The Mighty Pretense Of The Wisdom Of Men
All paganism is summed up by Paul in Romans 1:21-23 to be a manifestation from heaven of the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness . . . . . .” because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man, and to birds, and to four-footed beasts, and to creeping things.”
It is the abomination: idolatry!
It is the manifestation of the wrath of God upon the sinner.
Small wonder that Paul’s “spirit was stirred in him” when he saw the city of Athens full of idols. It was the zeal of the Lord’s house which stirred him, as we have stated in our former essay!
It should be understood that all philosophy in general busies itself with, such questions as: whence are all things in the Cosmos, and whither are they going. In close connection with these questions are such questions as: what is good and what is evil? Whence is the “soul” of man and whence is his “body?” What is the highest aim and purpose of all things? Of man’s existence?
With these questions also the Epicureans and the Stoics busied themselves. It was a rather laborious and fruitless task. For they were estranged from the life of God, without God and without hope in the world. (Eph. 2:12) They were “lost” in their thoughts, their speculations, their questionings and searchings, in their opposition to God, although they live in the mighty pretense of being in search for “wisdom.” God, who made all things in heaven and on earth, was not in all of their thoughts.
Since neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics believed in “God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Apostolicurn) and did not know Genesis 1:1 “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” they looked for the beginning and the end in the “things made” themselves! Each did this in their own way. They agreed in this that both were estranged’ from the life of God. Denying the doctrine of creation they had no basis for relation of God and man; they had no I-thou relationship of God to man, nor of the I-THOU relationship of man to God. And since they ended in the creature and began in the creature, without seeing the creature for what he is, they changed each creature into a “god” and spoke of Zeus (Jupiter) as the “Most excellent of The Immortals” (kudist’ athanatoon) as does Cleanthes in his Hymn to Zeus. Cleanthes was a Stoic poet, you must know. But his “god” is still amongst the “immortals,” be they the “gods” or man in the immortality of his “soul.” He is simply the “most excellent” in a series of beings which are great, in which class man too is to be found. They have no transcendent God; not even Zeus is such. They know not the Creator-creature relations hip, at all!
Nor do they have a sovereign God who rules over all things and who upholds all things as it were by His own hand. Yes, Zeus may be addressed by Cleanthes as the “leader of nature’s law, ruling all things by law (of nature)” but that is a far cry from the Christian’s confession in God, the Father, who created all things and rules all things. The article of faith concerning providence is not an article in which the Christian and the pagan share. Man may speak of “nature” and “nature’s god” and find a certain order and blind necessity in all things, but that is not the confession in God, the Father. At best it is pure blind determinism without having a determining God, who gives all things a terminus in His counsel.
Implicit in all paganism is the denial of the miraculous; creation, and recreation. All paganism must needs deny the Scripturally revealed historical fact of the resurrection. It may speak of the “immortal soul” of man, and dream and speculate about the soul’s liberation from the prison of the body through physical death, but it cannot possibly grant the “mystery” of the resurrection, which belongs to the Mystery of godliness which is great. (I Timothy 3:16)
At the same time we may state without fear of contradiction that all paganism is an attempt to “hide from God.” If the “soul” of man is “good” and his body is “evil,” then, of course, we may say that the real part of man is the soul, and death is not a penalty for sin, but it is the liberation from prison for the soul; it is the liberation of the celestial in man to soar to its own celestial heights of a beautiful isle of somewhere, while the meaningless body’s return to the dust may be hastened by cremationof it! Howbeit, thus there is not judgment of God upon the world, no wrath of God to be removed from the world; only the evil must be conquered by the good, and that good is residing in man’s soul, his Ratio.
Such is the basic position of both Epicureanism and Stoicism!
Both are a proud pretense concerning their knowledge and search for wisdom!
And when Paul converses with them in the Agora of Athens and teaches “Jesus” and the “resurrection,” they may mockingly and disdainfully call him a “dabbler” in wisdom, but they will soon find out that the “times of this ignorance is past” and that they are unmasked for what they really are: proud pretenders! He will feel in their souls that the “foolishness of God is wiser than men” and that “the weakness of God is stronger than men.” They are called to repentance!
