Belief and Academia: “The God We Know”

I delivered this sermon on 29 May 2011 during the Easter season on the Church calendar. As an academic by nature, training, and career, I believe Christians bear a responsibility to interact with the knowledge of our culture.

This belief — a belief I believe constitutes a calling in my life as much as my calling to the pastorate — makes St. Paul’s appearance at the Areopagus one of my favorite passages in Scripture.

Scripture reading: Psalm 66:8-20.
Sermon text: Acts 17:16-34.

Whenever Christian missionaries go into new areas and encounter new tribes, they almost always find some clues they can use to tell the people there about the God we serve. The missionaries find something in the culture of the new tribes they can use to build a means of communicating the truths of Scriptures. This method has worked for centuries.

The philosophical traditions of Greece began over 700 years before the birth of Christ. The philosophers of Athens possessed the wisdom of the Greek civilization. Their teachings and beliefs continue to influence us today. However, the Greek philosophers needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their studies would not bring salvation; they would not bring them a relationship with God. God wanted the gospel in Athens, and He used a lifetime to prepare St. Paul for the task.

St. Paul the Apostle was born in Tarsus, schooled in Tarsus and Jerusalem, and converted on the road to Damascus. In the passage from Acts, St. Paul finally arrived in the intellectual center of the Roman Empire: Athens. Six hundred fifteen miles separates Tarsus from Athens. For St. Paul, this distance represented a lifetime of study and preparation for the task he carried onto the Areopagus.

St. Paul’s sermon on the Aeropagus, before a group of Greek intellectuals ignorant of the gospel, holds lessons for the Church today. As with St. Paul, we find ourselves in a culture ignorant of the words of Holy Scripture. We find ourselves in the position of teaching the basics of the faith to people eager to seek God but unable to overcome their pride and seek God’s forgiveness. Like the Greeks, many today want to find their own paths to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” St. Paul had to explain the way to the Greeks. We must do the same today in order to bring the gospel to our community and — through the Church — to the world.

Fortunately, we also live in a culture that retains at least a small semblance of cultural understanding of Christianity. Unfortunately, most people know more about the fringes of Christian culture than the real truths of our faith. As we tell people about our God, we must find a way of connecting with them and revealing the reasons we believe in Jesus and follow His commands to love God and love others as ourselves.

St. Paul began his preparation for Athens early in his life. Tarsus, his hometown, boasted great schools in its own right. According to Strabo, a Greek philosopher of the first century A.D., “The people at Tarsus have devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to the whole round of education in general, that they have surpassed Athens, Alexandria, or any other place that can be named where there have been schools and lectures of philosophers” (Geographica).  St. Paul would have received rigorous preparation for his later studies in Jerusalem. This training would have included an education in the Greek philosophical tradition. Then, in due time, St. Paul traveled to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, the greatest Jewish teacher of his time.

This training helped St. Paul throughout his service to the Church. His standing as a student of Gamaliel opened doors into the synagogues of the Roman Empire, where he proclaimed the fulfillment of the prophecies through Jesus Christ to both the Jews and the Gentile “God-fearers.” His extensive knowledge of the Old Testament guided his teachings to the congregations of the Empire. His encounters with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and through prayer guided his interpretations of the Old Testament in his writings.

St. Paul also knew his Greek philosophy. For centuries, scholars have remarked on the similarities between St. Paul’s writings in the Epistles and Stoicism, the most popular philosophy of the Roman Empire. The Romans especially appreciated Stoicism for its emphasis on emotional self-control.

Therefore, St. Paul was the ideal candidate to take the gospel to Athens, the academic and philosophical capital of the Roman Empire. God had carefully chosen His representative to the Greek philosophers. The question becomes, Why did God care so much for the conversion of the Areopagites?

Some people may not understand this, but God loved the Greeks as much as He loved the Jews. God didn’t send Jesus, His only Son, to die only for the Jews; Jesus told Nicodemus, one of Judaism’s leaders, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God had also worked for centuries to prepare Greek civilization for the gospel of Jesus. Their philosophical roots extended back before 600 B.C. to a man named Thales. The Greeks had pioneered the contemplation of the tough questions of life: Who are we? Why are we here? These questions led the Greeks to answers tantalizingly close to the teachings of the Old Testament.

