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2: Paul on the Areopagus

In Chapter 1 we gave a brief preliminary survey of the idea of natural theology and related concepts, and some remarks about the controversy surrounding natural theology in modern discussion. I talked particularly about Karl Barth, as the person best known for his complete rejection of all natural theology, and we noted how the denial of natural theology went along with a strong emphasis on the Bible as one of the forms of the Word of God. Seen in this way, the Bible naturally belonged to revelational theology and was a principal channel of divine revelation to humanity. But what if the Bible itself sanctioned, or depended on, or implied, natural theology, or at least something that had an affinity with natural theology? Our next step therefore is to consider some of the biblical passages that were always, traditionally, supposed to have this character, and see what we find. We shall begin with the magnificent passage of Paul's speech on the Areopagus, Acts 1716 ff..1

Paul was waiting in Athens, and his spirit was provoked by the fact that the city was κατειδωγος, idolatrous or full of idols. So he argued in the agora with Jews and god-fearers, and with anyone he met. Among these were philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools. People were curious about Paul's ideas and speculated about him. Some said: He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities (for he preached Jesus and the resurrection). So they took him to the Areopagus, which was a sort of court or official assembly, and wanted to know what this new teaching was; for the Athenians, and even the foreigners who lived there, were very curious and always longed to hear something that had novelty.

Paul began his speech with the remark that the Athenians, as he perceived, were very religious (δeisiδaimonesteroi), more than usually respectful of deity. For as he passed by and looked around their shrines he had seen an altar with the inscription ‘To the Unknown God’ (AVgnw,stw| Qew/|). ‘What therefore you unknowingly (avgnoou/ntej) revere, this I declare to you’ (v. 23). So what is the content of the declaration that follows?

It begins with the fact of temples, in relation to the one creator God. God who made the world and is Lord of all things does not live in temples made by human hands nor does he receive care from humanity as if he was in need of anything. On the contrary, he created human life and gives all that it needs to live. He made out of one (it is not clear whether ‘from one man’, or ‘from one stock’ (so REB: ge,noj no doubt being the word implied); AV ‘of one blood’ derives from a different text) every nation of the world and determined the times and boundaries of their habitation: that they should seek God, in the hope that (eiv a[ra ge) they might feel, grope,2 after him and find him. Yet in fact he is not far from each one of us. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’, as even certain of the Greek poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’ (tou/ ga.r kai. ge,noj evsme,n).

But the thought of being offspring of God brings us back to the thought of idolatry, which was the starting-point of Paul's impressions in this city. Being offspring of God, we should not think that deity is like gold or silver, idols made by people. The past times of ignorance—he means, presumably, ignorance in this respect, i.e. the ignorance involved in idolatry—God has overlooked, but now he commands all everywhere to repent. He has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising this man from the dead. At the mention of the resurrection some mocked, others said they would like to hear more on another occasion. Some became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris, and some others.

Now, how did the Barthian position deal with this famous and prominent passage? What was always done, in my experience, was that Barthian theologians selected and quoted with great emphasis those few phrases within Acts 17 that seemed to conform with their own kind of revelatory theology: thus that Paul ‘preached Jesus and the resurrection’ (v. 18), and similarly the conclusion of the speech, with the judgement of the world and the assurance given by the raising of a man from the dead. According to this point of view, everything said within the main text of the speech was to be seen as governed by these two sayings, one of which was not within the speech at all, the other of which brought it to a premature end. Likewise v. 23, in AV ‘whom therefore you ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you’, was lovingly cited, with a stress on the declare because it is or sounds a kerygmatic sort of word, and a stress on the ignorantly as if it meant that the Athenians had no real knowledge at all.3 These particular points, which appeared to agree with an interpretation as purely revelatory theology, were much emphasized.4 ‘Schlechterdings Alles, was Paulus den Athenern zu sagen hat, ist hier offenbar als sein christlich-apostolisches Wissen um sie an sie heran und in sie hinein getragen.’5 Any knowledge of God that one of the Athenians had in hearing the speech was totally new knowledge and unconnected with previous supposed knowledge except in so far as he now knew that he had previously been totally ignorant of God. In essence, Barth is here trying to get rid of the difficulty to his position by just defining it away: since Paul was a Christian apostle, it followed that his argument could not have been based on anything but knowledge gained uniquely through Jesus Christ.6 The argument assumes what it seeks to prove: it assumes that a Christian apostle's knowledge contained no element of natural theology: being a Christian apostle, Paul agreed with Barth.

