PAUL AND HIS USE OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY: CHRIST TRANSCENDS THE WISDOM OF MAN

Paul was a remarkable man. A Jew by birth, he was a relentless persecutor of Christians until he had a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He was instructed by the Lord that he would be an Apostle to the Gentiles. What a vessel the Lord had chosen to carry the Good News of Christ’s redemptive power to most of the known world of that day. Paul was a man of vast knowledge who received his education at the school of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the most noted rabbis in history. The education he received was in his ancestral law, yet he also had broad exposure to classical literature, philosophy and ethics. He spoke Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. Paul could go toe to toe with the most brilliant minds he encountered.

Paul’s knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature is clearly seen in Acts 17:16-34 when he encountered Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens. As Paul engages them in a conversation in an attempt to introduce them to the resurrected Christ, he uses quotes from their own philosophers as a way to connect with them and as springboard to point them to Christ. Paul in his tactfulness quoted shadows of truths found in their own philosophers to “declare” that in Christ is found more than shadows of truth but the full Light of God’s Truth (Acts 17:23).

Paul no doubt had the Athenian’s  attention as this Jew quoted and alluded to philosophers with whom they were familiar. He begins by saying, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). Paul is drawing from Seneca, the prominent Roman Stoic philosopher, who wrote, “Temples are not to be built to God of stones piled on high…the whole world is the temple of the immortal gods.”

In verse 25 Paul continues, “Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” Once again Paul alludes to Seneca who stated: “God wants not ministers. How so? He himself ministereth breath to the human race.”

In verse 26-28a Paul says, “26And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28For in him we live, and move, and have our being,” Again, the Apostle shows his knowledge of the writings of Seneca who wrote, “We are members of a vast body. Nature made us kin, when she produced us from the same things and to the same ends” and “God is at hand everywhere and to all men.”  and again, “God is near thee; he is with thee; he is within.”

In verse 28b Paul says to the Athenians that he is quoting from “certain of your own poets” when he says, “For we are also his offspring.”  The poet to which Paul was referring was Aratus who lived in the third century BC, who wrote that “all are the offspring of God.”

In verse 29 Paul declares, “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” Paul once again alludes to the Stoic philosopher Seneca who stated: “Thou shalt not form him of silver and gold: a true likeness of God cannot be molded of this material.”

Grabbing the attention of the Athenians with his knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature, Paul calls on them to repent for God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus whom He has ordained and by raising Him from the dead has given to man the assurance that He is the ultimate truth (Acts 17:30-31).

Paul in his proclamation to the Athenians used his knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature as a way to connect with his hearers and grab their attention. While Paul acknowledged there were shadows of truths found in human philosophy, the full Light of Truth was found in Jesus Christ who reveals to us the Divine and in whom is found the fullness of God (John 1:16; Col. 2:9). The Greeks sought after wisdom (I Cor. 1:22), but Paul sought to point them to the truth that true Wisdom is found only in Jesus Christ (I Cor. 1:30).

From Athens Paul traveled to Corinth where he clearly states that the philosophical wisdom of man compared to the wisdom of God is foolishness and will never bring forth the answers to life which man is searching (I Cor 2:1-7). Only the Christ of the cross, which transcends the wisdom of man, is sufficient to redeem a lost humanity and supply man with the answers to life’s age-old questions. While Paul over twenty times in his epistles alludes to shadows of truths found in Greek philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Epimenides, Menander,  and Seneca, he did so as a way to affirm there are certain universal truths that connect all humanity, but the brightness of full truth and wisdom is only found in the revelation of the Light of Jesus Christ who “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

As a reader over the last fifty years of many philosophical meanderings of man, this writer finds it glaringly notable that philosophers down through the ages have not yet attained answers to man’s reoccurring  major questions: “Is there a God and can he be known?” “How can a man be right with God?” “How can one find forgiveness of their sins?”   “Is there an answer to the evil that abounds?” “How can man’s behavior be changed?” “If a man die shall he live again?” These questions and many more, philosophers have grappled with down through the ages, yet their philosophical systems are all inadequate in finding answers to these important questions.

Paul informs us that the Wisdom for which man searches is found in Christ who answers man’s most burning questions. The difference between Christianity and philosophy is that the latter is human thinking and wisdom, while Christianity is the revelation and wisdom of God.  Christ is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). He is the fulness of God who clothed himself in human flesh to reveal the Divine to humanity (John 1:1-3, 14). He is the One who can forgive all our sins (I John 1:7-10). He is the One who can make a thief honest, the impure pure, the drunkard sober, the addict clean, the prideful humble, the weak strong, the hater one who loves. Found in Christ is the One the searching heart longs to discover.

While some see philosophy as a natural complement to theological reflection, Paul assures us that shadows of truth may be found in the philosophical wisdom of man, but the full Light of God’s revelation and wisdom can only be found in Jesus Christ who is Truth. It is impossible for human logic to find the truths found in Christianity. Let us not be satisfied with the shadows of truths of human wisdom, but embrace the revelation and wisdom of God found in Christ in whom is found answers, hope and strength in the face of everyday living and who “hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (II Timothy 1:10).

Blessings,

Dr. Dan

 

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