The Role of Culture in Gospel Communication

Posted by on Sep 24, 2010 in Academic Work, Preaching, Role of Culture, The Gospel and the Christian Life, The Gospel and the Ministry, What We Write About

Introduction

One of the most controversially discussed topics in the Church today is the issue of contextualization. A brief sampling of what various Professors and Pastors teach on contextualizing the Gospel will suffice to demonstrate that this issue is controversial. Dr. David Sills Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary defines contextualization as simply the process of making the gospel understood.[1]

Dr. John MacArthur, a well known Pastor of Grace Community Church in California, and President of Masters College and Seminary on this point teaches that:  The Church, if it is to be anything, it is to be absolutely distinct from culture, absolutely distinct from the world, absolutely distinct from unbelievers. Paul demands a total break. You can’t marry the church to the culture. Don’t fornicate with the world.[2]

Dr. David Hesselgrave was Professor of Missions and Director of the School of World Mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, as well as a past President of the Evangelical Missiological Society, he notes that the old gospel must be communicated, but it must be communicated in new ways that engage the attention, empower the thought forms, enhance the understanding, and merit the consideration of people enculturated in systems very different from our own.[3]

Dr. Ed Stetzer a noted missiologist and President of Lifeway Research on the point of contextualizing the Gospel argues that Christians need to contend and contextualize the Gospel.[4] Contending is commanded in Jude 3 which says that Christians and the Church are “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Dr. Stetzer explains that central to the mission of the Christian church is to faithfully proclaim and defend the Gospel given to the Church. He continues by teaching that the Church is to contextualize from 1 Corinthians 9:22-23. His main point is that the Church is to contend and contextualize. Contending for the faith demands contextualization because in articulating and advancing the Truth, he says, the Church is to respond to culturally created idols and false doctrine.[5]

Dr. Mohler, the President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the point of contending and contextualizing the Gospel teaches that the preacher is to present the text the way the apostles would have presented it. He continues saying that we are t present it in its enduring and eternal truthfulness, understanding that the truth of that text is unchanged and unchanging even as its authority is also unchanged and unchanging. Yet even as we do this, we must also make clear how the Word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God, and in the process of doing so we will find ourselves unavoidably linking the Word of God and applying the Word of God to the culture in which we live, the culture which in so many ways shapes the experiences of people whom we minister.[6]

A brief overview of the teaching of Scripture on contextualization will prove  that contextualization is vital to communicating the Gospel. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter spoke to those who had gathered at Jerusalem for this special Jewish celebration. His design was to persuade them that the Holy Spirit had been given in accordance with the prophecy of Joel and that Christ was both crucified and raised from the dead in accordance with the plan of God and the testimony of David (Acts 2:14-36. Stephen’s apologetic before the Sanhedrin began with the calling of Abraham and ended with an indictment of the “betrayers and murders” of the Righteous One, the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:2-53). The apologetic was an altogether remarkable rehearsal of God’s dealing with his people throughout Old Testament times. Philip had played a leading role in spiritual awakening in Judea and Samaria. Then the Holy Spirit orchestrated a meeting with an Ethiopian official who was riding along a desert road south of Jerusalem. Spiritually the official was headed in the wrong direction, but he was reading just the right passage in the right book- Isaiah 53. Beginning from this Scripture, Phillip preached Jesus with the result that the Ethiopian believed and was baptized (Acts 8:26-38). Paul took a big-story approach when communicating the gospel to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:20-22), Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), and Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-3). This is made crystal clear in the extended summary of his message at Pisidian Antioch. When one compares Paul’s approach to the Jews and God-fearers with his approach among the polytheists of Lystra (Acts 14:15-17) and the pantheistically inclined philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:22-31). The message at Lystra was an abbreviated one, but Paul had enough time to contrast the idol gods of Lystra with the Creator God, to give a brief overview of the history of God’s dealing with the world’s peoples , and to make clear that the apostles were ordinary men preaching the Gospel of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. At the Areopagus, Paul began by quoting a Greek poet, proceeded to speak of the nature and workings of the Creator God and the resurrection of Christ, and included with a call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Paul when affirming the authority of his message proceeds to summarize the essential features of his message, and explains how, as a gospel communicator, he became like a law-abiding Jew, a law-less Gentle, a weak individual, or whatever- all in order to win people to Christ (1 Cor. 9:23).

