This is the third and final installment of this series examining apologetic insights from Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus as recorded in Acts 17:22-31 (part 1 and part 2). We’ve explored how Paul took advantage of the best opportunities and sought common ground. Now we will examine Paul’s use of natural theology, what his arguments were, and what it means for us as modern-day apologists.
What is Natural Theology?
Natural theology is essentially the concept that nature tells us some things about God and that it can be demonstrated from experience with the universe that God exists. Some of the most popular arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, teleological, moral) constitute natural theology because they argue from experience in nature to the existence of a transcendent creator/designer/law-giver.
Paul referenced this concept in Romans 1:18-20 when he wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (ESV).
From Paul’s perspective, nature demonstrates some things about God’s existence and attributes, so much so that Gentiles without specific revelation are held accountable for what they can know from nature. There are at least two recorded instances of Paul engaging in natural theology when speaking to Gentile audiences. One is in Lystra as recorded in Acts 14:15-18 and the other is at the Areopagus in Acts 17.
So, what were Paul’s arguments at the Areopagus?
As we’ve already discussed, Paul doesn’t quote Jewish Scriptures; instead, he utilizes natural theology to demonstrate the existence of God to the philosophers of Athens.
Paul’s Use of Cosmological Arguments
Paul’s first argument has to do with God’s necessary existence. Given God's existence, he is the creator of all that exists: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). Since it is the case that the universe is created by God, God is not contingent like the idols served by the Athenians. Instead, God is the necessary, transcendent creator and sustainer of the universe and humanity. Paul doesn’t use the cosmological arguments we’re familiar with. (He is arguing more for the necessity and non-contingent nature of God given that his audience likely already believed in an unmoved mover.) Instead, Paul is seeking to demonstrate that the God for whom they find—the true God of heaven and earth—is a necessary being and does not dwell in physical, brick and mortar temples.
Paul’s Use of Teleological Arguments
Paul moves from the necessity and transcendence of God in the context of cosmology to the imminence and design of God in the context of teleology: “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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him, we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 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” (Acts 17:26-29). Paul is claiming that God is the designer of the human race and that he is present in history and in the nature he designed. Paul argues that we can deduce something about the nature of God since we are created. Since such is the case, even the philosophers of Athens, having experienced the design present in nature, can reach out for God and find him.
Paul’s Use of Moral Arguments
Paul also refers to God’s moral expectations and forthcoming judgment: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Paul argues that there is an objective moral standard to which all people are held accountable. This standard exists because it is given by God himself. Thus, God (the source of moral standards) will judge the world according to righteousness (the moral standard).
The result of this awesome opportunity taken advantage of by Paul is modest at best. Some of the Areopagites mocked him after hearing him discuss Jesus’ resurrection from the death (Acts 17:32). However, “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34). Though it might not seem like it, this is a success. Even if nobody ended up believing the opportunity was worth seizing. However, after listening to Paul, a number believed, including a man who was likely important in the community of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris.
Lessons for Us
There are several applications for us from these observations. Primarily, the use of natural theology is entirely appropriate for Christians today. Some Christians believe that natural theology is a wasted effort and that only the Bible can cause people to believe, but often this constitutes circular reasoning and leaves us with no options to defend the faith to those who do not trust the Bible or believe in any supernatural being. Natural theology and arguments from nature are biblical and were expertly executed by Paul. We should be familiar with the arguments of natural theology because they are still potent today.
Likewise, the results of great opportunities and great arguments aren’t always as tremendous as we might think. Apologetics isn’t about converting everyone we talk to; it’s about faithfully defending the faith and allowing open hearts to receive God’s truth. Paul only did what he could, and enabled the free wills of his audience, and God works out the rest. Let’s learn from Paul and seek great opportunities. Even more than that, let’s be ready to seize those great opportunities that God sends our way effectively!