But these arguments are entirely invalid, because they do not constitute exegesis of the Areopagus speech at all: they pick out the few aspects that can appear to favour the Barthian dogmatic position, and they simply ignore the tenor of the total argument and its content. For instance, there is no question that Paul in Athens was ‘preaching Jesus and the resurrection’; the question was the way in which he was doing it, the mode in which he approached it, the logic with which he developed his argument. Paul's approach as reported in Acts is entirely contrary to what any Barthian approach could have been. In his argument he says nothing about the Old Testament or the people of Israel, nothing about the patriarchs or the prophets, nothing about the law given through Moses. There is thus a substantial shift of emphasis as against the general approach taken in most of his letters and in most of his other speeches within Acts. The emphasis is entirely universal. God, being creator of the whole world, does not live in temples made by human activity. He has no needs for which he is dependent on humanity.7 He has given life and breath to all human beings, in the hope or chance that they might feel after him and find him. This hope or chance is not a completely remote or impossible fancy: for he, though transcendent, is not far from each one of us. This is so, because we live and move and have our being ‘in’ him: ‘in him we exist’ (REB). God is the all-encompassing medium, it seems, which surrounds and envelops us all. We live with God around us, and, moreover, it is from God that we come. Throughout the passage ‘we’ includes Greeks and others, all humanity is together in this. And to confirm that we all come from God, that we are his offspring, Paul cites a verse from a Greek poet. So that, at this point, if there is any ‘scriptural’ evidence to support the argument, any confirmation from an ancient written source, it comes not from a Hebrew prophet but from a Greek poet, one of the very few places where a definite quotation from a Greek poet or writer is made in the New Testament. The fact that the god of whom that poet was writing was—almost certainly—Zeus only makes more striking the use of the quotation by Paul.8

Where then does this lead? Back to the transcendence of God. God is not a physical substance like gold or stone, least of all is he like any image made by man. In the past he overlooked human ignorance in this respect (Paul's expression here is surely the source of the later Muslim concept of the jāhiliyya or ‘time of ignorance’ before Islam), but he now commands all people everywhere to repent. And here he comes back to the more customary themes of Christian preaching: God has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has designated, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Now it is not to be pretended that this passage is typical of the normal New Testament approach: it is not. There are many highly peculiar features:9 the complete absence of support adduced from the history, the law, and the experience of Israel; the strong universalism, with God seen as determining alike the bounds and times for all human peoples; the clear prospect that any of these might feel after him and find him; the conjunction of the high transcendence of the deity and his close presence and immanence; especially the idea that we live and move and have our being within him, the nearest approach, no doubt, to pantheism in the Bible, coupled with the idea that we, i.e. all humans, are his offspring; also the idea that, though repentance is now demanded, faults of earlier times are to be overlooked. The passage, then, is highly individual. But there can be no doubt that it depends on, supports, and involves some sort of natural theology.10 Its shape and construction, the course and strategy of the argument, cannot possibly be provided with an explanation along the accepted Barthian lines. And there is no better evidence of this than the following fact: although Karl Barth wrote an immense amount of biblical exegesis, especially in the small-print sections of his Church Dogmatics, nowhere, so far as I can discover, did he provide a full-length exegesis of Acts 17.11 For a man who could write about fifteen pages of small print on the sacrifice of two birds plus various goats in Leviticus,12 and about thirty on details in the story of Saul and David,13 this cannot but be significant. One can only interpret what one likes. Barth liked stories that told about election, the topic under which he expounded these Old Testament materials. He did not like stories that led towards natural theology. This is what I myself remember from the older Barthian days: apart from the feeble arguments cited above from Barth, which carried little conviction, what was generally done was to ignore the passage. Acts 17 cannot be fully expounded without opening the gate towards some sort of natural theology. If you are as completely against all natural theology as Barth was, the only honest thing to do is to say that Paul, as represented by Luke in this chapter of Acts, was wrong, and wrong in one of the most essential elements dominating the structure of Christian theology. And, somewhat later, we shall have to look at the consequences if that view is taken.

There are two possible ways of escape from our argument, and we now have to look at these. First of all, it may be said that Luke, in the writing of Acts, misunderstood or misrepresented Paul. Paul never thought and never said all these things we have been discussing. The very peculiarity of the thoughts and arguments, their difference from what is normal elsewhere in the New Testament, could be used as an argument to this effect. Where there are similarities, one could continue on this line of argument, these are a sign that Paul had said a few things of this kind, but that Luke, misunderstanding him, had built up a quite different structure of the whole. Historically this might be quite possible. Thus, to quote one modern and well-reasoned opinion, John Ziesler in his Pauline Christianity points to many substantial differences between Paul and Acts and writes:14

The ‘natural theology’ of Paul's Areopagus speech is akin to the attempts of people like Justin Martyr in the second century to discover a preparation for Christ in pagan philosophy and religion, and this too suggests a post-Pauline date. Was Acts therefore written by a contemporary who did not understand him (Paul), or by a later person who was inadequately informed?

