Did Paul really change his tactics after Athens and begin to take a dim view of apologetics?
Some Christians have argued that apologetics is a waste of time. We aren’t supposed to be arguing with unbelievers, we’re just called to preach the simple gospel. If we’re faithful to do that, the Holy Spirit will supernaturally come to our aid — either in supernatural conviction, or performing signs and wonders through us that no one can gainsay.
To support this view, these well-meaning believers will point to Paul’s so-called ‘failure’ in Athens. Paul debated with the thinkers of Mars Hill, using natural theology and quoting their own philosophers in order to persuade them of the truth of the gospel. Paul’s results were modest. Acts 17:32–34 reads: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
After Athens, Paul moved on to Corinth and switched up his approach, or so the story goes. In 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5 Paul says that the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. He quotes Isaiah who wrote that “God will destroy the wisdom of the wise”, which included the ballyhooed wisdom of the Greeks. God isn’t calling very many of those who are wise by worldly standards.
Paul says that when he came to the Corinthians he didn’t come to them with lofty speech or wisdom. He decided to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified and came in demonstration of the Holy Spirit and power. In 1 Cor. 4:20 Paul continues this line of thought, saying the kingdom of God doesn’t consist in talk but in power.
So these critics argue that for Paul, using fancy arguments and evidence wasn’t necessary anymore. He learned this the hard way at the Areopagus.
Here’s the thing about this view: While there is some seemingly some biblical evidence that Paul switched things up with the Corinthians, it just isn’t true that Paul didn’t continue to use evidence and arguments in order to persuade people to become Christians. We just have to keep reading.
Did Paul give up on using reason and evidence after Athens?
For starters, let’s see how Luke records Paul’s visit to Corinth. Acts 18:3 says: “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” The Jews later tried to get Paul arrested, saying to the proconsul, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” (v. 13).
Paul clearly was still in the business of trying to persuade people. This pattern continues in the very next chapter when Paul goes to Ephesus. Check out Acts 19:8–10:
“And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
Paul was reasoning in the synagogues. When the Jews weren’t having it, he moved on and rented out the lecture hall of Tyrannus and was “reasoning daily” there for two whole years. He did this until everyone in the area heard the gospel. This almost sounds like a daily public Q+A session. As Peter May writes:
“for Paul, a lively exchange of views, in which he presented the gospel. By engaging with [the culture in the cities in Acts], he challenged their assumptions, clarified the issues, stormed their defences, provoked their questions, addressed their doubts and presented the gospel in a compelling manner. This sort of “inter-faith” dialogue was not merely about finding common ground or seeking mutual understanding. It was far more than that. Paul engaged in dialogue in order to win his hearers to Christ.”
Peter May, What is Apologetics?
Paul still continues this pattern at the end of Acts. Even after having a healing revival of sorts (Acts 28:8–9), he still used arguments and reason to persuade others to become Christians. Acts 28:23 we read: “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.”
Paul’s still using his eyewitness testimony of the resurrection. He’s still using the argument from prophecy.
Paul used apologetics in his letters
We also have what Paul wrote that undercuts this argument of “preach and perform miracles only”. In the very same letter, Paul points to eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus in order to prove the resurrection of the physical body to the Corinthians. 1 Cor. 15:3–8 he cites a creed that lists multiple individuals and groups who had seen the risen Jesus.
He even uses modus tollens in the form of an argument. Quoting the Expositor’s Greek NT Commentary on 1 Cor 15:17–18, “Paul leaves the inference, which observes the strict method of the modus tollens, to the consciousness of his readers (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20): “We are true witnesses, you are redeemed believers; on both accounts it is certain that Christ has risen,-and therefore that there is a resurrection of the dead”.
Paul deftly uses logic to show them that they’re begging the question when they say there is no resurrection from the dead. For if Christ isn’t raised, then their faith is useless. But Christ has been raised, therefore their faith isn’t futile — they too will one day be raised.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul says “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5) And writing from prison a decade letter, Paul writes to the Philippians that he is set for the defense of the gospel. (Phil 1:7) The Greek word defense there is apologia, where we get our word apologetics. He is set out to remove false ideas and defend the gospel.
Paul did not give up on apologetics
So the bottom line is that it’s just not true that Paul didn’t value using reason and evidence in proclaiming and defending the gospel. It’s ironic that these pious-sounding critics against apologetics use reason and evidence to defend their own view that apologetics is worthless. They’re making an apologetic against apologetics, which is just sawing off the branch that they’re sitting on. Why not think that God’s Spirit can use preaching, miracles, and arguments? Why limit what God can use?
By pointing to Paul’s alleged paltry results in Athens, they basically are saying reaching Damaris and Dionysus the Areopagite was a waste of time. Jesus doesn’t think that way, the parable of the lost sheep tells us that Jesus will leave the 99 to find the one. Paul said became all things to all men in order that he might save some. (1 Cor. 9:21–23)
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on October 26, 2019.