One of the reasons that I find the New Testament accounts so eminently reliable from a subjective point of view is the impression one has of its central figures. Unlike the Zealots, who were interested in politicizing Jesus, or the Pharisees who would have welcomed a rigorous defender of rabbinical ethics, or the Sadducees who were looking for a more liberal moral sage, Jesus was not all that interested in "spirituality" as that word is used today.
The most untutored novice immediately notices in the Gospels a certain ruggedness, a transcendence to be sure, but a transcendence that is bridged by the incarnate Lord, the record of whose life was entrusted to earthly fishermen, tax-collectors, doctors and who-knows-what-else. The Gospel writers do not ask us to appreciate their piety or praise them for their sensitivity to "the spiritual dimension" of life, nor do they offer clever speculations on the nature of existence and the inner life of Jesus. Theirs is a record of a certain person's doing, dying, and rising. It is with Jesus Christ's observable acts, sayings, warnings and promises that these writers are concerned, not with moralistic aphorisms or religious sentiments that form the core of human existence and that, therefore, merely elucidate the spiritual side of life that unites all religions.
These biblical writers surely had in mind to report something extraordinary, something far beyond the insipid spirituality of religious gurus. Events of immense proportions were given a significance that went beyond religion, in fact: All of creation, in all of its depths and dimensions, was forever altered by the visitation of God incarnate and his redemptive work. Nothing would ever be the same, although much would seem the same until he returned at the end of history.
Nor did the biblical writers express themselves as if they had the slightest interest in conveying their personal reflections, experiences, or opinions. They did not view themselves as religious experts in the least, but they were experts on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, who was none other than the Christ of both faith and history. One does not even find them portraying themselves as pious. Occasionally, Peter gets a correct answer (Jn 6:44-65), but even the chief of the apostles misunderstands the purpose of Christ's earthly ministry, falters in faith, and denies Christ three times. If one looks to the Gospels primarily for models to imitate, the writers appear to have not even the slightest interest in offering themselves up as paragons of virtue. They slept while Jesus wept and fled when he was arrested, hopeless and despondent during Holy Week — in spite of the many lessons Jesus had given them in the necessity of his death and resurrection. The Resurrection itself was the furthest event from the apostles' minds when the news came to them and its implausibility was measured by the impudence of Thomas. Thank God for Thomas's weakness: it serves our own weakness.
In spite of this rather unlikely band of religious prophets, something happened — and that is responsible for the Christian faith. Christianity is not primarily concerned with something imitated, experienced, or inculcated within the spiritual life of the individual, but is chiefly the result of something that happened. If the slightest historical events leave vast effects in their wake, this seismic historical event which we call the Resurrection was the most revolutionary "happening" in human history.
The rise of pluralism in our century is as much the result of the devotion of Christianity as the effect of our awareness of other religions in the "global village." By shifting its foundation from the rock of history to the sand of sentimentality, liberal religion opened the way to understanding religion as a purely subjective affair. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, reared in evangelical pietism, sought to protect Christianity (which he saw primarily as morality) from the attacks of reason by sealing it off in a vault that was inaccessible to the inquiring mind. The "noumenal" referred to this category of religious and spiritual beliefs, while he called the "facts" of science and history "phenomenal." Kant thought he had safely planted the church on a point above the rising tide of secularism, but in actual fact he had merely taken away access to the one event that could drain the floodwaters.
If the Word had never become flesh "in the time of Herod king of Judea," and had never been crucified for us "under Pontius Pilate," Kant would have, of course, been right on target. The problem is, neither Kant nor we were eyewitnesses. How do we bridge this historical gap? Were Kant and his successors correct?
Had we lived during the days of the Pillar and Cloud, with the Holy Spirit leading to victory on the battlefield in his chariot, surely the wall between heaven and earth, the sacred and the secular, God and man, would have been less evident. There is a sense throughout those great archetypical events of redemptive history that God is active in this world and that history is truly his story. Nevertheless, in between these redemptive-historical events there are vast periods in which it appears that God is silent and aloof.
We live right now during one of those periods, and have been ever since our Lord's ascension. While his kingdom advances through the Word and Spirit, the consummation of all things awaits his triumphant return in glory.
