Athens and the nature of the gospel message
Did Paul make a mistake at Athens?
Some scholars have seen in Paul’s Excursus (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:15E) a deliberate repudiation by Paul of the policy which (on their view) he had followed in Athens, the city from which he had just come, where he preached philosophy and logic rather than the simple gospel (Acts 17:22-31). Paul’s approach at Athens was a failure (these scholars say), and thus he changed his message for his ministry at Corinth to a simple gospel presentation, as he outlines in his Excursus.
But this is reading some rather far-reaching conclusions into the text on the basis of flimsy evidence. It is highly probable that Paul’s comments on the Greeks seeking wisdom (1:22), and not being able to perceive the wisdom of God, are indeed made against a background of his recollection of his difficulties in proclaiming Christ at Athens. But what he did at Athens was, in accordance with his established policy (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), to seek for a bridge for the gospel to the thinking of his hearers. He began with their religious beliefs and practices (Acts 17:22-23) and quoted their poets (Acts 17:27-29) to gain their attention and goodwill, and to win a hearing for himself. In this he was successful - but in his sermon, just as soon as he reached the subject of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:31), they laughed him to a standstill (Acts 17:32). He never got to finish his address: they sneered at him; they said, “We will hear you on this subject some other time” (NEB): but they would not let him continue his presentation of the gospel to them then, and he was forced to leave them (Acts 17:33 - note particularly the force of the word “so”, ESV/RSV/TEV/NEB, “at that”, NIV). There was a small response (Acts 17:34), but the attitude of the Athenians was such that Paul could see it would be pointless to persevere there, so “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth” (18:1).
The difference between Athens and Corinth was not that he preached an unsuccessful message at the one and had more success after changing his message for the other city, but that the Athenians were not prepared to grant him a hearing and he gave up the attempt as futile, whereas at Corinth there were significant numbers who were at least willing to listen to his message (Acts 18:4-11).
It would be interesting to learn what Paul would have said at Athens had he been permitted to finish his address. He had reached the presentation of the resurrection when the sophisticated Athenians stopped him in his tracks and said to him, “Some other time” (Acts 17:32). I suspect his message would have been very like his outline of the gospel that we find in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2: for, he says (1:23), “we preach Christ crucified - to both Jews and Gentiles.” Note the “we” and the “preach”. In context we can see that Paul is speaking of himself and his fellow apostles and evangelists. And “preach” is present tense: this is their universal and their habitual message: “Christ crucified”. There is no other.
The full gospel message is found in here, in Paul’s Excursus, plus 15:1-10. It has an objective and a subjective element.
Objectively, historically: Christ was crucified, dead and buried, and rose again. This is “the message (λογοσ, logos) of the cross”, which is utter foolishness to those who are lost (1:18) - but which is the demonstration of the power of God to those who are being saved (1:18, 2:4).
Subjectively, personally: It was for our sins that Christ died (15:3); and the gospel becomes effective in our individual lives when we encounter the resurrected Christ ourselves, as Paul did (15:8, 10), and experience the forgiveness of our sins that he died to accomplish for us.
This is what Paul and the others preach (15:11, again present tense), this is the gospel message in which the Corinthians had placed their faith (2:5; 15:11), and by which they are being saved (1:18; 15:3). This must continue to be the center of our own proclamation, and we can thus have confidence that, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (2:4), we shall then see God at work saving those who believe (1:21).
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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