The other day I was watching Ken Ham’s Foundation Series DVD entitled: “Revealing the Unknown God” where on the second half of the DVD Ken was talking about how he felt like crying after reading one of the devotions from a devotional booklet that was printed for a particular group of reformed churches in Michigan. The devotion stated:
Paul came to Corinth speaking the gospel in simple terms. He had just journeyed there from Athens where he had drawn on his education and tried to communicate the gospel in the style of a philosopher. He even quoted from the Greek poets. The result? The great missionary fell flat on his face. I can picture him entering into his diary, “Don’t ever try this again. The cross doesn’t need my verbal decorations.” – Chic Broersma, https://woh.org/word/devotionals/2010/01/03
Now as I was listening to Ken, I started to think about a similar message that I had recently heard from the pastor of our church, Lon Solomon. He pretty much gave the same sort of “insight” as the devotion that Ken Ham encountered and I too, just like Ken, had my emotions run high as a result of our pastor’s sermon though I must admit that instead of feeling like crying, my blood felt like it was boiling as I sat there seething in disbelief at what I was hearing. Perhaps, I get a little too zealous for the Word at times but nevertheless, that is how I felt.
It all started a couple of weeks ago, when my pastor Lon Solomon was preaching on the book of 1 Corinthians in his Bible Survey series; his sermon was entitled: ”Keeping Power in the Gospel.” Lon started off by talking about the city of Corinth as it pertained to Greece in Paul’s day as well as the excessive carnality of the Corinthian church. Lon also emphasized the fact that Paul came straight to Corinth right after his time in Athens, then Lon began to zero in on Paul’s ministry in Athens and the famous speech that Paul gave at Mars Hill.
According to Lon Solomon:
Suddenly, Paul finds himself in front of the most brilliant minds in the world with an open invitation to speak to them about Jesus and he launches into his sermon. Now I just want to say before we look at his sermon, that many commentators think that this is the greatest sermon that Paul ever preached in the New Testament but I respectfully disagree, I actually believe that it was the worst sermon that he ever preached in the New Testament and I want us to look at it and then I want to try to tell you why I believe that.
So after pastor Solomon reads a paraphrased NIV version of Acts 17:22-31 (skipping verses 25, 26, 27, 29) he says:
Now at this point the philosophers booed him off the stage and his message was over. Verse 34, but a few men joined Paul and believed along with a woman named Damaris. Next verse, and after these things Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. Now here is what I want you to see. Every other place where Paul preached, large numbers of people came to Christ – but NOT in Athens! Every other place where Paul preached, he always left a church behind – but NOT in Athens! As far as we know – Athens is the only place Paul ever ministered where he failed to establish a church!…The point that I’m trying to make is that I believe something went drastically wrong in Athens and the question is: what was it? And we don’t have to fish around for the answer because in 1 Corinthians 2 where we are now going Paul tells us the answer what was wrong, listen to what He says to the Corinthians: “When I came to you [in Corinth], I did not come with eloquence of speech or high-sounding wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but were with the Holy Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:4-5
First of all, in Acts 17:34 NIV (which states: A few men became followers of Paul and believed…), the NIV version of the bible uses the word “few” when translating the Greek word “tis,” but if you examine this word in a Greek lexicon (i.e. Strong’s or Thayer), you will see that the translation “few” is not in it’s semantic range. The two main words that appear within the semantic range of the Greek term “tis” are: “certain” and “some.” Furthermore, it is instructive to note that the NIV in the same chapter at Acts 17:4, and Acts 17:18, rightly and repeatedly translate the same Greek word “tis” as “some”; so it appears that the translators of the NIV are being arbitrary and thus inconsistent with their interpretation of that Greek word. Incidentally, I never really liked the idea of McLean Bible Church placing an NIV bible underneath every parishioner’s seat; but when our own Pastor arrives at faulty conclusions that are based in part upon such a demonstrably compromised bible; then this should trouble everyone who attends the church.
