Acts 17 and Contextualization


Silas and Timothy are late.  Paul is stuck in Athens waiting to continue his missionary trip, but he notices pervasive idolatry in the city and that does not sit well with him.  Like usual, he debates in the synagogue and the marketplace with all who will listen.  This begins to attract some attention, and he receives an invitation to the elite gathering known as the Areopagus.  The rest, as they say, is contextualization—one of the gems in the biblical story of interacting with the educated elites, reaching out far beyond the confines of the synagogue, and integrating theology with philosophy.

To understand this story, first the nature of the Areopagus must be explained.  Eckhard Schnabel describes it as “the seat of a venerable council of elders which was named after the hill west of the acropolis on which its sessions took place, the supreme court of Athens….”[i]  It is possible that one of the reasons for Paul’s speech was to determine if his god merited a space for a new shrine,[ii] thus the significance of Paul’s repudiation of any temporal structure as a potential dwelling place for God.

The setting of Mars Hill sets this episode apart from most of the rest of Acts, as Michael Rogness highlights.[iii]  Paul is not in the synagogue!  Rather, he is speaking to people who have no Jewish heritage, biblical knowledge, or experiences with Jesus.  The typical format of retelling the story of the children ofIsrael, culminating with the arrival of Jesus Christ as messiah will not resonate with these listeners.  This scenario calls for a philosophical treatment of creation and God’s purpose for humanity, drawing upon major figures in the Epicurean and Stoic traditions.


In Paul’s speech, many of his illustrations—especially in the initial part of his address— are couched in philosophical concepts taken directly from Stoic and Epicurean thought.  Eckhard Schnabel provides several examples, and two will be repeated here: “The Epicureans (a) argued for the animated nature, the immortality and the bliss of god,” and “(c) argued that the gods did not live in temples that men had built.”[iv]  Considerable parallels also exist with Stoic thought, as attested elsewhere in Schnabel and other authors.[v]  Paul’s quotation from Aratus is also further evidence of this.[vi]

Clearly, Paul first establishes common ground with his audience.  The questions then becomes, to what extend is their pre-understanding preparation for the gospel of Christ?  Flemming notes that Paul does not merely equate his understanding of God with their prior uninformed worship as a matter of applying a label to a god with no name.[vii]  Schnabel puts it this way: “The call to repentance shows that the ‘Lukan’ Paul by no means acknowledges the religiosity of his pagan listeners as a valid path to salvation.”[viii]

Flemming’s point is well taken that Paul does not merely sanction existing worship patterns.  However, I would take Schnabel’s metaphor of a path and tweak it slightly.  True, this path would not have led them to salvation and was approaching a dead end, but it did bring them closer from where they had first started.  Paul certainly had to repave and redirect this path, but the existence of the path provided a starting point for this construction instead of pushing even further back to the starting block.  Flemming writes that “realizing that God’s prevenient grace is at work among people of other faiths and worldviews, drawing them to himself, will keep us from seeing them as adversaries to be ‘conquered.’”[ix]

Given the brevity of the Lukan account of the speech, it is dangerous to “argue from silence” that since a particular element is not found within this speech that Paul did not include it.  Luke only includes eights sentences (in English), and it is likely that Paul elaborated further than is present in the text.  Thus what we have is a template or outline of Paul’s message, and not an exhaustive transcript.  For example, the name of Jesus is not included in this section, but it is possible that Paul did invoke Jesus by name: it is not known conclusively.  However, this passage is what Luke determined to be of most value, and contains the highlights of the address.

Paul’s use of pagan philosophy should be enough to retire the notion that “Jerusalemhas nothing to do with Athens.”  Not all philosophy is correct, it is not salvific, but it is extraordinarily influential and effective in reaching people.  Paul is employing the “philosophical language of his audience … to transform their world view.”[x]  In reaching those in our context, we must understand the philosophical paradigms that shape their thinking before we can formulate a coherent message for them, and often these very paradigms can be used in structuring this message.

African Context

In the African (or any) context, we must first develop points of contact.  One of the rhetorical techniques Paul employs here is that of narrative theology, in which his brief meta-narrative begins with creation, explains the existence of all nations, introduces humanity’s search for God, and ends with the imperative of repentances juxtaposed with the day of judgment.  Manus describes the speech as a “rather curious blending of pagan religious motifs with those of biblical traditions that are quite similar to those in the African folklore.”[xi]  Such an approach is especially appropriate to a communal culture such asAfrica, and brings a particular African tradition or belief about origin into a larger setting.

Manus compares Paul’s speech at the Areopagus with a folk story from the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria.  The main character, Nbabe, delivers a speech to his village on the occasion of his mother’s death and many other deaths in the village.  He mentions inscriptions he saw on certain graves, and proclaims the power of God in judgment and his knowledge of the future.[xii]  Knowing this story when doing ministry to these people can help to understand their expectations concerning such an account.  It can also help to relate the gospel to what they are familiar with, demonstrating that it is not a foreign import.

