I once had the privilege of joining a small group of students and faculty who were invited to eat and chat with a visiting professor from a leading Christian university. The professor was apparently quite familiar with Ratio Christi, though I soon found out that he wasn’t exactly a fan of our ministry.
At some point in our group conversation, the topic turned to evangelism and, giving me the side eye, our guest said something along the lines of, “I think Paul tried apologetics in Athens, failed, and changed his evangelistic approach from then on.” He then cited Paul’s apparently subsequent endeavour to preach “nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
This took me somewhat by surprise. I had heard this objection to apologetics before, but this was the first time I personally heard it come out of the mouth of a Christian academic.
Was he right? Did Paul really give up on apologetics after a failed effort in Athens? Did he leave behind the enterprise then and there, never attempting to defend the faith again? Did what happened in Athens that day stay in Athens?
I think not, and though we’ve briefly addressed this objection as part of a previous post, we’ll give it a more thorough response here.
A Severe Case of Selective Reading
The visiting professor’s perspective on Paul’s experience in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and later words to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2) is, unfortunately, all too common. However, such interpretations of these biblical texts each suffer from a severe case of selective reading. In other words, they read way too much into a verse or two and don’t read enough of what’s around them, leading to less-than-accurate conclusions.
First of all, those who use the negative evangelistic results in Athens (Acts 17:32) to argue for the failure of Paul’s use of apologetics seem to ignore the fact that there were also positive results: some wanted to hear more (v. 32) and others believed on the spot (v. 34). To use the negative results in this way is misleading, for the positive results could just as easily be used to argue for the success of Paul’s apologetic methods.
Second, we simply don’t know how many of Paul’s Athenian audience rejected his message. We’re simply told that “some” responded negatively, “others” wanted to hear more, and “some” believed. However, if we were to assume a relatively even split between these three response groups, then we would be left with a two-thirds majority of positive responses (seekers and believers) with only a one-third minority of negative responses. Thus, even measuring proportionally by the standard of evangelistic responses, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus was a success.
Third, Paul’s aforementioned words to the Corinthians couldn’t possibly be referring to a rejection of the use of apologetics. Later in that same letter, Paul makes the Bible’s most detailed apologetic case for the resurrection (1 Cor. 15). And in his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle reaffirms the need for using apologetics in his own ministry (2 Cor. 10:3-5). As explained in a previous post, 1 Corinthians 2:2 has absolutely nothing to do with abandoning apologetics. Rather, it’s about refusing to conform the preaching of the gospel to Greek rhetorical practices.
Finally, we’re explicitly told that immediately after leaving Athens, Paul resumed his practice of reasoning and persuading (Acts 18:4; cf. 17:7). So no matter how one interprets the evangelistic results of Paul’s speech in Athens, the apostle himself was evidently not dissuaded from continuing his use of apologetics.
Missing the Point of Apologetics
In addition to the above-mentioned interpretive issues, it seems to me that the comments made by my new professor friend and others miss the point of apologetics.
We’re told explicitly that it was the preaching of Christ’s resurrection—not Paul’s use of apologetics—that turned some of the Athenians off from the apostle’s message (Acts 17:32). (This was no doubt due to the dominant philosophies demanding either annihilation or a shadowy but insubstantial existence in the underworld following one’s death.)
But this is precisely why apologetics would be important here: it helps to remove the Athenians’ intellectual barriers to belief in the resurrection. In fact, Paul does just that for his readers in 1 Corinthians 15, who likewise shared in the Athenians disbelief in the idea of resurrection. Perhaps the apostle or one of his associates did the same for those in Athens who wanted to hear more.
Just Another Day in the Ministry
Contrary to the claims of the visiting professor, it’s simply not the case that Paul tried apologetics in Athens, failed, and then revised his approach. Rather, we find the same results there as we do elsewhere in the apostle’s missionary journeys: a mixed bag of skeptics, seekers, and believers.
In fact, this is exactly what Jesus himself experienced in his own ministry, and he said that we should expect to experience it too (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23). (And I would certainly hope that neither my professor friend nor any other believer would think of Jesus’ evangelistic approach as a failure due to the negative responses to his ministry!)
For Paul, what happened in Athens was simply another day in the life of the ministry. He never let the negative results outshine the positive ones nor discourage him from his evangelistic methods. Rather, he resumed reasoning, persuading, and debating immediately after leaving Athens and continued thereafter (e.g., Acts 18:4, 19; 19:8), defending the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever he went.