By contrast, the KJV contains the same Greek word tis in 450 places throughout the New Testament, but not even ONCE translates it as “few.” In fact, I checked 40 other English Bible versions and found that the NIV alone chooses to use the word “few” in Acts 17:34. The other translations, as expected, either used the word “certain” or “some” when interpreting tis. Oligos is the Greek word for few. For example, the English word oligarchy which refers to a political system governed by a few people is derived from oligos. If in Acts 17:34, Luke was trying to convey that those men who joined Paul and believed were “few” he would no doubt have employed oligos like he did in Acts 17:12 when describing, by way of contrast, the number of Bereans who became believers (i.e. “not a few“). Moreover, in Acts 17:4 when describing the number of Gentile believers Paul converted in Thessalonica, Luke again uses oligos in negation (i.e. “not a few“), thereby conveying to the reader that there were many who followed Paul in Thessalonica. In fact, the irony of Acts 17:4 is that when Luke uses oligos in negation (i.e. “not a few“) to describe tis (e.g. “some [tis] of them believed…not a few [oligos]”), he is conclusively demonstrating that tis when used in the bible, cannot mean a “few.” Therefore, when we use what we’ve discovered in Acts 17:4 to guide our interpretation of Acts 17:34, we engage in the important concept of Scripture interpreting Scripture.
The point of this all is that, regarding those persons who ended up following Paul in Acts 17:34, the bible doesn’t give us specific details about how large of a group they were. Nor is it reasonable to employ a speculative term (i.e. few) which defies tis‘ semantic range. Besides, verse 34 concludes with the phrase “and others with them” which ends up incrementing the value of tis. There is therefore no compelling reason to think that these believers were fewer in number than those in the group that mocked the idea of the resurrection, especially when one considers that, there was a third group of listeners who were interested in hearing Paul speak again. In fact, if all three groups were evenly divided (a scenario that the text certainly allows for), the dissenters would decidedly be in the minority. It is also important to realize that even if the dissenters were in the majority, it is unwise to determine the validity of Paul’s preaching by simply examining the number of converts or churches that were produced as a consequence. After all, Scripture gives us clear hints that believers are expected to be in the minority. For instance, when Christ in Luke 13:23 was asked if there were few that be saved, He answered in the affirmative. Moreover, in the Matthew 13:3 parable of the Sower and the seed, the listeners who truly believe only account for one of the four scenarios given. And though the number of those who hear the gospel in each of the four scenarios is not necessarily proportional, we see that there are four types of responses which are to be expected when the gospel is preached. Hence, it is not scriptural to always expect the majority of listeners to convert when preaching the gospel.
In Lon Solomon’s message he repeatedly states that Paul “was booed off the stage” after presenting his address to the listening audience at Mars Hill but when we examine the actual words of Scripture we find nothing of the sort. What we find in the scripture is that:
When they heard [Paul speak] of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, we will hear thee again of this matter…however certain men clave unto him, and believed – Acts 17:32-34
There was not one unified reaction from the audience, in fact, there were three different responses. Acts 17:32-34 impresses upon the reader that Paul’s feedback was mixed; this is hardly tantamount to being “booed off the stage” and yet Lon distorts the audience’s reaction by using language which seeks to convey that Paul’s message was consequently a failure (at least in the eyes of his audience). One gets the feeling that Pastor Lon is left with no option but to sensationalize the Scriptures in order to really make his point. In logic this mistake in reasoning is commonly referred to as “the appeal to emotion.” Lon’s peculiar yet unscriptural phrase “booed off the stage” is an attempt to obscure the fact that no compelling rationale exists for one to conclude that Paul’s message was a failure. Perhaps the use of this logical fallacy is an indication that Lon feels he needs to add something extra in order to “seal the deal” in the minds of his listeners.
If we are to apply Lon’s hermeneutic to other parts of Scripture, we would be forced to conclude that Jesus Christ was also “booed off of the stage” and was thus equally a failure. After all, on certain occasions in the Scriptures we read about Jesus also generating a mixed response amongst His listeners. Consider the following passages:
And there was much murmuring among the crowd concerning Him [i.e. Jesus], for some said, He is a good man; others said, No, but he deceives the crowd. (John 7:12)
Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him [Jesus]. (John 7:40-43)
In light of the above verses from the Bible perhaps “bringing down the house” should not be our litmus test for determining whether or not the servant of God is running a successful ministry.
If you compare Paul’s message in Athens to every other message of his in the Bible – you’ll find that it’s radically different.
First of all, Paul’s approach to evangelism in Athens, while purposefully different, is not radically different; for we are told in Acts 17:18 that Paul “preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.” Hence, Paul did not leave out elements of the Gospel as Lon would have us believe; what Paul did was to preach the Gospel in a meaningful way—a way which did not simply presume that his audience would understand a message based in a Jewish context with which they were not acquainted. Furthermore, upon reading Acts 14:8-18 we find a sermon by Paul to the same sort of audience that is quite consistent with his Acts 17:22-31 sermon; this means that Paul’s Mars Hill sermon is not as unique as Lon would have us believe. So it sounds like Paul seemed to understand whom he was dealing with and adapted his message accordingly. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to chat with “the most brilliant minds in the world” and yet these men had apparently never heard of the biblical God for they said “He [i.e. Paul] seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods [presumably because they had heard Paul speaking about the Trinity].” So what do you do when you are confronted with folks who have never heard of the biblical God? Do you immediately begin to preach to them about “the sinfulness of man” and “the holiness of God?” The holiness of which god? After all, they had many of them! Why would anyone expect Stoic and Epicurean philosophers to understand: “The reality of hell”, “Man’s inability to save himself”, “the virgin birth” or “the deity of Christ?”
