Over the last five years, my family and I have had the privilege of frequently visiting missionary friends in Athens. Every time I have gone, I have made sure to visit the Areopagus, the scene of Paul’s address in Acts 17. Of course, you have to use your imagination when visiting today. It’s basically a big hunk of uneven shiny rock to clamber up on and walk around (being careful that the kids don’t topple off the sheer drop at the back!). But when I’m there, I always like making the point, to anyone around who’ll listen, that I’m actually standing on the place where the actual apostle Paul preached to the Athenian cognoscenti all that time ago.
Anyone interested in cultural apologetics and Christianity’s relationship to other religions will know Acts 17. Indeed, all roads seem to lead back to this Athenian outcrop. Though my students might inwardly groan at yet another theological trip there, it never becomes tired or clichéd, for it remains a ‘touchstone:’ a microcosm of the gospel of Jesus Christ encountering the religious Other in public. Whether it’s recent bathroom-related legislation, or the pronouncements of a would-be president, we are constantly faced with how to relate Christianity to other worldviews, and it often leaves Christians dizzy and disoriented. We need some basic theological clarity with regards to how we remain faithful to the gospel—handed down to us from Christians through the ages—in a multi-faith society.
So, whether it’s to clear up misunderstandings or give us fresh understandings on our mission and ministry today, I think it’s well worth yet another quick whistle-stop tour of the Areopagus.
Idolatry Should Be Distressing
Well into his second missionary journey, a solitary Paul is on a stop-over in Athens, having packed his friends off to collect Silas and Timothy, who were still in Berea. One can imagine him wandering around this proud city renowned for its history, learning and cultural creations. However, what frames Paul’s visit, and what serves as the backdrop for his later address, is a different creation: idolatry, what the Old Testament defines as the “work of human hands” (Ps. 115:4, ESV).
Our focus is entirely drawn to Paul’s revulsion and righteous anger at the idolatry he sees in Athens. Just as God himself was provoked by idols in Deuteronomy 32:16–19, so now Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, ESV). This introduction must never be left out. It is this deeply negative reaction which gives us the mood music for the whole Athenian encounter. However respectful, intellectual, and contextual Paul may be in what follows, we must not forget this context. It is an unfortunate example of spectacularly missing the point that those of a more liberal persuasion miss this framing prologue and continue to see in this passage as a justification for a more inclusive attitude for inter-faith engagement.
Paul’s attitude toward idolatry challenges us in two key areas when it comes to interfaith dialogue. First, in our politically correct, “tolerant,” multi-cultural context, do we have the biblical eyes—and frankly the biblical nerve—to see and feel all our evangelistic and apologetic encounters in the context of idolatry and its provoking nature? I’m not talking about an application which issues in facile, red-faced ranting and raving, but a background theological commitment which understands the real theological nature of all that is not of Christ. Idolatry is to my mind the seminal biblical tool through which to view the religious Other. Its sophisticated explanatory power does not bludgeon like a machete but offers the precision of a scalpel.