Paul’s Athenian Theology

Paul’s Athenian Theology June 7, 2016

Paul delivered a sermon in Athens (Acts 17). It’s addressed to philosophers and pagan priests. It also expresses a theological vision. What is the theology of the Mars Hill sermon?

God. Christianity is a message about God. He is the maker of the world, not merely the world system but of every particular thing (v. 24; panta ta en auto). He has not delegated the dirty work of world-formation to a demiurgic subordinate, but made the world Himself. Specifically, He made human beings. Verse 26 appears to be an allusion to Genesis 2, and if so, Paul again reinforces God’s direct involvement in the world. The specific phrasing of verse 26 might suggest that God made all the nations not from one man but from one nation, possibly a reference to Babel (Genesis 11). Whatever the specific force of the phrase, Paul makes it clear that the God He discloses is Lord as well as Maker, Lord of heaven and earth, Lord also of every nation on the face of the earth. As Lord of nations, He determines the boundaries of their times and spaces (v. 26).

As Maker and Lord of all, this God is without need (v. 25). Human beings cannot supply anything that God lacks, since He has no lack. Paul preaches the good news of divine aseity. For Paul, this simply reinforces what he has said about God’s Lordship as Creator. The form of the argument is worth noting: Because God gives all things to all (didous pasi . . . ta panta), it is evident that He has no need. Or, to turn it around: Aseity is not a cold doctrine but underwrites God’s universal, sovereign generosity. Only a God without need can give without need for return. Because He needs nothing, He is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts. This God is creation’s and humanity’s most intimate environment, in whom we and all things live, move, and have existence (v. 27).

The aim of God’s orchestration of the times and spaces of nations is to encourage all to seek Him. Paul pictures humanity, and the Athenians specifically, as a blind man groping toward reality. God has so ordered history that He is capable of being found. Paul’s sermon is a light that illumines the path Athens has been stumbling along.

Humanity. Because it is a message about God, the Christian message is also a message about humanity. Paul addresses the Athenians as a “religious” (deisidaimonesterous) people, using a word ambiguous enough to avoid insult but sharp enough to hint at their superstitious curiosity (cf. Luke’s sardonic comment in v. 21), which ends in ignorance and idolatry. Human beings have turned from the true God to serve idols, and in this they have become alienated their own nature as God’s offspring (v. 28). The deep self-estrangement inherent in idolatry is suggested by Paul’s argument in verses 28-29: If we are God’s offspring, it cannot be the case that He is like gold, silver, or stone; He cannot be “an image” formed by the art and thought of man (techne and enthumesis). Again, Paul seems to have Genesis in mind: Gold and stone figures do not image God, but, since we are His children, we do. Idolaters made God’s image bow to what is not God’s image.

Paul’s speech focuses on religious practice, on worship. An altar to an unknown God provides his launching point, he proclaims the God whom the Athenians “worship in ignorance,” he insists that temples do not confine God and that cultic service does not meet any of His needs. Divine nature is not like gold, silver, or stone, and human worship must conform to the nature of God. Though Paul does not say it outright, his underlying assumption is that human beings are homo adorans, homo liturgicus, created to adore, created for worship. We are beings who will worship.

Time, Resurrection, Repentance. Paul does not present anything like a systematic philosophy or theology of history. He does seem rather a bricolageur or, as the Athenians charge, a spermologos, a collector of philosophical fragments. Yet the fragments are suggestive. The kairoi of the nations, their rises and falls, are determined by God. More dramatically, Paul distinguishes between two epochs of history. On the one hand, there are the “times of ignorance” during which God overlooked the idolatry of those who worship gods known and unknown. That was then, but Paul speaks of a now in which ignorance is no longer going to be tolerated.

The event that separates the ages is the resurrection of Jesus (v. 31). By the resurrection, God announces that the times of ignorance are over, and that the nations (oikoumene, essentially the empire) will be judged through the Risen Jesus. This is consistent with apostolic teaching throughout Acts. The apostles of course proclaim the cross, but their sermons more often focus on the resurrection as the great turning point of the ages. Practically, Paul’s message of judgment and resurrection marks the change of aeons for the Athenians. Until Paul arrived, they were blissful in ignorance. Though the crisis has happened once for all in Jesus’ resurrection, Paul’s message creates the crisis for Athens.

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