And, in spite of themselves, they will desire to hear more about this teaching. Yes, it will all be very polite: we would know what these things mean? May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
And this mighty pretense of the wisdom of men will be weighed in the balances, and found wanting!
The Achilles’ Heel In Athens’ Idolatry (Acts 17:23)
Paul begins his sermon here on Mars Hill by stating afact. It is the undeniable fact that these Athenians had as many “gods” as there are creatures. It is the logic of Paganism and idolatry. Zeus may be the “most excellent of the immortals,” but he is not the only “god,” the only “daimon.” For their religion was not childlike trust in a heavenly Father, but it was most superstitious; it was a morbid fear; the “gods” only smiled on those who were good, and caused its two-edged fire and lightning, thunder and wind to destroy those who were evil. And who can escape the power of the “gods,” the laws of nature! The laws of nature know no mercy. Hence, the “too superstitious” attitude of the pagans which Paul points out to the Epicureans and the Stoics.
So morbid is their fear that they even have an altar erected to the “UNKNOWN GOD.” They had written that superscription on that altar. And it should be quite evident that Paul is here not teaching or suggesting that the Pagan was in real spiritual quest after the living God. They were not seeking God. Paul only cites this as evidence that the Athenians’ multiplicity of “gods” shows that none of these are truly gods, for else they would not have still built an altar to another. Paul points to the “Achilles’ heel” in their idolatry. It is here that he points to the deep spiritual-psychological bankruptcy of idolatrous man. This one altar points up the bankruptcy of all the other “gods,” and even this “unknown god” does not avail them aught. Notice well that Paul is here not merely engaging himself in some clever witticism, but is giving, by implication, a profound, basic and soul-searching psychoanalysis of the basic problem of all their religiosity. With this one observation he points out the “Achilles’ heel” of the vaunted invulnerableness of the religion of these Epicureans and Stoics!
Paul is not engaging in a philosophical discussion of “comparative religions,” that he may come to the “conclusion” that the Christian Religion excels that of paganism on certain points as to doctrine and ethics, being careful not to expose “Athens” as being entirely corrupt and worse than useless, but he is preaching! He is preaching Christ here on Mars Hill: Jesus and the resurrection! And all the world must stand “under sin,” and all the world must stand guilty before God, and every mouth must be stopped. (Romans 3:19) The entire world must become “geneetai,” guilty before God. Also here in Athens on Mars Hill! Here the glories of the Graeco-Roman world stand in the condemnation; the Greek moralist too is guilty; thus he stands in his own conscience. The altar to the UNKNOWN GOD attests to this fact. Thus Paul preaches.
Have we not pointed out that Paul here too knows himself a debtor to the Greek as well as to the barbarian?
Well, then, all the philosophic constructions with which the Greek attempts to bolster his idolatrous world with his “wisdom” must be shown to have this one “Achilles’ heel.” And here too Paul will be caused to triumph in Christ, making the savor of His knowledge known in every place, to the one the savor of death unto death, and to the other the savor of life unto life. For Paul is not as many, which corrupt the word of God; but of sincerity, but as of God, in the presence of God he speaks in Christ! And in this preaching he does not find a spiritual-ethical good point of contact with these pagans. There is none. There is only a point of “apprehension” for those who are “grasped” by the Spirit of grace, and plucked out of this evil world. And these were but few here in Athens!
Still Paul appeals here to the “conscience” of these men, an evil conscience, a non-sanctified conscience! Thus we read in II Corinthians 4:1, 2, “Therefore seeing we have received this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not! But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Here is no mere sparring for advantageous position in debate, no cheap trafficking of the Gospel as done by ancient and modern “gospel-hucksters,” but a commending to the consciences of these haughty Epicureans and Stoics! These are weighed in their own consciences and found wanting. All their “gods” are found wanting! The altar to the “UNKNOWN GOD” attests to this fact. And the imaginary impregnable fortress topples, as did Dagon of old when he fell prostrate to the ground!