But theologically, if we follow that path, we are left with a divided witness within the central portions of the New Testament and about a central issue: a conflict between a Luke who was something of a natural theologian and a Paul who was not. And there are people, very likely, who accept quite happily that this is the situation and throw in their lot either with Luke or with Paul. But if the situation is truly thus divided, it may mean that natural theology has substantial but not universal support within the relevant parts of the New Testament; or else it may mean that we rate Luke well above Paul, or Paul well above Luke, as not a few would do: ‘ich hasse Lukas’, after ail, is said to be an exclamation of a distinguished New Testament scholar. Luke, according to this viewpoint, misunderstood and ruined every distinctive insight that Paul had made clear. If we should deny natural theology on the ground that Paul, the historical Paul, did not support it, even if Luke depicts him as supporting it, then we are consciously moving to the sectional authority of Paul rather than the total authority of scripture. Such a position is a possible one, and some theologians probably adopt it, but it is not one that Karl Barth himself would have accepted. For him, the entire scripture gave a unitary theological witness in all essential points, and this was certainly an essential one. On the question whether Luke's picture of Paul is a good historical picture or not we shall have something to say at a later point; and the answer depends, in good measure, on the background and content of ideas which we consider to have been involved.

On this aspect it is worth while to contrast a conservative evangelical approach as represented by one of the great Scottish scholars of our time, my late colleague and friend F. F. Bruce. For Bruce the central issue is not natural theology, but the historical reliability or accuracy of Acts. If Acts is in these terms ‘reliable’. Paul must indeed have made very much the speech which Acts reports. In order to demonstrate this, Bruce uses arguments which, without exactly saying so, maximize the kinship of the speech with natural theology. Paul ‘adapts himself to the Athenian atmosphere’ (p. 332).15 ‘Paul's speech before the Areopagus is just such a speech as we might expect from so versatile a preacher in attempting to influence his philosophic Athenian audience’ (p. 334). ‘Here [at Acts 1725] are combined the Epicurean doctrine that God needs nothing from men and cannot be served by them, and the Stoic belief that He is the source of all life. Paul consistently endeavours to have as much common ground as possible with his audience.’ On 1728: ‘The Zeus of these Stoic poets is of course the lo,goj or world-principle which animates all things. Their language, however, is largely adaptable to the God of revelation. By presenting God as Creator and Judge. Paul emphasizes His Personality in contrast to the materialistic pantheism of the Stoics’ (pp. 338 f.). Again, ‘Paul was, moreover, much more likely than Luke to know the tenets of Stoics and Epicureans so as to make such delicately suited allusions to them’16—an argument intended to show that the speech much more probably came from Paul himself than from Luke's creative imagination. Finally, on the similar events at Lystra, ‘This is the first recorded Christian address to a pagan audience. The appeal is made to such knowledge of God as they might reasonably have, i.e., by “natural revelation”’—and here Bruce compares the first two chapters of Romans, and the Areopagus speech.17 The historically conservative arguments are apologetic in character, which may imply a kinship with natural theology; exegetically, they support the case for natural theology in the passage; and they rank the question of historicity as higher in theological importance than the issue of natural theology.

A second alternative approach is what we may call the Failure Theory.18 The approach described in Acts 17 was indeed carried out by St Paul but was a momentary lapse or mistake on his part. Here in Athens, a relative newcomer to mainland Greece and a total newcomer to its intellectual capital, he made the attempt to argue from natural theology; but the attempt failed, and afterwards Paul abandoned it. After leaving Athens he reverted to a purely revelational approach, and stuck to it thereafter. Evidences of this have been seen in certain remarks in 1 Corinthians, and remember that when Paul left Athens it was straight to Corinth that he went. Thus 1 Corinthians 21 f.: ‘When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified… my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom… that your faith should not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God’ (RSV). And likewise especially 1 Corinthians 121 ff.:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (RSV)

So there is evidence that could be used to argue that all this grew out of the unhappy experience of Paul's experiment with natural theology a short time before.

And purely historically such a course of events might be quite possible. Paul could have tried an approach which he later regretted. Perhaps he did make a mistake, and learned from it never to commit it again. But this argument is no solution to our question. For chapter 17 of Acts still remains as our text, and for Luke, as that chapter shows, the attempt was not at all a failure. The entire description in Acts in no way depicts it as a failure, nor does Acts contain a single word that indicates a change of mind on Paul's part. He makes Paul deliver a magnificent oration, and several people believed and attached themselves to Paul, including Dionysius the Areopagite, who, even if he was not the great theologian he was later reputed to have become, was at least an important person. He was one of the most distinguished of those to have been converted by Paul's preaching according to Acts, and all the more strikingly so because he must in all probability have been a genuine Athenian citizen and not a ‘god-fearer’ or one already loosely attached to the synagogue and partially trained in Judaism. Along with him there was a woman called Damaris, and some ‘others’. Even in numbers J this was no ‘failure’. If it was only ‘some’ who believed, it was only ‘some’ again who ‘mocked’,19 and ‘others’, perhaps about the same proportion, who wanted to hear more.

