Common Ground?

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One of the hottest controversies in apologetics has to do with the possibility of common ground between Christians and unsaved people. The question is whether Christians, in order to persuade unbelievers, must find some kind of neutral territory that both can occupy as objective, fair-minded persons. Classical and evidential apologists believe that such common ground exists and is important. Presuppositionalists reject the notion of common ground and insist upon the antithesis between revealed truth and all human attempts to discover truth while denying revelation.

Much of the debate focuses upon Acts 17, in which Paul presents the gospel at Athens. When he spoke to the philosophers at the Areopagus, Paul was standing at the epicenter of intellectual life in his civilization. Consequently, Paul’s presentation is sometimes treated as a model or test case for apologetic systems.

Apologists in the classical and evidentialist traditions believe that Paul made effective use of common ground in Athens. He approached the philosophers on the basis of their shared belief in a deity, found a common category in the “unknown God,” fit the true and living God into that category, and then proceeded to the details of the gospel. These apologists make much of Paul’s success: even at a center of hardened unbelief (the Areopagus), some believed and others continued to express interest. Paul’s citation of the pagan authors Epimenides and Aratus is seen as a further indication that he was appealing to common ground.

Some presuppositionalists take exactly the opposite approach. They do not deny that Paul was appealing to common ground, but they maintain that Paul was mistaken to do so. They note that no mention of the cross occurs in the Areopagus address. They point to the relative paucity of Paul’s results (only some believed). They further draw attention to the strongly cross-centered content of Paul’s preaching in Corinth, his next stop after Athens. They tend to see 1 Corinthians 1-2 as Paul’s repentance and renunciation of his botched apologetic at Athens.

If these are the only two perspectives considered, then the choice between them rests primarily upon one’s understanding of human nature after the Fall. If sin has left human intellection largely intact, then finding common ground with unbelievers is an acceptable and perhaps preferable option. If, however, depravity has affected the human ability to think and perceive—if it has corrupted the mind itself—then common ground becomes much more problematic. Those who believe in total depravity (which includes the depravity of the mind) will tend to see common-ground apologetics as mistaken, harmful, and perhaps even sinful.

Both interpretations of Acts 17 share the assumption that Paul is appealing to common ground, i.e., that he is trying to gain favor for his preaching by starting with categories that are already accepted by his audience. This assumption, however, can be challenged. What if Paul is not doing common-ground apologetics? What if he is actually doing something else altogether?

Paul was in Athens alone, which was unusual. Paul was normally surrounded by an entourage of helpers. He had been sent to Athens hastily and perhaps not entirely in accord with his own wishes. He had been abandoned there by his conductors.

Alone in Athens, Paul found the city completely given to idolatry. If he had been minded to keep silent, the sight of glory being given to idols rather than to God was more than he could bear. Paul was not so much concerned about the poor souls of the Athenians (though he must have been) as he was provoked at the effrontery of worshipping created things.

Consequently, Paul began to start arguments. He argued with Jews. He argued with God-seeking Gentiles. He began to go to the market place every day and to argue with everyone who would listen. He created an intellectual splash that caught the attention of the philosophers. They invited him to explain his views before the Areopagus.

Gazing at these hardened idolaters, Paul began by remarking that they were “very religious.” Given his provocation over idols, this can hardly be meant as a compliment. Paul then claimed that he had examined their objects of worship and found an altar “to the unknown god.” The irony here is thick. These are very religious people, but they do not even know their own gods. Paul goes on to suggest that they are actually worshipping ignorantly—not exactly a word of praise for the intellectual luminaries of the day. Then Paul went on to show what even pagan philosophers are obligated to understand about God.

The Stoics and Epicureans both understood that God or the gods were essentially spiritual, a point that Paul reinforces by bringing in their own poets. Yet here they were, surrounded by material idols and temples. They were bringing material offerings to the gods, as if humans could somehow supply what the gods needed. They should have known that God was unlike anything that humans could manufacture.

