Foundations: No.77 Autumn 2019

The Same God:Did Paul Claim the Athenians Worshipped Yahweh?

I. The same God controversy

Back in 2015, a controversy arose over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, then a professor at Wheaton College in the US, posted a photo of herself wearing a hijab on Facebook with a comment in which she wrote:

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbour because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind… I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.[1]

Hawkins was initially suspended by Wheaton College and later, after protracted discussions on both sides, a confidential agreement was reached which included a parting of ways. Along the way there was huge media interest in the issue and whether Muslims and Christians should be described as worshipping the same God.

II. Does Paul’s Areopagus address justify referring to Allah as the same God?

The “same God controversy” has many aspects to it, and too many to discuss in one article.[2] Here I want to focus on one particular aspect: the use of Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17 to defend the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

A special issue of the Occasional Bulletin of the Evangelical Missiological Society was devoted to the same God controversy.[3] Robert Priest guest edited the issue as a past president of the American Society of Missiology and then president of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Priest wrote the introductory article in which he expressed sympathy for Hawkins’ statements, arguing that “many American evangelical missionaries and missiologists, and perhaps the Apostle Paul himself would be in danger of dismissal if they taught at Wheaton College”. He continued:

It is worth noting that Hawkins was using the word “worship” in the same way the Apostle Paul used the term in Acts 17:23, where Paul referenced an Athenian altar to an unknown god who he said the Athenians “worship”, and then proceeded to treat this god as the same referent that he wished to tell them about.[4]

The question is to what extent does Paul’s Areopagus address justify referring to Allah as the same as the God of the Bible? The key verse here which Priest highlights is Acts 17:23. Here Paul is standing in the Areopagus in Athens and says:

For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The argument being made is that Paul clearly states that the god the Athenians worship is the same as the God of Israel, the God of the Bible. There is a prima facie case here which requires further investigation. I should note that this passage is one of my favourites and the one I wrote my MA dissertation about.[5] My comments here draw extensively on that work.

III.  The arguments of the Areopagus address

First, it is important to recognise that Paul stood accused of preaching about foreign gods (Acts 17:18-20). This is the very charge that Socrates faced in Athens, and which famously resulted in the death penalty.[6] The parallels of this story with that of Socrates are very strong, and the story of Socrates was well known so that it is likely that Luke is deliberately setting up Paul as a philosopher to be compared with the great philosopher.[7] The point here is that Paul is on trial for this dangerous charge of introducing a different god to the ones already acknowledged by the Athenians. His listeners do not believe he worships any already recognised god or one that they worship. Nor do they believe that this is what Paul is claiming. Paul’s starting point for his discussion with the Athenians was therefore certainly not a claim to be worshipping the same god. Paul’s initial approach therefore stands in sharp contrast to that of those contemporary missiologists who want to emphasise sameness. Paul started by emphasising what is different, even though he knew this risked him being put on trial for committing what could be a capital offence.

Second, we should note the obvious fact that the inscription on the idol admits ignorance of this god. This is the opening that Paul uses to proclaim the biblical God. This is quite different from going to a Muslim who is confident about the nature of Allah and saying that we worship the same god. Paul’s use of the “unknown god” here is part of his defence against the charge of preaching a new god.

Third, there is no definite article in the Greek so, although the ESV translates “To the unknown God”, it would more naturally be translated “To an unknown god.”[8] The Athenian polytheistic mind-set makes it likely that “an unknown god” is the intended meaning of the inscription. Paul is therefore taking a polytheistic inscription and reinterpreting it monotheistically. He uses their admitted ignorance of a god in this inscription as a rhetorical device to proclaim the one true God.

Fourth, Paul takes the masculine “god” (θεὸς) and makes it neuter with the phrase “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[9] Paul thus de-personalises the idol: “What you worship” not “Whom you worship”. Paul later personalises his God, creating a further distinction between his personal God and the impersonal gods worshipped by the Athenians.