Dr. Hesselgrave notes four distinctive features of gospel communication in Acts. First he teaches that Gospel communication was set in the context of the nature of God and the history of God’s dealing with humankind. Secondly, when the audience had knowledge of Scripture, special revelation provided the context for Paul’s proclamation of Christ. When they were without Scripture, general revelation provided the context for the message about Christ and his work. Third, further adaptations allowed the gospel proclaimer to better communicate with his audience. Finally, the divine insistence upon repentance and faith was part and parcel of gospel communication.[7]

This paper will explore the role of culture in Gospel communication by examining Acts 17:16-31 where Paul engages the worldview of the Athenians- specifically two schools of philosophy- the Epicureans and Stoic philosophers (vs.17-22) through an appeal to general revelation/natural theology (vs.22-29), a call to repentance, a warning of the day of judgment (vs.30-31), and the resurrection (vs.31).  Furthermore, this paper will demonstrate Paul’s use and method of apologetics in his proclamation of the Gospel, and also offer suggestions for how the Church can use apologetics in the preaching of the Gospel.

Context of Acts 17:16-34

Acts 17:16-31 is found  in the context of Paul’s second missionary journey starting at Acts 15:36 and concluding in Acts 18:22. During this missionary journey Paul and Silas revisited the places in Asia Minor where Paul had preached his first journey, while Barnabas took John Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul and Silas visited Derbe, Lystra, and Antioch in Pisidia. From there Paul and Silas traveled to Troas, where Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia calling to them. Crossing into Europe, they passed through several towns along the Egnatian Way and traveled to the cities of Athens and Corinth and southern Greece. Then, sailing to Ephesus and Caesarea, they visited the church in Jerusalem before returning to Antioch of Syria.

A brief study of the second missionary journey will help to understand what it sought to accomplish. Acts 15:36-41 is where Paul and Barnabas argue over Mark. Before setting out on his new mission, Paul asked Barnabas to accompany him. A sharp disagreement arose between them over whether to take Mark, resulting in Barnabas taking Mark on a separate mission and Paul choosing Silas as his companion. Acts 16:1-5 is where Timothy joins Paul and Sila at Lystra and is circumcised, since his mother is Jewish. They continued on their way, revisiting the churches of the first mission.

Acts 16:6-10, Paul is called to Macedonia through divine direction he was led to the town of Troas, where he received a vision directing him to witness in the Greek province of Macedonia. In Acts 16:11-40 Paul witnesses in Philippi- the first Macedonian city in which Paul witnessed. His ministry there is related in four parts: the conversion of Lydia (vv.11-15), the arrest of Paul and Silas (vv.16-24), the conversion of the Philippian jailer (vv.25-34), and the release of Paul and Silas by the magistrates (vv.35-40). Acts 17:1-9 Paul witnesses in Thessalonica. From Philippi Paul traveled the ninety-four miles to Thessalonica, capital of Macedonia. In 1 Thess. 2:2, Paul recounts they “had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” He also mentions in Phil. 4:16 that the Philippian church helped him with his material needs during this time.

In Acts 17:10-15, Paul witnesses in Berea. Paul and Barnabas fled to Berea fifty miles by road southwest of Thessalonica. In Acts 17:16-34, Paul witnesses in Athens. Paul’s ministry in Athens began in the marketplace where he encounters some Athenian philosophers (vv.16-21). This led to a moral formal presentation to the Areopagus (vv.22-34). In Acts 18:1-22 Paul witnesses in Corinth. Corinth was Paul’s last major place of witness on his second journey. His initial establishment of work there (vv.1-11) is followed by an account of a specific incident when the Jews bring him for trial before the proconsul (vv.12-17). But Paul was able to stay “many days longer” (v.18). Then after completing his Corinthian ministry, Paul returned to Antioch, making a brief stop at Ephesus (vv.18-22).

Explanation of Acts 17:16-22

Athens was a famous city, the capital of ancient Attica and located in the Roman province of Achaia. Cicero describes it as singularly upholding the reputation of Greece.[8] Ovid simply calls it “learned Athens”[9].  As a city full of idols it arouses Paul to react with inner anger. Such a description of Athens is well attested as Livy, Hist. Rom 45:27, which speaks of status of men and gods.[10]

Athens was filled with examples of artistic beauty, particularly its statues of the Greek gods and the architectural magnificence of its temples. Paul, however, was deeply troubled by the idolatry that the art represent. Acts 17:16 says, “his spirit was provoked within him”. “His Spirit” does not mean the Holy Spirit but Paul’s human spirit (Romans 8:16). The Greek word paroxyno means “provoke”, or “despise” or “revile” something.[11] He was deeply troubled to see the entire city devoted to false gods represented by idols.

