Foundations: No.67 Autumn 2014

Review Article: The Gospel in the Market Place of Ideas

The Gospel in the Market Place of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World
Paul Copan & Kenneth D Litwak, IVP, 2014, 180pp, £11.99

Introduction

Steak is undeniably superb (vegetarians may not be aware of this but will have to take me on trust); it forms a fantastic centre-piece to a meal and, when cooked well, provides satisfaction guaranteed. However, a meal consisting of steak alone may leave something to be desired and a diet of steak alone will eventually leave you weakened and probably quite unwell. The question before us is: Do Paul Copan and Kenneth Litwak in their book, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, offer a nourishing apologetic diet?

Alister McGrath warns us against a uniform presentation of the gospel for fear “It may lead to the proclamation of the gospel in terms that either fail to connect with the cultural context, or which presents Christianity in such a way that it needlessly violates cultural norms of rationality or social acceptability”.[1] Copan and Litwak urge the reader to learn the lessons of Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17 so as to avoid such “translation problems” in presenting the gospel to those around us.[2] They understand Paul in Acts 17 to be deploying an extensive apologetic ground-game in order to connect authentically and effectively with his audience.[3] Their central question is: “How can we authentically and effectively present the message of Jesus the Messiah to those around us?”[4] In reviewing their efforts, we will use this central question as a yardstick by which we might measure their exegesis and application of Acts 17. First we will attempt a brief synopsis of the chapters and flow of the argument, and then we will offer a critique of the argument.

Argument Flow

In the first chapter, “Welcome to Athens”, Copan and Litwak draw a parallel between first-century Athens and our current context in the West, insofar as both consist in a pluriformity of worldviews and social structures.[5] This means Christians cannot simply ask religious questions without risk of being totally misunderstood.[6] Given this parallel, Paul’s approach in Acts 17 should serve as a model for us.

In chapter two, Copan and Litwak engage with the argument that Paul’s speech is actually a mistake, included by Luke as instruction in how not to do apologetics and evangelism.[7] They persuasively argue the contrary, not least from Acts 17:34.

This allows them in chapters three and four to move forward to explore Paul’s Athens and our “Athens”. In chapter three there are some illuminating thumbnail sketches of the various philosophies and worldviews on offer in Athens.[8] These sketches are accompanied by some helpful links to contem-porary worldviews. Chapter four feels like a gear shift as Copan and Litwak set out their case that Paul is portrayed by Luke as a Christian Socrates, making use of philosophical argumentation to present the gospel: “Paul used philosophical tools at his disposal, all the while setting his speech within a solidly biblical framework.”[9] Given Paul’s example, Christians should argue for biblical truths using all means, every “stubborn fact” that points to such truths: philosophical, historical, scientific and cultural. Not only should we practice this methodology in building bridges, but from the earliest apologists, Christians have been happy to do so.[10] The rest of the chapter is spent outlining some of the dominant worldviews in our Athens.[11]

Chapters five and six explore Paul’s speeches and Paul’s audience respectively. The former returns again (!) to the argument that Paul’s speeches in Acts 14:13-17 and Acts 17:16-34 are models to imitate which both present three key elements: they provide a template for gospel sharing, they illustrate how to connect meaningfully with an audience, and they provoke a mixed response.[12] Chapter six then unpacks the manner in which various segments of Paul’s Areopagus audience might have understood and reacted to his speech. At the head and the tail of chapter six are two important points to which we will return later. At the beginning Litwak and Copan share evidence that most people accept the gospel because they first experienced a relationship of trust with a Christian.[13] In concluding the chapter, they assert that Paul’s Athens speech is a model for engaging with academics.[14]

Chapter seven takes this observation and expands it, interpreting the speech theologically point-by-point to demonstrate how Paul challenged his (academic) audience with the gospel.[15] From these observations, Litwak and Copan extrapolate principles of contextualisation for every cross-cultural evangelist (note the small “e”) in speaking to unchurched friends and neighbours: “Paul’s speech then begins with a biblical foundation, without asking his audience to know about the Scriptures.”[16] Chapter nine then explains how Paul’s audience should have acted once confronted with the truth: “Paul first used the language of the philosophers and poets to challenge his audience’s beliefs and then challenged them to act on his new knowledge concerning the unknown God.”[17] Chapters seven to nine appear to be an exercise in the “subversive fulfillment” model of apologetics whose recent proponents include Richard Pratt, Randy Newman, John Frame, Tim Keller, and Dan Strange.[18]

This brings us to chapter ten, the concluding chapter, which attempts to draw all cords together in demonstrating how Paul’s Acts 17 methodology might actually be applied in the twenty-first century. This includes a discussion of principles (e.g. how to describe the unknown God), praxis (e.g. the possibility of holding dialogue suppers), and of various contemporary idolatries that need challenging. 