Fifth, the Greek construction emphasises their ignorance, not their reverence. Conrad Gempf explains: “Paul in effect says, ‘…what I proclaim to you is only that which you yourselves, while openly admitting your ignorance, claim to revere.’”[10] Paul is thus agreeing with their ignorance of their object of reverence, which also implies ignorance as to how to worship. What is more, this “unknown” (Ἀγνώστῳ) clearly expresses uncertainty as to what god they are worshipping. Calvin perceptively comments that: “Whosoever doth worship God without any certainty, he worships his own inventions instead of God.”[11] In other words, it makes no sense to worship something without having clarity on what it is that you are worshipping. Their worship is necessarily deficient because of their ignorance. Paul is thus clearly not saying that they are unknowingly worshipping the same god as him.

Sixth, Paul claims later in the speech (v30) that their ignorance is culpable. The Athenians need to repent. The one point of agreement that Paul can find with polytheistic idolatry is an admission of ignorance. He then assumes authority to proclaim the true nature of God to them. This makes it very clear that Paul does not see this worship of an “unknown god” as worship of Yahweh.

Seventh, the word for “worship” (εὐσεβεῖτε) or “revere”, is not the usual word for “worship” in the NT and, as Pardigon points out, “it is never used in relation to Yahweh in either LXX or NT.”[12] Jobes notes that this word was used by Philo of pagan sacrificing of children,[13] and suggests that the word had “become tainted by association with pagan religious ritual”[14] so that the NT writers avoided its use for worship of God. Worship of Yahweh is therefore in no way being equated with idolatrous, ignorant, polytheistic worship in this verse.[15] Paul carefully avoids using the term that he would use for worship of Yahweh.

Eighth, Paul is very keen in his speech to explain how the key characteristics of his God contrast with the Athenian idols. Paul’s biblical God:

  1. Is the single transcendent creator of the universe: “The God who made the world and everything in it.”
  2. Is the ruler of all creation: “…Lord of heaven and earth”.
  3. Does not dwell in temples: “…does not live in temples made by man”.
  4. Is self-sufficient: “…nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything”.
  5. Is life-giving: “…since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
  6. Rules all the nations: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”
  7. Is to be sought by everyone: “…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
  8. Is omnipresent: “…yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”
  9. Is the source of all life: “For, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.”
  10. Is the father of all: “…for we are indeed his offspring.”
  11. Is not representable by an image or idol: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”
  12. Commands repentance of all people: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
  13. Will judge the whole world: “Because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”
  14. Raised an appointed man from the dead: “…and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

This God that Paul is proclaiming is the single, transcendent judge of all peoples and radically different from the gods of the Athenians.

IV. Paul’s use of pagan quotations

Points 9 and 10 above are based on quotations from pagan authors that do recognise some similar characteristics between Yahweh and their pagan conceptions of god, and which contribute to Paul’s defence against the charge of preaching foreign gods.

The first quote from verse 28, I argue, is from Epimenides.[16]  The Cretan philosopher (c.600BC) was well known in the ancient world, and we know that Paul was familiar with his work since Paul quotes him in Titus 1:12, referring to him as a prophet.[17] Epimenides was famously called to Athens to help purify the city to stop a pestilence. Diogenes Laertius recounts the story of Epimenides taking some black and white sheep into the Areopagus and releasing them, ordering the people to mark where each sheep rested and to make a sacrifice there to the local god.[18] Ramsay explains that the Athenians believed themselves to be racked by guilt from the massacre of the adherents of Cylon in 612BC.[19] Each local god may have been known or unknown.[20] Diogenes then narrates: “Hence even to this day altars may be found in different parts of Attica with no name inscribed upon them, which are memorials of this atonement.”[21]

It is likely that the altar “to an unknown god” which Paul references is a deliberate allusion to the Epimenides story and that this would be recognised by the Athenians.[22] Paul builds on this by quoting from him in his speech. Paul may be hinting that the god who answered the prayers of Epimenides, whom they do not know and are not worshipping properly, is actually the God he is proclaiming. This is another way for him to refute the charge of introducing foreign gods to Athens.

