Did St Paul make a mistake in Athens?

At first sight Paul’s speech to the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 looks like a great example of how to speak to people who don’t have a biblical worldview or an understanding of the Bible storyline. Find a point of contact; build a bridge to connect with their world; quote from some of their own poets. While at the same time managing to pack in plenty of sound information about who God actually is, where the world has come from and what its future holds in store.

Looking for a model to help you evangelise post-moderns? Look no further. This is it.

Or is it?

Not everyone who has thought and written about it thinks so. In fact, for some, Paul got it badly wrong.

And when you take a second look, you notice that he really was not that successful, was he? A few people followed him and believed, but it was hardly the Day of Pentecost revisited, was it?

Add to that the information Paul shares in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians – and Corinth was the next stop on his journey, after Athens. No displays of clever wisdom, he says. Just Christ, and him crucified. Preached in the power of the Spirit.

It has been suggested that Paul left some very important gaps in his Athenian speech. Where is his mention of the cross? Was he too embarrassed to mention it to a sophisticated crowd? Where are the signs and wonders? Was Paul so confident in his intellectual powers that he left out the Holy Spirit and failed to rely on his power? Would a display of signs and wonders not have shifted this stubborn crowd of philosophers and idolaters?

Did Paul get it wrong? And if he did, does that mean Acts 17 really only serves to remind us how not to evangelise? A few reflections:

  1. Luke was happy to describe Paul’s initial reasoning in the synagogue as ‘preaching good news’ – see verse 18. Paul preached the gospel in Athens.
  2. To read Acts 17 as a record of Paul’s grand mistake is to read something into Luke’s account that Luke himself has not put there. In fact Luke has spent a fair amount of space on his account of Paul’s speech. Would he give so much space to an example of ‘how not to do this’ without so much as a comment? The only way anyone would read this differently is to read 1 Corinthians back into Acts 17.
  3. It is better to look for a reason for Paul’s description of his Corinthian preaching in the immediate context of 1 Corinthians itself. In  the opening chapters there Paul is addressing a problem where church members are elevating one speaker above another. Boasting in men (3:21) is futile in the face of a God who dismisses human wisdom as foolish. If this context makes sense of what Paul says about his preaching, there is no need to try to make connections with an alleged mistake in Athens.
  4. Clearly a proportion of Paul’s audience in Athens thought that Paul’s preaching was ‘foolishness’. His speech to the Areopagus then can hardly be construed as a display of clever oratory that wooed the masses.
  5. Although he was happy to make use of Greek poets, there is nothing unorthodox about the theology of Paul’s message: a self-sufficient, sovereign Creator-God whose resurrection is evidence of his coming reign.
  6. Paul’s later gospel communication continued to receive mixed results. As he talked with the Jewish visitors to his house in Rome (Acts 28), testifying about the Kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus, the results were not too dissimilar.

So what do you think? Did Paul make a mistake, or is this, in fact a superb example of contextualised evangelistic preaching?

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