Paul's preaching seems to have been thought to have a very variable response, even where there was no question of natural theology. In Thessalonica, in the very same chapter, where Paul had very definitely preached the sufferings and resurrection of Christ, and this on the basis of the scriptures, it was again only ‘some’ of the Jews who believed and attached themselves to him (Acts 174), but a plh/qoj polu,, a substantial number, of the Greek god-fearers and ‘not a few’ (ouvk ovli,gai) of the leading women; at Beroea soon afterwards, apparently after a similar approach, ‘many’ of the Jews believed, and again a similar group of women. Acts does not seem to be interested in correlating any particular ‘approach’ with success or failure. And we shall shortly consider the experience of the apostles at Lystra, where an approach markedly analogous to that of Paul on the Areopagus produced a sensation and led to an established Church.

One cannot say, then, that the reception on the Areopagus was an overwhelmingly negative one. To anyone who reads the text as a whole, there can be no doubt that for Luke the incident was not a momentary error or a failure but a high point on the total progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, through the great cities of the world. Athens, indeed, did not become one of the major centres of early Christianity, as did (say) Antioch and Ephesus, and even Corinth in some measure, and this fact only increases the reader's conviction that for St Luke the Athenian incident was of major symbolic importance. The story is told in great detail by Luke: it is there not because of the later history of Athens within Christianity, but because of the symbolic significance of the city. The Acts narrated the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem, the religious centre of the world, to Rome, the centre of administrative and military power, and, half-way between them, the visit to Athens, the intellectual centre, could not but be significant. Paul's Areopagus speech was, in St Luke's conception, a major and controlling statement of what Christian faith was all about, and, above all, a key statement of how the Christian faith must sound when stated for reception by an audience totally, or almost totally, Gentile, who had no background whatever in Hebrew scriptures, or in Judaism, or in the synagogue. For remember that the speech at Athens is much the most important among the speeches of Acts to have been delivered to an audience without background in Judaism of some kind. As Gärtner well expresses it: ‘Whether Pauline or not, the Areopagus speech can legitimately be considered a typical exemplar of the first Christian sermons to the Gentiles.’20

Or put it this way: historically it is quite conceivable that Paul committed a momentary lapse at Athens; but as a solution this only apparently papers over the cracks, and what comes out of it is much the same as the previous suggestion, namely that Luke was just wrong about Paul. For the text that Luke wrote was one that took this incident on the Areopagus as a glorious moment, and Luke commemorated it with one of the finest of his many fine speeches. It stands in line with the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Speech of Stephen, and Paul's speeches before Jewish authorities and before Agrippa. And that in turn is a reason why it is not easy to reduce the authority of Luke to a secondary level. Even if Luke somewhat mixed up the words that were historically spoken, and produced something of his own theology rather than exactly what was said at the time, from the point of view of the authority of scripture the effects on Christianity, if Luke's depictions are to be taken lightly, would be enormous.

We retain, therefore, the view that the speech on the Areopagus must count as an extremely important and authoritative piece of scripture, and its qualities in those respects are not affected by the possibilities either that Luke misunderstood Paul or that the whole episode was regarded as a failure. But now we must go on to examine some aspects of its content.

First, the philosophers. Although there were Stoic and Epicurean philosophers whom Paul had met in the market-place, in his speech before the Areopagus itself Paul pays little or no attention to their respective philosophies. He certainly uses terminology that would be known in Greek philosophy, and mainly from the Stoic side. This preference for the Stoic side would not be surprising, for it was shared by much of ancient (and indeed of early modern) Christianity, while Epicureanism was seen as a godless and meaningless set of ideas incompatible with any worthwhile religion. Thus Hebrew adopted, and perhaps by this time had already adopted, the word apikoros to mean any person of totally carnal and unprincipled character. Nevertheless, whatever he had said in his conversations in the agora, in his speech on the Areopagus Paul does not expressly discuss either of the two schools; he does not compare them, nor does he attack them. Nor, more important still, does he do anything to attack Greek philosophy as a whole or its modes of thinking.21 Nor does he try, as he might have done, to exploit the deep opposition between Stoic and Epicurean as a means to drive a wedge between these two parties—a rhetorical technique that Paul was to use on other occasions, within Judaism, as between Sadducees and Pharisees (Acts 236 ff.)—or to suggest the ultimate failure of Greek philosophy as a whole. Far from using these and other like divisions as a means to introduce Christianity as a third force of totally different character which will transcend existing conflicts. Paul's speech is distinctly friendly to Greek thought and displays no polemic in principle against it. He moves unembarrassedly within its language, terms, and categories—just as other Jewish thinkers of Greek speech did.