Ministry Implications

Doing evangelism and reaching those outside of the church are tremendous ministry challenges.  Sometimes merely finding our way beyond the church doors is our greatest evangelistic need, as Michael Rogness asserts in his analysis of Acts 17.[xiii]  Our manner of communication should ideally not be intruding upon people’s time and space, either.  It is best when they come to us, and we are addressing those with at least some prior interest.  Note that Paul was almost always invited to speak, and Mars Hill was no exception.

Knowing our context is vitally important to effective ministry.  Understanding local traditions and narratives can provide just the right bridge to the minds of the local listeners: we must do our homework.  Manus observes that the proof-texts used by Paul to situate his message are home grown, used just for his Areopagus listeners.[xiv]  In Hiebert’s framework for critical contextualization, the first is to understand the phenomenology of local beliefs, and this stage is to comprehend, not to critique.  That comes later, but will inevitably be misguided if it does not operate out of genuine understanding.

Discussing the need for humility, Robert Dunham writes that God “also does not live in the shrines we construct from our own particular religious traditions.”[xv]  Evangelism done out of pride, fear, insecurity, or a host of other inappropriate motivations can have devastating consequences upon those unfortunate enough to fall into its trap (on both sides of the exchange).  In some situations listening can be more effective than talking, and clearly Paul had done some careful listening prior to delivering his message.

Relativism permeates our postmodern context, and can shut down gospel communication completely if not properly countered.  Paul’s speech in Acts 17 contains some helpful ways to establish universal applicability and relevance to all people.  Verse 26 in the ESV reads: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place….”  This verse places God in control over our relative positions and boundaries, and the following verses will consign every nation to the same imperative of repentance and impending judgment.  This will not convince all disciples of relatives, but a foundation such as this is essential to constructing an effective message that applies to all.

Repentance and the death/resurrection of Christ are nonnegotiables in our proclamation of God, just as they were for Paul.  They are as controversial and offensive today as they were then, yet cannot be trimmed for the sake of ecumenical appeal.  The shift from agreement to loving confrontation is pivotal, difficult, and when successfully accomplished highly rewarding.  The brunt of our evangelistic and theological energy must be focused on two areas: (1) understanding the setting we are in, and (2) bringing the gospel imperative in local terminology and language with love and discernment.  This is what Paul models for us at Mars Hill, and what we must emulate on every hill, valley, road, or locality we find ourselves.

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Works Cited

Dunham, Robert. “Acts 17:16-34.” Interpretation (April 2006): 202-204.

Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament.  Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005.

Manus, Ukachukwu Chris. Intercultural Hermeneutics in Africa.Nairobi,Kenya:Acton Publishers, 2003.

Rogness, Michael. “Proclaiming the Gospel on Mars Hill.” Word & World 27/3 (Summer 2007): 274-294.

Schnabel, Eckhard. “Contextualising Paul in Athens: The Proclamation of the Gospel before Pagan Audiences in the Graeco-Roman World.” Religion & Theology 12/2 (2005): 172-185.

[i] Eckhard Schnabel, “Contextualising Paul in Athens: The Proclamation of the Gospel before Pagan Audiences in the Graeco-Roman World,” Religion & Theology 12/2 (2005): 174.

[ii] Ibid, 175.

[iii] Michael Rogness, “Proclaiming the Gospel on Mars Hill,” Word & World 27/3 (Summer 2007): 274.

[iv] Schnabel, 180.

[v] Ibid, 179.

[vi] Flemming, 78.

[vii] Ibid, 76.

[viii] Schnabel, 177.

[ix] Flemming, 83.

[x] Flemming, 79.

[xi] Ukachukwu Chris Manus, Intercultural Hermeneutics in Africa (Nairobi,Kenya:Acton Publishers, 2003), 76.

[xii] Ibid, 73-76.

[xiii] Michael Rogness, “Proclaiming the Gospel on Mars Hill,” Word & World 27 (Summer 2007): 274.

[xiv] Ukachukwu Manus, 69.

[xv] Robert Dunham, “Acts 17:16-34,” Interpretation (April 2006): 204.

[this was a paper I wrote for contextualization in my first term at NEGST, fall of 2008]


6 thoughts on “Acts 17 and Contextualization

  1. Wow, this was great to read. And it inspired me to re-read my own paper from the same course. Interesting to go back three years into my own thinking 🙂 Really miss having time to struggle with these issues.

  2. Hey Søren! Yeah, is interesting to think back a bit…so did you find your thinking has changed at all over the last three years?

  3. I’d say my thinking in this area is further elaborated now. But the foundation is basically the same. What I find interesting is how relevant to my own context my studies have been. I’ve been working on implementing some of my ideas into my own setting and feel like we’ve made some progress. Contextualization to our contemporary life is urgently needed!

  4. Well, guys, I will take that as success! At least some of my students not only haven’t forgotten everything, but are still thinking about these things and applying them to new contexts. Cool! This is good encouragement as I face 75 long papers to grade, but yes, I would be interested in your further elaborated thoughts including for Denmark or USA. May the Holy Spirit guide us as he did for Paul!

    Bless you guys!

  5. Contextualization was a great class, so thank you for that experience. We’ll see what else we can come with as we continue to seek to apply those principles! Thanks for your encouraging words. Hope the grading is progressing well!

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