Acts 17:32-34; 1 Cor. 2:1-5
Hopefully you know by now that I try very hard to be fair with views of Evangelicals who disagree with me. There are some biblical teachers whom I highly respect who part ways with me on this. My main theology professor in college, the one whom we teasingly referred to as “the fourth member of the Trinity” doesn’t agree with my assessment of this passage. Let me present their arguments, and then I’ll submit why I think they’re wrong.
Basically they view Paul’s speech in Athens as mostly a failure. They don’t see a lot of value in knowing about and quoting extra-biblical sources in trying to reach Post-moderns, and they don’t see Paul’s speech as a reason to do so. They have two main lines of argument, and I think they need to be heard:
• They point out that apparently Paul’s speech didn’t produce a huge amount of immediate converts. Today’s passage in Acts tells us that “some” outright rejected his message because of his proclamation of the Resurrection, which would completely contradict their philosophy. “Others” basically put off making a decision, telling him they wanted to hear more evidence or more arguments before they got off the fence. According to anti-Athens teachers, Luke is telling us that only “some” actually made a decision to listen to Paul and became followers of Christ.
• They also like to point to the Corinthian passage. Paul went to Corinth right after Athens, and in 1 Corinthians he describes what he did there. In these verses Paul supposedly “learned his lesson” and refused to use any more high-minded arguments and decided to just “stick to talking about Jesus.” The lesson he apparently learned was “Don’t talk about pagan philosophers or poets or statues to the Unknown God. Just tell them that they’re sinners with a rendezvous with Judgment Day, that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and tell them that they need to place their faith in him.”
As you might have guessed, I respectfully but thoroughly disagree with their assessment. First off, there’s no indication that his response was really that bad. To say that the fact that “some” of them believed is somehow a bad thing I think really overstates their case. With one speech he broke through the barriers some had erected and led them to faith in Christ, which was certainly a better place than they were before. No, Paul didn’t see a stampede of converts from his one sermon. They weren’t ready to receive it yet. At worst Paul was planting a seed. Do people actually think they would have responded better to the Four Spiritual Laws? Do they actually think that if he'd started citing the Torah and the Prophets he would've had a better response? Really?
I respect the ones who disagree with me. I really do. But for them to jump from Acts to Corinth to try to make the case that Paul was talking about how great he was received in Corinth vs. how he was received in Athens? Quite frankly, I think they’re making too great a leap for me. The very same book that they use for their argument, just a few chapters later, tells us that Paul “became” a Jew to win over Jews, and “became” like a Gentile to win over Gentiles. This is a verse that I’ve (figuratively) stamped on my forehead: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” This was (to coin a phrase) his realistic ideal: To save some, since realistically we're never going to save all or even most. My friends, I submit that this is exactly what he was doing in Athens.
Do I think that every outreach effort needs to slavishly model after the speech in Athens? Of course not. Every situation is different. But as I’ve tried to make clear over the last few days, I think it’s extremely relevant in a Post-Christian, Post-Biblically literate, Post-Modern context. And if we’re going to reach this generation, we need to see what we can glean from it.
Lord Jesus, the message about your Truth never changes. Please give us Paul’s passion, to be all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some. Our preferences, our way of doing things don’t matter. What matters is glorifying you by reaching the lost with the Good News. What part do I have in that?