Think of the implications of Paul’s approach. The Athenians admitted that there was at least one god whom they did not know. If they did not know this god, then how could they be certain whether they had neglected other gods? Or how could they be sure whether the god whom they had neglected was the greatest, most powerful, most transcendent god of all? By starting with their own humanly-constructed intellectual systems, the Athenians had doomed themselves to ignorance of the most important things.

Paul was not doing common-ground apologetics. He was offering what Cornelius Van Til called the “transcendental critique.” Paul was charging the philosophers with neglecting the most important things. He was showing them that their starting point would lead them only to emptiness. He was pushing them to see that they could no longer live with their own presuppositions.

The Areopagites were depraved, but they were not really and naively ignorant. At some level, they did know the true and living God. The knowledge of that God was pressing in all around them, seeping through into their consciousness. They constantly had to patch up their system of philosophy and idolatry in order to plug the leaks. When Paul quoted Epimenides and Aratus, he was drawing attention to the leakage. He was showing the Athenians that they were trying to hold on to categories that only Christians can rightfully claim. He was accusing them of living inconsistently with what they couldn’t not know.

In other words, up to this point, Paul’s apologetic was essentially negative and destructive. This transcendental critique comes to a focus in verse 29. Paul intimated that the true and living God was aware of the Athenians’ folly. God had been overlooking their foolishness until now, but His patience was at an end. He now commanded them to repent.

From verse 30 onwards, Paul shifts into a presentation of the gospel. Apparently that presentation was interrupted, so we do not know what all the details would have been. We do know that Paul preached future judgment of injustices at the hands of a man whom God raised from the dead (which, of course, implies that this man had first died). And, of course, Paul preached repentance. If the gospel was not fully presented in all its details, it was at least implied in what Paul said.

According to Luke, some believed. Perhaps not many, but some. Luke even offers names. If this seems paltry, then perhaps we ought to remind ourselves of the value of a soul. We also ought to remember the nature of the crowd that Paul was addressing.

The Areopagus was the leading intellectual institution of its day. It was the intellectual equivalent of the Oxbridge and Ivy faculties of today. If an evangelist today had the opportunity to preach to those professors and “some believed,” would not Christians rejoice?

Scripture does not condemn Paul for his presentation at Athens, and I am inclined to think that we should not condemn him either. Nevertheless, we should not assume that Paul’s Athenian ministry provides a model for common-ground apologetics. It is better understood as an instance of the transcendental critique.

Hymn 103.
Christ’s Commission, John iii. 16 17.
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Come happy souls, approach your God
With new melodious songs;
Come, render to almighty grace
The tribute of your tongues.

So strange, so boundless was the love
That pity’d dying men,
The Father sent his equal Son
To give them life again.

Thy hands, dear Jesus, were not arm’d
With a revenging rod,
No hard commission to perform
The vengeance of a God.

But all was mercy, all was mild,
And wrath forsook the throne,
When Christ on the kind errand came,
And brought salvation down.

Here, sinners, you may heal your wounds,
And wipe your sorrows dry;
Trust in the mighty Saviour’s Name,
And you shall never die.

See, dearest Lord our willing souls
Accept thine offer’d grace;
We bless the great Redeemer’s love,
And give the Father praise.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 9 Comments

JobK's picture

Apologetics, at least in the modern sense, is concerned with attempting to prove the existence of God to atheists. (And according to my " http://www.amazon.com/Five-Views-Apologetics-Steven-Cowan/dp/0310224764 ]Five Views On Apologetics " book, some of the methods and arguments are suspect, as they do a lot more for deism - or at least some form of general, abstract universalist or pluralist theism - than they do for establishing the existence and character of the God of the Bible). So, in that sense, it can be argued that Paul's sermon at Mars Hill was either A) not apologetic in nature or Cool if apologetic, then a kind of presuppositionalism. In Paul's speech, he never tried to prove that God existed. Quite the other hand, he used their beliefs in deities as a starting point. There were certainly atheists and skeptics present, but Paul refused to acknowledge them. Further - and even more revealing - Paul refused to acknowledge their polytheism and paganism. Refusing to interact with atheism and paganism because doing so lends them legitimacy is classic presuppositionalism, and also fits with the presuppositionalist mindset of Judaism "the fool in his heart says that there is no God. Instead, Paul used their "belief in the unknown god" to introduce a presentation of the true God's character (i.e. holy, righteous, transcendent).

