b) Paul's use of apologetics
Two significant examples of Paul using apologetics are in the book of Acts. The first of these is in Acts 17:16-34, where we see Paul giving an account for himself to the Athenian philosophers. He did not start out on neutral ground as a basis for preaching biblical truths to the Greeks there, but right from the beginning he totally and exclusively preached the message of the Bible, however using concepts that were in part illustrated from their Greek literature. So on the one hand he did not answer these fools according to their folly, because he only preached the Bible. But on the other hand he did answer these fools according to their folly, by quoting famous poets at the basis of their own culture and literature.
Paul was so distressed to see the idolatry of the Athenians that he took the time to reason with whoever was willing to listen (v. 16). Then we are told that some “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him” (v. 18). The kind of philosophers is significant here, as Luke didn’t mention this for no reason.
Epicureans followed “materialistic atomism”, which is the doctrine that all reality consists of indestructible material elements called atoms which move through empty space, the void. They also believed that humans are nothing more than giant collections of atoms, which can only interact with other objects through collisions between material atoms. Knowledge, for Epicureans, is simply sensation. Sensation in turn is nothing more than collisions between atoms and human sense organs. Ethically Epicureans believed pleasure to be the highest value and that which man should strive for.
Stoics believed that the universe was fundamentally rational. Also they believed in a fate underlying all of nature which was developed logically. For the Stoics there was only matter, and they saw the study of logic/mathematics as essential. For them the highest virtue was to live in agreement with nature.
Note that the encounter was not friendly towards Paul. The philosophers thought of him as “σπερμολόγος” - a “seed picker”, one who picks up scraps of knowledge, a gossiper, a babbler (v. 18). They took hold of Paul (v. 19). Paul’s exchange was polite but far from complimentary of their philosophical beliefs. He boldly told the Athenian logicians and philosophers that they were ignorant of the very thing they worshiped, based on his observation that they had an altar to an unknown God (v. 23). Remember, those who were talking to Paul fancied themselves as great philosophers and expert logicians; if they would have been as wise as they thought, they would have known that, by declaring any of their gods as being “unknown”, they were admitting that they didn’t know what they were talking about, when they talked about gods and his worship.
Paul continued by talking about the biblical truth of God’s creation (v. 24a), which went against what both the Epicureans and Stoics taught, neither of them believing in creation. Epicureans believed that gods and men were made out of the same thing and therefore neither could create the other, and Stoics believed that gods have nothing to do with the world, because they do not exist and the only God that exists is the world itself.
Paul’s next biblical statement that God doesn’t live in temples built by human hands (v. 24b) must be understood in its geographical setting. While Paul was saying this, he was standing at the Areopagus in Athens, while in the background stood the very hill, where the Greeks had built the Parthenon and where their gods and goddesses were being worshipped. So this statement of Paul was actually critical of what the Athenians were doing up there in their temples.
Every biblical sentence Paul uttered went against the teaching of these philosophers. He even pointed out to them the inconsistency of Greek idolatrous beliefs using one of their own poets: Epimenides, who was the person behind the initiative to erect the temple of the unknown god (See: Diogenes Laertios, Life and Teachings of the Philosophers, 1,110). Many Christian apologists have thought that Paul was here using neutral ground as a starting point for sharing the biblical message with them; but this is not the case. The poem by Epimenides, which Paul quoted (v. 28), was addressed to Zeus saying:
“They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
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.”
Paul, when he quoted the last sentence from this passage, was not doing anything like worshipping Zeus or even giving credence to the poem. He was merely pointing out that even their own poets couldn’t escape the knowledge of God.
Paul, in his biblical message to these Greek philosophers, went on (v.28b) to quote the Greek educational poet Aratus, who had said, referring to the God Zeus: “We are also his offspring.” (Aratus, Phaenomena, line 5) Pauls reclaimed this phrase for the biblical God. But the philosophers who were talking to Paul were on the one hand a group of materialist atheists and on the other hand a group of rational/logical philosophers. What their poet said made no sense on the background of their worldviews. In a material (Epicurean) world, no one is an offspring of a god, as both humans and gods all are just matter. The same goes for the Stoics, who thought the universe was material. They believed: “The universe itself is God and (he is) also the universal outpouring of its soul; he (God) is this same world's guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then (God is) the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then (he is) fire and the principle of aether; then (God also is) those elements, whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then (he is) the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence, in which all things are contained” (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 39, ridiculing the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus).
