In the book of Acts, Luke’s magnificent account of the spread of the gospel in the early church, we read of a particularly interesting encounter between the apostle Paul and a gathering of pagan philosophers in that capital of ancient philosophy, Athens. The encounter is recorded for us in Acts 17, where we read:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.
And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” (Acts 17:16–28)
The Problem of Ultimate Reality
Centuries before Paul’s visit to Athens, there lived in the city of Miletus a man named Thales, who today is often acknowledged as the father not only of Western philosophy but also of Western science. The word science originally meant “knowledge.” The task of the scientist and the task of the philosopher — even the task of the theologian — is to pursue knowledge wherever it may be found and whatever the consequences of that search may be.
Thales was captivated by a pressing problem about which all thinking people in the ancient world were concerned. The question was this: “How can I make sense of all of the diversity of my experience in this world? I see a variety of things. I see trees, horses, bushes, people, the moon, the stars, and myriad other things in their vast variety. How do they all fit together? How can I have a coherent or unified sense of my knowledge and of my experience?”
In other words, the quest was for a “universe.” The word universe is a hybrid term. It comes from the combination of two distinct words — the word unity and the word diversity. This was the goal that preoccupied Thales and others like him. They wanted to find the unity that would make sense of all of the diversity they experienced. So Thales was trying to solve the problem of what we call unity and diversity, the problem of the one and the many, in order to have an intelligible understanding of the world.
Cosmos, Not Chaos
Some of you will recall the 1980 television series hosted by Carl Sagan, Cosmos, which led to a book by the same title. In the first episode of that series, and on the first page of his book, Sagan made the observation that scientists are searching to understand a reality that can be understood, that is, “cosmos,” not “chaos.” If all we had were undifferentiated sensory experiences with nothing to tie them together, no principle of unity or coherence, we would have chaos, not cosmos.
Finding that cosmos was Sagan’s goal, and it was Thales’s goal as well. He was looking for the ultimate reality, the single archae or chief principle that would explain everything in existence. More specifically, he was concerned to find explanations for ultimate reality, for life, and for motion.
All Is Water (Thales)
You may be amused when you hear the answers Thales found. In the first instance, he came to the conclusion that ultimate reality, the singular principle that makes sense of everything else in this world, is water. Imagine today a philosopher or a scientist saying that all reality has coherence and makes sense because fundamentally all reality is a form of water.
Why did Thales come to this conclusion? He noticed that everything he saw in the world appeared in one of three forms. It was either a solid, a liquid, or a gas. That understanding led him to look for some element that had the ability to manifest itself in all three of these forms. The perfect answer was water, because it appears as water in its liquid form, as ice in its solid form, and as steam in its gaseous form. Since water has this ability to appear in all three forms, Thales concluded that it must be the ultimate reality that makes up everything.
The Problem of Life
Then he asked the next question: What explains the question of life, its origin, its significance, its power? Again, Thales came to water, because he noticed that in order for anything to live, as we understand life, it required the nourishment gained from water. Human beings perish in a short time if they are deprived of water. You know what happens to your grass or your flowers when drought comes and the water source dries up — these plants perish. Thales concluded that the power of life must be invested in water.
The Problem of Motion
But there was another question that Thales found befuddling as a philosopher and a scientist, a problem that plagued all the ancient thinkers. It was the problem of motion. How can we explain motion? When we look around ourselves, if we see anything that is moving, we conclude that it is being moved by something else.
Stones don’t get off the ground and throw themselves through the air. Somebody has to pick up the stone and throw it. The pool ball remains motionless on the table until somebody takes a cue stick and hits the cue ball against the object ball in order to get the movement going for a pool game to take place. And there is not much fun in golf if the ball never moves, if the club is never swung.
So Thales arrived at a primitive understanding of inertia — the theory that later was refined to say that bodies that are at rest tend to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outward force, and bodies in motion tend to stay in motion unless they are acted upon by an outside force.
Incidentally, this is still a problem for advocates for the big bang theory of cosmology, who postulate that for all eternity all of reality was in a state of absolute organization, with all matter and energy compressed into an infinitesimal singularity — until one Thursday afternoon at two o’clock, the thing exploded. They want to explain that, of course, without the intrusion of an outside force.
