Lectionary Thoughts on Acts 17.22-31: What did Paul think of his preaching in Acts?

Easter 6 Year A. In his speech to the Athenians, Paul famously begins his preaching by pointing out an ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17.22-31), trying to establish a point of contact with his listeners.  I have been readings some comments on it in preparation for this Sunday and all seem to think that what Paul did was a model form of presenting the gospel.  Despite the lack of ‘success’ in his preaching (the Athenians seemed fairly lukewarm to what Paul was saying), the idea appears prevalent that Paul presented the gospel the way he did because that was the way God led him in that situation.

But do we know what Paul thought of his preaching on that day?  I led a Disciple Bible Study Course last year and while we were reading Acts, one in our group gave a reflection that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since he said it.  My fellow Disciple-er was quite adamant that Paul felt he failed in Athens.  He pointed to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided [KJV:  determined] to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (NRSV)

When I asked him what follows on from that, he flipped back to Acts and sure enough, after Paul leaves Athens, he lands in Corinth.  My friend explained that he read the passage in 1 Corinthians as Paul’s saying that he played too much to the Athenians and their philosophy-charged atmosphere and idea discussing lounging around.  Rather, when Paul arrived at Corinth, my friend says, Paul regroups and says in effect, ‘I’m going back to my story of preaching Christ crucified and leaving the fancy talk for the philosophers’ (my paraphrase).

I realise this depends on the historicity of Acts and whether or not Luke ‘edited’ Paul’s sermons with his own theology, but my friend makes an interesting point – especially as Paul is in Corinth right after in Athens.  Does 1 Corinthians provide a clue to what Paul might have thought of his work in Athens?


7 thoughts on “Lectionary Thoughts on Acts 17.22-31: What did Paul think of his preaching in Acts?

  1. Thanks for that, Will. Interesting point indeed, and the notion brings to mind all sorts of important questions–gender language for God, the Oprahization of theology, even suffering, etc. Whatever Paul meant, I wish more preachers would be so bold again as to follow his line.
    Wishing you well as you finish up that sermon.

  2. Thank you, Meg. Interesting thoughts … which passage did you have in mind when you said it brings all kinds of important questions? The Acts one or the 1 Corinthians one?

  3. Acts 17:18 “Paul was telling them the good news of Jesus rising from death”
    Paul started by telling the good news. In 1 Cor 1:18 he states “the teachings about the cross seem foolish to those who are lost. But to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” I believe Paul is talking more of the Greek fixation on the theoretical discussion. They were more interested in the cognitive experience than in being saved so the words seem foolish. I believe the words Paul spoke in Athens were from the Holy Spirit and thus perfect for the wooing of men, but their hearts were hard. They were only nine pages (I do not have a study bible) beyond Pentecost.
    If there was a downfall to Paul’s preaching it might be that he did not wait for the right time. Acts 17:16, “Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens.” The workers were almost always sent to the harvest in twos or threes. I am not saying a single person cannot share the good news, but Jesus might have had more of a reason than companionship.
    What do I take away from these scriptures? Live in the experimental not the theoretical realm. The experimental, going out and doing, requires faith and trust in God while the love of understanding relies on our own strength. The second take away might be work in twos or threes and I might even go as far as saying we could learn from the method Jesus modeled for making disciples.


  4. Pingback: Tuesday, 22 April 2008 « Orthokardia’s Weblog

  5. Thanks for your comment, Bart. You mention that Paul preaches Jesus as risen from the dead. Well, it would be hard to speak of Christ risen without speaking of his death! It would be hard to imagine that Paul would think on his preaching and conclude he didn’t preach enough of the cross.

    The 1 Corinthians passage speaks more to the situation in Corinth and their love of philosophy rather than a reflection of his own preaching.

    Still, my friend gave me something to think about!

  6. Meg, I love the term “Oprahization” of theology, but I’m not sure what it means. If you you check back to these comments, could you explain, please?

  7. Actually, I was thinking of the 1 Corinthians passage, just to say that there are all sorts of flashy modes of thinking and ideological trends swirling about even while many preachers are perfectly content in their preaching to leave Christian epistemology in the dust.

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