When St. Paul first came to Athens, he found an intellectual city with a religious twist. In the intellectual centers of the Western world today, most scholars scoff at any religion, especially Christianity. However, the Athenians worshiped any god or goddess in the Empire. One of their philosophers, Epimenides, had sought to cleanse Athens of a plague over 600 years before by building an altar to “an unknown god.” This altar was meant to appease any god the Athenians hadn’t yet honored with a temple or an altar. As he walked through the city, St. Paul came across this altar. This altar, and its inscription, gave St. Paul the clues he needed to begin proclaiming the true God to the Athenians.

When St. Paul began teaching of God and Jesus Christ in the marketplace, some of the philosophers of the Areopagus heard his teachings and realized this was a “new thing.” The word the Epicureans and Stoics used to describe St. Paul aptly describes their chief reason for listening to him; they called him an “idea-picker.” They didn’t realize that St. Paul wasn’t picking for new ideas; he was proclaiming the way to a new life.

It is interesting that when we consider the philosophies of Western civilization, the philosophers responsible for St. Paul’s appearance represented the extremes of Greek philosophy. The Epicureans’ philosophy emphasized indulging in the sensual pleasures of life. Their teaching is best exemplified by the saying, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” (If that sounds familiar, read 1 Corinthians 15:32).

The Stoics, on the other hand, taught reason, self-control, and discipline. Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics sought to avoid any extremes in life. They believed in moderation of all pleasures.

This brings us to St. Paul’s lessons on the Areopagus, or “Mar’s Hill.” What did St. Paul say, and how does it help us today?

First, St. Paul recognized the Athenians’ desire for God. St. Paul had found an altar to an “unknown god;” he realized that the God of his fathers was unknown to these people. However, their philosophies sought to find a path to God; their religions had attempted to find Him. The philosophies and religions had failed. Now, the true faith had come.

Secondly, St. Paul started with what the Greeks understood. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” St. Paul didn’t attempt to declare something new when he had found a foundation on which he could build. He built on this foundation in proclaiming the nature of the Jewish God.

The Old Testament tells us much about this God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “[God] selected one particular people and spent centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was — that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. These people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process” (Mere Christianity, “The Shocking Alternative”). The Old Testament also tells us of God’s care for all humanity. In His call to Abraham, He told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

St. Paul told the Greeks of this God; there was no room for Greek polytheism in the true religion. St. Paul told the Greeks that this God had created the universe and had created all humans from one man: “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” St. Paul also explained the Greeks’ desire for religion and worship: All people “ should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” The Greeks had been seeking for centuries; now, He had come in the teachings of St. Paul.

St. Paul’s use of Greek philosophy continued with a quote from the very philosopher who had build the altar to the unknown god: Epimenides, who had said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” This line comes from a hymn to Zeus, the king of the gods in the Greek pantheon. St. Paul established his credentials before the philosophers and used their own writings to bolster his case. The second line of verse 28 comes from Aratus, a philosopher and poet from St. Paul’s native province: “For we indeed are his offspring.”

We must also notice St. Paul’s clear boundaries in his presentation. While St. Paul used Greek teachings in his presentation, he refused to compromise the gospel. St. Paul declared God’s nature as a spirit (John 4:24); that He called all people to repentance; that He would judge all people who refused to repent; and that He had made a way for all people to repent in Jesus Christ: “of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Did everyone accept the gospel that day? Of course not. Nor should we be surprised when people refuse to accept the gospel today. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” We find the same reactions to the gospel today. However, St. Luke records that “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” God’s preparation of their hearts through their culture gave them the faith to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Don’t you see a resemblance between the civilization in which St. Paul lived and ours today? We live in a society where religion seems prevalent; everyone wants to worship something. However, we also realize that most people want to find their own way to God. And, as in St. Paul’s time, many of our intellectual elite scoff at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, somehow ignoring its historical reality. St. Paul himself would later write to the Corinthians, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

However, St. Paul’s sermon should also help us reach our society.

