The following verse-by-verse account of Luke’s text establishes the truth of Cullmann’s and Stonehouses’s view cited above:
Upon entering Athens, Paul’s spirit stirred within him (v. 16). The word translated here as “stirred” is the Greek word from which we get our word “paroxysm.” Athenian idolatry made Paul shudder. He was appalled at the extent to which they worshipped the work of their own hands. He was in a city full of idols the way a forest is full of trees. The tense of the Greek verb here indicates that, for as long as Paul continued to behold the idols that surrounded him on all sides, his revulsion and disgust continued. His response was no mere passing emotion or superficial reaction, but a deep and abiding state of mind triggered by the collision of his theological commitments with the pagan surroundings. What he saw, he “looked upon with abhorrence. They were to him impersonations of everything evil; they expressed the deification of lust, cruelty, revenge, fraud, malice, and falsehood, and the deification of those evil things, not in the far-off past, but now at the moment enthralling and debasing the souls for which Christ died; so his spirit was stirred, the spirit of the faithful and devout Jew, on whose heart was written that law of God, ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them.’ . . . No matter how divine the beauty, their use was accursed” (Sadler, Acts of the Apostles, p. 328).
“What will this babbler say?” the Greeks around him asked (v. 18). The word for “babbler” is “seed picker,” which is “a small finch, here standing for those gossip mongers who scuttled about the agora picking up news, novel ideas, they could pass on to other “chattering parasites” (Plumptre, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 27). Their description of Paul in such derisive terms, of course, was evidence of their contempt and ridicule.
The Greeks leveled against Paul the same sort of charge leveled earlier against Socrates: He seemed to them to be setting forth strange gods (v. 18). Conversely, they seemed to Paul to do exactly the same. They were no more respectful of his views and his God than he was of theirs. They thought as they did about Paul because he preached Jesus and the resurrection (v. 18), a notion they considered bizarre and impossible. They themselves called it “strange,” which tells us that, to them, Paul’s gospel was not a mere continuation or supplement to their pre-existing beliefs, and they told him as much. Their view of the relation between their beliefs and Paul’s is quite distant from the view held by modern advocates of natural theology and the way they tend to meld biblical theology and natural theology indiscriminately together.
According to some commentators, because the Greeks employed the plural word “gods” here, they believed that the Anastasis (resurrection) which Paul preached in conjunction with Jesus, was itself a separate deity (cf. Sadler, Acts of the Apostles, p. 330) a fact indicative of the depth of delusion to which their minds had become habituated by their worship of false gods, and not an indication of how their false gods prepared the way for the gospel. For bringing up these “strange things” (v. 20), Paul was brought to Mars Hill, where he was given the chance to explain himself.
Perhaps because he rankled at their arrogant depiction of his teachings as “certain strange things” (which is the sort of demeaning epithet Greeks might use of barbarians and their ideas), and because of his abiding disgust at their idolatry, Paul addressed that idolatry first: “I see that you are excessively superstitious” (v. 22), he said, an opening not well-suited to win their approval. Nor was it intended to win it. Paul was not at all tolerant of those who rejected the resurrection: Against such views Paul was vehemently opposed, calling those who thought that way “fools” (1 Cor. 15: 35, 36).
Paul’s use of confrontation here is not unique for him. A man who called even his own Galatian friends and converts fools (Gal. 3: 1), and who corrected the apostle Peter himself in front of his friends (Gal. 2: 11ff.), would not, and did not, shy away from pointing out to the Athenian philosophers who came to hear him speak that they were “excessively superstitious,” a tactic fully in keeping with his clothes-rending rant against idolatry earlier in Lystra (Acts 14: 8ff.) and his subsequent denunciation of what passed for wisdom in Corinth (1 Cor. 1: 17 – 2: 8). His blunt, confrontational style was sometimes considered “contemptible” (2 Cor. 10: 10). Perhaps his Greek auditors thought it so this time.
To Luke, the author, the degenerate condition of Greek thought and religion was obvious: The pursuit of truth in Athens had shrunk to nothing more than a frivolous chase for novelty, he says (v. 21). With that polluted and shrunken context as the background, Luke explains that, to Paul, Athenian religion was a religion of ignorance (v. 23). But Paul was there to dispel their ignorance, and he told them so. He was there to declare to them the truth about the God of whom they were so shamefully ignorant, the God of Whom both the Greeks and their renowned philosophers were ignorant. To Paul, their religion was characterized by “ignorant reverence” (v. 23), and ignorant reverence is not real worship, and it is not knowing God.
Naturally, his explanation was not well received. As Plumptre explains, “That any human teacher should have power to proclaim that ‘Unknown God’ as making Himself known to men, was what neither Epicureans nor Stoics had dreamt of” (Plumptre, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 284).
But to Paul, the case was completely different. He knew what they did not know and could not know: He knew God. He knew God because he knew Jesus and the resurrection -- without which God remains unknowable and unknown.
