Apologetics to the Greeks -- By: Alister E. McGrath

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 155:619 (Jul 1998)
Article: Apologetics to the Greeks
Author: Alister E. McGrath


Apologetics to the Greeks*

Alister E. McGrath

Alister E. McGrath is Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, Oxford, England, and Research Professor, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

* This is article three in a four-part series “Biblical Models for Apologetics,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4-7, 1997.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians the “Greeks” are set alongside the Jews as a group of considerable importance (1 Cor. 1:22). Paul had at least some familiarity with Hellenistic rhetoric1 as well as the beliefs and practices of classical paganism. So how did he present the gospel in such situations?

The Background to the Areopagus Address

One of the most important descriptions of the early confrontation between Christianity and classical paganism is found in Paul’s Areopagus address in Athens. Though Athens had been a major political and cultural center in the classical Greek period under Pericles, it had entered into a period of decline. Athens had become little more than a provincial city in the Roman Empire, having lost its former glory and importance. The city suffered a serious setback when it unwisely backed the losing side in the Roman civil war. Nevertheless Athens retained an iconic significance, even if the reality no longer quite matched up to the image it sought to project.2

Paul arrived at Athens after his voyage from Macedonia, clearly aware of the reputation of the city and its potential importance in relation to the spread of the gospel.3 Luke commented that Athens was a city “full of idols” (Acts 17:16), by which he probably

meant that in addition to a large number of idols inside buildings, other idols were displayed publicly at strategic places. A large number of temples had been built in the general area of the Acropolis, whether in the time of Pericles or more recent edifices erected under Augustus, which included a number of temples or statues dedicated to the imperial cult.4 Possibly these impressive buildings may have promoted Paul’s comment concerning man-made temples (v. 24). The term “Areopagus” (v. 19) can refer to a body of people and to a physical location. As a group of people, it was the most impo...

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