Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016


Ralph Cunnington

The Affinity Theological Study Conference is just around the corner, taking place on 1-3 March 2017. The topic for the conference is “The Christian Church: its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture” and with that in mind I’d like to share a few thoughts in this editorial on gospel preaching in a post-Christian context from Acts 17. The situation Paul encountered in Athens was, of course, quite different to our own. Athens was a pre-Christian culture waiting for the gospel to explode whereas our culture is very much post-Christian. That said, there are plenty of parallels between Paul’s situation and our own. Much like our own cities, Athens was full of idols (17:16) and the dominant philosophies that Paul encountered (17:18) had striking similarities with the prevalent worldviews of our own day.

The Epicureans believed that the gods were made up of tiny little atoms that floated between the atoms of other things. In other words, they were removed from the world and did not interfere with humans. Epicurus advocated living life in a way that maximised pleasure and minimised pain. The Epicureans were functional atheists – the Oprah Winfreys of their day. The Stoics, by contrast, conceived of the whole universe as being structured around the principle of reason. They thought that everything in the world could be explained by reason and spoke in high moralistic terms about the need to tame our emotions and passions because they were out of step with reason. The contemporary equivalent would be the New Atheists of the Richard Dawkins mould. These two worldviews were very different on a number of levels but they had one thing in common – they both rejected claims to exclusive truth. From the perspective of both worldviews, the claim that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” was both narrow and intolerant. The parallels with our own situation are clear and so it is helpful to examine in detail how Paul sought to engage with his questioners.

The first thing to notice is that Paul was both distressed and proactive. The temptation when the church is on the back foot in society is to wring our hands in despair and lament the fact that we have lost our position of influence. But that was not the approach of the apostle Paul; he was “greatly distressed” at the fact that Athens was awash with idols (17:16). In fact, the word used there, paroxynō, carries the sense of being “provoked in spirit” and may indicate that Paul was both distressed about the idolatry but also concerned for those who had rejected the one true God. Whatever the motivation, it drove him to action: going and preaching the gospel in two very different venues. Firstly, he preached in the synagogue (17:17), as was his custom (see 14:1); but then he preached also in the market-place – the hub of social activity where people met, socialised and disseminated news.

For centuries in the West the church has relied upon the fact that church attendance is a social norm; people would come to church with little or no invitation because it would be socially advantageous. That is no longer the case in a post-Christian culture and the Field of Dreams approach to evangelism: “build it and they will come”, no longer works. Instead we must revert to Paul’s strategy of going and telling people the good news about Jesus in the places where we find them.

Paul’s engagement with his pagan hearers landed him in trouble and he promptly got labelled a “babbler” (17:18). The word used there, spermologos, pictures a bird picking up seed. The accusation is that Paul formulated his message by assembling the scraps of other people’s beliefs, putting them together to produce a hybrid monster religion. And notice the target of their ridicule, his “preaching the good news of Jesus and his resurrection” (17:18). His strange ideas lead to him being brought before the Areopagus – a city council with real power. This would have been intimidating for Paul. The council had power to try crimes and regulate city life; but Paul saw it as an opportunity and set about doing two things: engaging the council’s worldviews and subverting them with the gospel.

The commentators are divided as to whether Paul’s opening statement in vv. 22-23 is intended to be affirming or rebuking. On balance, I think it is probably the former. He is recognising that the Athenians are homos adorans – worshipping men – and affirming their desire to worship. That is right and proper and indeed it is evidence of common grace. But Paul immediately moves to challenge the object of their worship and points them to the “God who made the world and everything in it” and who is necessarily self-sufficient (17:24-25). Paul engages and then he subverts. He then proceeds to buttress his argument by quoting from the revered Greek poet – Aratus of Soli (315-240 BC). Paul lifts Aratus out of his pantheistic context and uses him to affirm a biblical truth: that we have a common ancestor (Adam) and are all made in the image of the one true God. Thus Paul affirms one Athenian belief in order challenge another – the Athenians’ worship of man-made images (17:29). Again, we see Paul engaging his hearers in order to subvert their worldview. This is nothing less than a biblical precedent for pre-suppositional apologetics and it has much to teach us as we face the challenge of reaching a secular post-Christian culture.