Of course, Paul was not always so. When confronted by the Lord Himself while on the way to Damascus, the first thing Paul asked was “Who are you?” (Acts 9: 5). He had to ask because, like the Athenians to whom he now speaks, he simply did not know. He did not know even though he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3: 5), none of which brought knowledge of God, and all of which his Athenian hearers lacked.
In addition to attacking their ignorance, Paul attacks (1) their temples, (2) their worship, and (3) their arrogance. Surrounded on all sides as he was by buildings dedicated to false gods, Paul told the Athenian philosophers that God does not dwell in temples made with hands (v. 24), something he heard personally from Stephen, the Christian proto-martyr, over whose execution Paul had presided (Acts 7: 48). In his statement against their temples, Paul employs the words of Isaiah 42:5. Then, echoing Psalm 50: 9-12, Paul further insisted that God is not worshipped with the work of human hands, as if He needed anything (v. 25). Interestingly, the word Paul uses here for “worship” he also uses in Romans 1: 25, in reference to worshiping the creature more than the Creator, and in 2 Thess. 2: 4, in reference to worshiping the man of lawlessness. Finally, Paul tells them that God has made of one blood all nations (v. 26) -- a view to which no self-regarding Athenian could consent. The distinction between the barbarians and themselves seemed too radical, too obvious, and too persistent to overlook. They thought that overlooking that distinction was to think of themselves as no better than benighted slaves. But to Paul, these alleged distinctions were meaningless (Gal. 3: 28). He undercuts their arrogance by including them in the same boat as all other peoples and all other nations. By explaining that God had made all nations of one stock, and had set their national and historical limits, Paul was drawing upon the Genesis account of creation and, it seems, upon Deuteronomy 32: 8 and Job 12: 23.
Paul then re-emphasized his contention that under God we all are in the same condition. God has made us all one, Paul said, and He has providentially laid out his plan for the nations -- where they should live and when they should flourish -- as well as the reason for it all: that under His guidance we might grope after Him (vv. 26, 27). That is, God controls the history of all nations. Because He does, human history is a school, a vale of soul making, in which we all must detect the impossibility of ever satisfying the longings and “gropings” (v. 27) of the human heart by means of the gods of our own making. They should “seek the Lord,” he told them (v. 27), as well as how that seeking and groping ought to be done (vv. 30, 31). By explaining to his hearers some of the things God does in human history, Paul is distancing himself quite radically from the Epicurean god, who is detached and aloof from human life, a god absorbed in nothing so much as sloth and cosmic disregard.
Having hit them twice, once with their own ignorance and once with their likeness to all other persons under God, Paul hits them again, this time with their own writers: Quoting Aratus (from Paul’s own home region of Cilicia), and perhaps Cleanthes’ hymn to Jupiter, Paul asserts that we all live in the light of God’s omnipresence, because we all are his children (vv. 28, 29). But because God is Who He is, and because God does what He does, to worship humanly devised images and idols is ignorant and irrational (v. 29). Yet, despite all their providentially bestowed advantages, they were still ignorant. In His mercy and patience, however, God momentarily overlooked their universal ignorance and postponed judgment. He has done so, Paul tells them, with the purpose of eliciting their repentance (vv. 30, 31). Had God not mercifully and momentarily overlooked their ignorance, his justice long ago would have crushed them under the weight of their own idolatry. Now, absent their repentance, nothing was left but judgment. The historical evidence of God’s plan in all this is the resurrection from the dead of the very man who will be universal judge (v. 31).
At the mention again of bodily resurrection from the dead, the Greek philosophers had had enough. They mocked. They subjected Paul to derision.
From Athens, Paul travelled to Corinth, where his stance toward the alleged wisdom of Greek philosophy remained the same as it was in Athens and before: antagonism and opposition – a stance notably distant from the theological implementation and apologetic incorporation practiced by our contemporary devotees of natural theology.
Paul knows pagan literature and thought. Because he does, he can use against the pagans themselves. But to say that he knows pagan literature and thought is not to say he endorses it or that he agrees with it. Using it against them means only that he knows their weaknesses in ways they do not. He can beat them on their home court and by their own rules. He defeats them with their own tools. He knows the ways in which their paganism cannot succeed and cannot be consistent even on its own terms. He exploits those failings against them, as he does in Acts 17. He points out the self-refuting character of their thought, which is not to endorse it. He is not saying that their thoughts lead to God. The net result of pagans using pagan thought is that God remains unknown. To know Him means to understand Jesus and the resurrection, which to pagans is folly but to Paul is the deep wisdom form before the dawn of time, to echo C. S. Lewis in a different but related context.
The general tone and tenor of Paul’s Areopagus speech was one of condemnation and opposition. In Corinth, that tone and tenor continued. Paul was not looking for common ground. He was not building bridges. He was tearing down strongholds. 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 apologetics 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 (Rom. 1: 23). 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, away from God. 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 Paul knows they do not know God, is hardly an endorsement of their natural theology. Rather, their ignorance offers Paul 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.