Paul using his well established practice of first going to the Jews and then the Gentiles- goes to the synagogue. After ministering to the Jews, Paul turns to the Gentiles specifically to the marketplace in Athens. The marketplace in Athens was north of the Acropolis and was a place littered with idols, honoring Themis [Justice], Eueteria, [Prosperity, or Good Harvest, related to Demeter], Apollo Agieus, Hekate, and Hermes among the more popular gods. Zeus and Athena were well represented on the famous Acropolis.[12]

Acts 17:17 says “he reasoned”. Witnessing for Christ was a matter of patient persuasion. Although Paul saw a few people come to faith in Athens (Acts 17:34), he had no helpers with him, there is no record of any miracles being done, and there is no record of a church being established there. Acts 17:18, Paul conversed with representatives of the two most popular philosophies of the day, Stoicism and Epicureanism. They called Paul a babble “one who picks up seeds,” derived from an older and less common meaning of lego meaning to “pick up”). The term suggests one who pecks at ideas and then spouts them off without fully understanding them.[13]

Acts 17:19, the Areopagus is the “hill of Ares”. The Court of the Areopagus was a long-established body with extensive authority over the civil and religious life of Athens. In Paul’s day, it exercised jurisdiction especially in matters of religion and morality. In speaking before the group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (vs.1), Paul would have addressed them either on the “hill or Ares” (Mars Hill), located below the acropolis or southwest of the acropolis in the northwest corner of the Agora, where at the time of Paul the group held its ordinary meetings in the Royal Colonnade.

 

Engaging worldviews

In Acts 17:17-21 Paul engages the worldview of the Epicureans and Stoic philosophers. Jesus called His disciples to “go forth and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, Mark 16:15). In the process of making disciples the Christian inevitably faces the task of dealing with worldviews. Understanding what a worldview is, and what distinguishes the Christian worldview from opposing worldviews, is vital.  At this point, defining which doctrines are essential to Christianity, and what doctrines are not essential to evangelical theology, would be important before we define what a worldview is.  By understanding the essentials of the Christian faith one will be able to distinguish what separates biblical Christianity from the rest of the world’s religions.

All of the following are necessary for salvation in the broad sense, which includes justification, sanctification and glorification.  Other essential issues to evangelical theology are 1) Scripture (2nd Timothy 3:16, 2nd Peter 1:21); 2) Virgin Birth, and Incarnation (Matthew 1:18-23; John 1:14); 3) Sin (Romans 3:23; 6:23); 4) Heaven, eternal life (John 6:47, 14:1-4); 5) Hell, eternal judgment (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:41-46(; 6) Creation (Genesis 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16(; and, 7) 2nd Coming (Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 1:7).

A “worldview” is the framework of beliefs by which a person views the world around them; the grid or filter by which a person views the world they live in.  For the Christian this grid is the Bible.  Scripture is the filter through which believers view existence, truth, sin salvation, ethics and evil.  Therefore the Christian is to have a biblical worldview.

Every worldview is marked by the guiding premise of evaluation.  There must be an evaluation method by which a person measures his or her worldview.  The basis for this, for the Christian is the Word of God.  Scripture, not opinion, is the final authority for all matters of faith and practice.

Understanding a worldviews is important because the Christian lives in a world where everyone around them engages worldviews whether they realize it or not.  It is vital that Christians know what they believe so they can accurately, boldly, and precisely represent Christ as His ambassador in a pluralistic therapeutic culture. Finally, understanding worldviews is vital because it is necessary in order to be an effective witness for Christ in today’s world.

The reason for engaging worldviews comes from the mission of Jesus. Jesus came into the world on a mission to redeem man from sin. By coming in human form- the God-Man Jesus lived a sinless life, performed miracles, taught His disciples, and demonstrated how to engage people. When dealing with the religious leaders of Israel, Jesus often asked questions and went against the grain of theological thought of the day. Jesus was not novel with the Old Testament but He did interpret it through the perspective that He came to fulfill its meaning. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, and the Prophets all looked ahead to the hope they would have in a coming Savior. New Testament believers today look back to what Jesus has done in His Work on the Cross, burial, and resurrection.  The reason then for engaging worldviews is obvious- if Jesus engaged people where they were at and helped them to understand who He is and what He has done then believers have all the more reason today to engage people through a biblical worldview.

The mission of Jesus is to rescue sinners (Luke 19:10) from sin through His death, burial, and resurrection. Much discussion is occurring today on the role of being missional. Jesus called His disciples to mission. During His earthly ministry Christ called His disciples to a small missions trip to prepare them for future service (Luke 9), He called the seventy-two to ministry (Luke 10:1-16), and now He calls believers to a mission to make disciples. While the mission of Jesus is to redeem lost sinners, His mission is also to grow in intimacy with those who follow Him. Often in discussions on missional theology one focuses too much on doing the work of the Gospel rather than being the Gospel. Paul makes it clear that the Gospel is both inward and outward in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. The Gospel is a message that one first must believe personally and then confess outwardly. The Gospel is message one first has to apply to one’s own life and context before one can ever hope to confess it outwardly with any degree of effectiveness.  Preaching the Gospel to oneself is the greatest way to fight against sin and grow in sanctification. One first has to be a disciple before he/she can do the work of a disciple. Jesus taught that a disciple is not greater than his master. So a disciple must first learn from His master before they do the work of the Master.

Why does engaging worldviews matter?

