Paul intellectualized the Gospel in Athens and failed. He de-intellectualized it in Corinth and succeeded. Beware of “higher education.” This is how many tell the story.
Drawing upon a variety of sources including her inspiration, Ellen White and those who helped her put together the book Acts of the Apostles, are among are among those who narrate it this way. Here are this book’s words:
In preaching the gospel in Corinth, the apostle followed a course different from that which had marked his labors at Athens. While in the latter place, he had sought to adapt his style to the character of his audience; he had met logic with logic, science with science, philosophy with philosophy. As he thought of the time thus spent, and realized that his teaching in Athens had been productive of but little fruit, he decided to follow another plan of labor in Corinth in his efforts to arrest the attention of the careless and the indifferent. He determined to avoid elaborate arguments and discussions, and “not to know anything” among the Corinthians “save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” He would preach to them “not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”1
There is another way to tell this story. It is that Paul intellectualized the Gospel in Athens with mixed results. He de-intellectualized it in Corinth with the same outcomes. He communicated with those in each city the way they most easily understood. This required an excellent education. Get one too!
Acts of the Apostles lends some support for telling the story the second way: It says this about Paul’s conversation with some Stoic and Epicurean on Mars Hill in Athens:
His intellectual power commanded the respect of the learned; while his earnest, logical reasoning and the power of his oratory held the attention of all in the audience. His hearers recognized the fact that he was no novice, but was able to meet all classes with convincing arguments in support of the doctrines he taught. Thus the apostle stood undaunted, meeting ground, matching logic with logic, philosophy with philosophy, eloquence with eloquence.
The wisest of his hearers were astonished as they listened to his reasoning. He showed himself familiar with their works of art, their literature, and their religion. Pointing to their statuary and idols, he declared that God could not be likened to forms of man's devising. These graven images could not, in the faintest sense, represent the glory of Jehovah. He reminded them that these images had no life, but were controlled by human power, moving only when the hands of men moved them; and therefore those who worshiped them were in every way superior to that which they worshiped.
The people were carried away with admiration for Paul's earnest and logical presentation of the attributes of the true God--of His creative power and the existence of His overruling providence.
According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul made a theological case for social justice too:
In that age of caste, when the rights of men were often unrecognized, Paul set forth the great truth of human brotherhood, declaring that God "hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." In the sight of God all are on an equality, and to the Creator every human being owes supreme allegiance.2
Paul was multicultural. He understood several different ways of life as though he were an insider. He used this insider’s knowledge to communicate the Gospel differently in different settings. This is how he once put it:
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.3
Keeping in mind that Paul frequently spoke in the synagogue and every day in the market place with anybody who was there, as well as to the philosophers on Mars Hill, his work in Athens resulted in only a small number of converts. His efforts were not totally unsuccessful, however. Some did become Christians and a man named Dionysius the Areopagite and woman named Damaris were among them.
Named after a Greek god for wine and drama, among other things, and a member of the upper class, one of the traditions says that Dionysius became one of the first bishop of Athens. That she was among the few women in Athens who interacted with speakers like Paul, many surmise that Damaris was better educated most than women and most men in the city. Unfortunately, this is all we know about her.
A small group of intellectuals emerged over time among the Christians in Athens and they did their evangelization accordingly. For example, Quadratus wrote an apology, or defense, of Christianity to the Roman emperor Hadrian. Athenagoras, wrote one to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose own writings are still widely read today, and his son Commodus. He often described himself as an “Athenian, Philosopher and Christian.” He addressed them as “Conquerors and Philosophers.” Although they might exist, I am not aware of Paul or anyone else admonishing the Athenian Christians for their immoral conduct.
We cannot say this of Paul’s many converts in Corinth. He met a number of Jewish people who were in Corinth because the emperor Claudius had banished all the Jews from Rome. Aquila and his wife Priscilla were among them. Paul lived and worked with them because they were tentmakers and so was he. He made his case for Jesus Christ in the synagogue every Sabbath where he persuaded both Jews and Greeks.
He eventually received so much opposition from others at the synagogue that he moved to the house of Titus Justus which was next door to the synagogue. It was a complicated and dangerous situation. On the one hand, the ruler of the synagogue, whose name was Crispus, became a Christian as did his household and many other Corinthians. On the other hand, other Jewish people strenuously opposed them and the proconsul Gallio refused to take sides. The result was they brazenly beat Sosthenese, who was now the ruler of the synagogue, in front of the tribunal. Gallio either didn’t notice or pretended not to.
First and Second Corinthians establish that the long-lasting challenge for Paul and his colleagues was not the quantity but the morality of the converts. Corinth was a seaport city like many of them today in its relaxed ethical expectations. The city was famous to travelers from near and far for its promiscuity and, some say, temple prostitution. As would be expected, this lack of sexual propriety blurred the ethical boundaries and dulled the ethical sensitivities of Corinth’s citizens about many things other things too. It went the other way as well in a slowly descending spiral of ethical self-destruction.
Leafing through the letters we have from Paul to the Corinthian Christians is a good way see these ethical challenges: 1) Rivalry among the disciples of Paul, Apollos and Cephas; 2) incest, 3) Christians suing Christians, 4) marital sexuality, 5) divorce, 6) celibacy, 7) food offered to idols, 8) freedom and responsibility, 9) dress and place of women, 10) manners at the Lord’s supper, 11) speaking in tongues, 12) church diversity and unity, 13) genuine love, 14) Christ’s resurrection and ours, 15) financially supporting the church and its members, 16) Christian perseverance, (17) suffering and steadfastness, 18) Christian boasting, 19) religious self-examination, 20) the power of truth, and 21) living in peace. He gave some of these more attention than others. Although I am certain I missed some, this should be enough to convey that the Corinthian Christians had many challenges.
When we step back a bit to see the big picture, we see that Paul reasoned with the Athenians and that he preached to the Corinthians. These are the “apologetic” and “kerygmatic” ways of communicating the Gospel respectively. Paul was good at both. Every generation of Christians has both. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. They are both more effective in some circumstances. They both deserve our respect and gratitude. Using different methods with different groups, and with mixed responses in both places, Paul did equally well in Athens and Corinth. Get the best education as soon as possible or help someone else to!
Notes & References:
1. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Silver Spring, Maryland: Ellen G. White Estate, 2010), 238.
3. I Corinthians 9: 20–23, New Revised Standard Version.
Dr. David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University.
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