St. Paul: Two-Faced Re Unbelief? (Romans 1 “vs.” Epistles)

St. Paul: Two-Faced Re Unbelief? (Romans 1 “vs.” Epistles) December 14, 2018

The video under consideration was posted at You Tube on 3 August 2009.

Mitch / “ProfMTH” is about 46 years old and is an atheist and former Catholic. In his video, The Book of Job – Part One (at 0:57 – 1:03), Mitch says he was getting ready to graduate from high school in 1981 and at the same time “was considering entering religious life, to study for the priesthood.” In a comment under his August 2009 video, “The ‘Real’ Paul”, Mitch states, “I teach various law courses and courses on debate.”

As is usual with atheists, I have made five replies to his videos, and have not heard the slightest peep in reply back from him. Anti-theist-type atheists love to tear the Bible down and spread myths around about it. Very rarely, however, will they dialogue and interact with an informed Christian who takes the time to refute their contentions. It’s bad for “business” and the self-deluded triumphant anti-theist self-image, you see . . .

[Mitch’s words will be indented and in blue; all Bible passages: RSV]

* * * * *

In his summary of this video, Mitch writes:

Is the Paul portrayed in the Book of Acts the same as the Paul we encounter in the Pauline corpus? No. This video discusses one of the significant differences.

This is another classic example of a proposed “biblical contradiction” where there really is none, closely examined. To get a further picture of the nature of his argument, let’s look at what Mitch writes in comments in the ensuing discussion:

[Randy] “No doubt the real Paul had no scruples about telling somebody what they wanted to hear and no doubt this led to endless contradictions.”

That’s a very interesting take on all this, Randy, and quite plausible. Hmm. You’ve put a whole new wrinkle on this for me, which gives me something to think about for a while. . . .

If Acts is to be believed, Paul was willing to compromise or abandon about which he felt strongly in order to avoid problems.

The idea is that Paul had no scruples about bending the truth, according to his audience. Elsewhere in the comments, allusion was made to Paul’s statement, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). The implication was that this indicated Paul’s willingness to compromise even his own beliefs and bend as much as it took to convince any given audience (rather like many politicians do today: no names, of course).

But that is not what he meant at all. Rather, he was simply expressing practical wisdom: one argues in different ways according to one’s hearer. That is Debate 0101. It’s Persuasion 0101. It doesn’t entail to the slightest degree, dissembling or equivocation or false portrayal. I do this, myself, all the time, in my own apologetics. I utilize the premises and presuppositions of the person I am debating, in order to persuade them that they have gone astray at some point in the reasoning chain.

But of course, to one inclined to be hostile to anything Christian or biblical, this is the cynical interpretation that is made. Either Paul is dumb and contradicts himself, or the biblical writers (here, Luke) present unknowingly contradictory visions of Paul, or Paul is a liar who changes, chameleon-like, according to audience and setting, with little regard for consistency or truth or ethical principle. The actual biblical texts require none of these interpretations.


[I]t’s your position that one can be both ignorant of X and know X. That, of course, is “Y” and “Not Y”, which is not possible. . . . That’s Paul in Romans 1. The Paul in Acts 17 does NOT talk about their having known and “exchanged” that knowledge. Rather, he speaks of their ignorance. Totally different — except in your mind. . . .

Your position is that one can be both ignorant of X and know X. If you don’t see that this is a contradiction, then you have a deeply adversarial relationship with your thinking cap. . . . Romans 1 says NOTHING about ignorance. NOTHING. Quite the opposite. “They are without excuse” 1:20; “they knew God” 1:21; “God made it evident to them” 1:19. For crying out loud, if you don’t believe your Scriptures, why bother calling yourself a believer in the first place?

This will be shown to be a false dilemma and ultimately a non sequitur. Mitch is barking up the wrong tree.