What Paul does focus on, as an aspect of Greek culture, is something else: namely, the presence of idolatry. This was the first thing that he saw in Athens, that the city was katei,δwloj, full of idols, and this made him furious. In the Areopagus speech he comes back to this: God, he says, does not live in temples made by human beings, he is not like gold or silver or images that they have fashioned. In making this attack on idolatry, Paul does not quote the Law of Moses which prohibited it. And I think there is a reason for this. Two different things were involved: idols, and temples. The first were statues or pictures of a deity; the second were buildings in which gods might be supposed to be housed or to dwell. The speech mingles these two things, and not surprisingly, for Paul, arriving in Athens, certainly saw plenty of temples, and maybe even more temples than idols in the sense of statues of gods. Why should this make a difference?

The difference is this: that idols are clearly and severely forbidden by the Law of Moses, and pretty well throughout the Hebrew Bible. But temples are not. There are indeed certain occasional indications that seem to favour a worship without a temple: in Mosaic times there was a portable tent, and occasionally there are suggestions that the religion could carry on well enough without a permanent temple, as indeed it was forced to do for a time; and the Lord himself, when David first proposed the building of a temple, notoriously refused, indicating that he had never expressed any desire for such a thing. But the main emphasis goes the other way: a temple was in fact built, and the Hebrew Bible celebrated it, described it in detail, considered it the centre of the world, and, most serious of all, seemed to affirm that it was the abode of God, his dwelling-place.

Thus Paul could not easily use the Old Testament for his argument that God ‘does not live in temples made by human beings’, for the Old Testament said very clearly that he did that very thing:

I have built thee an exalted house,

a place for thee to dwell in for ever

said Solomon at the dedication of the temple he had built (1 Kgs. 813), and similarly David swore not to sleep

until I find a place for the Lord

a dwelling-place for the Mighty One of Jacob. (Ps. 1325)

Thus for anyone who knew the Old Testament the evidence for the dwelling of the God of Israel within a building made by human hands was very obvious. How could one on biblical grounds blame the Greeks for building temples when David and Solomon had done the same, and even Moses if we count the tabernacle? Now of course one can say: biblical people knew quite well that God was not confined within a particular building. Indeed there were a few occasional statements that pointed this out. But this is exactly the line of argument that leads up to Paul's speech. God may have a dwelling-place, an actual temple made by human hands, but that does not mean that he is physically inside the building like a dog in a basket or a stone in a box. He is, after all, the creator of the world: he is transcendent and universal. All such thoughts feed into the Areopagus speech of Acts. The Old Testament terminology of God's ‘dwelling’ within a building is understood to be partly figurative. But this line of thinking, which was very natural for Jews, and was forced upon them particularly by their contact with Greek culture, was something that was very obvious to Greek thinkers also. They did not for a moment suppose that Athena was a divine lady somehow boxed up within the Parthenon. Paul was thus using a line of very natural Jewish interpretation of older Hebrew materials, which as it happened was very close to a significant line of Greek understanding of the same subject. Paul's thinking is close to a commonplace of Hellenistic Judaism. It was the Jewish argument itself, and not only the Greek point of view, that was basic to Paul's thinking: God did not locally ‘dwell’ within any building. The contrary position, namely that God was entirely transcendent, but also, for certain purposes, universally immanent, arose from the Jewish understanding, but agreed also with the common Greek view of the same problems.

Idolatry was a different matter. To speak about God's ‘dwelling’ in a temple was acceptable as a way of speaking, even if it could not be taken literally; but to represent a god by an idol of stone or wood or metal was not acceptable at all, even if explained figuratively. In many places in the Old Testament, but especially in Second Isaiah, idolatry was satirized and mocked: how absurd it is that one should take a piece of wood, cut it in two, use one piece as firewood to cook one's dinner, but shape and mould the other half, set it up in the house, and then fall down before it, saying to it, ‘Deliver me, for thou art my god’ (e.g. Isa. 449 ff.)! The prophets went on at great length with this sort of polemic, and it was still lively in later times: seea good piece in Wisdom 1310 ff.. This kind of satire showed no real understanding of the pagan, idolatrous culture: of course those who used idols did not think that the idol was the deity, of course they had fairly sophisticated viewpoints which went far beyond the simple stupidities that the iconoclasts attributed to them, but most Israelite polemic did not know of this more sophisticated view, or chose to ignore it, and depicted the idolater as one who regarded the image as being physically the deity.22 But to say that a stone, or a chiselled piece of wood, was an actual deity, to bow down and prostrate oneself before such an object, to ask it to guide one on a journey when it itself could not walk, invited scorn, satire, and I mockery. Could a piece of stone create the universe? Could it bring salvation? Could it tell what is going to happen in the future? Of course it could not.

