A Jew in Athens

Not too long ago I got into a very loving, respectful debate
with a brother in Christ about apologetic methodology. One thing was brought up that I wanted to elaborate on.

The debate began because I suggested that the presuppositional apologetics (PA) model of apologetics seeks to prove the Christian faith on the impossibility of the contrary. Meaning, no other worldview can make sense of the necessary preconditions of intelligibility. It is impossible for Christianity to not be true. This method differs from the Evidential and Classical apologetics in many ways. To put it briefly, PA denies that man can be neutral, therefore, external evidences cannot be interpreted objectively. Underlying presuppositions affect how one interprets evidences, therefore, the debate needs to address the absurdity of the presuppositions everyone’s worldview is bringing to the conversation. Rather than granting the unbelievers tools their worldview cannot account for to judge God and the evidences for Him, we take their tools away. In the process, the uses of evidences is more seldom as we are digging to a more central foundation for conversation. We are discussing the very tables we all set our evidences on.

A very basic description would be this: Without God, it is impossible to prove anything. Unless you start with God, nothing can be made sense of. 

Given this description, a common response is asking, “Why is your God the necessary precondition? Why can’t any other deity make the same claims?”

This is essentially what the brother asked me. Specifically, he asked about Judaism. He recognized the potential power of PA to the (professing) Atheist, but didn’t see how it consistently computes to a theistic religion like Judaism. If God is necessary to make sense of anything (The PA claim), then why can’t any god fit the bill? 

Since he asked about Judaism, I mentioned the way Paul dealt with the Jews, and that was always on the basis of Scripture. Paul never once tried to convince the Jewish people, post-resurrection, of the resurrection via piece-meal historical/empirical evidences, but rather, through a consistent reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. 

My stance is as follows: Paul used previously given revelation to deal with false claims. Thus, in all my apologetic endeavors, I long to lean on previously given revelation. 

Why are Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnessism, Islam, and all other theistic religions wrong? Because they contradict Scripture

The response to all this, which was expected, was that the Jews were people who already accepted the Scriptures. The idea being that we ought to use Scripture (or presuppose God’s revelational) with people who believe in it, but if someone does not believe in it, they need evidences. Jettison revelation, stand on an objective, neutral playing field, examine the evidence, and follow it where it leads. 

What was interesting was that this brother brought up Acts 17 as his defense for this idea. 

Acts 17: 22-34 tells of the events that took place in Athens, where Paul was brought, because of his preaching, to the Areopagus (I believe contextually was a council) where he proclaimed the truth of God to the Greek philosophers and bystanders. Although some Jews were likely present, Paul was largely addressing non-Jewish, Gentile people. And, from a worldly perspective, some of the most brilliant people in the world. These people, being Gentiles, would have no respect for the Jewish Scriptures, and certainly would not consider them the Word of God. 

The brother claimed that since Paul did not quote Scripture, the the presuppositionalist model fails the test of whether it is biblical or not. It stands, from his perspective, that since Paul quoted Scripture with the Jews but not the Greeks, that empirical evidences are necessary when the Scriptures are not presupposed. 

There are 3 important things to consider in regards to Paul’s approach at Athens:

1) Acts 17 does not support the evidenince based or classical methodologies either.

It is ironic to say Acts 17, Paul’s sermon at the Areopogus, does not fit the Presuppositional model when Paul appeals to no evidence in this sermon at all.

Paul at no time brings up any evidences, historical or empirical, to prove things like the historicity of the resurrection, the reliability of the Scriptures, etc. Thus, even if one grants that Acts 17 does not support PA thinking, one simply cannot grant the alternative is Evidential or Classical methods either. Neither of those are represented in the text.

What is more important however is what Paul does presuppose.

The fundamental differences between the methodologies are the presuppositions we bring in. I believe the PA method is the only method that takes into account man’s intentional rebellion against what they know to be true (Romans 1), man’s inability to please God with their thoughts (Romans 8), and man’s totally depraved nature which does not allow them to see the things of God (1 Cor. 2, Romans 3). We are kidding ourselves if we think piece-meal facts about reality will be convincing to someone who is already in the position of hating God, suppressing the truth, exchanging it for a lie, being unable to please God, and is actively opposed to Jesus. 

Notice the things Paul asserts in the text rather than proves

“For as I passed through 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.”  Acts 17: 23

Thus, Paul in no way presents any philosophical, historical, or evidence based reasons for why His Deity is true and theirs are false; he simply asserts it. Thus, even in granting that Acts 17 is not in support of my method (which I don’t), it does not follow it supports any of the current apologetic methods either. Paul attempted to prove none of what he said, he did assert it as if it were true though. It appears that for Paul, defense and proclamation belong together. This is especially important because the primary issue of contention among the Greeks was the incredible claim that Jesus rose from the dead (18). Yet, Paul in his apologetic method provides none of the common defenses for the resurrection made by apologists today. 

Paul speaks nothing of how a weak, crucified man couldn’t remove the stone, or how mass hallucinations are unlikely, or how the disciples could not have stolen the body because of the guards, or how liars are not willing to die for their myths. 

No, Paul enters into no discussion of evidences which can only at best make the resurrection a likely event. Paul’s behavior seems very consistent with Luke 16: 31, that resurrections, without theological frameworks in play, convince no one of anything. 

