St Paul in Athens: ‘For in [God] we live and move and have our being’

Le rocher de l’Aréopage, d’où Saint-Paul prêcha le ” Dieu Inconnu” aux Athéniens, vu de l’Acropole. Athènes, Grèce (Creative Commons).

OK, here’s the windup — (for any readers who might surf onto this page by accident and wonder what the verbatim quotes and links are all about). For Lent this year, I decided to add a discipline instead of giving something up. After talking it over with my spiritual director, I decided to work on prayer — specifically by learning a technique called lectio divina (it’s pronounced “lexio diveena,” it means divine reading, and I’ve linked some basics to the blog). Basically, you read scripture and prayerfully meditate on it. One tip sheet I’m following, from Our Lady of Victory parish in Centerville, Mass., counsels, “Do not be afraid of distractions. Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during lectio divina, are asking to be given to God. The voice of God usually comes in the form of ideas or understandings that come to mind while you are searching for meaning in what you are reading.”

Do not be afraid of distractions? Hey, that sounds like me!

So rather than following the lectionary, at least for my first attempt to do lectio divino, I decided to start with a passage from the book of Acts that’s been in my mind lately. It’s the story of St. Paul speaking to a Greek audience in Athens of an “unknown god … in [whom] we live and move and have our being.” I’ve liked that passage for many years, long before I returned to the church, and it’s come up lately in my reading about a school of theologians in Finland who have a challenging interpretation of Luther’s thoughts on the indwelling of Christ in the lives of faithful believers. And one of them, Simo Puera of the University of Helsinki, quotes Luther quoting St. Paul in Athens.

So, not being afraid of distractions, I got on Google.

And here’s the pitch. What follows is unedited verbatim quotation from Acts, Puera’s essay in a book on Finnish theology and a remarkable 1936 travelogue about Athens, St. Paul and his speech about the unknown god, written by the same British journalist who scooped the world when King Tut’s burial chamber was first opened. They’re copied here so I can find them again without trying to reconstruct a half dozen keyword searches.

Acts 17:16-34, New International Version (NIV), Bible Gateway

Acts 17: 16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people 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.


[b] Acts 17:28 From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides
[c] Acts 17:28 From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus

Simo Peura, “What God Gives, Man Receives: Luther on Salvation,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 86.

The true trinitarian God does not isolate himself from the world within his own existence. He is according to his nature a God who comes out to meet us. This happened once when God created the world and again when he became man in his Son; and it is continuously true when Christ becomes present in a spiritual way and is born in the hearts of believers. Thus, the first sentence expressing true knowledge of God is this one: God is by his nature the God who becomes really present.

God becomes present and begins to live in us at the moment he creates true faith in us. Therefore, faith always results in union with God. Indeed, through such faith a Christian already enters into heaven. Luther argues as follows” “This is the true faith of Christ and in Christ, through which we become members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Eph. 5:30). Therefore in Him we live, move, and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Hence the speculation of the sectarians is vain when they imagine that Christ is present in us ‘spiritually’, that is, speculatively, but is really present in heaven. Christ and faith must be completely joined. We must simply (simpliciter) be in in heaven; and Christ must be, live, and work in us. But He lives and works in us, not speculatively or as an idea but in the most present and effective way.”

Puera is director of the School of Advanced Training, Järvenpää, Finland, and a docent of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki

[Henry Vollam Morton,] “St. Paul’s Only Friends in Athens, St. Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris: Excerpt from H. V. Morton’s, In the Steps of St. Paul,” Orthodox Christianity

A remarkable pilgrimage book by H. V. Morton, In the Steps of St. Paul (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1936) takes us to the Areopagus in Athens in the early twentieth century, with notes on this place so famous to Christian history (pp 312-322).