Now onto the video itself:

He cites the book Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart D. Ehrman. This is apparently where he received the inspiration (no pun intended) for the present critique. Atheist myths are, of course, endlessly recycled in books. The same old tired falsehoods are passed down, reformulated as the case may be. It’s not as if individual atheists (typically) sit down, read the Bible, and come up with yet another “biblical contradiction” that they themselves discovered.

Usually they are regurgitating arguments from books and online articles. At least Mitch is commendably transparent about naming his source, instead of acting like this was an original insight of his. The present argument comes from chapter three of Ehrman’s book. Mitch states (1:13 – 1:53):

Of course there are a number of differences between the Paul portrayed in Acts and the Paul we meet in his own writings. Perhaps the most striking difference is the substantially variant versions of Paul’s conversion to faith in Jesus. In Acts it’s a conversion attended by sound, light, and fury, while in the first chapter of Galatians, Paul describes his conversion in hushed terms. It’s an internal revelation. As Paul puts it, God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” [Galatians 1:15-16]

This is (to put it mildly) much ado about nothing. What is described as “perhaps the most striking difference” is in reality no contradiction at all. It is simply two descriptions of the same event, coming at it from a different angle. It’s classic atheist “pseudo-contradiction” anti-biblical polemics. Because there is some — any — difference of description, it is immediately proposed as yet another so-called “contradiction.” This won’t do.

It is self-evident that one can describe events (even momentous ones) in one’s own life in many different (non-contradictory) ways. In fact, I have experience with this very thing myself. I underwent a conversion from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 1990, and it so happens that I have had the privilege to share about my change of heart and mind in public venues.

My story was published (with ten others) in a bestselling apologetics book, called Surprised by Truth. But that was just one version of it. I did a second, longer, more theologically technical version, that was published in two separate magazines. But it didn’t end there. I have also discussed my conversion on nationally syndicated radio on several occasions (at least four times). [see all the various accounts I have written or talked about on the radio]

These involved different emphases or aspects of my odyssey (conversion being a rather complex, multi-faceted intellectual / psychological / spiritual / emotional phenomenon in the first place). Using Ehrman’s and Mitch’s dubiously logical methodology, I’m sure one could come up with so-called striking differences” in my accounts (at least prima facie): perhaps “proving” that I was not, in fact, the author or speaker of one or more of them.

It’s just plain silly. If Mitch wants to assert actual logical contradiction then let him literally demonstrate this, side-by-side, rather than asserting alleged faux “contradictions.” He can’t do it in terms of Paul’s conversion accounts, and he fails also (in the same manner) in his main argument in the video, to be considered below.

A further absurdity of the “multiple conversion” argument as some disproof of biblical inspiration is that Paul himself repeats the “dramatic” account of the conversion in his own words, two times, later in the book of Acts (22:6-16 and 26:9-21), whereas earlier (9:1-19), it was given as a narrative account from someone else (presumably Luke). So it is not the case that narrator Luke gives one picture and “first person Paul” another in the epistles. Paul also presents the initial “Acts version” in his own words, twice in that same book.

But that will cause no pause from atheists like Mitch and Ehrman. They (and/or other atheists) will simply assert that it isn’t really Paul speaking in Acts 22 and 26, but rather a “fictional Paul” made up by Luke or later interpolations, to match the earlier account (just as they habitually do with the words of Jesus Himself).

By this “method,” one can arbitrarily explain away virtually anything and everything in the Bible. It is not even taken at face value and is seen from the outset as a dishonest fabrication and patchwork of cynically constructed mythology. It’s a wax nose, to be bent and deformed at the will of the atheist: molded (not surprisingly) into his own designs every time.

That’s not how far more objective Bible scholars or ancient near east historians or archaeologists approach the Bible (quite the contrary), but it is how polemical atheist “apologists” do, because they have an ax to grind, and facts are too often irrelevant and scorned if they interfere with the agenda.

