The Apostle Paul as Christian Apologist

September 29, 2015

In an earlier blog post here at ChurchandGospel.com, I briefly introduced Christian Apologetics – reasonably defending the Christian faith against objections, and commending it as true on the basis of evidence. I also briefly argued that all Christians are to be ready to provide reasons for our Christian faith.

In this post I want to look at a couple of passages in Acts 17 that describe the Apostle Paul engaging in the task of Christian Apologetics. In doing this I hope to encourage the practice of apologetics for all followers of Christ, and encourage us to learn some things from Paul about how to be an effective apologist.

To begin, consider the first three verses of Acts 17, which describes Paul’s apologetic work in Thessalonica:

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” [1] (emphasis mine)

The first thing to note is the language Luke uses here. Paul does not simply proclaim the gospel message in a general way, and leave it at that. Paul reasons, he explains, he proves. This is the language of logic and argumentation. The text describes Paul defending the claim that the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Bible was one who would suffer and be raised again to new life. The text describes Paul as commending the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, that promised Messiah! These are truth claims that need evidential support, and Paul is providing that support for his audience.

Another thing to note about this passage is that Paul, in his argumentation, reasoned from a commonly accepted starting point. Paul is meeting with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue. Those in this context would have agreed with Paul that the Hebrew Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, so Paul finds in the Old Testament a common source of authority from which to reason.

Now let’s consider the second passage. Later in Acts 17, Paul finds himself in Athens. As Paul converses with Greek philosophers (Stoics and Epicureans are named in v. 18), he is asked to present his teaching before the Aeropagus. Here’s Luke’s summary of Paul’s speech (v. 22-30):

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for  

‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,  

‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It’s important to note, again, that Paul does not simply make a general gospel proclamation and leave it at that. He is again reasoning with his audience. Further, we can see that in this context, Paul’s reasoning differs from that used in Thessalonica in the synagogue. In this Greek context, his audience would not have already accepted the inspiration and authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. So Paul doesn’t reason from Scripture here. Rather, he reasons from the evidence of general revelation.[2] Paul claims that there is a God who is the powerful creator of all and who sovereignly intervenes in the affairs of men. In support of this view, Paul quotes Greek sources – the first quote is probably from Epimenides of Crete, and the second is from poet Arastus’s poem “Phainomena”.[3] So again, Paul finds common ground from which to reason.

Here’s a final important observation. Paul doesn’t just reason with his Greek audience about the existence of God; he pushes his audience toward the truth of the gospel. From the premise that God made everything and doesn’t dwell in in man-made temples, Paul argues that the Athenians are wrong to worship idols. He then calls his hearers to repentance, and points them to Christ as the judge of the earth and as the one who was raised from the dead. Paul’s work as an apologist ends with that truth of the good news of Jesus Christ!

So let’s learn from the example of Paul. Be ready to reason about and explain the truth of our Christian faith. Find common ground with those who you interact with, and work from that common ground to proclaim Jesus Christ as the risen savior, calling people to repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus.

[1] All scripture quoted from the English Standard Version, available online at www.ESVbible.org .

[2] For a key passage in his letters where Paul addresses general revelation, see Romans 1:18-20.

[3] See the footnotes in the ESV text.

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