But this is essentially rational argument: it uses the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of wood or stone and the transcendental deity, creator of the world, to mock and discredit idolatrous worship. But—and this is the sequel—Greek thinkers did just the same with the statues and idols of their own culture. The Areopagites, Stoics, and Epicureans of Paul's time in Athens did not for a moment suppose that a statue of wood or metal was an actual deity to be worshipped. Thus the Paul of Acts, starting out from a traditional topos of Hebraic origin, was uttering and claiming something that his Athenian audience would be very likely to accept as reasonable. Far from having a hard task to persuade them, he could probably assume considerable agreement, perhaps much more than he himself understood. Of course the Athenians, even if they saw his point, were not going to do anything about it: they were not going to go out and destroy all statues and images of the divine in their city. But then Paul was not asking them to do that: his actual proposal, his message, was something else in any case.

Thus it is not particularly necessary, and in my opinion not valid, to argue that Paul in his speech to the Areopagus was simply adapting Stoic or other Greek philosophy to his needs. It is more likely that his arguments came from Jewish tradition and were familiar from a long time back in the Jewish self-statement as against the Greek world. Their background in Jewish tradition and in the Jewish cultural situation did not alter the argument's implication of a kind of natural theology. For it was simply a fact that this aspect of Jewish and biblical tradition, when it came to be presented to and within the Gentile world, fitted in rather closely with the natural theology of that world. The adoption of terms and ideas from Greek philosophy thus came very naturally as a response to the needs of the Jewish heritage itself. Natural theology, as we shall see, thus has its roots just as much within the Jewish and Old Testament background of Christianity as within the Greek environment of the New Testament and the early Church. As for the Areopagus speech, the chief question is not whether it implied natural theology, but what kind of natural theology it implied. That we are not yet in a position to say.

That this interpretation of Acts 17 is correct is confirmed by another passage in the same book. Earlier on, in Acts 148 ff., Paul and Barnabas come to Lystra in Lycaonia and perform a healing. When the crowds see what has happened, they cry out in their own language, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ The local priest of Zeus brought along oxen and garlands and wanted to make sacrifice to them. Paul and Barnabas were of course horrified. ‘We are human beings’, they cried, ‘subject to the same forces as you are; we call on you to turn from these vain things to the living God, who made heavens, earth, sea and all that is in them. In past generations [exactly the same argument as in the Areopagus speech] he allowed all nations to walk in their own ways, but he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave rain and fruitful seasons, food and gladness.’ Once again, in shorter space and in a more primitive form, the essentials of the argument of the Areopagus speech: nothing about Israel, the patriarchs, or the Law of Moses, and all statements universal: God made himself known through the created world; he will overlook past idolatry. Here once again we have the apostolic response to a situation of direct contact with Anatolian paganism, separate from all contact with Jews and the Jewish background. And there is no suggestion of a ‘failure theory’ here. The apostles certainly caused a sensation. We are not told how many became believers; but it seems that Paul and Barnabas were not very long there before they had to leave, and afterwards (1421) they returned to strengthen the Church, so that a Christian community must certainly have been established.

I will mention only briefly at this point the theme of creation. In both the speeches of which we have spoken Paul takes the creator God as a starting-point, and this is of course done in good Jewish style: the one God who made the heavens and provides the seasons and the rains. But though this is genuine Old Testament material, it is again material which would not have seemed strange to Greek audiences. That the world had come from God in some way was not unintelligible, and if it had it made more sense to have one God—the essential Jewish point—behind it than a whole lot of different gods. And in the Areopagus speech the insistence on the creator God, which is clearly enough made, becomes very much more attuned to Greek ears by what follows, when the audience hear that this God is not far from each one of us, that we live and move and exist in him, and that we are his offspring. The Hebrew material is selected, combined, and expressed in a way that establishes communication on a plane similar to that of natural theology.

Finally, a word about the inscription ‘To the Unknown God’. How much was meant by this word ‘unknown’, and how much by the avgnoou/ntej, ‘not knowing, ignorant’, that qualifies the veneration of this deity by the Athenians? Does it mean, to take it at its most extreme and stressful, that it really was the unknown God and that the Athenians really knew nothing, nothing at all, so that all that Paul was to tell them was absolutely new? Needless to say, that extreme position would be welcome to those who wish to deny natural theology absolutely. But such a position fails to make sense of what is said in the rest of the speech, and notably the almost pantheistic expressions and the citation from the Greek poet. In saying that the Athenians worshipped ‘ignorantly’, Paul was not going so far. The fact that the altar to the Unknown God was there at all was a sign that someone knew something, someone knew at least that there was an unknown God. Likewise, the δeisiδaimone,steroi was not necessarily ironic or contemptuous: I think it was rather a mild compliment, suitably attached at the beginning of such a speech. The Athenians had some aspect of real insight in their religion. ‘Ignorantly’, said of them in their worship, was a proper acknowledgement of what they themselves admitted by calling this deity the Unknown God. None of this diction, then, means that Paul supposed his audience to be devoid of all knowledge relevant to the knowledge of the true God. If he had thought there was absolutely no knowledge there, he would no doubt have taken a quite other line, going through the patriarchs and Moses, the kings and prophets, as much modern theology would have liked him to do. But Paul, if he did not think there was total darkness there, did not necessarily think that there was a great deal of light either. He does not offer an evaluation of Greek culture. But he does imply that within it there are significant signs of knowledge of the ultimate: the altar was one such sign, the lines of the poet were another, his own whole ability to phrase the Christian message in this way is another.