First, we must never forget that we have a God to proclaim to the world. We have a God who has revealed Himself through nature; David the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). We have a God who has revealed Himself through His deliverance of Israel; time and again, we find the words in the prophets that the fulfillment of their prophecies will demonstrate His identity (Isaiah 49:26; Ezekiel 5:13, among others).

Ultimately, we have a God who revealed Himself in His love and care for humanity through His Son, Jesus. Jesus said to St. Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In Jesus, we see God as He truly is: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Because He loves them, God cares about their problems; He cares about their issues, and He cares about their joys in life. God cares enough about them to send Jesus to die for their salvation and rise again for their victory over death.

We must consistently but lovingly proclaim the necessity of salvation through Jesus alone. As St. Peter said, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We must, however, notice that St. Paul did not try to scare the Greeks to salvation. St. Paul didn’t preach about hell; he instead proclaimed the gospel to them. The gospel is simple: Jesus has come, Jesus died for our sins, and He rose again for our victory over death. Those who come to Jesus through fear will most likely not develop the spiritual endurance to grow in their faith. We cannot frighten people into the Church, but we must never compromise the gospel of Christ.

I see another lesson here in St. Paul’s experience at the Areopagus, one that lies close to my heart. This lesson means so much to me I can’t pass up an opportunity to repeat it. I’ve spent all but 11 years of my life in the academy, either as a student, staff member, or instructor. I know God has called me to scholarship just as I know He has called me to the pastorate. St. Paul would never have reached this point without serious intellectual preparation. Historically, the Church has always encouraged intellectual development. Modern science arose in the Church; the Church created the modern university system beginning in the eleventh century.

Unfortunately, many Baptists have often disparaged intellectual activities and actively discouraged our youth from academic studies in certain fields. We must train our youth intellectually as well as spiritually. In St. Paul’s case, Strabo had more to say about Tarsus than my earlier quote. Strabo also wrote, “But [Tarsus] is so different from other cities that there the men who are fond of learning, are all natives, and foreigners are not inclined to sojourn there; neither do these natives stay there, but they complete their education abroad; and when they have completed it they are pleased to live abroad, and but few go back home.” I think it’s a horrible fact that studies find over 60% of churched teens who go to college leave the Church.

We must prepare our youth for serious studies beyond home. We must begin by rigorously teaching them the Scriptures, both in church and in home. We must then encourage our youth to undertake serious studies, especially in the sciences. Our faith relies on an intellectual foundation even more than on emotionalism. St. Paul would later write to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The development of the minds of our youth matters even more now than in the time of St. Paul.

And, of course, in the wake of last week’s fiasco regarding (yet) another Rapture prophecy, we need to confront something within the Church itself. We need to realize that we live in a rational faith based on the historical reality of a Resurrection. The Church suffers badly whenever the “fruits and nuts” take center stage, and here in America, it seems far too few of us have taken seriously the responsibility of calling them down. The Spirit never causes dissension or confusion, and He never brings glory to an individual. The Spirit always glorifies the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Don’t mistake the emotion of a moment for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and don’t ever allow anyone to preface their latest zaniness with “The Spirit led me to.”

God has given us tremendous opportunities to reach our society for Christ. We honor Him by preparing ourselves through serious study on behalf of the Church. Only the Holy Spirit can draw people to Christ; however, He uses us to reach them with the gospel. Our preparation enables us to serve the gospel and see others born again into the life of our faith. We must proclaim the God we know to a world who needs to know Him.

For further reading:

Lecture on Cosmology and Religion at the University of Alabama by Stephen Barr, Ph.D., Professor of Particle Physics, University of Delaware.

Stephen Barr, “Much Ado about Nothing: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe,” “First Things”

Stephen Barr, The Design of Evolution “First Things”

Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. 2003: University of Notre Dame Press.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.