Apologetics 101 in Acts 17

Apologetics is still a big and scary word. Put simply, apologetics is ‘the art of Christian persuasion’ – communicating the credibility, coherence, and beauty of the Christian faith. You know the saying ‘different strokes for different folks’? Well, it’s certainly true in the context of Gospel presentation. Different people will resonate better to particular kinds of approaches and arguments. Paul didn’t have a fully scripted presentation that he gave everywhere he went. Yes, there is only one Gospel, but there is more than one way to present it persuasively. 

In Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), Paul doesn’t simply slap on a few proof-texts. He reasons with the Jews on the familiar basis of Scripture. He ‘opens it up’ for them, explaining and making the strongest possible case that the Messiah had to suffer and be raised to life. In other words, he seeks to be persuasive. And this obviously takes patience and skill, but more importantly, it takes love. You need genuine, Christ-like love to patiently explain and reason with people, not simply throw at them a few memorized lines. 

Now, a significant part of loving people is having a sense of distress and grief in light of idolatry. Apologetics and evangelism should start from this (affective) place. It’s the lesson we learn from Paul’s visit to Athens. Looking at the rampant idolatry in the city (Acts 17:16-34), Paul is deeply distressed. He isn’t simply outraged seeing the city’s idols, but grieved. Why? Yes, he is concerned with the glory of God but, deeper still, he shares God’s heart, and is pained to see people turning to created things to satisfy desires and longings that only God can satisfy. 

You see, idolatry isn’t simply physically bowing down to a statuette. It’s also taking created things, which are good in themselves, – money, sex, family, work etc. – and pursuing them as the ultimate source of our significance, security, and happiness in life. 

From that place of genuine concern for the people, Paul begins his work in Athens, the intellectual capital of the Ancient world. It’s worth noting a few things which, given the similarities between Athens and modern Western culture, are highly relevant for us. 

(1) What does Paul do in a culturally and intellectually sophisticated context like Athens? He presents the Gospel and reasons with people unashamed of his distinctive Christian beliefs and assumptions (Acts 17:17-18, 23b, 24-31). He engages in what we might call unapologetic apologetics.

The lesson is clear: Since everybody has assumptions and a big-story on the basis of which they think and imagine, don’t be ashamed of yours. Present the Gospel narrative confidently and don’t leave your assumptions at the door! Think and argue as a Christian! 

(2) Secondly, Paul understands the spiritual condition of the city: its idolatry but also its ‘open agnosticism’ (the Athenians’ altar ‘to an unknown God’ may be taken as an admission that they haven’t completely figured out ‘ultimate reality’). In our context, it is also important that we understand our culture – its idols, its guiding stories and beliefs, but also its degree of openness, so we can more effectively adjust our Gospel presentations. 

(3) If in Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:1-15) he reasoned with the Jews from the Scriptures, in Athens, before a Gentile audience, Paul takes a different tack. He mounts a strong case for the nature and dealings of the living God that is philosophically rigorous, culturally intelligible, and biblically rich. 

While he doesn’t quote Scripture directly, his entire speech is drenched in biblical themes and patterns of reasoning. Moreover, where he discerns consonances with the Christian worldview he quotes from his audience’s cultural authorities (poets Epimenides of Crete and Aratus of Ciligia). 

Overall, his presentation in Athens is Scripturally faithful, contextually sensitive, culturally aware, and rigorously argued. The lessons for us are clear, so it’s worth formulating them as concluding rhetorical questions:

  • Do we know the Gospel narrative, and Scripture more generally, so well that we are able to adapt our witness to the particular people we engage with? 
  • Do we know our culture’s guiding stories and beliefs? 
  • Are we familiar with today’s cultural authorities, and can we use them creatively in our witness? 
  • Are we ‘deeply distressed’ by the idols of our city? 
  • What about the idols of our own heart? 
  • Finally, are we ready to pay the price of persuasiveness out of love and deep concern for the people?

Natan Mladin