To return to Barth's own handling of the passage, one has to register its complete failure to convince. Even if one approaches the text with a deep scepticism towards natural theology, and even if one has an open ear for the legitimate concerns that animate his opposition to it, one's final verdict must be: no! What he offers has not the slightest likeness to a serious exegesis of the text. On the contrary, it is a travesty of exegesis, indeed a denial of exegesis: for it makes no attempt to follow out the content of the passage, and is a transparent endeavour to force his own modern dogmatic position upon the text. In its operation it is more like pulpit rhetoric than scholarly exegesis: Barth is shouting down every contrary opinion, defying anyone to think or say anything other than what he thinks and says, inventing specious forms of words to bring the text into conformity with his views. But even as pulpit rhetoric it is bad rhetoric, for it is preaching against, not with, the whole trend and shape of the passage, and all that Barth demonstrates is his own complete lack of empathy with it.

To sum up this far, therefore, the argumentation of the Areopagus speech shows a clear affinity with principles that would normally be counted as belonging to natural theology. But what sort of natural theology, and how it fits in with other things, we have not yet started to consider; and the next step must be to look at some of the other great biblical passages, beginning with Paul's utterances in the Letter to the Romans.

  • 1.

    The importance of the Areopagus speech for traditional natural theology is too obvious to require exemplification. To mention an example from a modern work that continues that tradition, A. R. Peacocke, in the Coda which concludes his Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1979), writes (p. 358): ‘To believe in God as Creator, is simply to acknowledge that we live and move and have our being in One who is not far from any of us’—exactly the language of the speech. He goes on to say that in our being and acting creatively and responsively we are manifesting ipso facto the very creativity of God himself.

  • 2.

    The word ‘grope’, yhlafa,w, is significant, for it would doubtless correspond to a Hebrew vvg or related form and would have its best parallel in the Zadokite Document 19 where that (Jewish) sect in its earliest days ‘groped’ after the truth: ‘they were like the blind and like them that grope their way ($rd ~yvvgm) for twenty years.’

  • 3.

    REB, I notice, has gone this way also with its ‘What you worship but do not know—this is what I now proclaim.’ RSV with its ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’ offers a very different understanding.

  • 4.

    Cf. recently for example T. F. Torrance, ‘Phusikos kai theologikos logos: St Paul and Athenagoras at Athens’, SJT 41 (1988). 11–26, and in particular 13.

  • 5.
    KD ii/1. 136; CD ii/1. 123.
  • 6.

    Barth. KD ii/1. 136; CD ii/1. 123. Cf. also KD i/2. 333, CD i/2. 304 ff., where Barth in his paradoxical way tells us: ‘That they come to know this is something quite new. And to us also it is quite new that we also come to know this, that they did already know it’. According to Barth, Paul is saying: ‘You did indeed know of this God, this God from being a known God has become to you an unknown God… I speak to you out of my knowledge of Christ as your own knowledge in and in spite of your complete lack of knowledge.’ See H. Berkhof and H.-J. Kraus, Karl Barths Lichterlehre (Theologische Studien 123; Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978), 35.

  • 7.

    A point already made in Ps. 508 ff., but there in respect of God's having no need to be nourished through sacrifices—a theme also of the satire in Bel and the Dragon.

  • 8.

    I am indebted to Dr Eugene Lemcio for suggestions in this regard.

  • 9.

    H. Conzelmann, Acts (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 145, comments that ‘Both the understanding of God and [that] of humanity in this passage are unique in the New Testament.’ Contrast Barth, who maintains that, as Luke sees it, ‘Paul proclaims on the Areopagus the crucified Christ in what is basically the same manner as he proclaimed him always and everywhere’ (KD ii/1. 135; CD ii/1. 122)—of which one can only say: rubbish! Or—if we press the phrase ‘as Luke sees it’—this can only mean that Luke thought the natural theology of the Areopagus speech underlay all the other speeches of Paul in which it is less evident.

  • 10.

