Do you recall a time before you became a Christian? What changed in your understanding of God? Or perhaps you’ve attempted to share your faith with a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. What attitudes and ideas have you encountered?
It’s tempting to divide the world between believers and unbelievers, and to further divide the unbelievers into atheists and agnostics. But that’s far too simple. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once argued, it’s not only those outside the faith who need to be “evangelized.” Two groups of insiders may also need a conversion of sorts.
In the first group are those who have become jaded, for whom the faith has ceased to be a living reality. They are at best going through the motions, and need once again to be grasped by the gospel. The other group is our children, whose faith should not be taken for granted even when we’ve raised them in the church. Unless they have truly learned to see themselves and the world through gospel lenses, they too need to be evangelized.
And then there are the so-called “unbelievers.” We need to remember that even those who don’t believe what we believe probably still believe in something: they still revere or even worship some person, being, experience, idea, or principle that for them fills the role of God, of transcendence, of ultimacy.
Moreover, there are different ways of being agnostic, which come across in different responses to those who try to speak to them about God. One person may be more dogmatic: “Look, there’s no way anyone can be certain about these things. You can’t prove to me that God exists. So don’t waste your breath.” Another, however, may be more tentative: “Well, I can’t see how it’s possible to know. But I’m willing to listen to what you have to say.”
Paul dealt with both the closed- and the open-minded in the idol-ridden city of Athens. They already had their beliefs. How would he open a space for the gospel to be heard?
Simple: he proclaimed to them the truth about the “unknown God” they already worshiped. Here’s Paul’s opening bid before the Athenian council known as the Areopagus:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.Acts 17:22-23, NRSV
Paul, as we’ve seen, had been hauled before the council to give account of himself. The questions they put to him could be read as idle curiosity about the strange ideas he had been babbling about in the marketplace, but the conversation was probably more like an inquest than a casual chat over coffee.
Paul took up the position of an orator. “Men, Athenians,” he began, which suggests that others outside the council may have been watching and listening. He calls them “extremely religious” — but as commentators note, Paul was probably aware that there was a rule against trying to butter up the council with flattery. If so, it would probably be better to hear Paul calling them “superstitious,” perhaps with a touch of sarcasm: Listen, people. I’ve spent some time walking around your city, and I’ve seen the huge variety of idols and altars you have. You’re obviously — how should I say this? — very fond this kind of thing! Now I’ve been accused of bringing unsanctioned and foreign gods into your midst. But I saw an altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” So let me make the unknown known.
With that clever gambit, Paul opened the door for the gospel to be proclaimed.
But this was not a synagogue. He couldn’t use Hebrew scriptures to make his case. He couldn’t speak of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah — indeed, he didn’t explicitly name Jesus at all. Nor did he mention the cross. It was not a typical presentation of the gospel. Some say it was not a gospel presentation at all.
What was it then? It was a thorough critique of their idolatrous ways of thinking and a call to repentance. God is commanding you to turn, Paul declared — but he only hinted at the burn.
Oh, that Paul. Such a wallflower.
We’ll see the substance of his sermon, and the response, in the next post.