Chapter 7 is apologetically strong showing the importance of natural theology in laying the ground for the gospel message. And the authors are careful to show the limitations of natural theology. For example, God’s existence and character as revealed in creation and discovered by way of reason is certainly used by Paul, he did not It’s interesting that Paul presents the gospel arguing from general revelation to special revelation, even in a culture that had already came to accept some kind of deity or creator. How much more must we who live in a theologically apathetic culture make use of the same?truncate the gospel, as illustrated by mention of a resurrected Savior. Granted “Paul’s speech is primarily theological. He focuses on the identity and nature of the one true God, rather than focusing specifically upon Jesus.” The authors rightly insist we must not miss the larger narrative already cast by Luke. “Paul has already proclaimed the gospel in Athens. This is implied in Acts 17:17 because Acts has already narrated at length what Paul preached in synagogues in Acts 13” (p 94).
Other sections in this chapter I found apologetically helpful include “removing the weeds before planting flowers” by seeking “to dismiss caricatures of the God of the Bible (e.g., “he hates women, he only wants our money,” (p 97) or dispelling false notions of a “God is love” only theology. Copan and Litwak contend that a world in which this kind of God exists is not the biblical view, not the world people desire, nor a world that makes sense (pp 104-105).
Chapter 8 takes on the task of describing “the logic of Paul’s speech in light of his theology and the worldviews of his audience” (p 115) with a view to examining “the theological truths that Paul proclaims to the Athenians” (p 116). I found this chapter to be extremely valuable for engaging our culture with the timeless truths of the gospel message.
Illustrating that Paul used the techniques of classical rhetoric, such as making the audience sympathetic to the speaker’s point of view by complimenting his audience, or by quoting common authorities, Paul quickly demonstrated he was not a “foolish babbler” (Acts 17:18). Moreover, as previously mentioned, Paul’s credibility before Luke’s audience would have been high, whereas the Athenians’ view of Paul would not fare so well (see pp 116-118).
The section, subtitled “Using but not Quoting Scripture,” was especially insightful. The authors make the bold claim that “Paul is not quoting or clearly alluding to Scripture, but every verse in Acts 17:24-31 is built upon Scripture” (p 119). The wisdom in this approach demonstrates Paul knowing his audience well, since “quoting Scripture to the Areopagus would have been as useful as it is now to quote John 3:16 without taking time to help a listener understand what you mean by God, believing in Jesus, eternal life, perishing and more” (p 122). While Homer or Virgil would have been accepted with some authority, Moses or Isaiah would not (p 124). At the same time, Paul repeatedly points to the Athenians’ ignorance in knowing the one true
God and the consequent judgement by God (p 125-126). Paul’s speech is saturated with biblical concepts and Copan and Litwak do an excellent job showing how Acts 17 is filled with Old Testament theology.
What is more, the authors go to great lengths to disclose Paul’s modus operandi included using his education and background experience when presenting the gospel. Whether quoting philosophers or poets, Paul constructed the necessary cultural bridges to close the gap between his audience and validate the good news of Jesus.
Paul did not avoid secular culture, ignoring classical texts or philosophy or rhetoric. Nor did Paul confine his learning to Jewish/biblical topics such that he could lecture on the theology of the book of Psalms but was ignorant of Plato. Paul had studied Greco-Roman literature to some extent, which enabled him to use it when it would help him make a case for the gospel. (p 131)
Chapter 9 stresses that Paul used “core biblical ideas in culturally relevant ways” yet “challenged his audience and offered them the solution to their ignorance and their futile pursuit of God through false religion” (p 145). Not only is ignorance no excuse, it is also offensive to those who take pride in knowledge about religion (p 138). And, ignorance does not exempt anyone from judgment and the need to repent, as Paul clearly says (Acts 17:30-31). These claims are staggering both to the Athenians and to most in our world today. The Athenian worldview had no place for the end of human history, any purpose in human history, nor for judgment by someone raised from the dead. Yet Paul made no mistake that this was his message to the Athenians (and to us). Just as today, responses to gospel presentation remain the same: mockery, further inquiry, or belief (p 143).
The authors are clear that Jesus’ resurrection is part of gospel presentation, and I heartily agree. If indeed Jesus is raised, then God has amply provided the historical and empirical bases for Christianity. If indeed Jesus is raised, then all bets are off and judgment is pending for everyone, everywhere under any circumstance. This be true, then repentance is the only proper response.
Chapter 10 is a call to arms. Its focus is to show the relevance of Paul’s presentation to our “Mars Hill.” Principles gleaned include the following:
- Distinguish between the person in God’s image and the beliefs they hold (pp 146-147)
- Building on what others already know (pp 147-149)
- Identifying “signals of transcendence,” to connect people to the gospel, for example, “the human quest for security and significance, the fear of death and the longing for immortality, the longing for justice, and the sense of awe and wonder” (pp 149-150)
- Determining “appropriate entry points for the gospel by better understanding our audience” (pp 150-155)
- Building bridges without compromising the gospel message (pp 155-159)
Idolatries of our day are constructed out of political, economic, philosohical/religious, technological, and relational materials. The way to address these idols is not to scold others but to dig deeper and expose the underlying human needs that others have and demonstrate how the gospel meets those needs (pp 157-159).
As with the earliest Christians, we in our own Athens today should emphasize how redemptive stories in movies, wisdom in philosophy, virtues in the world’s religious and mythical stories promising life happily ever after all find their real fulfillment and realization in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3 NASB). (p 161)
This is an excellent read and is an outstanding resource “to help connect modern-day Athenians to the good news of the gospel and to uphold its integrity and credibility in the marketplace of ideas” (p 162). In the now famous words from Augustine’s Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 12) “tolle lege, tolle lege!”