But with the best of motives, Kant and others of the Enlightenment (many reared in evangelical pietism), sought to separate religion and reason in order to save each from destroying the other. Ever since, religion has been engaged in a rearguard action, trying to prove to its more clever sibling that it is not so irrational. At last, weary of the nagging rivalry, the Cain of reason slew the Abel of faith. At the hands of German liberalism, more than Jesus' cloak was divided, as the Jesus of History was seen as something other than the Christ of Faith, the latter was simply the product of the early church's attributions of deity to a basically nice Jewish boy who brought out the best in all of us. "Don't you see, we're not bound to all of that supernatural nonsense about loaves and fishes and resurrections. We're enlightened now, having separated faith and reason, belief and history. Having lightened our load, we are free to be both scientific and pious." But this was only because Christian theologians blinked too soon, when Hobbes argued quite irrationally that miracles simply cannot happen. Without the slightest proof, this became a presupposition of the Western world and religion retreated into the private world of personal feelings, experience, and morality.
Today's "Christian" theologians, therefore, can take the most straightforward statements concerning Christ's uniqueness and relativize them before one's very eyes. Take, for instance, Krister Stendahl's exegesis of Acts 4:12 ("Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men which we must be saved"): "Thus there is no way of knowing whether Luke, who wrote this, would consider this saying relevant to a discussion on Buddhism — if he knew anything about Buddhism, which is most doubtful." Furthermore, Paul informed the Roman Gentiles (Rom 11:!3) "that they have no business trying to convert the Jews."
What these writers fail to recognize, it seems, is that Christianity rests upon the historicity of certain events. Stendahl simply cannot appeal to the biblical text for the nice bits with which he agrees (the Sermon on the Mount, etc. ) and reject the classic statements of our Lord himself concerning his exclusive claims. If Christianity is Christ, then the uniqueness of Christ equals the uniqueness of Christianity.
If the same one who said rather boldly, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but by me'" actually rose from the dead, then everything he said and everything to which he lent his authority is true. Christianity can be true, or it can be false, but it cannot be something other than Christianity. Jesus did not claim to bring a new moral code (he backed up Moses); he did not claim to bring a new era of peace and harmony (he said he came to bring division). He said to himself, "I am the Resurrection and the Life," promising eternal life to everyone who trusted in him and eternal condemnation to those who do not. "I told you before that if you do not believe that I am who I said I am, you will perish in your sins" (Jn 8:24). Jesus may have been a fraud or a self-deluded man but of one thing we can be certain: He did not view himself as anything less than God incarnate, the only name by which anyone can be saved.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, not only is our faith futile (1 Cor. 15), but Jesus is not the sort of man whom one should like one's children to imitate, for his claims were audacious and preposterous if they were not actually fulfilled in time-and-space history. After all, it was precisely that fulfillment that Jesus claimed for himself. And it is what his apostles claimed for him after they were convinced of his Resurrection. The chief issue of our day, as in any other period, is whether that event upon which those otherwise unspiritual eyewitnesses staked their very lives actually occurred. If it did, it is a public event, not a private experience. If it did not, the so-called "events" reported actually possess no more relevance for believers than Aesop's Fables for the moral development of children.
This brings us to our text: Acts 17. First, we notice that St. Paul was preaching in the synagogue, "as was his custom, "where "he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead." Paul, for one, did not have much use for a Kantian wall between faith and reason, since "reasoning," "explaining," and "proving" the Resurrection was within the boundaries of legitimate inquiry. Furthermore, a "Jesus of history" who was someone other than the elevated "Christ of faith" was far from the apostle's mind: "'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said." A few Greeks "and not a few prominent women" accepted the Gospel, but Paul moved on to Berea, ending up finally in the citadel of Greco-Roman culture: Athens.
Paul's first response in Athens was disappointment with the idols. Pluralism is hardly a new phenomenon. It is rather intriguing to listen to lectures in which very learned men and women will describe pluralism as if it were the result of a sophisticated achievement of progress on the road to enlightenment. History is evolving out of superstition, we have believed ever since the Enlightenment, and yet religious pluralism has actually been the most persistent form of religiosity throughout human history, but especially in its most silly and superstitious moments. It is the essence of paganism in the ancient world. Who among those of us raised in Sunday school can forget the many stories of Hebrew kings who were judged according to their banishment of idolatry (religious pluralism). Indeed, the Shema, and with it, the First Commandment, required Israel to worship only one God, Yahweh, Israel's Savior and Lord. There are to be no other gods, no idols or physical representations of Yahweh; nor is the LORD's name to be in any way misused or confused with the idols. And there was a very good reason for this: Even if one were to make a physical representation of God, it would represent the wrong god — the projections of one's own wishes and yearnings (in other words, the projections of one's "felt needs"). Only in Christ is God made visible, since "he is the image of the invisible God…For by him all things were created…For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him" (Col 1:15-18).
