Corinth and Acts 17
For the context of this article on Paul's evangelistic methods and his use of apologetics, read Acts 17:16-18:17.
What Happened at Corinth? Did the Apostle Paul Change his Tactics?
Some have argued that Paul failed at Athens (only a few became Christians as a result of his preaching in Acts 17), so when he got to Corinth he changed his tactics to simple, 'gospel only' unargued proclamation. Acts 17 is therefore a mistake – and is preserved as a reminder of how not to do it, rather than how to do it.
I want to disagree with this view. I think it is an untrue, and practically damaging interpretation. If this is your view, then I want to try to give you some reasons why I think that you should reconsider.
When Paul speaks in Corinth, he is speaking to an audience that is different to the one in Athens (Acts 17). The Corinthians had some pretty specific expectations of their public speakers. Paul didn't measure up to these expectations. They wanted someone with an impressive physical presence (think Olympian athletes), who would give a robust performance. It was a big show for everyone to enjoy. The topic was often determined by the audience (like the comedy show 'Whose line is it anyway') and the speaker would have to talk impressively on that subject.
The audience demanded fine words and rhetorical language – and would be unhappy if they didn't get it. So Paul was a big disappointment to them. He was physically weak (and he had something wrong with his body a "thorn in the flesh"). Paul was not only a physical disappointment to them, he was also a disappointment as an entertainer. He wasn't prepared to play their games. He had much more serious things on his mind. Paul was only prepared to talk about Christ. His language was ordinary. “I did not come with eloquence… I resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ… I came in weakness and fear.” (1Corinthians 2:1-5)
In Acts 17, Paul attacked the foundations of the Athenian worldview. He connected with their ideas, but he also attacked. He was no defensive driver. This was the church lunging forwards. Talking about the God who didn't live in temples made by human hands (a critique of some Athenian beliefs), declaring the one who raised Jesus from the dead (they sneered at this because it was such an affront to their beliefs). In Corinth, we see Paul doing exactly the same thing – but he is doing it with his style and content. In the same way that he confronted and persuaded Athenians with his proclamation in Acts 17, he is confronting and persuading Corinthians with his critique of their expectations. They expect the gospel proclaimer to 'wow' them. He is telling them about a God who is able to 'wow' but is not going to play their games of rhetorical skill and athletic prowess.
This is the path of true spiritual rationality. Why? Because someone can be a terrible orator, and have a crippled body and still be telling the truth. Stephen Hawking sits in a wheelchair, and speaks through a computer. How long would the Corinthians have listened to him for? Not long. But he is brilliant. Truth and reality are not defined by power or status. In Paul's mind, the truth and reality of the gospel are not going to be sacrificed on the Corinthian altar to human brilliance.
So Paul isn't adopting a different approach, after all it was to the Corinthians that he wrote of “pulling down strongholds". He tells them that, "We demolish arguments and every lofty idea raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) Persuasion was such a part of the agenda that some Jews in Corinth complained that he was “persuading people to worship God.” (Acts 18:13)
Outreach and evangelism was "for Paul, a lively exchange of views, in which he presented the gospel. By engaging with [the culture in Acts and Corinth], he challenged their assumptions, clarified the issues, stormed their defences, provoked their questions, addressed their doubts and presented the gospel in a compelling manner. This sort of “inter-faith” dialogue was not merely about finding common ground or seeking mutual understanding. It was far more than that. Paul engaged in dialogue in order to win his hearers to Christ." (Peter May 'What is Apologetics')
A further consideration is that there is a genre difference between 1 Corinthians and Acts. Acts is historical narrative, and 1 Corinthians is an epistle, or letter. Generally speaking historical narrative in the New Testament gives worked, practical examples. Whereas letters and epistles give doctrinal instruction. So if we look at Acts 17 versus Corinth through this lens of genre, then Acts 17 gives the practical application of the doctrine unpacked in 1 Corinthians. There is then, no conflict in this case. Acts 17 is what it looks like – Paul declares Christ crucified (some have said he doesn't but what we have is a summary, given by Paul to Luke afterwards, and you have to do the death of Jesus if you want to talk about the resurrection) in Acts 17. On this view, if we could read a historical narrative version of Paul's strategy in Corinth, then perhaps it would look remarkably like Acts 17.
Sometimes people say, "Paul wasn't fruitful in Acts 17." But this is an understandable, but mistaken view too. The hypothesis that Paul wasn't fruitful is actually based on an error – a poor translation of Acts 17:34 from the Greek. It doesn't sound like Paul has done very well when we read (in verse 34) that, "A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others." The presence of a woman in the group of men should indicate that there is an inaccuracy in play, but the poor translation becomes much clearer when we learn that the same Greek is used in Acts 17:4, but this time it is translated, "Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women."
Suddenly Acts 17 sounds like a fantastic success. Especially when you remember that it was to a group of philosophers. Philosophers move through ideas very slowly, and they don't often change their views. So that should give you a hint at how tremendously powerful, fruitful and effective Paul's engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 was. It was mindblowingly effective – here is the Holy Spirit breaking into hearts. If a university, city or church mission was as fruitful as this, then we'd be swimming in courses and books about the 'Athenian strategy'. A simple misinterpretation, and mistranslation helps us to justify keeping the gear stick in neutral.
We are too happy to die the quiet death of irrelevance while the incredible treasure of what we have discovered about God should lovingly move us, in freedom, to tell others. Unless we really take a long hard look at what we do – and what Paul did – and the huge differences between the two, then we are likely to continue to be the irrelevant voices on their sacred reservation. Rather than those, who – like Paul in Acts 17 and Corinth – were able to cut into, and attack the ideas of the day – persuasively, attractively, relationally, lovingly, forcefully. When are we going to really see what happened in Acts 17 and Corinth for what it really was? When are we going to start teaching, and preaching as if we believe that Acts 17 really is part of the New Testament? How long will we tolerate irrelevance? How much longer can we afford to?
© 2010 Tom Price
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of its author. It first appeared on his blog.