Learning from an Apostle: Christianity in the Marketplace of Ideas

by Douglas Groothuis

Sometimes Christians are not well-equipped for debates about their faith. Professor Groothuis shows us how the Apostle Paul was an excellent apologist, able to challenge people’s beliefs without them running away.

Athens and Apologetics

Lamentably, Christian witness today is often crippled by timidity or intellectual incompetence. In a pluralistic setting – whether in the university or elsewhere – Christians too often fail to present their deepest beliefs to unbelievers in a wise, reasonable and knowledgeable manner. As a result, non-Christians typically think that Christians hold beliefs with no rational support.

I encountered this attitude at a public forum in which I responded to an anti-Christian film called The God Who Wasn’t There. Questioners from the largely hostile and atheistic audience kept assuming there were no reasons for my Christian faith. I countered this by presenting a rational case for Christianity and arguing against secular critiques. Because I never appealed to ‘leaps of faith’, their stereotype of the unthinking Christian was challenged.

My situation that night was very much like what the Apostle Paul faced in Athens when he addressed the thinkers of that famous center of learning and culture. In fact, the Apostle’s Athenian address was what inspired me to speak in a secular forum in the first place, equipping me with necessary insights on how to handle myself under pressure.

By understanding how Paul presented the Christian message to this ancient and unbelieving audience, Christians today can discover principles that will empower them to speak the Christian worldview into the contemporary marketplace of ideas.

Wise Serpents and Innocent Doves

Paul was a tireless missionary. Relying on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), he would find a receptive audience and (usually) set up a church; then he would face persecution and have to travel elsewhere, or he would be thrown into prison (where he wrote epistles and evangelized everyone in sight). Paul’s witness at Athens is the most detailed account in the Book of Acts where Christianity challenges non-Jewish thinkers. Paul spoke in Athens just after he had fled persecution by the Thessalonians in Berea, leaving his colleagues behind (Acts 17:13-15).

Athens in Paul’s day was not at the height of its intellectual, cultural, or military influence, but it was still a cultural powerhouse. It was much like a major college town today. Yet Paul was not impressed by Athens’ heritage; rather, he was incensed by its idolatry. The Apostle was “greatly distressed” because the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16, NIV).

Despite its intellectual pedigree, Athens did not honor the one true God, but rather had sunk into idolatry. We, too, should be vexed and bothered by both the false religions and irreligion that dishonor God and lock people into spiritual darkness. While respecting freedom of religion, we should never make peace with deep theological error (see Galatians 1:6-11).

But instead of unleashing a thundering condemnation on the Athenians, Paul was wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16), as his Master had taught. He began to reason with the Jews in the synagogue and with the God-fearing Greeks day by day, as was his custom…

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Learning from an Apostle: Christianity in the Marketplace of Ideas – bethinking.org