Monday, April 10, 2017

WHY I WROTE MARS HILL: PAUL V. THE PHILOSOPHERS

Over the years, I've studied Church history, which I've summarized in my books Trinity, Canon, and Constantine: Clear Light on the Early Church and Monks, Crusaders, and Heretics: Clear Light on the Medieval Church. One of the themes that runs through this history is the relationship — at times, friendly; at times, contentious — between Christian theology and secular philosophy. Philosophers who rejected the Church's teachings used their discipline to debunk them; philosophers who accepted the Church's teachings used their discipline to defend and define them. Platonism, Academic philosophy, Stocism, and Neo-Platonism — all have shaped the Christian faith and practice that has reached us. From Christianity's viewpoint, has this role always been beneficial? On one hand, logical philosophy has at times clarified for us what Christian Scripture says to us. On the other hand, speculative philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism, has led Christian theology far from its source in the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. How did this uneasy relationship develop — and how did it get started?

Fortunately for us, Scripture answers the latter question in Acts 17, which describes a dramatic encounter in Athens, philosophy's mother city, between the apostle Paul and representatives of two schools of Greek thought, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but so did philosophy when Epicureans and Stoics teamed up to interrogate a Christian. The Epicureans, who taught that the universe evolved from chance collisions of atoms, were basically atheistic materialists; the Stoics, who believed that a higher purpose infused and guided the universe, were theistic "spiritualists." I put "spiritualists" in quotation marks because the Stoics' higher purpose was something that they called the Logos (word, meaning, reason, or purpose), a fiery substance that brought all other things into being and a spark of which resided within each human. For the Stoics, the Logos was also theos, divine. Given their beliefs, the Epicureans formed "stony ground" for Paul's teachings, but the Stoics were fascinated with Christian teaching on the Logos — Jesus, God's Son as the Word of God — which differed from Stoic teaching on that subject, but was still filled with meaning and purpose.

Some Christian scholars have taught that Paul's sermon to the philosophers who summoned him to Mars Hill was his worst sermon, an exercise in futility. Such scholars feel that Paul distorted his message to appeal to that audience. It was partly because I couldn't accept their teaching that I wrote Mars Hill: Paul v. the Philosophers. Certainly, one can take home from Paul's sermon the lesson that we should show courage like his: when life gives us a chance to proclaim the Christian message, we should take that chance. The court gave Paul a motive to explain the Christian message to the philosophers — and, through them, to us — in a new and clarifying light. In the end, his sermon produced the most important fruit of all: lives transformed by its message. Granting that the lives so transformed were few, we must recognize that Paul was sowing the Gospel's seed on stony ground. The wonder wasn't that few lives were saved; the wonder was that any were.

In the book, I take you step by step through Paul's confrontation with the philosophers and his message to them to make clear to you what time may have clouded for us who live some two thousand years after Paul's philosophical trial. I hope that, by the book's end, you can see that Paul's sermon at Mars Hill, far from being an exercize in futility, was a bold, clear proclamation of eternal truths, as relevant to us today as they were to the philosophers who heard them nearly two thousand years ago.

You can read the opening sections of Mars Hill: Paul v. the Philosophers by clicking on Look inside.

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