On the Areopagus

We went on a tour of "classical" Athens today, with stops at the Acropolis, and the Parthenon which sits majectically upon it, and the ancient Agora. In between, quite literally, we went to the Areopagus, called Mars Hill by the Romans. The Areopagus, associated with the Greek god of war Ares, and many other figures from classical myth and literature, was also the site of the classical council of elders for Athens and later evolved into a homicide court. Students present short lectures on all of these sites for us, as do the professors and a superb Greek guide, Eleni Premeti. Ther student who presented on the Areopagus raised the issue of what the Apostle Paul was trying to accomplish in his speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, as recorded by Luke in Acts 17.

She asked whether Paul was attempting to subvert the language of Greek culture and philosophy by adopting it in his speech to the Athenians in Acts 17 or whether he was engaging in a form of syncretism, since, as Luke records the speech, Paul does not include the name of Jesus directly. It is a question of significance for Christians of every era. Do we engage a culture in order to subvert the teachings which run counter to the truth? Or should we engage in forms of syncretism, however mild, by which we adopt aspects of culture with which Christianity might be in sympathy? How far should such syncretism extend? How far would subversion go in rending a culture? The issue of culture, it seems, goes even deeper, given that Christianity is the product of a particular culture in its earliest manifestation, which itself was influenced by the Hellenism of the preceding centuries. Christianity, like all religions, can never be "culture-free"; Christianity does not exist in a vacuum and it was not written on a tabula rasa. How many of the expressions of the earliest Christianity are themselves artifacts of a culture now gone? This does not diminish the truth of Jesus Christ, of which Paul spoke to a hostile or disinterested audience, but it does make clear that just as Paul spoke in the language of the philosophers, poets, and ordinary Greeks and Romans of his day to reach them with the Gospel, so, too, must we express the truth and reality of Jesus Christ in a language that resonates with our own culture. Paul, after all, had some success, to which the numerous Orthodox Churches scattered all over Athens bear witness twenty centuries later. But Paul was also correct about the perennial value of much of  classical Greek culture and thought: its virtues remain intact twenty centuries or so after Paul's speech to its representatives on the Areopagus.

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John W. Martens

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