Mitch (following Ehrman) then attempts to demonstrate an alleged contradiction between Romans 1 and Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill at Athens (Acts 17:16-31), particularly 17:30 (RSV):

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent,

Mitch opines (3:15 – 4:18):

This is a key verse. According to Paul, the pagans have worshiped pagan gods out of ignorance. They simply didn’t know any better. God has overlooked all that and given them a chance now to face the truth and to come to believe in him through Christ, who has been raised from the dead. What makes this point of view so interesting is that Paul himself speaks about pagan religions in one of his letters, and makes it ever so plain that he does not at all think that pagans worship idols out of ignorance or that God has overlooked their actions in hopes that they will repent. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul indicates quite the contrary: that the wrath of God is poured out upon pagans because they willfully and consciously rejected the knowledge of God that was innate within them.

After recounting the various repercussions of unbelief that Paul elucidates in Romans 1, Mitch concludes (5:18 – 5:57):

And so we have two contrasting portrayals of Paul’s view of the pagans and their worship of idols. Do they worship idols out of ignorance? The Paul of Acts says yes. Paul in his own writings says no. Does God overlook what they’ve done? Acts says yes! Paul says no. It appears that the Paul of Acts is not the same as the real Paul: at least not when it comes to this very fundamental issue of divine reaction to pagan idolatry.

The answer to this false dilemma and seemingly strong argument is to examine context. Contextual consideration is a fundamental aspect of any claim of contradiction, and of comparison of texts, since context has a lot to do with the meaning of what is being expressed in the first place.

Mitch’s fundamental error is one of category and situational context. It’s true that Paul was trying to evangelize the pagan Athenians, and therefore, took a more congenial, conciliatory tone in order to do that. I vehemently reject the cynical and unfair notion, however, that doing so necessarily or inherently entails dissembling, equivocation, dishonesty, unscrupulous manipulation, or anything of the sort.

It is a matter of the target audience and how one tries to convince them. This is the ancient art of rhetoric, that Paul was well acquainted with (since he shows much evidence of a profound familiarity with philosophy). It’s little more than what Plato and Socrates did, but with a Christian bent added onto it.

Mitch makes out that this is Paul’s opinion of all pagans, just as Romans 1 is also supposedly his view of all pagans (so that they would then plainly contradict). But he is wrong on both counts. Paul was talking to one particular group in Athens. He commended their religiosity (Acts 17:22). That doesn’t entail any self-contradiction. Jesus did the same thing with, e.g., the pagan Roman centurion (Luke 7:2-10), about whom he said “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. He later talked about “ignorance” precisely because of what it was (“the unknown god”) that they were worshiping:

For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

It was because of this “unknown” aspect of their religion that Paul referred to “the times of ignorance” (17:30). Paul indeed does generalize at the end of his address, from the particular to a general principle (God doesn’t condemn folks who simply don’t know) but basically he understands his target audience and how to effectively persuade them of Christianity.

In any event, nothing in the text suggests that Paul is referring to “all pagans” or anything of the sort. If anything, he might be interpreted as making a reference to “all ignorance” but that is not the same as “all pagans being ignorant and therefore excusable.” The issue is far more complex than that.

But Mitch arrives at all kinds of sweeping conclusions that don’t follow, in order to present a mythical “divided Paul.” Everywhere he speaks in broad terms:

the pagans have worshiped pagan gods out of ignorance. . . . Paul himself speaks about pagan religions . . . he does not at all think that pagans worship idols out of ignorance . . . the wrath of God is poured out upon pagans . . . Paul’s view of the pagans and their worship of idols. . . . pagan idolatry.

It’s all sweeping terminology: no nuance, no acknowledgment of complexity or the multi-faceted nature of pagan religion and idolatry, or relative culpability based on sincere knowledge. The biblical data herein considered is complex but at the same time self-consistent.

Again, Paul was not talking about all pagans in his address to the Athenians. So he says, e.g., “Men of Athens . . . you are very religious” (17:22) and refers to “objects of your worship” (17:23) and “what therefore you worship” (17:23). He goes on to build his argument based on their premises: a technique every good debater is familiar with (and one I have habitually used myself in thirty years of apologetics). If Mitch teaches debate technique, he certainly understands this aspect of it. Yet he completely overlooks it in Paul’s case. Strong bias has a way of clouding logic.

