precedence in biblical thought over the more traditional Adam-anthropology. Greek God-fearers would be an expression of the process at work.

2. Superimposed on this substrate are particular civilisations or cultures: Mesopotamian, Greek-Roman, European Christian, Islamic, communist Chinese, modern Western, and so on. European Christendom replaced classical paganism but introduced its own errors and distractions, and it would be easy enough to identify the principle ways in which modern western culture hampers the instinctive search for the God who made the heavens and the earth.

3. The people of God are a priestly-prophetic presence in the midst of the nations with the primary task of facilitating humanity’s divine intuition. This was first as Israel, then as the churches of Christian Europe and its colonies. In chaotic, transitional phases, the community is less priestly, more prophetic. During the exilic period and the period covered by the New Testament, the prophetic imagination uncovered both the need for radical internal reformation and the prospect of far-reaching civilisational transformation.

4. Now, in a long phase of post-Christendom decline and marginalisation, the church in the West should probably again be more a prophetic than a priestly community. Our civilisation has its own very powerful ways of misusing the materials of creation, and we ought to have some idea whether the living God means to do anything to rectify the situation and allow humanity again to “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”