The mission of Jesus is to go out and make disciples (Math. 28:18-20, Luke 24; Acts 1:8). As a result of going out one will engage worldviews which makes the why tied to the reason for engaging and the mission of Jesus. Engaging worldviews is ultimately a Great Commission concern. The Gospel is the timeless message one is to preach but the way one ministers that message may change depending on the context one is in or the background of the person being ministered to. Regardless of context or background the person must preach the Gospel in such a way as to make it clear to the person listening that Christ died, was buried and rose again. If that message is in anyway compromised then the person or preacher presenting the message of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection has failed.

The message of the King demands faithfulness to the means the King has given. King Jesus died on the Cross, was buried, and rose again. Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, indwells believers for the task of growth in Him and also work for Him. When either growth in Him or missions for Him are emphasized above the other- the Gospel is compromised. The Gospel’s call is personal in that it alone justifies the sinner, but then calls for transformation in every area of one’s life. The Gospel is corporate in that it calls people everywhere to repent and believe in who Christ is and what Christ has done in His death, burial and resurrection. When any aspect of the Gospel work is compromised whether personal or corporate the Gospel is diminished not because of Christ, but because of the one giving it or the Church proclaiming it.

Sadly much compromise regarding the Gospel derives from either not believing the Gospel or believing that there is some other message God has given. This applies both personally and corporately as individuals reject the Gospel and many Churches continue to move away from the Gospel. As Christians God has given His Church one message- the Gospel, which from Genesis to Revelation is the message of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection. The message of the Gospel forms the basis for the content of Gospel proclamation but also is the means God uses to effect transformation in every area of life in Christ’s Church and individual believer’s lives.

The why of engaging worldviews is clear- the Gospel forms the basis for itsproclamation which in turn provides the reason why the Christian must engage worldviews. The Christian must engage opposing worldviews for the sake of the Great Commission. One should engage worldviews with the Gospel because it alone contains the power of God. People do not need more opinions or options- what today’s culture needs to hear is Christians proclaiming the exclusive not inclusive message that Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection provides the only way to God with one voice in both word and deed.

Worldview of the Epicureans and Stoics

The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus (341-270 BC) and were indifferent to gods, viewing them as too removed to be objects of concern.[14] The Epicureans were agnostic secularists. Diogeness summarizes their view of life: “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in death; Good [pleasure] can be attained; Evil [pain] can be endured”[15] The Epicureans tried to create a lifestyle that would achieve the maximum good based on their philosophy. Epicureans today would teach others to enjoy life because this life is all there is. In other words, they lived only for the moment and for themselves.

The Stoics followed the teaching of Zeno (340-265 B.C.) Their name came from the Stoa where he would teach[16] The Stoics were pantheists who argued for the unity of humanity and kinship with the divine.[17] Reason, the world-state, and the “cosmopolis” (or community as the great city) were major themes along with self-sufficiency and obedience.[18] Stoics argued that life is full of good and bad and that one cannot avoid the bad so one must “grin it and bear it.” Stoics have no sense of divine presence or divine guidance in their lives.

Paul’s use and method of apologetics

The methodology that Paul used in the sharing his faith with the Athenians was the Presuppositional method that assumed the Triune God of Scripture and developed from the Biblical narrative to the knowledge of the individuals being addressed. Dr. Greg Bahnsen proclaims the following on this subject; “Paul laid the presuppositional groundwork for accepting the authoritative word from God, which was the source and context of the good news about Christ’s resurrection.”[19]

Paul at no time appeals to neutrality in his proclamation of the Christian faith. Almost everything that Paul proclaims in this address is offensive to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of his day.[20] Paul, using the Scriptures as his source of epistemology, reasons in such a way; 1) Yahweh is the only God (Acts 17:23), 2) Biblical Creation (Acts 17:24, 3) Yahweh is transcendent (Acts 17:25), 4) All mankind comes from one blood (Acts 17:26), 5) Yahweh controls the creation via His perfect sovereignty (Acts 17:26), 6) Yahweh is the source of life (Acts 17:27-28, 7) Yahweh must be worshiped as He has revealed Himself (Acts 17:29), 8) All men are called to repentance (Acts 17:30), 9) Judgment of the world through Christ (Acts 17:31), and 10) The resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:32).