Now, the claim is that the “Paul of Romans 1” is teaching something radically different and in contradiction to Acts 17 and Mars Hill. Mitch is wrong, first of all, in assuming that Paul is talking about absolutely every pagan in Romans 1, or even generalizing to paganism as a class or belief-system. This is simply not the case. What Paul has in mind is not paganism per se, but, as he says, “all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). He is generalizing to mankind as a whole. Hence, he writes in 2:1-3:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. [2] We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. [3] Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?

There is nothing exclusive to pagan religion in any of this. Romans 2 (here we are back to basic contextual considerations) is in fact the key to demonstrate that Paul’s doctrine, whether in Acts or Romans or anywhere else, is perfectly harmonious and self-consistent. He reiterates the consequences of sin: not to pagans only, but all who sin: whether Christian, Jew, or pagan, Greek, or any category of men whatever. In fact, he says that God’s “wrath and fury” (as well as “glory and honor and peace” will be directed towards “the Jew first“:

Romans 2:6-11 For he will render to every man according to his works: [7] to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; [8] but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. [9] There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, [10] but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. [11] For God shows no partiality. (cf. 3:5-31)

Then follows the crucial passage, and arguably the “clincher” of the argument over against Ehrman and Mitch:

Romans 2:13-16 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. [14] When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. [15] They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them [16] on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Note what Paul has done here. He has based salvation not on being a Jew or even a Christian, but on a grace-based following of the commandments of God. Gentiles (including pagans) can do this as well as Jews (2:14) because the law is “written on their hearts” and they have a God-given “conscience” (2:15). Therefore, they are not damned or condemned to a person simply because they are pagans, but are, rather (or can be) “perhaps excuse[d]” on the Day of Judgment.

Every man’s particular relation to God is his own. He or she is not judged based on what category they are in (i.e., as men habitually judge), but based on what they do and believe, according to what they know. And there are legitimate “excuses”. God determines those, not men.

Therefore, since Paul has in mind in Romans, chapters 1-3 not only pagans, but all men who are sinful and wicked and who suppress truth, and presupposes that there are also men who do not do so: a category that includes pagans as well (with all men judge by the same standard), Mitch’s generalizations fall flat. He has distorted Paul’s meaning in Romans and imagined a contradiction where there is none. The theology is identical.

There are many other indications of this as well. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are especially relevant and informative, because they are the closest in nature to his speech in Athens: Corinth also being a Greek city. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, he echoed the Acts theme of “ignorance regarding idolatry”:

1 Corinthians 8:4-7, 10-12 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” [cf. 1 Cor 10:19-21] [5] For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — [6] yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. [7] However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.. . . [10] For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? [11] And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. [12] Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

“Two” Pauls? Nope; just one. Christianity and Paul (notwithstanding this video) remain what they always have been. The pagans are ignorant about the idols they worship precisely because they have no real existence (or are, rather impersonating demons and not what they are mistakenly thought to be). Paul presupposes that the pagans, therefore, lack knowledge about the true reality of the situation: they worship mere “so-called gods” but not real entities. Therefore, he is making the same argument from ignorance as the one he made on Mars Hill. And this is in his “own letter” (a factor that Mitch seems to think is a big deal).

Paul reiterates the same thing: unwitting ignorance, in 1 Corinthians 12:2: “You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved.” In his letter to the Ephesians (2:11-13), he implies again that many pagans are more ignorant than they are willfully opposed to truth:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — [12] remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. [13] But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

Unwitting ignorance is a common biblical theme. St. Peter, addressing the Jews in the temple, largely excused even the killing of Jesus in the same fashion: “now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17; cf. Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” — Lk 23:34). In one of his own epistles, Peter likewise stated: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,” (1 Pet 1:14). And again: “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet 2:15). He casually mentions “the ignorant and unstable” (2 Pet 3:16).