In any case, Paul is following Jewish practice, later adopted by the Church Fathers, of appropriating a Stoic quotation without in any way endorsing its original meaning.[23] Stoic theology was pantheistic, whereas Jewish theology sees God as transcendent, but also omnipresent. Paul can state that, “we live and move in him” and mean it in a Jewish sense. It is obvious by now that Paul’s concept of God is clearly different from Stoic ideas.

The second quote, that “we are his offspring” is reckoned to be “one of the most commonly quoted Stoic lines in antiquity”.[24] It may be taken from Aratus or Cleathes, and a related saying is attributed to Epimenides.[25] It was a common Greek idea that God or Zeus was the father of humanity.[26] This idea is also present in Jewish writings.[27] In his speech, Paul attributes this quote to “some of your own poets”. In this way he is again arguing against the charge of introducing a foreign god. He claims that some of their conceptions of God are correct: It is true that we are God’s offspring. But as he goes on to say, this logically means that this God cannot be represented by idols formed by humans (v29). This true God ought not to be worshipped through idols. So, whilst commending the truth of some statements of their philosophers about the nature of God, he uses these same truths to criticise their means of worship.

Some stoic philosophers criticised idolatry, but the wider population took idol worship very seriously.[28] Paul’s rejection of idolatry is far more decisive and distinctively Jewish than that of the philosophers.[29] Paul sees idolatry as insulting to God and requiring repentance. Note that Paul includes himself in the injunction with “we ought not”, rather than “you ought not”, thus identifying himself with their position rather than antagonistically wagging his finger.[30]

These quotations were originally referring to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Paul takes them as true statements about the true creator God. By this time, it is very clear that Paul is not advocating worship of Zeus, nor is he claiming that worship of Zeus is equivalent to worship of the true God. He is using these quotations to show that his conception of God is not entirely different from their conception, whilst at the same time arguing that there are essential differences requiring repentance on their part.

Paul is not basing his main argument on these quotations; they are merely used to support his points.[31] Paul was not claiming that these pagan authors were divinely inspired in a similar manner to the Jewish scriptures, and neither would the Athenians have understood this, since they did not believe the philosophers had this kind of inspiration.[32] Paul effectively reinterprets these quotations by redefining God for the Athenians and appropriating them to his God rather than to Zeus.[33] Paul’s citations demonstrate a partial recognition of significant truths by these poets, and thus by his audience. It is true that we live and move and have our being in God, or by means of God, but not in quite the way that the Stoics or even Epimenides intended. It is also true that we are God’s offspring, but again not in the way that the Stoics thought.

I suggest that the use Paul makes of pagan citations legitimises Christians using quotations from the Qur’an in discussions with Muslims. We can point out things that the Qur’an says that Christians would agree with, without in any way attributing inspiration or authority to the Qur’an. Christians will also want to point out where statements in the Qur’an contradict Christian doctrine to clearly demonstrate that we do not agree with the teaching of the Qur’an and do not view it as inspired.

V. Conclusion

Paul did not start his discussions in Athens with a claim to be worshipping the same god. Rather, as a result of his preaching he stood accused of introducing foreign gods to Athens. Nor did he end his speech by claiming they were worshipping the same god after all. He claimed that his transcendent God commanded their repentance.  What Paul did do is agree with an admission of ignorance about the nature of God in Athenian culture and proclaim that he is there to explain what this God, whom they are ignorantly attempting to worship, is really like. This is a long way from a claim that the Athenians worship the same god as he does.

There are many other aspects of “the same God” controversy to discuss. Here I have focussed on the use of Paul’s speech in Athens. I argue that Paul’s Areopagus address cannot reasonably be used to justify claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. There may be other reasons to sometimes justify this claim, but Paul’s statements in Acts 17 do not support this approach.

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