Also, if the heavily Calvinist (we are talking about van Til after all) presuppositationalist school blamed the small number of conversions on Paul's "flawed" presentation, then that would conflict van Til's other doctrines on salvation and evangelism. It would also have real issues with doctrines on Holy Spirit inspiration, as why would the Bible leave a record of a flawed sermon, and especially in the vital context of Acts itself?

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Ted Bigelow's picture

Thanks Kevin, for writing on apologetics – not the evidence of it – likes the proofs of the resurrection – which in themselves are wonderfully edifying - but rather in the way one shares the gospel – the methodology. Don’t you ever stick with anything safe? Smile

I had a bit of a challenge following your article – maybe I misread it?

In the 1st paragraph you said,

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Presuppositionalists reject the notion of common ground

But then 5 paragraphs later you appear to reverse course:

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Both interpretations of Acts 17 share the assumption that Paul is appealing to common ground

“Both interpretations” in that statement are presuppositionalism and evidentialisim, right? Or did I misunderstand? If so, my apologies. But I re-read your words several times, and that’s the only conclusion I could come too.

Then, in the 4th paragraph, you write:

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Some presuppositionalists take exactly the opposite approach. They do not deny that Paul was appealing to common ground, but they maintain that Paul was mistaken to do so.

Having studied the field for about 20 years, and as a presuppositionalist myself, I found this confusing. Everything I’ve read from presuppositional writers is the exact opposite of your statement here. They all deny Paul was appealing to a common ground. Instead, he was appealing to a common accountability of guilt before God (an ontological commonness, not an epistemological commonness).

Did you mean to make this claim about evidentialists instead, for his is a common claim among them – that Paul failed at Mar’s Hill? The presuppositionalist maintains that Paul was utterly successful and glorified God on Mar’s Hill (unless they’ve all gone and changed positions on me!) Wink

The rest of that paragraph fits much of what I’ve read from evidentialists, so I’m guessing you meant to refer to them in your statements.

Later in the article you write:

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He [Paul ] was offering what Cornelius Van Til called the “transcendental critique.” Paul was charging the philosophers with neglecting the most important things. He was showing them that their starting point would lead them only to emptiness. He was pushing them to see that they could no longer live with their own presuppositions.

Are you certain that’s Van Til’s definition of the transcendental argument? I’ve studied his writings, as well as those of his protégés (Bahnsen, Frame, Pratt, Thomas, etc.) and I’ve never seen anyone give that kind of explanation to the transcendental argument.

Instead, they all agree that the transcendental argument – the argument that trumps all others, regards “predication,” i.e., that our human ability to name things and to understand our world requires every man – regenerate or not – to presuppose the Triune God. All are, after all, in His image, and therefore all are guilty for borrowing God’s knowledge but using it to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).

Actually, the point you make: “He [Paul ] was showing them that their starting point would lead them only to emptiness” is a position Van Til strenuously argued against since it left the unbeliever on his own footing to evaluate God’s truth claims. Perhaps you were thinking here of Francis Schaeffer and the L’Abri ministries, for this is precisely their approach? But Van Til felt Schaeffer's apologetic methodology was a fatal concession to the unbeliever.

Later you write:

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This transcendental critique comes to a focus in verse 29. Paul intimated that the true and living God was aware of the Athenians’ folly. God had been overlooking their foolishness until now, but His patience was at an end. He now commanded them to repent.