Bahnsen goes on to proclaim the following of Paul’s apologia: “Paul was well aware of the philosophical climate of his day. Accordingly he did not attempt to use premises agreed upon with the philosophers, and then pursue a “neutral” method of argumentation to move them from the circle of their beliefs into the circle of his own convictions. When he disputed with the philosophers they did not find any grounds for agreement with Paul at any level of their conversations. Rather, they utterly disdained him as a “seed-picker,” a slang term (originally applied to gutter-sparrows) for a peddler of second-hand bits of pseudo-philosophy—an intellectual scavenger (v. 18). The word of the cross was to them foolish (1 Cor. 1:18), and in their pseudo-wisdom they knew not God (1 Cor. 1:20-21). Hence Paul would not consent to use their verbal “wisdom” in his apologetic, lest the cross of Christ be made void (1 Cor. 1:17).”[21]

A few things are helpful to note on this subject. First, Paul keeps the level of conversation in the culture in which he is speaking. Although Paul’s argument is based off of revealed Scripture, he does not resort to deep, theological words to make his point. Rather, he speaks to the philosophers in manner that they will understand. Next, Paul does not attempt to compromise with the Athenians and at no time does he appeal to neutral facts or evidences. Rather, Paul “assumes” or “presupposes” the Triune God of Scripture in this address. Thirdly, Paul fully understands that salvation is of the Lord and as a result, refuses to shave off the rough edges of his speech. That is, he fully proclaims the word of God, even the offensive portions, leaving the convincing to the Lord. On this point, it is helpful to note that Paul is respectful yet bold, a point that Bahnsen makes when he states of Paul’s apologetic: “The boldness of his apologetic did not become arrogance…and he began his address formally, with a polite manner of expression: “You men of Athens.”[22] Bock agrees with this interpretation when he proclaims; “[P]aul manages to share the Gospel with a generous but honest spirit.”[23]

In summary, the Apostle Paul, in his address to the Areopagus, presupposed the validity of the Biblical witness and at no point relied on neutral facts. The whole world is the Lord’s and to give honor to God, one must argue and assume the truths that He has revealed because in Jesus Christ is; “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3 ESV).

 

 

Explanation of Acts 17:22-34

Acts 17:22-23, religious (Greek: Deisdaimon) could be taken either positively (pious) or negatively (superstitious). The unknown god in Acts 17:23 in the second century A.D., the Greek geographer Pausanis recorded “altars of the gods named Unknown” in Athens.[24] He also mentioned such an altar at Olympia[25] an inscription found at Pergamum has been restored to read “to unknown gods”.

Acts 17:24-25, Paul speaks of the God who made the world and everything in it, including mankind. He identifies this one true God as superior to all the lesser, competing deities that might be worshiped in Athens, with all their weaknesses. When Paul says that “God does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (vs.24-25), it is easy to imagine him gesturing toward the magnificent temple- the Parthenon, that stood just above him and his hearers on the acropolis. Paul was claiming that the true God of Heaven and Earth does not live in temples like the Parthenon and is not served by the sacrifices which the Athenians regularly brought to their temples.

Acts 17:26, one man refers to Adam, in whom all people find their ancestral unity, an idea that would appeal to the Stoics’ strong sense of human brotherhood. Paul thus affirms the historical record of Adam and the descent of the entire human race from him. This also rules out any kind of racism, since the various ethnic groups come from one man. Having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place indicates God’s sovereignty over the history of nations.

Acts 17:27, “feel their way toward him” implies a kind of groping around in darkness, without knowing how to find God, though they hoped that they would. The verbs translated “feel their way” and “find” are in the opative mood in Greek, suggesting possibilities considered uncertain of realization. “Not far from each one of us” implies God’s omnipresence and also implies that God hears people’s prayers and knows their hearts. God’s providence leads people to seek Him in the hope that they might find Him, but all people fall short of seeking the Lord wholeheartedly and successfully as Romans 1:18-3:20 teaches. Paul is being inviting here. There is a God to find, and He is not hard to find, having revealed himself to us through the story Paul prepares to tell.

Acts 17:28, “some of your own poets.” Paul quoted some statements from pagan Greek writers who would be familiar to his audience. Though he quotes them with approval, this does not imply that he approves of other things that these writers said or wrote. The first quotation (in him we live) appears from a hymn to Zeus by Epimenides of Crete (600 B.C.); the words are found just two lines later than the quotation Paul takes form the same poem in Titus 1:12. The second quotation here is from the poem Phainomena by the Stoic poet Aratus (315-240 B.C).

Acts 17:29, “God is not like gold or silver or stone, of which idols are made.” God made man, and therefore are much more complex and wonderful than these lifeless material substances. Therefore God himself must be much more wonderful than these things. With this observation Paul returns to the critique of idolatry with which he began and sets up the basis for the need to repent. Acts 17:30, Paul moved to his distinctly Christian appeal, at this point distancing himself from the philosophers. God overlooked, that is, God did not bring immediate judgment to the world in previous times (but he warns of coming judgment in the next verse). Acts 17:31 He will judge the world means that God will hold all people accountable, even these philosophers in Athens. “Raising him from the dead” points out that Jesus is not just a religious teacher. The resurrection of Jesus is at the center of God’s plan for history and is the basis for hope in the future resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:42-57; Rev. 21:4). It is also a central evidence to persuade people to believe in Christ (Acts 2:24, 32). Most importantly, the resurrection placed Jesus at God’s right hand, showing his authority to be the judge and giver of salvation that Paul is explaining (Acts 2:30-36). Acts 17:34, as a  result of Paul’s address to the Aregpagus, Luke noted some believed (Greek: Andes) “men” referring to male human beings, as would have been the case for members of the Areopagus (17:22). In addition to these men who initially believed, some others also believed, including Dionysius and a woman named Demaris, as well as others with them.

