Acts 17: Paul and The Greek Philosophers

In Acts chapter 17, the apostle Paul is in Athens. He ends up at the place where the Greek philosophers discuss and debate, and ends up giving a long speech to them. Acts tells us that Paul was addressing the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

In the course of this speech, Paul starts with what the Greeks would understand, and eventually ends up with the gospel message, speaking of the resurrection of Jesus. He was successful, for Acts 17 tells us some became Christians during Paul’s message.

I did a study of the content of Paul’s message in Acts 17, comparing Paul’s message with what the ancient Epicurean and Stoics believed. Without going into tedious detail, the summary is this: Paul understood very well what the pagan philosophers taught, for in his speech, he systematically goes through the main teachings of both of these groups and uses Christianity to refute what they teach, point-by-point. Keep in mind that the Epicureans and Stoics did not teach the same things as what is meant by the modern definitions of the words “epicurean” and ‘stoic”……which is a mistake made by many. The same man, Paul, who tells us to beware of philosophy, understood philosophy well enough to refute bad philosophy with the truth of scripture. Paul’s message was surgically accurate, based on a knowledge of the truth and knowledge of the false philosophy.

Paul’s speech tells us that he understood very well what these philosophers believed. Paul even quotes a couple of their teachers in his sermon. Perhaps a surprise to some is the fact that in Acts 17 the Bible quotes non-Christian philosophers in an effort to give the gospel message to lost people.

What can we learn from this? The Biblical pattern can be summarized as “start where they are.” When we reach out to non-believers, we start at the point where they can understand, and then quickly move them to the message of the gospel.

We should not expect non-Christians to understand Christian lingo, theology, mannerisms, etc. but rather we should adapt the container of our message to fit the culture where we’re speaking. But the content of the message should never change: all people are sinners and separated from God. So God, through Jesus, paid the price for our separation, and gave us life by rising from the dead. Through faith in Jesus, we can have fellowship with God again, and Jesus is the only way of being saved from eternal separation from God.

The questions all Christians should ask themselves are these: Am I reaching out to a lost world? Am I going out to Athens, or am I expecting Athenians to come to Me? When I speak to lost people, am I able to start where they are, then lead them to Jesus, the only true way? Am I able to follow Paul’s example by knowing enough of the false teachings in the world, and enough of God’s truth, to refute the error and present the truth?

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Culture, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Acts 17: Paul and The Greek Philosophers

  1. Ben McCaughey says:

    Glenn,

    I was in a philosophy class a couple years and got into an intense discussion about whether one could know God exists as a truth with my professor (who is agnostic) and as he kept pointing out philosophical arguments which would disagree with me I kept falling back on the words of Paul. I stumped him several times in that debate as I echoed many of the wise answers that Paul had given men long ago. At one point, during this 45 minute debate between him and I in front of the class, he told me that Aristotle was a very good philosopher and he would disagree with what I was saying; I then told him that Paul was also a very wise philosopher and had convinced many more men to the contrary. I didn’t actually have any Biblical support at the time that I could point to where Paul would be referred to as a philosopher and luckily didn’t need to present it. It was clearly evident to all that were witnessing this discussion that Paul must have had some type of philosophical background for his words to be so effective in the debate we where having and therefore my statement went unchallenged. This was a good lesson for me to see the powerful inspired words of Paul deal with such criticism and I think at a minimum it was an eye opening experience for my professor who I am sure had used some of these bullying tactics on others before me.

    Anyway, your right that the content of the message had not changed because of who I was talking to and I can’t be sure but there was a couple time times that I thought I saw some fear in the eyes of my opponent in that he could possibly be wrong about not accepting twhat I was presenting as truths and which were damaging his argument.
    God Bless,
    Ben

    • humblesmith says:

      All of us do quite well when we have no strong opponents to counter us. A good challenge now and then is a healthy thing. I’ve learned, as you appear to have shown, that a person’s position or degrees have little to do with whether they have biases which blind them to the truth.

      If your professor was claiming that ancients would disagree with you, then he was not claiming much. Philosophy is a 3,000-year-old disagreement, with all parties having their views challenged by some other philosopher. In Fred Copleston’s history of philosophy, I counted about 44 individuals or schools in ancient philosophy (before Christ). Most of them were convinced they alone were correct and all the others had got it wrong.

      But you have made an important point, which is that Paul was a brilliant man. The thoughts in Romans show his stature as a first-rate thinker. That he could quote ancient philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts 17 shows that he was very well versed in ancient philosophy.

      Keep up the good fight.

  2. Pingback: Santa Claus and Friends | TheEpistemologist

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