This is why Ken Ham in this book Why Won’t They listen? when speaking of Paul’s audience at Mar’s Hill explains that “the Greeks listening to Paul on Mars Hill in Athens did not have the foundational knowledge to understand the gospel” and that they “had no Christian basis in their thinking.” In fact, Paul tells us that the Greeks considered the preaching of the Cross as “foolishness” in 1 Corinthians 1:23. Moreover, according to Dr. Henry Morris in his Defender’s Study Bible, “Epicureanism and Stoicism were based on an evolutionary worldview. The Epicureans were essentially atheists, like modern Darwinists, whereas the Stoics were pantheists, much like modern New Age evolutionists.” So it looks like Paul was dealing with a scripturally illiterate audience and needed to demolish their worldview by demonstrating the contradictions and inconsistencies in their thinking all the while presenting the Gospel to them—and this is precisely what he does. For more information on this technique, See “Biblical instructions for doing Apologetics from 2 Timothy 2:25”
Regarding the 1 Corinthians 2 passage Lon further states:
Paul is not saying these things for no reason – he is reacting to a serious mistake he feels he made in Athens. “I did not come to you with eloquence of speech or high-sounding wisdom . . .” – Like I tried to use in Athens! “I did not use persuasive words of human wisdom . . .” – Like I tried to use in Athens! “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” – Which is not what I based my sermon on in Athens!
Pastor Lon is actually the one making a “serious mistake” in unjustly accusing Paul of making a “serious mistake” in his Athens sermon. We must remember that according to Acts 17:18, Paul has already done some preaching to these Athenians but we are not privy to the words that were actually spoken by Paul unlike the rest of his sermon in Acts 17:22-31. Still, we do know that Paul preached to them the Gospel since the words that are used to describe the contents of Paul’s preaching is the phrase “Jesus and the resurrection.”
So, after Paul preaches the Gospel to the Athenians in Acts 17:18, what do you expect the response was? Let me give you a hint; read 1 Corinthians 1:23 and then compare that with the following feedback: “What will this babbler [Paul] say [next]…He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods” (Acts 17:18). Now why do they think they called Paul a babbler? Perhaps it’s because the Athenians had no concept of “absolute authority, absolute truth, the inherent sin nature of man nor the reality of hell” topics that would have accompanied the Gospel message. And why do you think they called Paul a setter forth of strange gods? Perhaps because they had heard Paul speaking about the Trinity; you know, God the Father raising up God the Son and God the Son sending us God the Holy Spirit. Strange gods indeed to the biblically illiterate. So we see that the Gospel WAS already preached even before Paul began his much maligned Mars Hill sermon. Notwithstanding, even if one were to limit Paul’s preaching to the Acts 17:22-31 segment, and one were to also assume that Paul said nothing more than what is listed in these ten verses (although we have previously demonstrated this to be impossible), the reader should still walk away understanding that the Gospel is indeed present even in these ten verses. That’s because Paul’s message to the Greeks explains that the biblical God is the sovereign Creator of the universe Who sustains all men and Who’s desire is that all men should seek after Him and repent from their ways (sin) because a day is coming when God will judge the world in righteousness which is why God sent Jesus (“that man”) to die and raised Him from the dead to provide assurance all men and to confirm Christ’s ordination as the Judge of all men. So how is this not the Gospel? As a listening Greek you have just been told that the one true God’s righteous judgment is coming but that you can escape it by turning from your ignorance and seeking after God in repentance. Sounds like good news to me.
Incidentally, if Paul had “cut the heart out of the Gospel” as Lon goes on to say then how is it possible that some people really believed? If they had not heard the Gospel then what exactly did these new converts of Acts 17:34 end up believing in? Apparently they believed in a message that was “schmaltz-ed” up with “intellectualism” and “philosophy” so that it resulted in a “repackaged” Gospel; at least according to Lon’s view. Speaking of Paul’s Mars Hill sermon Lon states: “If a ‘repackaged’ Gospel didn’t get you and me born-again and headed to heaven – then why in the world would we offer it to somebody else?”
