Paul’s speech argues, from a Christian perspective to other Christians, that they as Christians currently “know only in part,” “prophecy [about Christ] in part,” and describes the Christian community as “children” who have childish reasoning and speech… though he affirms that Christ can see us clearly, he argues that Christians must await a day in the future when they can share the same divine clarity.
PAUL AS PHILOSOPHER
Paul is revered for many things, but perhaps least of which is his philosophical contributions. While it is known that the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’ utilized philosophical ideas, quotations and language in his missionary activities during the mid-first century, less ink has been spent exploring the apostle’s own nuanced views on the philosophy he grew up surrounded and challenged by in his native Jewish context. I wish to draw attention to four texts specifically in order illustrate what Paul’s individual philosophy looked like.
In the first text, Paul is said to have become distressed at the sight of seeing so many idols in Athens and as such, began to speak to as many as would hear him about the resurrection of Christ.
He is taken by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to the Areopagus, where he gives a speech in which he praises the Athenians for their religiosity (Acts 17:22) and in particular, cites one of the altars in which there is an inscription to “an unknown God,” which Paul proclaims he is there to announce is Yahweh (23-24). One of the most interesting arguments (26-31) that he makes is his claim that:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ … While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands people everywhere to repent…
Paul’s argument hinges on Deuteronomy 32:8 which describes God having allotted the nations according to the number of ‘gods’ (the Septuagint translation changed this to ‘angels’ and the Masoretic later changed it further to ‘sons of Israel’).¹
Paul’s original contribution is his claim that God intended for religious and cultural diversity (likely alluding to the Tower of Babel) and that God intentionally hid himself in order for all people to “search for God and perhaps grope for him” in the darkness of ignorance. In other words, instead of condemning them for idolatry, he practices apologetics on their behalf.
Paul is recorded earlier in Acts 14:16-17 for having nuanced this view further, arguing that: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”
Paul proposes a sort of natural theology to explain not why the Athenians should have known God already, but why they should recognize him now with the event of Christ’s resurrection. He builds on this same argument later in Romans 1. The main argument is that now with Christ’s reign commenced, ignorance cannot be allowed to continue.
PAUL AS … SOCRATES?
The invocation of the Aeropagus and the claim by some there that Paul was teaching “foreign divinities” brings to mind the trial of the famous Athenian philosopher Socrates hundreds of years prior, who was sentenced to die for much the same claim. Luke appears to, very skillfully, present Paul as a sort of second Socrates, stirring up the minds of local Athenians by engaging their reasoning abilities.
However, one must wonder, how could Paul and Socrates be so favorably compared when Socrates was famous for causing people to question their beliefs and Paul is seemingly renown for introducing more authoritative ones?
Yet, the opposite is true. Paul was not, as some might be tempted to think, an individual who was confident that his understanding was vastly superior to those around him. This is best illuminated by his discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13, in which he cautions that:
… as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Paul’s speech argues, from a Christian perspective to other Christians, that they as Christians currently “know only in part,” “prophecy [about Christ] in part,” and describes the Christian community as “children” who have childish reasoning and speech.
What the NRSV translates as “a mirror, dimly” is actually more literally, an αἰνίγματι (‘enigma’ or ‘riddle’), a distorted or perplexing image that cannot be understood. His reference is to Christ and though he affirms that Christ can see us clearly, he argues that Christians must await a day in the future when they can share the same divine clarity.
If this is true, it means that Paul did not hold to many certainties or pre-assumptions like Socrates. This finds resonance with his advice to Christians in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to: “question everything and keep what is good.”²
This almost skeptical, but also anti-skeptical approach bears fruit in 1 Corinthians 3:21-22 in which Paul argues that not only Scripture, but all the world’s wisdom (including its various religions) is available to Christians to learn from, an idea unthinkable without a questioning stance toward “everything” and a background of exposure to Greek philosophical systems.
PAUL AND THE BALANCED CHRISTIAN
Paul’s views clearly resemble and differ from the various Greek schools that surrounded him. Like the Skeptics or Pyronnians, he advocates for Christians to “question/doubt everything,” but unlike those Greek philosophers, he starts on the premise that there is good (or truth) in everything and that by collecting it, one’s questions can be answered (eventually). In this sense, Paul pursued and pushed for a new philosophical enterprise that was informed by both the Jewish and Greek worlds he grew up in, but which altered them in the light of the revelation of Christ which Paul believed and held to, a revelation that while an enigma, still however dimly presented more light to their eyes in Paul’s opinion, than those who had been trapped in darkness before.
Such a humble yet balanced (and confident) approach to one’s faith is perhaps needed now more than ever in our pluralistic and post-modern world.
¹ Deuteronomy 32:8 : “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”
² Although often translated as “Test everything,” the word test fails to deliver the intended meaning of the Greek. In order to test things which you are already confident about, you must question your previous belief in their reliability. Furthermore, in order to question something you are confident in, it means you must temporarily (even if just for the sake of testing) doubt its reliability. Paul’s advice in 1 Thess. 5:21 is thus very profound.
Matthew J. Korpman is a minister-in-training, Young Adult novelist and published researcher in Biblical Studies and Church History. Graduating from the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School later this year, he is completing four degrees in fields such as Religious Studies, Philosophy and Archaeology before continuing his studies at Yale Divinity School. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist church whose research interests include everything from the Apocrypha to the Apocalypse.