Acts 17

This is a paper I wrote last night:

Theology is not a task limited to simply finding the answer. The task of theological refection, specifically theological exegesis, is not to nail down or encapsulate a passage of text into a fixed meaning which goes unquestioned and is never returned to. Rather, theology belongs to every generation. The task of asking the big questions and interpreting the scriptures is the responsibility of every culture and generation because the very nature of the scripture allows it to speak specifically to each specific generation, every community, and every individual. According to theologian/pastor, Rob Bell Jr. “The rabbis spoke of the text being like a gem with seventy faces, and each time you turn the gem, the light refracts differently, giving you a reflection you haven’t seen before.”[1] The turning of the gem is our task. To allow the gem to stay fixed and unturned would be, at best, to miss out on fresh beauty. But before the text can speak to the individual or the contemporary community we must understand the original intention of the text. In other words before it can speak to us we have to know what it said to them; the people to whom the text was originally sent. So we will turn the gem and begin to understand the text and what it may have to say to us.

We will discuss the theological implications of the book of Acts in the New Testament, specifically Acts chapter 17 verses 16-31. We will discuss the Theology Proper (Theology specifically referring to God’s Nature) and Theological Anthropology which are found in this Pericope. Let it be understood that this discussion could be carried much further than the content of this document but due to the brevity of it we will only go into a portion of what could potentially be discussed.

We must first place this pericope in its proper literary context. Paul is in Athens Greece waiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy (Acts 17.15). They had just finished ministering in a small town located about fifty miles southwest of Thessalonica called Berea.[2] Athens was, as referred to by W.H. Griffith Thomas, D.D., “the most celebrated city in Greece, the home of literature and art, famous in politics and thought.”[3] In Athens the text tells us that “he (Paul) was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17.16) Deep in His Jewish tradition was the understanding that idol worship, the worship of anything other than YHWY God, was forbidden and hazardous.[4] Paul then began entering into debates with people from several different worldviews including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17.17-18). His debates seem to have sparked interest among at least some, interest enough for them to be prompted to take Paul to the Areopagus (Acts 17.19). The Areopagus was a group who essentially acted as the cities “thought police.”[5] Any “new” philosophy which entered the marketplace of ideas gained its credibility or met it’s end based on the judgment of the Areopagus. Paul then begins his theological discourse presents his case.

Paul begins by acknowledging and appreciating the religiosity of the people in Athens. He then does something radical. He refers to an inscription written on an altar; “to an unknown god” (Acts 17.19). He then claims that their unknown God can be known. According to William Barclay “six hundred years before this a terrible pestilence had fallen on the city which nothing could halt. A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god [for they believed in many gods] and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to ‘The Unknown God’”[6] hence the inscription. He is taking a story in their history, something familiar, and claiming it. He proclaims his knowledge of the unknown God and then proceeds to describe the Jewish God; YHWH (Acts 17.24-31).

Paul’s opening statement (Acts 17.23) refers us to Theology Proper, the study of the Christian faith in God.[7] In describing YHWH, he suggests the immanence of God in the world. Paul claims that he knows this God, inferring that this God can in fact be known. If God can be known then He is not the God of deism who creates the world and then leaves it to its own and never intervenes.[8] This God is fully involved even to the extent that one could come to a relational knowledge of Him.

Paul then states that “He is the God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17.24). We now turn to Theology Proper. This statement is more than an affirmation that YHWH created everything, it is also a denial that any of the Greek gods, to which his listeners traditionally attributed the creation, had anything to do with creation. This assertion is not the introduction of a new God; rather, it is the revelation that they should have been worshipping this God all along for He has been at work all around them.[9] This concept of one creator God, until this time, was exclusive to Jewish and the new Christian faith. This claim would have been foreign to their thinking. Today it is understood throughout Christian circles being clearly illustrated in Genesis chapter 1.

Paul goes on to declare that this God is transcendent; “He doesn’t live in man-made temples” (Acts 17.24). This is more than a statement that God doesn’t dwell in buildings but it is also a statement that He cannot be described with human reason or by human methods. No devise of Man can contain Him. Where the Greek god’s were easily defined this God is always outside of those confines. As articulated by Saint Augustine “God is always greater (Deus simper maior), however much we may have grown”[10] He cannot be grasped, cannot be fully understood, cannot be encapsulated, and cannot be defined yet He is immanent and relational. Paul, here, is articulating one of the great Paradoxes of the Christian faith; God can be known yet is always beyond our grasped. Any theology that tries to explain away the paradox will eventually fall to one side or the other, either holding that God is transcendent and therefore not immanent or God is immanent and therefore can be understood. This explanation is an expression, in itself, of the very paradox it represents; God does not fit into human reason, “He doesn’t live in man-made temples.”

