Preaching the First Principles in a Post-Christian World – Part 3
We can find common ground with the modern-day Epicureans and Stoics we meet and lead people to the one true God of the Bible.
In Acts 17:19, Luke records that the Athenians “took [Paul] and brought him to the Areopagus” also known as Mars Hill. It is likely he was arrested as a Socrates redivivus, with the same language of him being brought as when the people “seized [Jesus] and led him away” (Luke 22:54) and “brought him before Pilate.” (Luke 23:1).
Paul’s subsequent speech, therefore, was a defense of the charge against him of introducing “foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18) to Athens. Paul also mentioned the resurrection, and the Areopagus council had a saying that “When a man dies, the earth drinks up his blood. There is no resurrection.” (Aeschylus, Eum. 647-48, quoted from Winter, “Introducing the Athenians to God,” p. 47.)
As a katangeleus (“preacher,” v. 18) teaching about new gods in the same vein as Socrates, the Areopagus tribunal would have Paul defend himself based on three burdens of proof:1
- Sponsor must claim to represent a deity (Paul does so in v. 22-23).
- He must prove that this deity is eager to reside in Athens (Paul does so in v. 24-29).
- The deity’s residence in Athens must benefit Athenians as a mark of its goodwill (Paul does so in v. 30-31).
However, despite their history with Socrates, the Athenians were not averse to something new, as verse 21 attests—“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Our world today is beset by the Cult of the New
The Athenian historian Thucydides confirms this when he writes about them that they are “despisers of what is familiar [while] worshippers of every new extravagance.“ (Hist. 3.38.5).
We live in a world today beset by the Cult of the New. New ideas, new gadgets, new experiences—they are what people strive for. We can present the true gospel as something new, or at least fresh as well. In our post-Christian world, many people have never even heard of the various people and events of the Bible. Ask someone on the street who committed the first murder, Cain or Abel, and there is a fifty percent chance you will receive a muffled “Abel” response.
The Truth is new to many people who have never heard it. Our challenge is to present it in a fresh way that is palatable to Biblically illiterate people who are antagonistic toward organized religion.
This idea of “new” also lends itself to an interesting Bible echo. Remember that Paul, newly arrived in Athens, was provoked by the forest of idols. We saw how that matches God’s response to idolatry in Deuteronomy 32. In that same passage, we read this:
The Truth is new to many people
These “new gods” are described as “demons” in verse 17. Likewise, the word for “divinities” in Acts 17:18 is daimonion in Greek—the word for demons. Apart from theos, the word commonly used for the main gods of the Greek pantheon, they would use Daimonion as a title for the smaller gods. The Athenians thought he was talking about new demons by talking about Jesus and Anastasis.
Also, note that the beginning of verse 17 is quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 10:20 in a passage where Paul equates demons with idols.
The word translated “religious” is deisidaimonesteros, which literally means “fear of demons.” It is translated here “religious” because that’s exactly what the fear of demons was for the devout people of Athens. It was being religious by worshiping the many small gods of the Greek pantheon. However, it is an ambiguous term and can also be translated “superstitious,” which is what it probably sounded like to the Epicureans and Stoics. They would have nodded their heads in agreement with Paul. The people of Athens were superstitious.
The philosopher Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle, wrote a book called Characters, which consisted of a series of stereotypical character sketches describing the people of Athens. Each chapter focused on a different caricature—the Flatterer, the Buffoon, the Arrogant Man, and so on. One of the chapters is titled Deisidaimoni (the word Paul used)—the Superstitious Man.
In the chapter, Theophrastus outlines the typical superstitious person who, for instance, “will go to the interpreters of dreams, the seers, the augurs, to ask them to what god or goddess he ought to pray. Every month, he will repair to the priests of the Orphic Mysteries, to partake in their rites.”
Both the Epicureans and Stoics agreed with this negative assessment of superstitious people. Lucretius, for instance, an Epicurean poet and philosopher, wrote this:
It is no piety to be seen with cowered head bowing again and again to stone and visiting every altar, nor to grovel on the ground and raise your hands before the shrines of the gods, nor to drench altars in the blood of animals, not to utter string of prayers. (On the Nature of the Universe 5.1194-1203).