The modern apostle of religion would be more likely to have been encouraged rather than discouraged by the religiosity of Athens. But Paul was deeply disappointed by the "spirituality" of this pluralistic center of high culture. At this point, Paul was faced with two options: either to turn his back on Athens and hope for a more congenial opening for the Gospel sometime in the future, or to confront Athens at precisely the points where the Gospel contradicted the "felt needs" of these "cultured despisers" of monotheism. As G. K. Chesterton observed, "When men stop believing in God, it is not that they stop believing in anything, but that they believe in everything and anything." It seems that we share with the first century a historical context in which the incredulous is plausible and the credible is regarded with contempt.
As the Gospel was first sent to the Jews, Paul went directly to the synagogue and we read that here again he was "reasoning" with the Jews as well as Greeks in the marketplace. Paul did not have the luxury of finding a group of Christians with similar life-experiences, a familiar vocabulary of religious clichés, and interests in "the spiritual side of life." There was no Christian ghetto, and if there had been, Paul would not have been terribly interested in inhabiting that strange world. His theater was the marketplace, the center of public discourse, and this took him eventually to the center of Athenian debate, the Areopagus.
The early Christians, you must remember, were not thrown to lions because they wanted to worship Jesus Christ. With Dwight Eisenhower, the Roman authorities may well have said, "Every nation needs religion, and I don't care which one it is." Pluralism is valuable as social glue, because it helps keep the tribes involved in "the spiritual side of life" in service to the nation. No, the reason that Christians were thrown to lions was on the charge that they were subversive. They undermined the divine status of the nation and threatened its powerful myths by claiming that Jesus Christ was the Lord — the Way, the Truth, the Life. This upset the religious pluralists and, since the Christians were in the minority, the diverse religions and philosophical schools could at least unite in condemnation of such a narrow-minded, bigoted sect.
"A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him," we read. First, a greater antithesis one could not have found in Athens than between the Epicureans and the Stoics. Epicureans believed that the chief end of man was happiness and by Paul's day this meant instant gratification, while the Stoics insisted on denying their own happiness by living disciplined, independent, self-sufficient lives. But they could unite against a common concern. "Some of them asked, 'What is this babbler trying to say?' Others remarked, 'He seems to be advocating foreign gods.'" This latter remark must not be lightly dismissed as a purely negative comment on Paul's teaching. After all, "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas." Advocating foreign gods might actually have been in Paul's favor. Nevertheless, "the latest ideas" did have to fall within a certain rule of prescribed orthodoxy. One could advance ideas of reincarnation, resurrection, materialism, or whatever-but Paul's message sounded very strange to Athenian ears. And it sounded strange for precisely the same reasons that moderns are puzzled by it today.
First, Greek philosophy was obsessed with metaphysical speculation. That is, it was primarily concerned with "the spiritual," which it perceived as superior to the material, physical aspects of human existence. Paul was not advocating a philosophical system of spiritual powers and principles, but was talking about a Jewish rabbi in Palestine who was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. While Greek philosophers were busy with questions over the nature of existence, the relations of spirit to reality, and the principles for ethical conduct (matters that also preoccupied Enlightenment — especially German — philosophers and theologians to the present day), Paul was obsessed with this man and his physical, earthly, history. For the Greeks , to bind "spirit" to "matter" was equivalent to linking "good" to "evil," respectively, so the notion of God becoming flesh was particularly offensive. But it was new; it did have that going for it. So Paul was escorted to the "talk show" of the ancient world. "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean."
We are in precisely the same situation today in the postmodern world. While modernity, under the influence of the Enlightenment, replaced Christian orthodoxy with secular orthodoxies, postmodernism is in reaction to the blind faith in progress, rationality, and the rejection of the supernatural. Like Athens, our centers of high culture are open to the supernatural; they do not rule out the miraculous simply because "things like that don't happen in a cause-and-effect universe." Our contemporaries no longer view the universe as a machine, with its absolute, unchanging physical laws. And, like the Athenians, they are open to nearly everything and will even mix-and-match, selecting bits and bobs from whatever they find attractive, no matter how eclectic and apparently contradictory. There is another great opportunity for proclaiming Christ in this context, especially as we will find that our audience will once again find the message of Christ's doing and dying "strange ideas to [their] ears." They will "want to know what they mean."