The use of apologetics in preaching and teaching the Gospel

Dr. Mohler President of The Southern Baptist Theology defines apologetics as the task of setting forth the truth claims of Christianity and arguing for the unique truthfulness of the Christian faith- must inform every preacher’s understanding of his task in a postmodern age.[26] Acts 17:16-34 serves as a model of Great Commission proclamation matched to an apologetic argument-an argument in defense of Christian truth. In that passage Paul is standing at the center of apologetic ministry in the first century- Athens. Athens was the most intellectually sophisticated culture in the ancient world, but its glory was retreating. Even though Rome held political and military preeminence, Athens stood supreme in terms of cultural and intellectual influence. The centerpiece of Paul’s visit to Athens is his message to the court of philosophers at the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. Several principles as it relates to preaching and apologetics become evident in considering Acts 17:16-34.

First, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture begins in a provoked spirit (Acts 17:16). Paul observed the spiritual confusion of the Athenians and was overcome with concern. The sight of a city full of idols seized him with grief, and that grief turned to gospel proclamation. Paul records that Paul experienced paroxysmos, a paroxysm, at the sight of such spiritual confusion. Athens was intellectually sophisticated- the arena where the ancient world’s most famous philosophers had debated. This was the city of Pericles, Plato, and Socrates, but Paul was not impressed with the faded glory of this city. He saw men and women in need of a Savior.

This text reminds us that the proper view of Christian apologetics begins in spiritual concern, not in intellectual snobbery of scorn. Christians preach Christ not because Christianity is merely a superior philosophy or worldview, nor because we have been smart enough to embrace the gospel, but because we have met the Savior, we have been claimed by the gospel, and we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Christians preaching is not a matter of intellectual pride but of spiritual concern. A dying world languishes in spiritual confusion.

America is a nation filled with idols of self-realization, material comfort, psychological salvation, sexual ecstasy, ambition, power and success. New Age spiritualities in a quest for personal fulfillment and self-transcendence. The ancient paganisms of nature worship have emerged once again, along with esoteric and occult practices. Journalist Walter Truett Anderson observes, Never before has any civilization made available to its populace such a smorgasbord of realities. Never before has a communications system like the contemporary mass media made information about religion-all religions-available to so many people. Never has a society allowed its people to become consumers of belief, and allowed belief-all beliefs- to become merchandise.[27]

America has become too acculturated, too blind, and too unimpressed with the paganism and idolatries all around us. As Christians, we betray a comfort level that Paul would see as scandalous. Instead of this, Christians should be gripped by the realization that millions of men and women are slaves to the idols of our age, and learn to have the courage to confront the idols all around them.

Second, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture is focused on gospel proclamation (Acts 17:17). Moved by the city full of idols, Paul went to the synagogue and to the marketplace each day, presenting the claims of Christ and reasoning with both Jews and Gentiles. The goal of apologetic preaching is not to win an argument but to win souls to Christ. Apologetics separated from evangelism is unknown in the New Testament, and is foreign to the model offered by the apostle Paul. The great missionary Paul was about the business of preaching the gospel, presenting the claims of Christ, and calling for men and women to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.

For many evangelicals the study of apologetics is reduced to philosophical structures and rational arguments. This is not Paul’s method. Paul is not merely concerned with the justification of truth claims, but for the justification of sinners. Every true theologian is an evangelist, and every true evangelist is a theologian. The Gospel possesses content and presents truth claims that demand the preachers keenest arguments and boldest proclamation. The Gospel is to be received. Paul moved by the sight of idols preached Christ and called for belief.

Third, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture assumes a context of spiritual confusion (Acts 17:18-21). Paul’s gospel proclamation brought confusion to the Athenian intellectuals. The Epicureans, the forerunners of modern secularists, and the Stoics, committed to pantheistic rationalism accused Paul of teaching nonsense.

To the Athenians- and to the modern secular America- the preaching of the authentic gospel sounds strange. The Athenians said, “You are bringing some strange thing to our ears.” The Christian preacher hears the same thing today. In postmodern American, the Christian gospel is strange in its whole and in its parts. Most Americans assume themselves to be good and decent persons, and are amused at the notions that they are sinners against God. Grace is alien concept in American culture. Sin is almost outlawed as a category, substitionary atonement sounds unfair, and God in human flesh is too much to take. Yet that is what Christians preach.