(Did you instead mean to refer to verse 30, and not verse 29?)

Either way, I’m having a hard time seeing how that fits with your earlier statement about how the “transcendental critique” places the Athenian men in a position of supposedly seeing that :

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“Paul was charging the philosophers with neglecting the most important things. He was showing them that their starting point would lead them only to emptiness.”

Instead, it seems to me that Paul’s words in verse 30 show them heading for judgment, not emptiness. verse 30: [God ] “now commandeth all men every where to repent.”

After all, Paul’s next words are

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Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31)

This might lead you away from the conclusion that:

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From verse 30 onwards, Paul shifts into a presentation of the gospel. Apparently that presentation was interrupted, so we do not know what all the details would have been.

I’m not sure why that’s “apparent.” Paul spoke of the resurrection of Christ before the death of Christ – a logical fallacy if his goal was to present the gospel, no? You write that the mention of resurrection implies that Christ died first. Of course you are correct. But the gospel isn't clearly portrayed if we only imply Christ’s crucifixion!

Another way v. 31 could be understood is to read it that Paul intentionally spoke of the resurrection without the prior mention of the cross because it put his listeners on the hot spot in their conscience. Paul wanted to provoke them to repentance by agitating the inner knowledge that each of us has a coming day of judgment. This seems to fit his words earlier in this verse, “he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained.”

You close off your post with a wonderfully astute observation that hopefully will provoke some brethren to reconsider their position:

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Scripture does not condemn Paul for his presentation at Athens, and I am inclined to think that we should not condemn him either. Nevertheless, we should not assume that Paul’s Athenian ministry provides a model for common-ground apologetics.

Thanks. Very well done. Cool

Paul Henebury's picture

This is surely a typo:

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Some presuppositionalists take exactly the opposite approach. They do not deny that Paul was appealing to common ground, but they maintain that Paul was mistaken to do so.

In order to be true this ought to say "Some evidentialists..."

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Caleb S's picture

The following link is an article titled "The Encounter of Jerusalem With Athens" by Greg Bahnsen. Bahnsen goes through Acts 17, and this source seems exceedingly relevant to the thread.

http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa045.htm

Caleb S's picture

Since Ted Bigelow mentioned Francis Schaeffer in relation to Presuppositionalism, I thought that it would be a good idea to bring up this link. It is titled "False Antithesis: A Critique Of The Notion Of Antithesis In Francis Schaeffer's Apologetic" by Greg Bahnsen.

http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa089.htm

I would also note that Robert Reymond in his out of print book "Justification of Knowledge" also bashes Schaeffer's compromises. I do not have the page number at the moment, but I would be happy to look it up if someone wants me to.

Caleb S's picture

I wrote a paper a while back over the antithesis and common ground, and this is how I see the Presuppositionalist position with regard to common ground. This is remarkably similar to what Ted mentioned previously.

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The antithesis came to the fore not only in his apologetics, but the antithesis came to the fore in his ecclesiology as well. In apologetic discussion, common grace deals directly with the issue of common ground. Common grace answers this question in apologetics: “What is the point of contact between the believer and the unbeliever?” This discussion takes place in the arena of man’s depravity. To what extent has man suppressed the truth? Since “total depravity” does not mean that man is as bad as he can be, he still does good things (on a human-to-human level). This means that, in principle, the depraved man has no commonality between himself and the believer, for he is actively trying to suppress the truth and functioning within his autonomous principle (epistemology). However, God’s grace is restraining him from being as bad as he could be; therefore, man functions inadvertently in the realm of theism (metaphysically).

What does this mean in apologetic discussion? The previous simply means that there is common ground. However, the common ground is not based upon the autonomous principle, which would negate God. The common ground is based upon the unbeliever’s inability to completely suppress the truth of God’s existence. He needs God’s existence to some extent in order to function. In other words, he borrows from the Christian worldview in order to maintain his atheism.