Paul's message, therefore, was directed first to the pluralistic assumptions of his audience.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
I find this opening at once apologetically positive and negative. First, he uses a two-toned term in Greek for "religious" that also means "superstitious." It is a rather striking irony when the sophisticated cultural elite are accused of being "superstitious," but that is how Christianity views too much religion. A modern equivalent might be for an evangelist to address a gathering at Harvard: "I was reading the posters on the kiosks: 'Tap the god within,' a seminar on Yoga, feminist spirituality, etc. You are quite superstitious, aren't you?" It is a bad thing to be too religious. "The spiritual" is as idolatrous as the worship of money, cars, success, or fame. If it is not the story of how a particular God (Yahweh) became flesh, died for sins and rose again to liberate captives, Paul is not impressed. Various religions may produce ornate architecture, impressive ceremonies that celebrate "the spiritual" and enshrine universally-accepted virtues, but these do not justify their claims to truth. The religious pluralism of our age, and Paul's, leads our neighbors to conclude that religion is in the same category as socks — a matter of private preference. Leslie Newbigin writes,
No one, in our culture, suggests that each of us should have a physics of his own or a biology of her own. We know, of course, that there are arguments among physicists and biologists, just as there have always been arguments among biblical scholars and church theologians…But there is no significant proportion of our society which simply dismisses the findings of the physicists as merely private, subjective preferences.
But Paul's opening is also positive in its apologetic. He does not simply write the Athenians off, attacking their traditions and pluralistic convictions. With his other hand, he begins to build a bridge to his audience. He was able to move from pluralism (the many idols) to monotheism (the altar to an Unknown God). This will be his way into the discussion, but he was only able to employ it because he had done his homework first. Paul had visited the landmarks, the museums, the cultural centers. Furthermore, he demonstrated a command of their Greek poetry and philosophy, by quoting (from memory) Epimenides, Aratus, and Cleanthes. He did not demand that his audience simply adopt his position; he argued it persuasively, as he interacted with their own sources.
If I may offer a parenthetical application here, this is a point of real weakness in contemporary apologetics. When faced with deep-seated pluralism, Paul was anxious to build bridges of communication, but when we are faced with it in our day, we are inclined to either capitulate or merely attack. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it," was not Paul's approach, and it should not be ours. One cannot challenge the idols unless one appreciates their strength, the spell which they cast across their worshippers. Why is Epicurean sensuality and relativism so attractive? Why does Stoic resolve find so many adherents? Only after serious reflection on these questions does Paul then confront his audience. We cannot simply prepackage evangelistic pitches and expect people to give the slightest attention to our propaganda. We must do the difficult work of listening, reading, and observing first.
Paul was not caving in to his audience in the effort to gain a hearing, for "the Unknown God" was Yahweh! That which was in the "miscellaneous" category of Greek pluralism Paul now brings into the open as not only the "whatever" god (who will do nicely for school prayer), but the one true God of history. "Now what you worship as unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
The Apostle then begins the body of his address, beginning with the doctrine of God. Here is where the first clash occurs. All of the Graeco-Roman deities were glorified human beings — generals, caesars, Olympian athletes, beauty queens, or other successful people. But Paul describes this "unknown God" as the sole cause of both the material and spiritual creation. He is not merely "man writ large," but a completely different Being. "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." Again, Greek philosophy was fairly united in its opposition to matter. The purpose of religion and philosophy is to strive to transcend material, physical existence. But here we learn, first of all, that God created matter. He is the source not only of spirit, but of everything in creation. Furthermore, he is not a pet or a mascot. He does not sit on the sidelines, as a sort of fettish for the nation or a particular philosophical school. He is the source of life; therefore, as Paul writes in Romans, "Who has ever given him anything that he must repay him?"
At the heart of idolatry and superstition is the belief that somehow we obligate God into doing something for us or giving something to us. If we are good, if we "do the right thing," if we say the right prayer or follow the right steps or principles, we will get what we want. But Paul challenges this pagan concept of God. He is not a cosmic bell-hop, but the Sovereign God of heaven and earth.
"From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." Again, God's sovereignty is asserted over Epicurean relativism and Stoic fatalism. Theology does matter in apologetics after all!
But Paul does not simply give the Athenians a history lesson. He explains the meaning of these events: "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'" Contrary to the charge often made by liberal critics, Paul had a high doctrine of creation. He did not believe that grace obliterated nature. Although the Fall rendered humanity impotent and helpless to seek after God (Rom 3:12; 1 Cor 1:12-14, etc.), Paul also believes that all humans bear the divine image and this spiritual relation to God is precisely what causes us to create idols. If we do not worship the true God, we will worship false ones. We must worship; it is our very nature as homo religionis.