Critique

In Praise

Litwak and Copan offer numerous morsels of steak for our edification. Their fundamental premise, that Paul’s speeches are a model for us, is persuasive, and they provide helpful insights into some of the parallels between Paul’s Athens and our own context. Chapter six is a useful outline of how to simultaneously connect and challenge, and chapters seven and eight offer both a model in contextualisation and instructive principles in how all Christians might do likewise.

Reservations

There are two significant points that require further clarification or modification. The first is foundational to Copan and Litwak’s project: the assertion that the pluriformity of world views and social structures in first-century Athens mirrors our own.[19] There are certainly similarities but we are now in a fundamentally different time with regard to epistemology. At this point in Western thought, we sit at the end of a trajectory of epistemological skepticism.[20] From Aristotle through Descartes, Locke, Hume and perhaps most significantly Kant and Nietzsche, we have arrived at a point where ultimate truth in the realm of ideas (and therefore meta-physics, ethics etc.) is considered to be unattainable. First-century Athens had not yet arrived at this point, even though Aristotle’s dyadic worldview had laid the foundations for such an intellectual landscape. Paul contended for truth therefore, in a context and on a subject, where people accepted that truth could be found (even if they disagreed significantly on what that truth was). I would contend that Paul’s approach remains a model in dealing with certain questions, but we need a richer, broader apologetic approach to reach all people, academics included.[21] We need to give some thought to how people come to trust anything at all.[22]

This leads to the second point of criticism. Copan and Litwak deduce an overly-rationalistic apologetic approach from Paul’s Athens speech.[23] In a context where many are epistemologically skeptical, rational arguments will only “talk past” our interlocutors, for we will be unable to persuade people of the truth of the gospel if they do not believe truth in the realm of values is possible. Furthermore, as Copan and Litwak briefly acknowledge,[24] people often cite the most significant reason for coming to Christ as a relationship of trust with a Christian.[25] This resonates with the work of Lesslie Newbigin who, building on the work of Polanyi,[26] argues for the necessity of the church as a plausibility structure that embodies the truth of the gospel and challenges the fundamental faith positions of those outside Christianity: “Only by means of the ongoing life of believing congregations can this understanding of reality be made visible and comprehensible to others.”[27]

Conclusion

As noted above, Copan and Litwak argue that Paul’s speech is a model for fruitfully engaging with intellectuals.[28] My response would be that Paul’s speech is a model for fruitfully engaging with certain intellectual arguments. Bavinck argues:

Abstract, disembodied and history-less sinners do not exist; only very concrete sinners exist, whose sinful life is determined and characterised by all sorts of cultural and historical factors; by poverty, hunger, superstition, traditions, chronic illness, tribal morality, and thousands of other things. I must bring the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to the whole man, in his concrete existence, in his everyday environment.[29]

If Copan and Litwak are arguing that Paul’s Acts 17 speech is the model for engaging with intellectuals this risks ignoring that intellectuals can and do have non-intellectual reasons for their academic positions and for their opposition to the gospel which are rarely overcome by straightforward intellectual discourse alone.[30] This is something they hint at but fail to develop satisfactorily: “Both evangelising and defending the faith involves a process of engagement at various levels (social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual), and we enter into this process and thoughtfully).”[31]

The question throughout has been “How can we authentically and effectively present the message of Jesus the Messiah to those around us?”[32] Copan and Litwak offer valuable insights and warnings for the Christian engaging evangelistically in the West in the 21st Century. However, their failure to draw a sufficient contradistinction between the intellectual landscape of Athens in Acts to our own means they risk recommending a somewhat lopsided approach,[33] both in terms of contextualisation,[34] and in their treatment of Acts 17.[35]

I am aware that all this risks reviewing a book that Copan and Litwak have not written. Theirs is after all, a treatment of Paul’s Areopagus speech, not a work on missiology in general. However, I believe the insufficiently nuanced parallel between ancient Athens and the West in the 21st Century means some of the implications they draw from Acts 17 means the work as a whole has a somewhat disappointing rationally reductionist flavour. Make no mistake, Copan and Litwak offer numerous morsels of steak which I found personally nourishing, I just wish they had at least pointed to the rest of the meal more.

Jon Putt
Assistant Pastor, Grace Community Church, Kempston, Bedford