Another aspect of this that is very much at odds with the other apologetic methods is Paul’s refusal to seek and find any common ground with his intellectual adversaries. The lengthy details of the Stoic and Epecurian (17:18) philosophies is beyond the scope of this piece, but one thing is clear: both of these secular, Greek, philosophical worldviews were deeply opposed to Christian truth, and not once does Paul begin to find any common ground between the two sides to stand on as they reasoned together. 

Prior to being brought to the Areopagus, Paul’s message (even as a man well trained in Greek culture and philosophy) was described as altogether “new” (19) and “strange” (20), which lead them to describe Paul as a “babbler” (18). The greatest secular thinkers of the day thought Paul a fool, and Paul was not embarrassed by this. Let this be a lesson to all of us: a desire to be respected by academic contemporaries outside the faith will destroy apologetic methods. It cannot be a concern. To steal a quote from the friend of my father, the state of the evangelical apologists today can be captured by this hypothetical compromise, “I won’t call you a heretic if you don’t call me an idiot.” 

Paul presented the intellectual elites with a worldview clash which provided no common ground to stand on.

2) Paul does Quote Scripture

In his book Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Dr. Greg Bahsnen provides a detailed, extensive, 42 page exegesis of Paul in Athens, or as he puts it, The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens. So much of what Bahnsen says it relevant here, but for brevity’s sake, I will only take note of his section of the chapter titled “Scriptural Presuppositions.”

In this portion, Bahnsen demonstrates that Paul’s entire defense to the council of the Areopagus is rooted in God’s revelation and stands upon the authority of Scripture. He never once abandoned his pre-commitments to Jesus and His Word, but on the contrary, He grounded all He said to the pagans in Jesus’ Word. 

When Paul states that God made heaven and earth and gives life an breath to all that dwell in it (Acts 17: 24-25), he is using language suspiciously similar to Isaiah 42:5. In verse 7, Isaiah describes Gentiles as those who sit in darkness, while Paul describes the Gentiles in front of him as those who grope and feel for God (Acts 17: 27). Almost everything Paul said is rooted in Old Testament language and teaching. Paul is thoroughly biblical in his entire apologetic. 

This lead the great Scholar F.F. Bruce to say this about Paul’s defense, as quoted in Bahnsen’s book page 264:

“He does not argue from the sort of ‘First principles’ that which formed the basis of the various schools of Greek philosophy; his exposition and defense of his message are founded on the biblical revelation of God…. Unlike some later apologists who follow in his steps, Paul does not cease to be fundamentally biblical in his approach to the Greeks, even when (as on this occasion) his biblical emphasis might appear to destroy his chances of success.”

Paul is not a man in this text who is speaking in classical apologetic vernacular. The ideas that permeate non-presuppositonal methods like “we don’t know for sure, we could be wrong, but the greatest preponderance of the evidence suggests Jesus as the most likely position…” is not being presented by Paul. Paul is an apologist who boldly asserts the biblical truth, knowing all men are culpable for knowing it already (Romans 1). Paul never once engages in the exchanging of evidences or adding attempts to add facts to pagan’s worldviews, but instead challenges their entire worldview system and calls for a total recall of all of their most basic presuppositions, telling them to repent (30) and enslave all of their thinking to Christ.

3) Presuppositionalism is more than quoting Scripture

Bahnsen also said this, 

“Paul was an expert at suiting his approach to each unique challenge…” (Always Ready, 237).

In our conversation, this point is really where ships began to pass in the night. Simply asserting that Paul argued with the Jews on the basis of Scripture is not an admission that the PA model has not room for adaptation. The PA model does utilize evidences, but it does not rely upon them in the same way, and never presents them to give people an opportunity to judge the truthfulness of God’s Word. 

More importantly, the PA model does in fact change in application and direction depending on the worldview at hand. All non-Christians worldviews are foolish (Romans 1) and not true. But they are all foolish differently. Meaning PA does not present a one size fits all approach. It is not a script. 

What makes the two models different is simply recognizing the condition of man, and addressing how to defend the faith in light of that. Theology determines apologetics, and thus, when one begins with the neutrality and autonomy of man, the apologetic which fits that will follow. When one begins with the depravity and enslavement of man, likewise, the appropriate apologetic will follow.

The way the PA model is applied to all religions is not by necessarily quoting Scripture at them and calling it a day. It still interacts with their arguments and meets them with a response and challenge. However, the essential point of recognizing one’s presuppositions, attacking the inconsistency of those presuppositions, and never assuming it’s possible or reasonable to abandon our own, is the consistent and faithful way of engaging the world while simultaneously believing that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge.” We cannot use wisdom and knowledge to direct us into fearing the Lord, we must fear Him first to then use wisdom and knowledge. 

The Mormon can’t claim to believe in the Bible, yet be a polytheist. The Jew cannot claim to hold to the Hebrew Scriptures but deny the Messiah. The Atheist cannot reject those Scriptures, but steal concepts like immaterial laws of logic and morality from the God of them. The approach is tailored, but the principle doesn’t change. 

Ultimately, Our duty is to enslave all thoughts and make them captive to Christ. And we cannot do that by beginning with the assumption that Christ may not be who He says, and then attempting to use the foolishness of the world to guide our interpretations of the evidence to the conclusion that He likely is. 

One thought on “A Jew in Athens

  1. Great read. I'm reminded of John 1; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” …without Him was not anything made that was made.” The universe begins and ends with the Word. Anything outside of God's Word is vain and void; completely and utterly false.


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