For the sake of the Gospel: Paul’s apologetic speeches

Pulpits-and-Pastors

Apologetics or the defence of the faith plays an important role in the life of the church. We believe and confess a Jesus rooted in history and now reigning in glory. However, no-one can be reasoned into the kingdom anymore than one can be compelled to become a Christian by evidences for Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Like all theologising, apologetics must be done with Christ and him crucified for sinners in view. It is only once a person knows his or her plight due to sin that Christ’s vicarious atonement is believed as vital to salvation. It is this cruciform logic that informed Paul’s apologetic as Rev. Kim Riddlebarger argues:

First and foremost, when we analyze these apologetic speeches in Acts, it is clear that Paul seeks to be all things to all men for the sake of the Gospel, for throughout these encounters with various forms of unbelief, he repeatedly finds common ground with his audience. With those with whom he held the Old Testament in common (Jews and God-fearing Gentiles), he appeals to fulfilled prophecy by setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation side by side with the facts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With pagan Gentiles, on the other hand, Paul begins with general revelation, not by “proving” God’s existence, but simply by proclaiming the God of Israel in language which echoes the Old Testament throughout. We also see the Apostle challenging whatever underlying pagan assumptions were present. But given Paul’s theological core convictions about the nature of human sinfulness, it is clear that in finding “common ground,” he does not in any sense expect to find so-called “neutral” common ground, as though the Apostle could somehow place both himself and his hearers in a “neutral” frame of mind, without any influence upon the discussion by prior intellectual commitments to faith or various forms of unbelief. For the common ground that Paul does find is in every case necessarily based in God’s self-disclosure, either the “Book of Nature” or in the redemptive acts of God associated with special revelation and ordinary history. Throughout Paul’s encounters with unbelief, it is the non-Christian (Jew, God-fearer, or pagan Gentile) who is confronted with the consequences of knowing God through this self-disclosure both in general and special revelation, but who instead inevitably suppresses that knowledge in unrighteousness. Thus Paul not only demonstrates his desire to be all things to all men by finding non-neutral common ground with his hearers, but he is repeatedly able to skillfully adjust his own “proclamation-defense” to each specific audience.

A second point that must be made when looking at these speeches is that Paul began with the proclamation of the Gospel, and once challenged, he was deftly able to give an apologetic by “reasoning” and “proving” from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, and by challenging the very presuppositions underlying pagan unbelief. As we have seen in two instances (Lystra and Athens), Paul does this by using a form of the argument from contingency-the creation does indeed depend upon a creator. Neither Greek mythology nor Stoic or Epicurean cosmologies can give a satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live. Paul does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence typical of so-called “classical apologetics”; instead he proclaims Christ crucified, and then attempts to refute his opponents, showing the futility of unbelief. Paul places no confidence in the flesh, rather he believes that the proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation. He does not attempt to get his audience “to make a decision for Jesus”; he simply proclaims the truth, and then attacks the unbelieving assumptions of the opposition.

Third, throughout these speeches, it is clear that the supreme apologetic argument for Paul is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. No doubt this is the case, for it was Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, who became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. The risen Lord Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul while en route from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down and arrest Christians. Paul refers to this life-changing event in his apologetic speeches before the good citizens of Jerusalem (Acts 22:2 ff.) and before king Agrippa (Acts 26:9-18). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul concluded his sermon before the synagogue by declaring, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people” (Acts 13:30-31). Just as Peter had done in the Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, here Paul also makes appeal to the prophetic significance of our Lord’s Resurrection. “The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay is stated in these words…. ‘You will not yet your Holy One see decay.'” There was not only factual evidence for Christ’s Resurrection, there was theological necessity.

In the synagogue in Athens, Paul followed a similar tact, explaining that Jesus had to first suffer and then rise from the dead (Acts 17:3). And while standing before the pagan philosophers of the Areopagus, Paul ends his apologia with the words, God “has given proof of this to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” In another amazing account, Paul spoke of his hope of the resurrection of the dead in the very presence of the assembled Sanhedrin, apparently to provoke an argument between his accusers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who disagreed among themselves about the resurrection (Acts 23:6 ff.). Before Felix, Paul does much the same thing, proclaiming his hope in a resurrection, and acknowledging that it was this very hope that has brought him before Felix in the first place (Acts 24:15, 21). Even Felix’s successor, Festus, when conferring with King Agrippa, was forced to concede that Paul was incarcerated because of his proclamation “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). And last, when Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, his apologetic appeal is to the hope of the resurrection. Thus Paul asks Agrippa, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” Paul concludes this defense by declaring, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” When Festus interrupted Paul and declared to the Apostle, “you are out of your mind,” Paul’s response is significant: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus…. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things…. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” “King Agrippa,” Paul asks, “do you believe the prophets? I know you do!” To which Agrippa replies, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?” “Short time or long-I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening today may become what I am” (Act 26:21 ff.).

Thus it seems that Paul’s “proclamation-defense” is clearly anchored in the death, burial and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in the formal proofs of classical apologetics. Neither can we view Paul’s apologetic through the lens of any semi-Pelagian form of evangelical evidential apologetics which sees Christian evidences as merely additional inducements for one to make a “decision” for Jesus. For Paul’s apologetic is perfectly consistent with his theological core and, given human sinfulness and moral depravity typical of this present “evil age,” evidential “facts” by themselves cannot tip the scale from unbelief to faith. For Paul it is the Gospel-the wisdom of the age to come-which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, and his use of Christian evidences is to be seen in the context of the content of his proclamation, namely the historical events associated with the dying and rising of Christ. The same man who put no confidence in the flesh, is the man who also “reasoned,” “discoursed,” “persuaded,” and “debated” with his audiences that the content of his preaching was true, because the Lord of Glory rose again from the dead.

(For the entire essay, go here.)

 

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