If we are created in God's image, Paul says, we should not worship him "as if he were gold or silver or stone — an image made by man's design and skill." After all, this is creating God in our image rather than recognizing that we are created in his.
But then Paul comes to the "Law" part of the address, where he sets before them the imminent judgment of God: "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." Charging his auditors with ignorance was, no doubt, a risky proposition, but it followed a well-reasoned argument. In spite of their great learning, they were really quite ignorant and superstitious. God will not put up with such nonsense as pluralistic relativism in matters so great, having set a day of judgment. The proof of this is Christ's resurrection from the dead.
But the Resurrection stands not only as Law — that is, a threat of divine judgment, but as Gospel — that is, a promise of reconciliation for all who will accept Christ's righteousness as sufficient for justification before a holy God. From apologetics, Paul moves directly to evangelism; from arguing the case for Christianity (monotheism, the Incarnation, the Resurrection), to a passionate proclamation of the Law and the Gospel, judgment and justification, threat and promise.
"When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others."
In our day, the Christianity that Paul proclaimed and for which early Christians were martyred goes by the shibboleth "orthodoxy." Like ancient Epicureans and Stoics, many modern Christians are quite at home in an Athenian world of pluralistic relativism and will happily join their pagan counterparts in seizing upon the orthodox. "What is this babbler trying to say?" And yet, pluralism has not achieved the golden age for which it hoped. While himself not an orthodox evangelical, theologian Shirley Guthrie explains,
What most threatens the order and cohesion of many modern societies, including our own, is no longer the conflict between various versions of orthodoxy. It is the tendency to believe that there is no truth but only personal preferences and private opinions, each of which is just as good as any other so long as it is sincerely believed…The rootlessness, chaos, and narcissism that come when 'tolerant' people believe that there is no truth applicable to all are just as personally and socially destructive as the authoritarianism and intolerance of the old competing orthodoxies, with their claim to have the truth that should be imposed on all.
Yale's George Lindbeck opines that in the age in which orthodoxy was taken seriously, there was actually a foundation for public discourse that provided unity where divisions of class, race, and nation threatened to pull us apart. But today, that belief that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life is itself considered divisive — not only in society, but in the church. "Orthodoxy" has become a term of derision, as mainline Protestants are more likely than any other group in society to say that there is no such thing as absolute truth. But the vast majority of evangelical Protestants — 67% also agreed that there was no such thing as absolute truth.
It is only the Resurrection that finally gives us our way into the truth about everything. If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then everything else he promised will come to pass. That is Paul's argument for the coming judgment. If Christ rose from the dead, then everything else he said is true. "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Jesus himself is "the unknown God," "the exact image of the invisible God," the Son of God and Son of Man, and his altar was Calvary. John writes, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (Jn 1:18). In Christ, God, who is Spirit, is made flesh and matter. In this "Word," reason and faith are brought together, as that upon which our faith rests is nothing less than real, historical events as certain as the Civil War. And because it is real history, and not just a private experience, it is true not only for you or for me, but for everyone.
Newbigin again hits the mark here:
The truths which Buddhism teaches would (as Buddhists understand them) be true whether or not Gautama had discovered or promulgated them. But the whole Christian teaching would fall to the ground if it were the case that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were not events in real history but stories told to illustrate truths which are valid apart from these happenings.
Bishop Newbigin then adds, "Is factuality a trivial matter compared to faith-as the Pietist rhyme suggests? 'Though Christ ten thousand times in Bethlehem were born, if he's not born in thee, thy soul's forlorn.'" If the Resurrection is true, it is not only true for everyone; it is true for every aspect of our own lives. The Christian — that is, one who is convinced that Jesus Christ "was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification," can no longer separate his religion from his everyday existence in the world. Since the Resurrection was a public event, along with the other events of Jesus' life, it becomes the new lens through which we view the universe, not just religion.
Until we recover the unity of spirit and matter, faith and reason, belief and history, in the unity of Christ as God and Man, who became flesh for us and for our salvation, Kant's dualism will continue to inculcate this illusion that the truth about the Resurrection — and therefore, the truth about all truth, lies somewhere hidden behind the vale of human inquiry. We will prattle on about "what Jesus means to me," "what a difference he made in my life," and so on, placing the one true God next to all of the other idols of our pluralistic age. We will go on singing, "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." Such an idea, although satisfactory to a Greek and charming to a Romantic individualist, could not have been more foreign to the apostles.