Sunday, February 21, 2016

A,B,C's for Christian apologetics & evangelism - Acts 17:22-34

Acts 17:22-24 "So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you."

When we communicate the truth claims of the Christian faith to non-believers, what strategy ought we to use? In one sense it helps to have several different methods of doing apologetics (that is, giving answers as to the hope we have in Jesus Christ - 1 Peter 3:15). Certainly the different types of people we encounter will respond to different methods of presentation. With that said, it does help on the other hand to have at least one standard way of presenting a reasonable defense of Christianity that can be flexible to the needs of the moment. When we consider Paul's presentation of Christian theism before the pagan philosophers in Athens, we find what appears to be one such strategy. 

Such a strategy for presenting the truth claims of Christianity has been deemed "classical apologetics" due to it's early roots reaching back to the second century and earlier. Those living after the apostles had adopted strategies for defending the Christian faith against skeptics of their time. Undoubtedly the seeds for many of the arguments for God's existence and apologetic for Jesus' resurrection popularized by both ancient and contemporary apologists can be traced to such episodes as Paul's dialogue here in Acts 17. 

To better guide our thinking through this text, I will lay out in alphabetical order a strategy for presenting the truth claims of Christianity. The thoughts below are not meant to be exhaustive, but more so representative of what could be the beginnings of a strategy for defending the faith. Under each heading I will briefly summarize the portion of scripture and then provide a sample arguments that have been gleaned from one of the leading apologists of our day: Dr. William Lane Craig and his ministry - Reasonable Faith. 

1. Almighty Creator of the universe is God. Acts 17:22-29
After making some opening remarks in his address, Paul zeros in on a particular altar in Athens that inscribed these words: "To An Unknown GOD". In contrast to the pagan doctrines of the day, Paul asserts a strong Biblical belief in the One true Almighty Creator. He notes first of all that God and God alone is the origin of the universe and all things in Acts 17:24a. Second, Paul notes that this God is immaterial and eternal in contrast to the pagan deities who were believed to be material and localized (Acts 17:24b). Thirdly, Paul notes how the God of Christianity and Judaism is by nature non-dependent upon the universe, and thus the universe and life are truly dependent upon Him (Acts 17:25). Then fourthly, Paul describes how this all-powerful, eternal, immaterial and self-sufficient God is all-knowing and possessing free-will, since He ordains times and seasons and places where men live (Acts 17:26-29). 

These attributes of God correspond to what apologists call the cosmological arguments for God's existence - meaning that from observations of the universe and life, one can infer God's existence. A contemporary example of such an argument is what has been deemed "The Kalam cosmological argument":

a. Everything that begins to exist has a cause

b. The universe began to exist

c. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence. 

2. Basis of objective morality is God. Acts 17:30-31a
Paul then moves from demonstrating God's existence from observations of the physical universe and life (i.e cosmological arguments) to the realm of objective morality. It is one thing to speak about what "is" and quite another to discuss what "ought" to be. How are we obligated to live good, moral lives? Why ought we be moral people? Are standards of right and wrong a matter of personal preference, determined by a given culture or do such values operate independently of what you and I may say or not say? 

Paul makes mention of such moral concepts as sin and justice. To repent means to change one's mind about sin, which is to say, to turn away from that which is wrong and evil and detrimental to one's own spiritual and moral condition. Paul's mention of a final judgment indicates that there is a set of objective, universal moral standards by which all human beings are measured. Paul's point is that moral laws require a transcendent moral law-giver. 

This type of argument for God's existence from objective moral values and duties is perhaps the most effective sort of argument in today's culture. Modern apologists like C.S Lewis center's his arguments against atheism in his book "Mere Christianity" through appeal to a moral argument for God's existence. As Lewis notes, one cannot know what a crooked line is unless there is a straight line by which to judge it. A sample moral argument for God's existence is given below:

a. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties don't exist

b. Objective moral values and duties exist

c. Therefore, God exist

3. Christ's resurrection from the dead. Acts 17:31b
In presenting to the Athenian philosophers a general Judaistic theism (i.e belief in God), Paul then narrows his focus on demonstrating the truth claims of Christian theism. He identifies the God of creation and morality as having been decisively revealed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Dr. Craig has often noted in his debates with skeptics of the resurrection, the following four facts, widely acknowledged by N.T scholars of all stripes, must be explained:

a. The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea

b. The discovery of Jesus' empty tomb by Jesus' closest followers who were women and men

c. The subsequent appearances of Jesus to his disciples

d. The emergence of the robust faith of the early church 

The ancient pagan audience of Paul's day had no concept of resurrection in their thinking. Furthermore, by specifically mentioning the resurrection of Jesus, Paul brings his closing argument from the realm of the abstract to the concrete in preparation for a personal response to his message.

4. Deciding whether you believe or reject these truth claims. Acts 17:32-24
Paul's time in Athens ends with a response of both astonishment and acceptance. The first group responded with mockery. Within that first group, there were others who exhibited an openness, but nothing more. The second group consisted of some who not only accepted Paul's message, but "joined him and believed". This would had been unheard of in the ancient culture of Athens. To leave such a prominent guild as the Areopagus meant leaving behind prestige and the everything that one knew. It would be likened to a new Christian leaving behind a tenured professorship or risking ridicule at work or at school for the sake of following Christ. 

The work of apologetics aims to mesh with evangelism in pressing the demands of the Gospel on the hearer to "repent, believe and be saved". We pray that for all who hear us, that the Holy Spirit would attend our arguments, sermons, lessons and conversations so as to result in that person placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ .

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