The general tone and tenor of Paul’s Areopagus speech was one of condemnation and opposition. In Corinth, it continued. Paul was not looking for common ground. He was not building bridges. Pagan beliefs and practices were his target, not the object of his affirmation. The perverse beliefs of the Greeks are what separated Paul from them. Their beliefs were not a truth they and he both owned, but the foolish and wicked errors he intended to correct. He did not reach out to them on the basis of their beliefs. He condemned their beliefs. They returned the favor.
Paul knew the options that fallen life gives us in this regard: Either we worship God or we worship things that are not God. To worship God, requires the mediation of Jesus Christ -- a mediation both of knowledge and of salvation -- of which the Greeks philosophers had neither. In order to fill that staggering lack, Paul determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In this regard, just as it was with Jesus Himself, nothing about the god of Aristotle or Plato crossed Paul’s lips. At the shocking sight of idolatry surrounding him on all sides, Paul’s spirit convulsed and wretched within him, just as ours ought to do within us.
But rather than wretch and convulse, some Christian theologians and apologists attach themselves to Greek errors both for apologetic purposes and for theological method. Paul did not. Rather than attaching his preaching and his apologetic to their idolatries, he pointed out to them their superstition and their ignorance and, in order to heal what ailed them, he directed them to Christ and the resurrection.
Paul’s speech was iconoclastic. Because the Athenian marketplace reflected the hearts of those who made it and who frequented it, Paul cast down their gods, not from pedestals made of marble, but from pedestals in the human heart. Paul knew that their invocation of an unknown god was a sham and a pose. He knew it was a suppression of the truth. It was an evasion of their obligations before the one God Who is. It was a substitution of a false god for the real God. It was not innocent; it was as wicked as it was false. Suppression, evasion, substitution: It was what Cornelius Van Til said it was: “culpable ignorance” (Van Til, Paul at Athens, p. 11). In Paul’s own words: “Where is the wise: where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God it pleased God through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe.” (1 Cor. 1: 20, 21).
Do not miss Paul’s point: The wisdom of God decreed that, by means of the wisdom of the world, the world could not know God. Natural theology simply does not lead to knowledge of God. To say otherwise is to oppose both Paul and God. Human wisdom, whether Aristotle’s or someone else’s, is more than merely challenged; it is exposed, debunked, and rejected. The Greeks, known for their supposed wisdom, could not locate even its beginning (Psalm 111: 10).
Rather than endorsing their natural theology, from verses 24 onward, Paul used it as a weapon against them, resisting them and refuting them, sometimes with their own words and ideas. He directed them to seek God (v. 27), implying quite clearly that by their philosophy and religion they had missed Him. Paul told his Greek listeners that, despite their excessive religiosity (v. 22), they failed to know God, and that they were ignorant (vv. 23, 30), in response to which he placed before them the resurrected Jesus as Lord. Concerning Jesus, Paul mentioned that He is fully human and, as such, is subject to death, and that he is Judge of the world (v. 31). Apart from knowing that, they could not and did not know God. No one can. They were estranged from God, and, by rejecting Paul’s message, remained so. They demonstrated that amusement and novelty (v. 21) are not the same as the pursuit of Truth. When the Truth Himself appeared in Paul’s speech, they mocked it and turned away (v. 32). That was where their natural theology led them. That is where it always leads. Nevertheless, despite their failing and their rejection of the truth, even when it was proclaimed directly before them, the Greeks thought they offered God authentic worship. Paul, in order to puncture their bubble of delusion, highlighted their ignorance. By limiting himself here primarily to highlighting their ignorance, Paul declined to trace out in fuller details the whole litany of their evils and errors the way he did in Romans 1.
According to F. F. Bruce, Paul “does not argue from ‘first principles’ of the kind that formed the basis of various systems of Greek philosophy; his exposition and defense of his message are founded upon the biblical revelation and they echo the thought, and at times the very language, of the Old Testament writings. Like the biblical revelation itself, his speech begins with God the creator of all, continues with God the sustainer of all, and concludes with God the judge of all” (Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 239). To be sure, Paul finds his preaching text in an altar dedication. But that they know they do not know God, and that he knows they do not know God, is hardly an endorsement of their natural theology. Rather, their ignorance offers him a chance to explain to them the history of salvation, which, in this speech, finds its climax in Christ, just as it does in Paul’s epistles.