While the Greeks were eager to hear new and unusual ideas (17: 22), they often were slow to accept them. Paul’s ideas, in the main, they did not, and could not, accept. To them, Paul’s ideas were brazen and bizarre. The Greeks could see no connection between their idea of God and Paul’s.
They were right.
Paul understood as much, which is why he aimed to address them on the basis not of their knowledge but of their ignorance -- on the basis of a god they did not know, and knew they did not know (v. 23). When Paul did so, he did not resort to talking about Aristotle’s uncaused cause, his unmoved mover, or his self-thought thought. Instead, Paul told them about Jesus and the resurrection. He did so because that is how God is known, and because that was something about which they knew precisely nothing. They did not know that God Himself had become flesh and blood, that He was crucified by Roman soldiers, buried in a borrowed Palestinian tomb, descended into Hell, and returned to physical life again on the third day.
In his Areopagus address to the Greeks, Paul began with Greek ignorance. Such ignorance is not common ground, but its absence. Ignorance is the hurdle God must leap, the canyon God must cross, the raging river He must swim, if ever we are to know Him -- and that is the basis upon which Paul proceeds: God has reached out to us in Jesus and the resurrection. Though the defenders of natural theology might think natural theology provides a connection between God and us, Paul knows it does not.
Thus, when Paul deals with the pagan Greeks, he deals with them as persons who must be told about what even they admit is an "unknown God." When he sets about explaining this "unknown God" to them, he references Jesus and the resurrection. He does so because God is known in Christ, in history. Paul declines to begin with Greek philosophy and the Aristotelian ways of talking and thinking about God with which his listeners were most familiar. Nor does Paul begin with the god of the Stoics or the deities of the Epicureans. To begin there is not to begin. Paul’s speech “was addressed to philosophers who thought they had risen above the religion of the multitude, and who had not reached a knowledge of the true God” (Lindsay, Acts of the Apostles, 2: 83). On this point, Paul is clear and unequivocal: “The Greek by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor. 1:21). Aristotle was no exception, nor were any of his followers.
Greek thought is a world away from Paul’s. For example, the Greeks often thought of death as something like a friend, which is a logical consequence of believing in the immortality of the soul. But the Christian way is not immortality of the soul but the bodily resurrection of the dead, which is why Paul preached Christ and the resurrection to them, and which also is why the Greeks ridiculed and rejected him. To them, it all seemed so crass and irrational. To them, Paul was a “babbler,” someone who set forth both “strange gods” and “strange things” (vv. 18, 20). So they mocked him (v. 32). To them, one simply could not get from Paul’s allegedly crude views to theirs. To the ancient Greeks, who knew their own thought best, no bridge existed between their theology and Paul’s -- even though so many modern apologists’ mistakenly assert otherwise.
To put it the other way round, Aristotle’s god is a god who cannot, did not, and will not become flesh, a god who cannot die and therefore cannot rise again. At least the Greeks with whom Paul disputed in Athens understood this, even if so many modern Christians do not. The Greeks rejected Paul’s assertions about the God of history and how He could be known, notions that to them were foolish and incompatible with the god (and gods) in which they believed. They did so because, when you cling to Aristotle’s god, you reject Christianity’s central affirmation: “the Word became flesh:” He lived; He died, He rose again. Yet, Aristotle’s god is the darling of so much that passes for Christian apologetics, and has done so since the days of Thomas Aquinas.
Recall that the earliest Christians fought a life and death struggle against docetism, which denied the incarnation. They realized clearly that if docetism’s central tenets ever gained sway, the faith was dead. Yet the very docetic god the early Christians rejected has become the bridge between the Faith and the world, at least as the Christian advocates of natural theology now practice their craft.
The essential historicity of redemption for Christian and Jew like is an absurdity to the Greek. As Oscar Cullmann explains it, “For the Greeks, the idea that redemption is to take place through divine action in the course of events in time is impossible . . . In the Primitive Christian preaching, on the contrary, salvation, in keeping with the Bible’s linear understanding of time, is conceived strictly in terms of a time process . . .Whoever takes his start from Greek thought must put aside the entire revelatory and redemptive history.”
Cullmann is right, which is precisely why, when Paul wants to unveil “the unknown god” for his Greek auditors, he does so by explaining Christ and the resurrection to them. Not to do so would be to junk Christianity itself, which Paul will never do. Not to do so would be to join Aristotle and his lackeys in pursuit of unhistorical uncaused causes and unmoved movers, whatever they might be, and to reject “the consistently historical method of revelation,” solely by which Paul knows God at all (Cullmann, Christ and Time, pp. 52, 53, 56, 60). God is known through the history of his redemptive actions, which, Cullmann insists, must unfold in time (Cullmann, Christ and Time, p. 92). In short, what was unthinkable for Aristotle and so many of the ancient Greeks was absolutely necessary for Biblical Christianity.
Ned Stonehouse agrees: There is “nothing to suggest that Paul acted on the assumption that he needed only to supplement what the heathen already knew or to build upon a common foundation.” Rather, Paul capitalizes on their assigning an altar to an unknown god in order “to pronounce censure upon the Athenians” and to describe “their religion bluntly as one of ignorance” (Stonehouse, Paul Before the Areopagus, p. 18, 19). In the past, Paul told them, God reacted to their ignorance with patience and forbearance. That time is over. The time for repenting their wickedness and ignorance has now arrived (v. 30). The philosophy and religion to which their suppression of divine truth had led them left them predisposed against such Pauline suggestions. So they mocked.