Now if Lon were being thorough in his assessment, shouldn’t he also conclude that the converts in Acts 17:34 were not really born again and headed to heaven since after all they were the recipients of what Lon calls a “repackaged” Gospel? This would seem to follow from Lon’s assertion that a “repackaged” gospel does not get people “born-again and headed to heaven.”
I have to say that Lon is really wrong about Paul’s sermon and this is not some small blunder either. Paul’s Athens sermon was a brilliant display of biblical apologetics infused with the message of the Gospel. Perhaps if Lon would spend more time engaged in the same type of apologetics which he denounces Paul for employing, Lon would not find himself setting up a false dichotomy between “head knowledge and heart knowledge” which ironically happens to be another one of his denunciations of what he calls “intellectualism.” But perhaps I’ve digressed.
Nowhere in Scripture will you find Paul expressing regret over his message at Mars Hill. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 2 it is impossible to find any hint that Paul is referring to the sermon that he delivered in Athens. There are no connecting dots that leads one to suspect that Athens is even in view when Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 2 and yet Lon is able to give us insight in to what Paul is thinking without actually using any words from the bible as a referent. This is my problem with Lon’s take on 1 Corinthians 2. If the bible doesn’t say that Paul failed in his Athens’ sermon then why is Lon trying to convince us otherwise? Moreover, if the bible does not inform us that 1 Corinthians 2 is a commentary on Paul’s supposed failure in Athens, then why is Pastor Solomon trying to convince us otherwise?
Would you notice that on Mars Hill Paul never mentioned the holiness of God, he never mentioned the sinfulness of man, he never mentioned the reality of hell, he never mentioned the inability of man to save himself, he never mentioned the virgin birth, he never mentioned the deity of Christ, he never mentioned the sinless life of Christ, he never mentioned Jesus’ death on the cross, he never mentioned Jesus’ shed blood as the one and only payment for sin that God accepts, he never mentioned that Jesus was the one and only exclusive way to get into heaven and he barely mentioned the resurrection at the end when they booed him off the stage. Now, why was this? Well I believe Paul left all these elements out in order to try and “repackage” the Gospel for these Athenian philosophers to make it more intellectual to them, to make it less offensive to them, to make it more relevant to them but what Paul learned in trying to do this is that there is a limit – beyond which we cannot go in doing this– without robbing the Gospel of its power as indicated by the very meager results that he had there in Athens spiritually and this is why he said to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2:2 – “From now on, I am resolved to know nothing and to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” I not going to try to schmaltz it up with intellectualism, I not going to try to schmaltz it up with philosophy, I’m just going to preach Jesus and Him crucified.
Now this passage by Pastor Solomon is just disturbing. There are many things that should be said regarding Lon’s take on 1 Corinthians 2, of which the first is: does the actual words of Scripture provide a basis for Lon to put these words into Paul’s mouth? If not then is it responsible to alter 1 Corinthians 2:2 to begin with the phrase “from now on” as Lon has done? It seems to me that it is Lon who is the one trying to “repackage” 1 Corinthians 2:2 to make it say something that it most certainly is not saying. In fact, I can recall sitting there in church that Sunday looking at the overhead projector as it displayed the 1 Corinthians 2:2 verse with the words “From now on” inserted without any indication that the verse had been altered. I do not recall seeing a textual emphasis of any kind and was actually shocked since I had never recalled the verse starting with that phrase like the way it was portrayed on the screen. What bible version was this? The Lon Solomon Revised Version? If so, it definitely wasn’t based on the text that God promised to preserve. The questions we should be asking ourselves in light of Lon’s accusations are:
- Did Paul NOT preach the gospel in Athens?
- Did Paul express any regret whatsoever that he had failed in his Athens ministry?
Remember that we are told that Paul DID preach unto the Athenians about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). This phrase “Jesus and the resurrection” is synonymous with the word Gospel especially as it is defined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 so Lon’s underlying point about Paul forsaking to properly preach the Gospel in Athens is not a correct notion. Furthermore, if the bible had only mentioned that Paul learned through his “meager results” at Athens not to destroy the power of the cross then Lon’s words themselves would not be so offensive. Yet, the bible doesn’t present this charge against Paul at all. So where did Lon come up with all of this stuff? As a congregant at McLean Bible Church I can attest to our church being very weak when it comes to biblical apologetics. As a church our epistemology is Evidentialism and we barely learn about how to refute unbiblical worldviews as all Christians are charged to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5 and as Paul did at Athens on Mars Hill. As the real world that we live in has launched an onslaught of intellectual and philosophical attacks on the first 11 chapters of the Bible, we as a church have responded by merely urging people to trust in that discredited Jesus whose Word has been deemed untrustworthy in the hearts and minds of our surrounding peers. We are ill-equipped to give a defense because we eschew intellectualism and treat philosophy as a dirty word. Perhaps Lon’s understanding of Paul’s “failure” at Athens is a reason why we have been deprived of such equipping. Apparently when it comes to evangelism Pastor Lon is afraid of being intellectual or using philosophy as a weapon to demolish worldly arguments and subject them to the obedience of Christ.