The Athenians and their tourists loved to spend their time telling or hearing something new- but what Paul preached was too much. Americans today are just like the Athenians. Consumers of meaning just as much as they are of cars and clothing, Americans will test-drive new spiritualities and try on a whole series of lifestyles. To many, the gospel is just too strange, too countercultural, too propositional, and too exclusive. To contend for the gospel and biblical morality in this culture is to run the risk of being cited for “hate speech.” The Christian must assume a context of spiritual confusion, and this is often now a hostile confusion. The Gospel sounds not only strange but threatening to the local deities.

Fourth, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture is directed to a spiritual hunger (Acts 17:22-23). Paul’s observation convinced him that the Athenians were a religious people. A deficit of religiosity was not the problem. Judging from the statue Paul noticed, the Athenians seemed to be fearful lest they miss any new philosophy or neglect any unknown deity.

American culture is increasingly secularist. The past century has seen the agenda of secularism accomplished in the courts, in the schools, in the marketplace, and in the media. Yet Americas are among the most religious people in the world. The emptiness of the secular wasteland haunts most postmodern persons. They long for something more. Many people declare themselves to live by scientific rationality, and yet they read the astrology charts, believe in alien abductions, line up to see bleeding statues, and talk about past lives. In America, even some atheists say they believe in miracles. Sociologist Robert Wunthnow suggests that Americans are particularly fascinated with miraculous manifestations of the sacred because they are uncertain whether the sacred has really gone away.[28]

Paul had taken account of the plentiful idols and houses of worship found in Athens. He even noted they were hedging their bets, lest they offend some deity who had not made themselves known. Paul seized the opportunity. Brought before the court at the Areopagus, he referred to the altar he had seen that was dedicated to an unknown god.

The example of Paul here ought to establish a pattern for Christian preaching in a postmodern age. Christians must seek constantly to turn spiritual hunger toward the true food of the gospel of Christ. God had placed that hunger within lost persons they might desire Christ. Christians bear the stewardship of proclaiming the gospel, and therefore we must muster the courage to confront confused postmodernists with the reality of their spiritual ignorance. Paul never allowed this ignorance to become an excuse, but there can be no doubt that it is a reality. Americans, too, are feeding on a false diet of superstition and myths. The hunger is a place to start. Our challenge is to preach Christ as the only answer to that hunger.

Fifth, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture begins with the fundamental issue of God’s nature, character, power and authority (Acts 17:24-28). Interestingly, Paul does not begin with Christ and the cross but with the knowledge of God in creation. The do who created the world is not looking for Corinthian columns and the Parthenon, Paul argued. The Lord does not dwell in temples made with human hands. The Lord is the author of life itself, and He needs nothing from us. Furthermore, The Lord had made humanity and is Lord over all nations. The Lord sovereignly determines their times and boundaries. The Athenians were partly right, said Paul, quoting their poets. All human beings are God’s children, but not in the sense the Athenians believed. In proclaiming God as the Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of all things and all peoples, Paul was making a claim that far surpassed the claims of the Hellenistic deities.

Paul established his preaching of Christ upon the larger foundation of the knowledge of the God of the Bible, Maker of heaven and earth. Every preacher of the Gospel must structure their proclamation of the gospel in this postmodern culture just as Paul did. People must first understand God the Creator before they will understand God the Redeemer. John Calvin organized his systematic theology around what he called the duplex cognito Domini, the twofold knowledge of God. The preacher must start with the knowledge of God as Creator, but this is not sufficient to save.  John Calvin notes that it is one thing to feel that God our Maker supports us by his power, governs us by his providence, nourishes us by his goodness, and attends us with all sorts of blessings, and another thing to embrace the reconciliation offered us in Christ. Seeing people come to faith in Christ the Redeemer begins with seeing them come to grips with the fact that God is their Maker.[29]

Sixth, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture confronts error (Acts 17:29). Preaching, apologetics, and polemics are all related. Error must be confronted, heresy must be opposed, and false teachings must be corrected. Paul was bold to correct the Athenians with a firm injunction: Preachers ought never to not think false thoughts about God. The Athenians made idols out of marble and precious metals. Paul rebuked this practice and proclaimed that the Divine Nature is not like gold or silver or stone. Furthermore, God is not “an image formed by the art and thought of man.”

False theologies abound no less in the postmodern marketplace of ideas. Americans have revived old heresies and invented new ones. Mormons believe that God is a celestial being with a sex partner. The ecological mystics believe that the world is God- the so called Gai Hypothesis. New Age devotees believe that God is infinite empowerment. Our culture is filled with images of gods formed by art and the thought of man. Our confrontation must be bold and biblical. We have no right to make God in our image.

Seventh, Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture affirms the totality of God’s saving purpose (Acts 17:30-31). Paul brought his presentation of the gospel to a climatic conclusion by calling for repentance and warning of the judgment that is to come. He proclaimed Christ as the appointed Savior who will judge the world and whose identity has been clearly revealed by the fact that God has raised him from the dead.