But relentless manifested ignorance is something that should give one pause, since it can indeed lead to willful rejection of God and disobedience, as Peter argues in 2 Peter 2:10-22 (including Christians who fall away, in the last three verses). Peter refers to “reviling in matters of which they are ignorant” (2:12) and “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm” (2:17) and “men who have barely escaped from those who live in error” (2:18) and “slaves of corruption” (2:19).

Paul applied this state of mind or lack of knowledge to the Jews who rejected Christianity: “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3). Paul even applied it to himself, referring to his earlier persecution of Christians: “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,” (1 Tim 1:13). To be fair, Paul (like Peter above) does also tie in ignorance with culpable unbelief, in the following two passages:

Ephesians 4:17-19 Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; [18] they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; [19] they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. (cf. 2 Tim 3:1-9)

I would contend, however, that these passages are merely additional instances of the sort of statement that Paul makes in Romans 1: not intended in the first place to be absolute or universal in application. The entirety of a person’s thought must be taken into consideration before we pontificate on the meaning of one instance of it. There are indeed people who have rebelled against God, and are, therefore, hardened and given over to self-conscious wickedness. They are referred to here.

But there are others who are simply ignorant. Since Paul (like Peter) refers to both classes, we know that he acknowledges both of them, and so we can’t sensibly take the view that Mitch does: as if Paul universally blames each and every pagan as culpably wicked and worthy of hell, and that he sees no other category where pagans (or today’s atheists, by extension) are concerned.

Paul says (again writing to highly pagan-influenced Greeks) that pagans did not “know” God or “know the truth” (in other words, they were ignorant):

1 Corinthians 1:20-22 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [21] 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. [22] For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,(cf. 1 Cor 15:34: “. . . For some have no knowledge of God. . . .”)

Likewise, elsewhere:

Galatians 4:3-9 So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. [4] But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, [5] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. [6] And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” [7] So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. [8] Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; [9] but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?

1 Thessalonians 4:5 not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; (cf. James 4:17)

1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (cf. 4:3)

2 Timothy 2:25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, (cf. Heb 10:26)

Men do not specifically know about the gospel of Jesus Christ; God uses Paul and others to spread this good news:

2 Corinthians 2:14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. (cf. 2 Pet 1:16)

What formerly was mysterious has now been made known:

Ephesians 1:9 For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ (cf. 1:17-18)

Ephesians 3:3-6 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. [4] When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, [5] which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; [6] that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (cf. 2 Pet 1:3)

Lastly, it should be noted that Jesus and Paul and John all rebuke those who falsely claim to “know” God, but who don’t prove it by their deeds (thus again illustrating that the real “line is not between Christian/Jew and pagan, but between the obedient and disobedient of all classes):

Matthew 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (cf. 25:41-46)

Luke 6:46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”

Titus 1:15-16 To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted. [16] They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed.

1 John 2:3-4 And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. [4] He who says “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him;

1 John 3:24 All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.

1 John 4:8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

1 John 5:2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.

We observe, then, that the Ehrman / Mitch thesis of a schizophrenic or chameleon-like or unscrupulous Apostle Paul (or an incoherent Bible arbitrarily presenting one or more of these pseudo-“Pauls”) vanishes upon scriptural (and logical) scrutiny. Rule number one in all dialogue and debate is to know and understand one’s opponent’s views.

Mitch and Ehrman fail miserably in that sense, and so it is seen that they are warring against straw men: a thing that impresses no serious thinker (let alone a logician as Mitch feels himself to be). With all due respect, they haven’t even gotten to first base in establishing these present claims.

Sad to say, these tactics and shortcomings are all-too-common in atheist contra-Catholic polemics (as I know full well, firsthand, from many debates). Nothing personal against Mitch: I’m merely critiquing his rather weak position regarding Paul, with all its hostile and fallacious premises lying just underneath the surface.


(originally 7-5-10)

Photo credit: St. Paul (c. 1608-1614) by El Greco, (1541-1614) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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