I'm editing this post to add the following link. It is titled "Van Til's Challenge To Illegitimate Common Ground". This helps to support the validity of my summary above.

http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa196.htm

Steve Newman's picture

To me, a better example of Paul's apologetic is in Acts 14:13-18. He there does not appeal to common ground, but common grace: the fact that God created all the world and has provided the good things we have today. Romans 1 reinforces this idea. These have always been God's witness to the lost. I agree that the "unknown God" of Athens is not the God of the Bible.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Hi Steve, wonderful points.

I'm not certain that Acts 14 is a better example of Paul's apologetic method, but it is too often neglected. Perhaps another look at it will confirm it employs the same apologetic as Acts 14.

In Acts 17:22-25a, Paul precedes his words about common grace with a teaching on common guilt, by which men suppress God's revelation of himself in Creation. Students of the Bible have linked Paul's words to several passages from Isaiah (Isa 40:12, Isa. 45:18), which are likewise polemic in their context, and were employed to evoke the Israelites accountability to God. After Paul does this in Acts 17, he then discusses common grace in Acts 17:25b. The two are not separate approaches, but the same. They both are employed to evoke guilt and accountability.

As a result, it seems wise, as Bauder does, to see Paul not as trying to please his listeners based on common views of life, culture, logic, and worship, but rather to see him as confronting these men for rejecting God's glorious revelaton of Himself in creation.

My own understanding of Acts 14 sees the same "guilt-inducing" dynamic at work. See how Paul starts with creation before getting to common grace in Acts 14:15-16.

It is valuable to compare the common grace realities in both Acts 14 and 17. IMO, they evidence the same apologetic.

Jeff Brown's picture

Kevin has done a good job of explaining the dynamics of Paul's message in Athens, as well as why Paul was there and how he got people to listen. Sometimes I think that the apologetics debate (evidentialist/presuppositionalist) comprehends little of what was motivating Paul when he spoke. It seems to be framed in the theological/philosophical/scientific debate of the last century. Why has the focus of the debate been almost exclusively Paul in Athens? Was Paul in Pisidian Antioch any less apologetic? When Paul blinded Elymas in Cyprus before the Roman governor, was he any less apologetic in his speech than at other times? Wasn't Stephen's speech in Acts 7 apologetic? Weren't the answers of Jesus to his enemies during the Passion Week apologetic?

Evidentialists get into trouble by bringing up the idea of neutrality. But in fact, anyone who is trying to evangelize others (and this Paul was clearly trying to do at the Aeropagus) can only be successful if he finds points at which his hearers understand what he is saying. Paul said that the Gospel was "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." The way Paul presented the Gospel to a group of Jewish hearers was significantly different than how he presented it to the non-Jews in Lystra (where he quoted no Greek authors) and in Athens (where he did). Paul no doubt understood Greek thinking very well. He grew up in Tarsus, which was second only to Athens as a center for Greek philosophy in his day. Paul was one of the most promising young scholars of Judaism before he turned to Christ. Educated Jews were thoroughly Hellenized, which means that most Jewish rabbis were readers of the Greek philosophers and poets. For these two reasons Paul was well prepared to interact not only with Jewish people but also with non-Jewish intellectuals. He was using commonly understood ideas in either case. If you want to reach people for Christ outside of your familiar circle or environment, you have to spend a good amount of time learning how those people think. Afterward, you have to talk to them in the way they understand. Paul teaches us very well in all his speeches. I feel certain that is what was driving Paul to frame his message for his situation. Just because you offer neither signs to one group nor wisdom to the other doesn't mean that you never nuance your message when you preach Christ crucified.

I have been somewhat out of the loop of Evangelical apologetics for a while, and I know that I am overreacting, but I often feel that the standard presuppositionalist/evidentialist debate about apologetics is often agenda-driven, and leaves us with a weenie of a preacher and an emasculated listener.

Jeff Brown

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