* * *

When St. Paul came to Athens, the city had fallen from its ancient splendour. The great days of Hellas were as distant from the Apostle as the Tudor Age is from ourselves. Marathon and Thermopylae were as remote to him as Bosworth Field is to a modern Englishman. I have no idea whether St. Paul had ever read Homer, Thucydides or Herodotus, or whether he took any interest in the history of the race whose language he spoke; but surely, as a liberal-minded Hellenist and the child of a great Hellenistic university town, he must have felt his pulse quicken when he approached Athens.

* * *

Outwardly Athens was, perhaps, more brilliant than ever. Her streets were thronged with the rich youth of the world. Philosophers and teachers were never more numerous. Distinguished men banished from other lands could always find a happy retreat in a city that, in spite of its mental and moral decline, was still a great intellectual force. Tourists on their way to visit the ruined temples of Egypt, and to write their names on the base of the Colossi at Thebes, would break their voyage at Athens. These first Hellenic travellers, led by their voluble guides, would visit the famous relics of the past, inspecting the statues and the works of art, standing in awe on the Acropolis, where the temples, blazing with gold and colour, stood among their crowded votive-offerings much as they did in the time of Pericles. Athena Promachos rose above them, grasping her golden spear.

* * *

How true is this description in Acts of the curiosity and mental restlessness of the Athenians. It is mentioned by Plato, Euthyphron, Phaedo, Protagoras, Demosthenes, and by Plutarch, who commented on the Athenian restlessness, subtlety, love of noise, and novelty. Curiosity mingled with mental arrogance describes the Athenian attitude to St. Paul. The word translated as “babbler” in Acts is spermologos—an Athenian slang term, which means “seed-picker,” and was applied to people who loafed about the agora and the quay-sides, picking up odds and ends. In modern life a spermologos would be a tramp, or one of those who contrive to make a poor living by picking up cigarette-ends and by exploring dust-bins in the morning. As the Athenians applied it to St. Paul, it conveyed contempt. The philosophers believed the Apostle to be a snapper-up of unconsidered theological and philosophical trifles.

Conscious of the contempt with which these arrogant philosophers regarded him, St. Paul nevertheless eagerly agreed to address them. And his address, couched in terms of polite irony, proves that although he may have explored Athens as earnestly as any tourist from Rome or Alexandria, he was unmoved by the sights that impressed other visitors because his mind was wholly occupied with the salvation of Mankind through Jesus Christ. The only things that impressed him in Athens were connected with this mission. Everything else was purely trivial and secondary. So, scorning to flatter the Athenians, as many a philosopher making his first speech must have done, by some graceful reference to the beauty of the city or its ancient fame, St. Paul springs at once to the only thing that impressed him as he wandered the streets of Athens: the multiplicity of altars.

* * *

Standing either on the rock of the Areopagus, or among the members of the Court of the Areopagus, he began: Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are somewhat superstitious, or as Dr. Moffatt has translated the speech: “Men of Athens, I observe at every turn that you area most religious people. Why, as I passed along, and scanned your objects of worship, I actually came upon an altar with an inscription TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” It was an excellent beginning. It had the local touch, the right note of something surprising to follow. To everyone who listened to St. Paul, the altars inscribed TO AN UNKNOWNGOD were, of course, a commonplace. Everyone knew the story of the plague that visited Athens in the sixth century before Christ; and how, after sacrifices had been made to every known god and the plague continued, the services of the Cretan prophet, Epimenides, were requested. He drove a flock of black and white sheep to the Areopagus and allowed them to stray from there as they liked, waiting until they rested of their own free will: and on those spots were the sheep sacrificed “to the fitting god.” The plague ceased, and it became the custom, not in Athens alone, to erect altars to unknown deities. St. Paul, having arrested the attention of his audience, then built up his argument:

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth. . . . St. Paul developed his message with masterly skill and tact. Clever, as always, to suit his words to his audience, he made no mention of the Hebrew scriptures, which would have conveyed nothing to the Greeks, but dealt briefly with fundamental facts of religion.

H.V. Morton, journalist and travel writer “He first achieved fame in 1923 when, while working for the Daily Express, he scooped the official Times correspondent during the coverage of the opening of the Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in Egypt.” (Wikipedia)

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