It is not enough to preach Christ without calling for belief and repentance. It is not enough to promise the blessings of heaven without warning of the threat of hell. It is not enough to preach salvation without pointing to judgment.

Conclusion

Authentic Christian preaching both declares and defends the whole gospel. The center of the Christians proclamation is Jesus Christ the Savior, who was crucified for sinners, was raised by the power of God, is coming again in glory and in judgment, and is even now sitting and ruling at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Christians must defend the truths of Christ’s deity, the virgin birth, the historicity of the miracles, the truth of the incarnation, the reality of His substitionary death, and the assurance of His bodily resurrection. Yet Christians dare not stop at these affirmations, for we must place the person and work of Christ within the context of God’s eternal purpose to save a people for His own glory and to exalt himself among the nations. The task of preaching in this postmodern context is comprehensive, even as it is driven by the desire to see sinners turn to Christ in faith.

The postmodern world has no need of half evangelists preaching a half gospel to the half converted, and leading a halfhearted church. What is needed is a generation of bold and courageous preacher-apologists for the twenty-first century- men who will be witnesses to the whole world of the power of the gospel and who will proclaim the whole counsel of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Walter Truett, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 188.

Bahnsen, Greg, “The Encounter of Jerusalem With Athens.” Ashland Theological Bulletin (Covenant Media Foundation) VIII, no. 1 (Spring 1980)

Bock, Darrel, Acts (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 560-561, 573.

Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988), 330.

Calvin, John, Institutes, McNeill and Battles, vol. 1, 40.

Fitzmyer, Joseph, Acts of the Apostles (New York: DoubleDay, 1997), 605.

Heroides 2.83

Hesselgrave, David, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North American and Beyond (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2000) 150-151.

Laertius, Diogenes, Lies 7.10.11-21.

Laertius, Diogenes, Lives 7.1-160.

Livy, Hist. Rom 45:27

Kwon, Lillian. “MacArthur Tells Christians: Don’t fornicate with the World¸Christian Post, March 5, 2010, accessed August 20th, 2010. http://www.christianpost.com/article/20100305/macarthur-tells-christians-don-t-fornicate-with-the-world/index.html.

Mohler, R. Albert, He is not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 123-124.

Pro Flacco 26:62

Sills, David, Reaching and Teaching: A Call To Great Commission Obedience (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 195.

Stetzer, Ed, “Calling for Contexualization¸, June 28, 2010, accessed August 5th, 2010. http://www.edstetzer.com/2010/06/calling-for-contextualization-1.html.

Wuthnow, Robert, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005), 139.

Witherington III, Ben, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), 514.


[1] M. David Sills, Reaching and Teaching: A Call To Great Commission Obedience (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 195.

[2] Lillian Kwon. “MacArthur Tells Christians: Don’t fornicate with the World¸Christian Post, March 5, 2010, accessed August 20th, 2010. http://www.christianpost.com/article/20100305/macarthur-tells-christians-don-t-fornicate-with-the-world/index.html.

[3]David J. Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North American and Beyond (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2000) 151.

[4] Ed Stetzer. “Calling for Contexualization¸, June 28, 2010, accessed August 5th, 2010. http://www.edstetzer.com/2010/06/calling-for-contextualization-1.html.

[5] Ibid. Stetzer.

[6] Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan III, R. Albert Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Preaching the Cross(Illinois: Crossway, 2007), 67.

[7] David J. Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North American and Beyond (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2000) 150.

[8] Pro Flacco 26:62

[9] Heroides 2.83

[10] Livy, Hist. Rom 45:27

[11] Darrel L. Bock, Acts (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 560.

[12] Darrel L. Bock, Acts (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 560.

[13] Ibid, 561.

[14] Diogenes Laertius, Lies 10.11-21.

[15] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), 514.

[16] Joseph Fitzmyer, Acts of the Apostles (New York: DoubleDay, 1997), 605.

[17] Diogenes Laertius, Lives 7.1-160.

[18] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988), 330.

[19] Greg L. Bahnsen. “The Encounter of Jerusalem With Athens.” Ashland Theological Bulletin (Covenant Media Foundation) VIII, no. 1 (Spring 1980).

[20] It is the content of the message that is offensive to the Athenian philosophers; such as the proclamation of one blood or the proclamation of the resurrection. However, the manner in which Paul addressed was respectful and in line with 1 Peter 3:15 which states; “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

[21] Greg L. Bahnsen. “The Encounter of Jerusalem With Athens.” Ashland Theological Bulletin (Covenant Media Foundation) VIII, no. 1 (Spring 1980).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Darrel L. Bock, Acts (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 573.

[24] Descriptions of Greece 1.1.4

[25] Ibid, 5.14.8

[26] R. Albert Mohler, He is not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 123-124.

[27] Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 188.

[28] Robert Wuthnow: After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2005), 139.

[29] John Calvin, Institutes, McNeill and Battles, vol. 1, 40.

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