Monday, May 26, 2008

Contextualization or Capitulation? (Part 2)

by Dr Noel Due

Paul’s appearance before the philosophers of Athens at Mars’ Hill (recorded in Acts 17) is often taken as a prime example of the way in which apostolic preaching contextualized the gospel message. There can be no doubt that Paul’s preaching does here appear within a particular context, and there can also be no doubt that he was able to engage very effectively with his hearers on that occasion. That he was deeply familiar with the cultural setting in which he stood is also beyond doubt. But is this an example of no strings attached contextualization (in which Paul may be said to seek common ground with the pagan world views he was encountering); or even half way house contextualization (in which Paul was seeking to move in their direction a step or two so that they would move a step or two in his)? Or do we find something different happening here, something far more declaratory and kerygmatic than we may at first think?

In the wider context of Paul’s travels, we find that he did not end up in Athens because of a penchant to minimize misunderstanding and to maximize cooperation based on finding common ground with his Greco-Roman/Jewish hearers. Paul comes to Athens via Berea, after being almost lynched in Thessalonica, which, in turn, had followed on imprisonment in Philippi. The track record would suggest that Paul and his companions had not made the bridges formed by their contextualized ministry easy ones to cross!

In the closer context of the chapter we find that Paul’s ministry had begun, as it habitually did, with his own people, the Jews. Yes, his spirit was provoked by the idolatry of the city (Acts 17:16), but his response was to engage in direct evangelistic work among the Jews of the local synagogue and ‘God-fearers’ (i.e. Gentiles who had an interest in Judaism, who had abandoned certain aspects of paganism and who often supported local Jewish communities, but who had not converted fully to Judaism). The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the city encounter Paul in this phase of his ministry. They understood him to be speaking of two new gods, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection’. In Greek, the first is, naturally enough, masculine proper noun, and they had taken the second (a grammatical feminine noun) to be a female deity/consort of Jesus. Hence, they assumed he was proclaiming other gods who could be added to their pantheon (Acts 17:17-18). Paul was thus brought to the Council of the Areopagus in order to expound his existing evangelistic teaching (Acts 17:19-21).

The contents of Paul’s speech make interesting reading, given this setting. Firstly we notice that the ‘unknown God’ he has come to proclaim is probably the God of the Jews. He was ‘unknown’ because He had no image, and, from a Greek point of view, his knowledge was ‘closed’ to those outside of Judaism. Given that Paul had been at work among the Jews and God-fearers, this makes natural sense of the text. But even if another ‘god’ was in view (i.e. a god some how understood by general revelation), Paul does not let that ‘god’ go undefined for long. The ‘Unknown God’ is none other than the God of the Scriptures. Paul’s depiction of Him in Acts 17:24-28 is nothing less than a description of Yahweh. Moreover, this description ends with His absolute claim to exclusive worship (Acts 17:29), and this on the basis of the coming judgement (Acts 17:30-31).

Secondly, we notice that the proclamation does not end with Old Testament affirmations of God, but moves right through to the man, Jesus, and his resurrection. Paul has brought his hearers full circle. They heard him proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection. They asked what he was talking about and brought him to a Greco-Roman ‘please explain’ in a public assembly. And Paul answered. Jesus and the resurrection are the culmination of the actions of the God of the Jews. In Jesus the times of ignorance have both come to an end and been judged. Therefore there is no excuse for idolatry or unbelief. All people everywhere must turn from false religion to worship the true God, through Jesus whom he raised from the dead.

Thirdly, we notice that the use of the pagans’ own poets is thus in contradiction of their message, rather than in affirmation of it. Paul quotes two ancient poets (Epimenides and Aratus) ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ and ‘we are his offspring’ respectively. The significance of these quotations is that they do not apply to Zeus (to whom they most likely referred) or to any other ‘god’. Paul is using these poets to say that the worship rendered to Zeus or any of the other so called gods should have been rendered to Yahweh i.e. to the Father of our Lord Jesus, the man who would come to judge the world. Ultimately, embracing idolatry is a rejection of our true Father.

Fourthly, we notice that the proclamation of the resurrection was a cause for great division and ridicule. The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers had brought Paul there, and these had contradictory understandings of the universe. For the Stoics, there was a sort of post-material existence, but entirely devoid of matter. The thought of resurrected body was not just absurd, but abhorrent. For the Epicureans everything was made of atoms—the remote and apathetic gods included—and upon death the atomic substance of all things was reabsorbed into the (virtually eternal) realm of material things. The thought that (a) there should be a ‘god’ who was so concerned about human affairs that he would intervene (in judgement or grace) was ridiculous and (b) that he should raise up the dead for such a judgement was entirely meaningless.

Finally, we see that there were ‘some who believed’ (Acts 17:34). This means that the message he brought (and doubtless expounded in other settings as well) demanded a response and men and women actually were brought to new birth through it.

What may we take from all this? A few brief points:
Apostolic preaching created new conceptual categories and demanded that old ones be jettisoned.
Cultural communication does not leave culture ‘sovereign’ over the revelation of God.
Evangelistic work is full of content. It proclaims Jesus as the Christ, and this as the fulfillment of Old Testament revelation.
There will always be a mixed response and we should not capitulate to culture in the hope of avoiding conflict with it.
Preaching the gospel apostolically will of necessity involve the proclamation of things that existing cultural wisdom deems to be foolish.

(To be continued…)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This Coming Fellowship - 28/06/2008 - Highlight for this year!

Attention all Timothy's:

Don't miss this Timothy Fellowship with Dr Allen P. Ross over from Alabama, U.S.A.

When: Saturday the 28th June 2008, 5.30pm till 9.45pm.
Where: Adelaide College of Ministries, 18A Fourth Avenue, Klemzig.
Teacher: Dr Allen P. Ross is professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Stamford University, Birmingham, Alabama (
Topic: Old Testament Covenants.
Cost: $20 (Dinner, desert & supper).

Please RSVP by Wednesday 25th June

Please take some time to check out some of the books Dr Ross has written (see 'Recommended Reading' on the left hand side of this page), book of note titled "Recalling the Hope of Glory".

See you there!

Any questions about the coming event? Do you know someone who may like to become a member of Timothy Fellowship? Please email:

Don't forget to write your comments on the articles etc. posted on this website.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The 11th commandment

Tolerance. Diversity. These two words, when used in their proper context, are helpful tools for guidance in the non-essential areas of Christianity. Things like: what food we eat, what car we choose to drive, what books you read, Biblical or none Biblical names for your children, watching a movie, etc. You might call them “grey areas”, areas in the Christian faith where the Bible does not have clear-cut admonition/instruction.

BUT! For these two words above, a Christian needs to add Biblical principles, example: “not everything is profitable” 1 Corinthians 10:23, “I will not be mastered by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12.

Back to our topic; tolerance & diversity are not always used in their proper context. Often these words are called down like fire from heaven on those who seek the Spiritual growth of others, or these words are called down on those who are preaching the Gospel to the unconverted. Christians are told to “judge not lest you be judged”, as if this was the 11th commandment. Is this really what Jesus meant by “judge not”? Or is this 11th commandment just a person’s way of self justification?

Hear what Dr John MacArthur has to say:

Friday, May 2, 2008