The Epicureans’ primary philosophical motivation was bringing tranquility by alleviating humanity’s superstitious fear of the gods. But the Stoics also hated superstition. Zeno, their founder and the Stoic philosopher Seneca said temples and altars should not be built for the gods. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote this:
You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung?… You are bearing God within you, you poor wretch, and know it not! Do you suppose I am speaking of some external God, made of silver and gold? It is within yourself that you bear him. (Diatr 2.8).
Paul agreed with much of what Epictetus wrote despite not agreeing with his pantheism. He will go on to say God can’t be represented by silver and gold (v. 29) and that, in a sense, we do bear God within us as his offspring (v. 29), being made in his image and likeness.
Despite the quotes above that represent the philosophical ideals of the Epicureans and Stoics, both groups, even in criticizing superstition, joined in the practice of cultic worship. For instance, Diogenes Laertius, quoting Epicurus, wrote:
[The wise man] will take more delight than other men in state festivals. The wise man will set up votive images. (Lives 10.120).
Cotta on the Epicureans wrote:
I have known Epicureans who reverence every little image of a god…so as not to offend the Athenians. (Cicero, Nat. d. 1.85).
In his speech, it becomes evident Paul wants to establish common ground with the Epicureans and Stoics. Still, his aim is also to show that Christianity is a more consistent and superior expression of the philosophical knowledge of the divine.
Paul took his opportunity to turn his arraignment into a polemic against Athenian idolatry by remarking that,
There’s a legend regarding the existence of several altars to the Unknown God in Athens, based on a story about the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who Paul quoted in Titus 1:12—“One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’”
Athens was struggling with a plague, so they hired Epimenides to come to the city to stop it. Epimenides’ solution was a masterclass in superstition. He instructed the Athenians to let a flock of sheep loose in the city. If one lay down, they would mark the spot with an altar to the Unknown God. They did so, and, as the legend says, the plan worked, and the plague was stayed.
The altars also became a catch-all for the Athenians. Afraid of offending any gods they were unaware of, they would use the altars to venerate unknown gods. Paul took his opportunity to make known what they had previously been ignorant of—the God of the Bible.
There’s an echo here with Isaiah 45, where the prophet says, “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.” (v. 20). The prophet then challenges the idolaters to “Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together!” (v. 21) which, ironically, Paul is doing to defend the one true God as he stands before the tribunal. The verse goes on to say, “There is no other god besides me,” which is what Paul is going to preach, and then in the next verse, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (v. 22) which is, again, precisely the spirit of Paul’s appeal.
So, Paul will explain who this God of the Bible is. In Acts 17:24, he says he is “The God”—ho theos—using the definite article to explain that this is the only true God.
Our world, in many ways, is no different from Athens. Superstition is everywhere. It is seen frequently in sports, for instance, but also generally in daily life. Research done in universities, supposedly the seats of the most rational-minded people in the world, tells the story that superstition is natural to everyone. It is also evident in organized religion.
Ritualism, and the need to appease God by attending services, saying prayers, and making offerings, are rife in most churches of the world. And it’s that kind of thing more and more people object to. While ignoring the fact that they, too, are naturally superstitious (just like the Epicureans and Stoics), they object to the formal religiosity of what they perceive as out-of-date Christianity. God doesn’t exist at all (Epicureanism), or he is to be found in nature and inside all of us (Stoicism), not in the four walls of a stuffy church building.
As Christadelphians, we can find common ground with these kinds of people. Ritualism and its outworking in superstitious behavior was a thing of the Jewish people of the first century. Still, Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, preached against it and established the New Covenant in Christ based on loftier principles than rituals and offerings.
While our ecclesias are set up in a very organized fashion, we need to distance ourselves from the formal ritualism that defines most religions. We are right to speak out against icons and images, apses and altars, and the many areas of religiosity that can override the need for the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.
We can find common ground with the modern-day Epicureans and Stoics we meet. We can even, as Paul did, use the writings and philosophies of the world to illustrate that there are people on the right track, that we can agree with them, but that as trustees of the true gospel, we can fill in the gaps and lead people to the one true God of the Bible.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
- See R. Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion (London: Duckworth, 1992) 18-19.