Next, Paul clarifies the reason for God’s creative act. He’s already stated that God created everything and now He states why God chose to create Man. “So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17.27). For what Paul said in verse 25, that God needs nothing, to be true (“nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything”), then the creative act must have been a “free act.” According to theologian Stanley J. Grenz, the fact “that no sense of external compulsion lies behind God’s act in creation is obvious. Were God driven by anything external to Him, this external reality would ultimately exercise sovereignty over the divine being…” and “were creation the result of an internal divine compulsion, God’s being would be bound up with the world. God would need the world to be who He is… He must remain totally God in Himself apart from the world, even though He is also immanent in the world.”[11] This is how we understand God; that He is who He is without any external influence. His attributes, love, compassion, relationship, etc., are inherent within His nature. Therefore, God created the world from His freedom as an outpouring of His love.[12] He created Man to be in community with each other and ultimately so He could have relationship with them. He created Man to find God.

Then the text draws us to Theological Anthropology or “the-anthropology” which is, as defined by Karl Barth as “a doctrine of the commerce and communion between God and Man.”[13] Theological anthropology, put simply, is a theological approach to the study of Man. Paul, again, does something radical. He actually quotes one of the Athenian poet, Epimenides[14], saying “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17.28). Now Paul is going beyond the face value of this statement. He is hinting at more that just our material being (for Paul’s concept and the Biblical concept of material and immaterial is that they are united in the soul[15]). Paul is referring to our identity as humans. Our very meaning comes from God for “God bestows meaning on us.”[16] Our identity, our meaning, and our very being are dependant on the God who gives it to us. We cannot find meaning, purpose, or our true identity in anything or anyone but God. Paul here is reaffirming his statement that “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth... so that they would search for God” (Acts 17.26-27). This search for God is not only something God wants but something Man needs, since we are in need of God for our identity. We can never be who we ought to be without God. The theological term for this is “Total Depravation.”[17] People have an inherent universal dependency on God. So we do not only worship God out of duty, or out of obligation, rather we worship God because “in him we live and move and have our being,” we are dependant on Him.

Paul takes something very familiar to them and uses it to articulate something totally foreign; a single God who created everything and is immanent in the world. He is “trying to explain to a group of people who believe in hundreds of thousands of gods that there is really only one God who made everything and every body.”[18] He takes a quote which speaks of some other god and he claims it to be talking about his God. This is an affirmation that truth is available to all people and it is not our task only to bring “new” truth but it is also to affirm the truth wherever we see it even if it shows up in unexpected ways. Paul’s beautifully articulate presentation of the gospel is a model for us. He demonstrates for us how to present the gospel in relation to Mankind.[19] He describes an Immanent God who is also Transcendent and Sovereign, who created everything we see and gives Man his meaning. He finishes telling them that this God has called us to repentance; to a “return to the people we were originally created to be,”[20] a return to our identity in Jesus Christ; “a man whom He has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31)

End Notes:
[1] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 60.[2] Philip A. Bence, Acts: A Bible Commentary In The Wesleyan Tradition (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House 1998) 171.[3] W.H. Griffith Thomas, D.D., Outline Studies In The Acts Of The Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1956) 343.[4] Exodus 20.3[5] Bence, Acts, 174.[6] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (Toronto: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd. 1976) 132.[7] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000) 3.[8] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2004) 407.[9] J.C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts In Its Historical Setting, (London: S.P.C.K. 1970) 163-164.[10] Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms (Psalm 63), in Nicene-post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989) 262.[11] Grenz, Theology, 99.[12] Ibid, 101.[13] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press 1960) 11.[14] Bence, Acts, 174.[15] Grenz, Theology, 160-163.[16] Ibid, 140.[17] Grenz, Theology, 448.[18] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 79.[19] Thomas, Outline Studies, 343.[20] Bell, Velvet Elvis, 150.


Anonymous said…
Good paper, brother. I like all the endnotes.

I don't want you to get docked for grammar so if you haven't handed the paper in already, in the 3rd paragraph YHWH is spelled YHWY; and in the 7th paragraph, 4th sentence you have an apostrophe on "god's" when there shouldn't be.

Hope you get a good grade.
wellis68 said…
Thanks so much. I haven't turned it in yet and am actually still in the process of revision. Thanks for the help.
Dolores said…
Very nice! Good use of references to give it credence and good personal insight. How you've grown!
If it's not too late, in paragraph 7 you wrote "beyond our grasped"; you mean "grasp".
Be sure and let us know your professor's opinion.
Anonymous said…
Very good. However, what modern expressions could this be attempted in?