If Harvard is the epitome of intellect and higher education in the modern world, then the city of Athens would be its counterpart in the Biblical world. While the “glory of Athens” had faded by the time Paul arrived there on his second missionary trip, its gleaming white marble buildings were evidence of Athens’ position as a cultural and intellectual center. The agora was the most popular place to discuss the ideas and philosophies of the day. Ancient descriptions inform us that it was literally lined wall to wall with idols. The sight repulsed Paul but it didn’t deter him from his calling. It motivates his conversations with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and eventually brings him to the Areopagus (known today as Mars Hill), a rocky outcrop across from the Acropolis where leading citizens and rulers heard philosophical and legal presentations to determine their legitimacy. With the Parthenon and its gigantic statue of Athena (the goddess of wisdom!) in full view Paul was asked to explain his “strange teaching” to the high court and the skeptical philosophers who were more interested in talk than truth. The Gospel however is never preached in vain. One official, Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris come to faith along with several unnamed others (Acts 17:16-34).
The Epicurean and Stoic philosophies were the leading schools of philosophy at this time. Epicureans believed that the essence and purpose of life were found in the material world and nothing more. One came from matter and returned to matter, and like the gods whom they believed were indifferent to humanity, it was best to live a life as free from pain, passion, and superstition as those gods did. The Stoics embraced a completely different philosophy. They believed that reason and intellect were evidence of the divine within each living thing and that humans achieved their greatest potential when they lived by reason. When these two schools of thought were confronted with Paul’s Gospel message they considered him to be ludicrous and dubbed him a “babbler”. The Greek word here evokes the image of a bird pecking away at seed. Their philosophies were so far off from the Gospel they believed Paul to be plucking new thoughts out of the air but making no sense at all.
I remember a time when I was in the midst of a heavy semester stumbling upon a passage in Ecclesiastes which proclaimed “the writing of many books is endless and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body” (Ecc. 12:12). That seemed truly appropriate to a homework inundated student! Although the writer was not bashing books or knowledge, there is a certain truth in overloading oneself with intellectual thought. In the case of the Athenians it blocked them from understanding the Gospel. There are just as many philosophies and ideologies claiming to purport the truth about life today as there were in Paul’s time. The pursuit of them seems to be at an all time high and yet none of these philosophies bring personal peace and the satisfaction offered by them is temporary at best. They always leave you wanting more. That is the fallacy of intellect. It appears to be solid ground but it is as illusory as quicksand or a bog. And it changes as quickly as popular opinion and the wind.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “You will keep in perfect peace, him whose mind is steadfast on You, because he trusts You” (Is. 26:3). And when speaking of peace, Paul encouraged the Philippians to think on the things that were true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise (Phil. 4: 7-8) so it is not that we should turn off our minds when living the Christian life. But it is important to be engaging our mind and intellect in the things of God. The Athenians were enamored with the thoughts themselves but not actually interested in the truth. Where has your mind been lately? Are your thoughts grounded in the Truth or are they somewhere else (Rom. 8:5-6)?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 7/30/2017