    Thus P. Vielhauer, ‘On the “Paulinism” of Acts’, in L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn. Studies in Luke-Acts (London: SPCK, 1968), 34 ff., takes it as manifest that the speech is a manifestation of natural theology, and considers this to be an aspect of Luke's own theology and one contrasting with that of Paul himself. Equally, or even more, Conzelmann, Acts, 217 ff: cf. for instance his sentence on 221: ‘By tacit implication the claim is made: you, too, had in truth always but one God, the only real one.’ On another aspect of Conzelmann's judgement, see below, Ch. 6.

  • 11.

    His main discussion of Acts 17 lies in KD ii/1. 134 ff.; CD ii/1. 121 ff. Other passages which refer to the speech say very much the same thing. Cf. the Register volume to KD, p. 139.

  • 12.
    KD ii/2. 393 ff.; CD ii/2. 357 ff. It is interesting that this passage, plus the following one on Saul and David, is quoted by David Ford, ‘Barth's Interpretation of the Bible’, in S. W. Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of His Theological Methods (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 65, along with one other, as ‘remarkable pieces of exegesis’ showing the relation of all Old Testament history to Christ.
  • 13.
    KD ii/2. 404 ff.; CD ii/2. 366 ff.
  • 14.

    John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 130. Cf. also J. C. O'Neill, The Theology of Acts in Its Historical Setting (London: SPCK, 1970).

  • 15.

    All quotations are taken from his commentary on Acts (London: Tyndale Press, 1951); later editions sometimes altered the wording somewhat, but the 1951 edition provides a good and clear example of this line of interpretation.

  • 16.

    This is actually a quotation made by Bruce from J. H. Moulton and W. F. Howard. Grammar of New Testament Greek, ii (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1929). 8 n. 3: Bruce, Acts, 339. They add that Luke's knowledge of Greek literature, apart from medical writers, was too limited for him to have known this sort of thing thus making it more probable that the speech is really by Paul, who did have this kind of knowledge.

  • 17.

    Bruce. Acts, 283.

  • 18.

    Barth himself also uses this terminology: ‘ein offenkundiger Mißerfolg’, an obvious failure. KD ii/2. 135 top; CD ii/2. 122. He uses this of both the Areopagus speech and the Lystra incident. But he does not mean the same thing as the Failure Theory we are now discussing. He does not mean that Paul tried an approach through natural theology, found that it failed, and thereafter abandoned that approach. He means that if it is understood as a use of natural theology, if it had been an attempt to ‘make contact’ through that which they already knew, it was an obvious failure; but, since it had nothing to do with natural theology or ‘making contact’, the question of failure does not arise. There was no failure, no change of approach on Paul's part, and no inconsistency of any kind.

  • 19.

    It is an interesting further question why these hearers mocked. The occasion was, of course, the mention of the resurrection of ‘a man’ whom God had appointed. But why did this cause them to mock? Many discussions leave the impression that it was because the idea of a resurrection from the dead would seem incredible. As Acts itself makes clear, the philosophers had an easy, familiar, and ready diagnosis for such talk: it belonged to the cults of ‘foreign gods’ (1718). Why would such a claim have caused mockery? Not so much, perhaps, because resurrection was remote from a Greek mind, but because it belonged to the familiar category of foreign cults of which they had already heard enough. Might it be, on the contrary, that Paul's approach, as far as we can tell from Luke's presentation of it, gave no adequate linkage between the natural theology of the main part of the speech and the part played by this ‘man’? For the resurrection of ‘a man’ has no great theological meaning until we know a good deal more about the background and nature of this person. One might consider speaking about a ‘failure’ in this regard, but the failure would not be because of the natural theology of the speech, but because of the abrupt bringing in of this quite different element without adequate preparation or explanation. In any case, as has been emphasized, the passage gives no indication that the mockers were the majority.

  • 20.

    Bertil Gärtner, The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation (Uppsala: Gleerup. 1955). 71.

  • 21.

    Contrast Barth, KD ii/2. 136; CD ii/2. 123, who avers that the purport of Paul's speech is that ‘Stoic and Epicurean philosophy and all other philosophy is at an end’. If so, why did Paul say nothing to that effect?

  • 22.

    Similarly Protestant polemic long afterwards, building upon the Old Testament viewpoint, evaluated the statues of Mary and the saints in Roman Catholic churches as “idols”, and the Mass as idolatry, ignoring the actual attitudes with which worshippers used them. These attitudes have had an important influence on the meaning of the term idolatry. Anyone who had or used or revered an image in worship was, through the suggestions of this term, regarded as one who actually worshipped tthe image as being itself divine. We would do better to make a distinction in terms, and speak of persons who ‘possess, use, or respect’ sacred images, reserving the term ‘idolater’ for those who actually worship them or regard them as divine in substance.