Lon ends by stating:
There is nothing wrong with us trying to make the Gospel relevant to people – but we must not “cut the heart out of the Gospel”! The true message of the cross – no matter how we “package” it – is “offensive” to people’s fleshly pride (Galatians 5:11). But remember what Paul learned in Athens: we cannot remove “the offense of the cross” without destroying the “power of the cross”!
So my question for Lon is: how should believers engage in casting down arguments and every high opinion that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (as required by 2 Corinthians 10:5) when they are specifically told not to mix intellectualism or philosophy with the gospel message? When Christ uses such intellectual arguments as the A fortiori in Matthew 6:24-34, the (non-abusive) Argumentum Ad hominem in Matthew 9:2-8, the Dilemma in Matthew 21:23-27 and the Reductio Ad Absurdum in Matthew 22:23-33, did He unwittingly “schmaltz up” the gospel with intellectualism? When Paul demolishes the philosophical edifices of Empiricism (i.e. eye hath not seen nor ear heard) and Rationalism (i.e. neither have entered into the heart of man) in 1 Corinthians 2:9-13, the very chapter which Lon embraces as a shining example of non-intellectualism, are we to understand that Paul is relapsing into his old shameful Athenian approach to evangelism and thus engaging in the very thing that he had promised not to do a couple of verses earlier in Lon’s peculiar rendition of 1 Corinthians 2:2? When some of the very Corinthians who Paul wrote to were denying the resurrection of the dead (which is the heart of the gospel) what did Paul do? Did he just stand there repeating 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 until the Holy Spirit came to the rescue or did he engage in apologetics as the Scriptures command us to do? Paul replied to his opponents with what is known in logic as a sorites in which he deduces several successive syllogisms that are meant to belabor the unacceptable consequences that arise from their aberrant view that there is no resurrection. By getting them to understand the logical implications of their view, he persuades them through a series of apagogic arguments that their understanding was false. This is the same type of “intellectualism” that Paul used in Acts 17:22-31 and in Acts 14:8-18 when he similarly encountered Pagans with no Christian basis. In fact, in Acts 14:18 we read that Paul’s message, which was surely steeped in “intellectualism”, barely kept the crowds from sacrificing to them (Paul & Barnabas). How could Paul not have learned from this “meager” result that his apologetic was an abject failure? Why did it take Paul until later on in Athens before realizing that this method of evangelism was bankrupt? I look at both of these encounters by Paul and I see him consistently applying an effective and biblical apologetic whereas I’m sure that Lon must view Paul’s inability to learn from Acts 14:8-18 as a sign of stubbornness and pride which God apparently dealt with by causing Paul to “get booed off the stage” in Athens. Perhaps it is time to raise our foot off of the eisegesis pedal for just a bit so that we can pay attention to what is really going on.
The fact of the matter is that the gospel is and has always been an intellectual enterprise. We are told that the Scriptures are able to make us WISE unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15) and that those that perish do so from a rejection of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). The bible teaches us that a soul without knowledge is unprofitable (Proverbs 19:2) and intellectual knowledge (which is the only type) of the truth is what sets us free (John 8:32). Judgment falls on both those that have no knowledge of God and those that have disobeyed the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:18). In other words, “intellectualism” is required when rightly dividing the word of truth. The bible informs us that the greatest commandment is that we love God with ALL of our mind; let us therefore not forget to use our minds when preaching the Gospel to those who oppose themselves.
- Lon Solomon, Bible Survey, part 5 – New Testament – The Epistles – 1 Corinthians ”Keeping Power in the Gospel” Audio, http://www.mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?type=large&messageID=175450
- Lon Solomon, Bible Survey, part 5 – New Testament – The Epistles – 1 Corinthians ”Keeping Power in the Gospel” Sermon Notes, http://www.mcleanbible.org/uploads/BibleSurvey5.pdf
- Ken Ham, Why Won’t They Listen, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/wwtl/cross-foolishness
- Chic Broersma, Nothing but the Cross, https://woh.org/word/devotionals/2010/01/03