Thoughts on Acts 17, Part I
The next few blog posts will include some reflections on the theological implications of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, including a guest post from Elaine Mustain. Today, I will share a few thoughts that have been running through my mind over the past few months as we have emphasized the scriptural statement: “In God we live and move and have our being…for we are God’s children.”
What if we acknowledged that even one relatively short scriptural passage, such as the following one from Acts 17, faces us with the bankruptcy of our current conservative-moderate-liberal paradigm of reality—and especially the inability of any of these approaches to handle honest biblical interpretation?
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols….22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a human whom God has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Is this Biblical passage theologically liberal:
• because it quotes a pagan philosopher as its primary sermon text?
• because it begins its theological explication with a pagan monument to “an unknown god?”
• because it invites Gentiles to join the Jesus’ movement without being circumcised?
• because it acknowledges that it is God’s intention that people from all cultural/religious backgrounds may seek and find God?
• because it emphasizes Jesus as “human” but not as “God?”
Or, is this passage theologically moderate:
• because it both negates and approves of various aspects of pagan religion?
• because it both attacks idolatry and yet sees God at work within its contexts?
• because it intentionally avoids quoting Biblical scriptures or raising questions of Biblical authority?
• because it sees all humanity as “one race” and subverts the human tendency to exalt national/ethnic identity to a great extent?
• because it labels some quite serious human failure/sin as “ignorance?”
Or, is this passage theologically conservative:
• because it unequivocally claims that God raised Jesus from the dead in the midst of real human history?
• because it maintains that humans need to turn to God (“repent”)?
• because it declares that God created both the world and humanity?
• because it claims that all humans ultimately descend from one original human couple and share a common genetic heritage?
• because it stresses that this “human” Jesus has been resurrected to continuing human life by God?
• because it proclaims unwaveringly that God has appointed this Jesus to be judge of the human race?
Or, do we need to acknowledge that this worn out liberal-moderate-conservative paradigm just cannot handle reality when it comes to giving the Biblical materials their full scope? Obviously, this worn out paradigm cannot even handle the complexities of a couple of paragraphs of scriptures, let alone the complexities of all of the wonderful scriptural narrative of God’s great acts. Nor can it handle the complexities of our lives and experiences!
How much new freedom and insight and empowerment might we who want to follow Jesus experience if we dropped the question of whether some viewpoint is liberal, conservative or moderate and just asked, “How can we as a believing community place ourselves before God and hear God speak to us in the 21st century through these incredible texts God has seen fit to preserve for us?
Of course this would not even begin to answer all of our questions, but it would certainly be a move toward a much more honest way of attempting to “hear God’s word for today” through the scriptures.