Therefore if we take the Stoics on their own terms, how can finite, material man be an offspring of a universal god, who is the whole universe? And if we accept the Epicurean worldview, how can there be any difference between gods and humans, both being composed of atoms? So here Paul was not finding common ground, but he was presenting biblical truths in words of their poets that were directly opposed to their own teachings.
When the Athenians heard Paul talking about the resurrection (v. 31b), they had enough. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Athenians was that death is the final end of man. This is summed up in the words of Aeschylus in his work The Eumenides: “When the thirsty dust sucks in a man's lifeblood, when once he's dead, there is no resurrection for him” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides, 649-651). At that point, Paul, by preaching to them the resurrections, was going against all their teachings, yet at the same time they had no answer for him. They had already had to admit that they didn’t know one god they were talking about - he is unknown. They could do nothing other than sneer at Paul (v. 32a), and those who didn’t sneer wanted to talk later (v. 32b) (perhaps they thought they could find an answer for Paul later). Here we see a reaction similar to the one Jesus received in Matthew 22, when no one dared to ask Him anything. In both cases, we see unbelievers who were not looking for answers but only seeking to justify themselves.
Paul therefore was not trying to prove his biblical claims based on neutral ground, but rather he was boldly proclaiming his biblical claims as truth, contrasting them implicitly with what the Athenian philosophers were proclaiming in the context of their unbiblical mindset. And even though Paul didn’t directly quote any Bible verses, everything he said was a paraphrase of Bible verses.
The second example we have is in Acts 26:1-32. Paul was on trial, and defending himself before the Roman governor Festus and King Agrippa, a ruler from the Herodian dynasty who were Edomites and had a Jewish lineage. As such, King Agrippa showed some respect for Jewish religious practices. Knowing Agrippa’s Jewish roots, we can better understand his discussion with Paul. Paul starts by asking a foundational (presuppositional) question: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
Think about it! What would King Agrippa have had to know in order to say the dead don’t rise? He would have had to know every case where someone has died and hasn’t risen again, not only in the examined past but also in the unexamined past, the unexamined present and the future. King Agrippa would literally have had to know everything in order to be able to say that the dead don’t rise; basically he would have had to be God. But then again if that would be the case and he were God, then the resurrection is not a problem at all. Paul’s simple question exposed King Agrippa’s underlying antagonistic attitude to miracles.
Later in the chapter, Paul asked Agrippa “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” (Acts 26:27). This put the king on the horns of a dilemma. If he said yes, Paul would ask why he didn’t believe in the resurrection or in the person the prophets prophesied about, namely the Messiah. If he said no, then he would get himself into trouble with the Jews. The response Agrippa gave was very similar to the one the Athenians gave Paul before. He avoided the question! “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” he says (Acts 26:28).
The truthfulness of God’s word underpins the whole discussion. Paul’s boldness in proclaiming the word of God is so strong that it makes Festus uncomfortable. “Your great learning is driving you insane!” (Acts 26:24) says Festus. We see a repeat of what happened at the Areopagus in Athens, namely that unbelievers are so uncomfortable with the message of the Bible, which they clearly understood, that they resort to name-calling.
The conversation ended with the king, the governor, and all those sitting with them leaving. The discussion was over. They had no answers for Paul, and they didn’t want to hear any more. It is very common for unbelievers to end apologetic conversations in this way (Matthew 22, Ecclesiastes 7). You will almost always have one of these three reactions:
- 1. Some will mock or laugh at what you say.2. Some will refuse to keep talking (as happened to Jesus in Matthew 22), or may procrastinate and say they’ll talk about it later (as happened to Paul in Acts 17).3. And finally, some, to whom God grants the grace of repentance, will believe and will be saved.
Paul, after leaving Athens, founded the church in Corinth (Acts 18:1-17). Later on he went to Ephesus (Acts 19:8, 20:31) where he wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians in which he says: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). Even after Paul had spent time in Athens, the intellectual capital of the world at the time, and even after he had encountered the Greek philosophers, he still declared that he couldn’t find a wise man and that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world.
It is not us who will expose the foolishness of unbelievers, but it is God who “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever he will bring to nothing” (1 Corinthians 1:19). What we have to do is be faithful; the rest of the job is God’s, and he will do it!