Paul targeted his audiences with precision based on his desire to “become all things to all people” (2 Cor. 9:22).By all appearances, he was a superb orator, able to “hit the message home” with diverse audiences. As he preached in the synagogues he found commonality with the Jews, for he was a Jew himself (and not just any Jew, but a zealously devout one; Phil. 3:4-6), but a significant part of his evangelistic pursuits extended to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16; 2:9; Eph. 3:8; Col. 1:27). He was certainly the “wild card” of the early church (Acts 9:15).
Apologetics in Action
It was custom for Paul to “reason” in the synagogues (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9). The Greek word (dialegomai), as used in Acts, has the idea of “preaching,” but elsewhere it carries the meaning of “fighting with words.” This is not quite different from what we know today as “apologetics.”
During his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-18:22), the course of events brought his crew (Timothy, Silas and himself) to Thessalonica (17:1), where he preached (dialegomai) in the synagogue for three Sabbath days. Over this period of time, some Jews and a good number of “devout Greeks” believed (v. 4), while others connived a way to bring him down (vv. 5-9).
Paul and Silas fled to Berea, where even more Jews believed (vv. 11-12). But the raucous band from Thessalonica was in hot pursuit and came to Berea to stir up more trouble (v. 13). So while Timothy and Silas remained there, Paul went on to Athens.
And it’s here where he met his match.
He did everything right, too. He contextualized the Gospel, making the message relevant (vv. 23, 28) without compromising its integrity (vv. 24-27, 29-31).
Using the Athenians’ own set of idols as a point of commonality, he wove the Gospel into a message that was compatible with their worldview. The idol attributed to “The Unknown God” was the key (v. 23). Tapping into their religious nature (vv. 22, 28), he challenged them to accept the implications of who the Creator is (vv. 24-29) and modify their worldview and lifestyle (vv. 30-31) because of it.
Like the other times (vv. 4-5, 11-13), there was a mixed reaction; most mocked, some suggested a second hearing (v. 32), but only a few believed (v. 34). The Christianity he proclaimed was apparently unable to win the favor of the intellectuals. He was rejected by the majority.
Apologetics in Shambles
Based on this account, a natural conclusion would be to say that the Christian faith is unintellectual. Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel wasn’t apparently what the philosophers in Athens considered “sound reasoning” (i.e., 1 Cor. 2:1-7); indeed, the word, “babbler,” in v. 18 carries a negative connotation akin to “stupidity.” The Christian message, however, is never incompatible with reason (if this were the case, Christianity wouldn’t have survived and thrived to what it is today).
So perhaps it was Paul’s fault? Maybe he did something wrong. Commentators naturally suggest that he failed in his attempt to evangelize the Athenians. Some say it was because he didn’t preach about the cross. Others say he confused them with the term “resurrection” (the people of Athens may have assumed this was the name of a new deity, hence their words in verse 18) and thus failed to present the Gospel with hard-hitting simplicity.
Whatever the reasons given, Acts 17:14-34 is not generally seen as a notch in Paul’s belt or a primary item on his résumé.
But is it correct to say he “failed”? A few believed the Gospel (17:34), which is a success in itself (see Matt. 18:12-13), but even if none believed, would it still be right to call it a failure?
Have we forgotten that numbers of converts doesn’t equate to evangelistic and apologetical success?
It’s not unusual for Biblical characters to proclaim a message that brought hardness (Isa. 6:9-10; Luke 4:16-30). Such hardness is often exactly what God requires in order to fulfill his will (i.e., Pharaoh; Ex. 4:21). Although not explicit here, the point remains: the proclamation of truth always establishes the course of the hearer’s heart, whether for good or ill. It cuts away the stupor and forces hearers into action (indifference, regardless of what many think, is still a course of action when it pertains to objective truth). This is a good thing.
As implied by the text, the audience in the Areopagus was not hungry for objective truth and the subsequent obedience to its implications. Contrarily, they were absorbed with continually discovering “something new” (17:21); they were spiritual nomads–never settling, never believing, and only seeking with a guise of sincerity. These people didn’t require further argument. They needed something more radical: abandonment.
A similar idea is expressed in Paul’s letter to Titus: “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:9-10).
We hear the idea again in John: “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36; compare with 7:33-34).
Proclaim the Truth, but if it only yields disbelief, then leave.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul explains how the Gospel is “planted” and “watered” by humans while the growth is from God. Without these “seeds” of the Gospel, in other words, some may never come to repentance (Matt. 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-12; Luke 8:4-10). For some reason, God desires to work with humanity in the propagation of his will on Earth (i.e., Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, John the Baptist, etc.); for us in the 21st Century, this is most explicit in evangelism and apologetics (see Matt. 10:5-15; Mark 6:7-13; Acts 8:26-40; Rom. 10:14-15), where we’re given the final mandate in God’s redemptive plan.
This is the last stage, and it’s simple: proclaim and persuade.
Discussion and argument is, of course, natural after the Christian faith is professed, but this is merely an inevitable aftermath. Many linger here, hoping that their knowledge of philosophy, Biblical hermeneutics, science or history will be the deciding factor in worldview encounters. But we’re responsible to be a witness to the light (like John the Baptist; John 1:6-8). Instead of focusing on the immediate results, it’s time to focus on the Truth and let it do what it’s meant to do. It’s not entirely up to us (Thank God…literally).
“Do You Have to Let it Linger?”
So did Paul fail at Athens? No, but for him to not proclaim the Truth would’ve been a failure.
He did his part, then left (Acts 17:33-34). He didn’t linger in an attempt to reverse their mockery and unbelief. He didn’t try to tame the wild grapes (Isa. 5:1-4) or remove the leopard’s spots (Jer. 13:23).
After fulfilling what he set out to do, he left with the hope that his words found some footing in them. It’s also possible that if he would’ve stayed with the intent of compelling them further, the footing could’ve been tainted or nullified by usurping the role of the Spirit (John 16:8).
Sometimes it’s the absence that speaks clearer and louder than the soundest argument.
The words and ideas that linger after an encounter with the Truth–the ones that fester in the brain in the quiet when the mind has time to think–are what really matter. These are the seeds we plant, which is why it’s vital to be competent with the Scriptures and knowledgeable about the tenets of opposing worldviews whenever we gather for Thanksgiving with our diverse families, clock-in at work or set our fingers to the keyboard because we better hope those seeds are true to the Truth.
Still, the God we serve is cunning. He’s able to channel our most ridiculous blunders into fruitful avenues. If we botch it, there’s still hope because of who God is. After all, have we forgotten that he’s what apologetics is all about anyway? In a sense, we defend someone who doesn’t need defending, but delights in giving us a share in the responsibility.
“Failed apologetics” should seldom enter our vocabulary, for by using it we assume too much of ourselves.
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.
Fernando, Ajith. Acts The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.