Our friends, colleagues and neighbours read their lives through the lens of a worldview that they are neither conscious nor aware of. That lens has been developed through a complex mesh of interlocking influences from their education, media and upbringing. Our role is to unveil that worldview (to help them to see that they are indeed wearing worldview glasses), to engage with it and ultimately to subvert it by showing its internal inconsistencies. This requires hard work: listening well, and creative thinking. We will need to identify what Charles Taylor refers to as “cross-pressures” – areas of their life where they encounter a dissonance between what they think and what they experience (Secular Age, 2007, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp. 726-727). Tim Keller has done excellent work in helping us to think through where these areas are in the post-Christian experience (see in particular Keller, Preaching, 2015, London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp.121-156). Having thus identified and subverted his hearers’ presuppositions Paul moves on to apply the gospel.

I would like us to notice two things that are central to Paul’s presentation of the gospel but often omitted in contemporary evangelism: wrath and repentance. It is interesting to observe what brings Paul’s speech to a grinding halt. On the face of it, it appears to be his mention of the resurrection (v. 31). But Paul points to the resurrection simply because it provides “proof” that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed”. Post-Christian culture has rejected the very concept of sin. Commenting on the situation, James Emery White writes:

We’re not sinners at all anymore. As many have observed, we’re just “mistakers”. And we’re even starting to lose that. Lately, we don’t even want to call a sin a mistake. We want to turn everything we do into a virtue. So lust becomes “sensuality”, and anger just means being honest with your emotions”. (

In a culture that has jettisoned the concept of sin, it is unsurprising that we have also rejected the concept of God’s wrath or judgment against it. Just like the apostle Paul, Christians today need to hold their nerve and keep preaching the bad news alongside the good news of the gospel. And we need to be clear on what we are calling people to do. At City Church Manchester, we regularly hold interviews with those interested in applying for church membership. One of the things we ask applicants to do is to present a ninety-second gospel presentation. It is striking how often repentance is left off. In our zeal to emphasise the gospel of grace, we too often give the impression that we are calling on people simply to believe, rather than to “repent and believe”. Our concern in relation to grace is, of course, misplaced since both repentance and faith are works of the Spirit. Moreover, now, more than ever, we need to be clear with people about the cost of following Jesus in a post-Christian culture.

The theme of cultural engagement is taken up in the first article in this issue which is the second-part of Ted Turnau’s dialogues concerning cultural engagement. The characters we met in the last issue return to a round table discussion where they review the strengths and weakness of each other’s approaches. Ted then presents his own approach which focuses on imaginative cultural engagement using arts and entertainment. He explores a number of scenarios and gives some recent examples of where Christians have creatively used the imagination to “plant oases”.

The second and third articles address the doctrine of creation. David Green highlights how the church’s focus on origins has caused it to neglect the biblical emphasis of God’s “present continuous” activity in the world and the way that this displays his glory. David seeks to address this by pointing to ways that a biblical doctrine of creation gives significance to what we call “everyday life” and encourages us to consider what a distinctly Christian approach to living in the world looks like. In the third article, John James challenges the view that the intent of Genesis 1 was to establish the age of the earth. He reviews the history of interpretation of Genesis 1 and demonstrates how the rise of modern geology did little to alter the predominant non-dogmatism regarding the age of the earth. John argues that the current dogmatism is a response to the atheistic worldview that has come out of Darwinian evolution and argues that this response is picking the wrong battle against scientific naturalism.

In the fourth article, Stephen Clark examines the relationship between Word and Spirit against the background of recent publications by myself and Bob Letham. He challenges the portrayal of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ views on the matter and defends the concept of “immediate regeneration” by reference to the Pajonist controversy, the teachings of Herman Bavinck and of a number of other Reformed theologians. Stephen concludes that Word and Spirit are distinct, yet inseparable, in preaching but notes that the Spirit operates asymmetrically either in blessing or judgment. In a brief response, Bob Letham highlights that Stephen’s focus in his article is on the saving work of the Holy Spirit whereas he and I were addressing the inseparability of Word and Spirit in preaching in our publications. Bob concludes by agreeing with Stephen that the Spirit accompanies the Word “invariably and asymmetrically”.

It has been wonderful to welcome Matthew Evans as the new Book Review Editor for Foundations. In this issue, we have reviews of books on the Psalms, marriage and divorce, the conscience, Newton on the Christian Life, eternal subordination, and the incarnation. It is our hope that these reviews will point readers to profitable avenues for further study and reflection.

Plans for the next issue are already well advanced and we plan to focus on the topic of church planting. As always, we welcome correspondence on any of the articles featured in Foundations and also welcome submissions for future issues.

Ralph Cunnington
November 2016