I once had some correspondence with Dr. Sagan about this very question. I asked him, “How do you account for the change from that eternal inert state?” His answer was simply this: “Well, I really don’t want to go there. I don’t think we can go further back than to the billionth of a microsecond before the big bang, and before that it is a mystery.” I said: “You’re a scientist. You have to ask why the change occurred.”
As Thales wrestled with this question, he looked for something that had the capacity for hylozoism. Hylozoism was an ancient word similar to our word automobile. An automobile is called an automobile because, when it is performing the way it is supposed to, it has the ability to move itself. In the ancient world, hylozoism was the belief that life resides in all matter, giving it the ability to move without being pushed, pulled, thrown, or otherwise induced by an outside force.
As Thales studied this question, he came to the conclusion that water is the primary hylozoistic substance, the essence of all matter, because if we observe water, we see oceans, tides, and waves rolling onto the shore, and rivers and streams flowing, but we do not see anyone causing the motion. Of course, Thales was not aware of the gravitational pull of the moon and the cause of tides that we understand in our modern perspective.
So for Thales, water seemed to solve the problem of ultimate reality, the problem of life, and the problem of motion. He thought he had reached the end of philosophical inquiry, but those who followed after him suggested other alternatives. They included men such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Anaxagoras. But ultimately the two most important philosophers who came along before Plato and Aristotle were Parmenides and Heraclitus, and they wrestled principally with the same questions Thales had examined.
“Whatever Is, Is”
Parmenides, whose works have all but vanished from the face of the earth except for a few fragments that have been discovered, was famous for his profound statement “Whatever is, is.” When I was a student in college, a professor very soberly made the announcement in the classroom that Parmenides had declared, “Whatever is, is.” I remember thinking, “And this fellow is famous?” But in time, through my study of philosophy, I realized I have never heard anything with deeper significance or greater profundity than this observation by Parmenides.
What was he getting at? He was saying that if something is real, it cannot not be. Nonbeing is nothingness. Nothingness has no ontological status. It simply is not. Parmenides said that for anything to exist, there has to be something that is pure, unchanging, immutable, fully actualized being, something that has no potential left to be realized. As Aristotle would observe later, that which is fully actual has no potential, and that which is only potential has no actuality. So if a thing, a person, or an object has nothing but potential, that person would not exist at all.
“Whatever Is, Is Changing”
Over against the thinking of Parmenides was that of the philosopher Heraclitus, who many regard as the ancient father of modern existential philosophy. Heraclitus, instead of saying, “Whatever is, is,” made the assertion, “Whatever is, is changing.” Everything that we experience in the world in which we live is undergoing change. It is going through some kind of mutation.
“Whatever is, is.” –Permenides
We all experience change constantly, if only in the experience of aging. I am a day older today than I was yesterday. The cells within my body are undergoing change as a result of that aging process. There is growth and decay all around us. So the operative word to describe the reality that we experience, according to Heraclitus, is change, or, as he called it, flux. Everything, he said, is in a state of flux.
Heraclitus was famous for saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Why? Because before you can take a second step, the river has moved on; it has changed — with your second step you place your foot into an entirely different set of water molecules. Not only has the river changed, but also the riverbed has changed. It may be nothing more than a microscopic step in the process of erosion that no one can see with the naked eye. Nevertheless, it has taken place. But not only have the river and the riverbed changed; you have changed. So change or mutation is the chief characteristic of everything that we experience.
Thus, Heraclitus came to the conclusion, “Whatever is, is changing.” There is nothing that is; there is only that which is changing. So the distinction was then made between pure being that does not change and that which does change, which we call becoming. Whatever you are in this instant is not what you will be an hour from now. You are becoming something different from what you are at this very moment. You cannot freeze the moment; it is past. In reality, you are not a human being but a human becoming.
Skepticism and the Impasse Between Being and Becoming
This impasse between Parmenides and Heraclitus produced a spirit of cynicism and skepticism in ancient culture. People decided that if these two intellectual giants could not figure out the distinction between being and becoming, unity and diversity, then the scientific enterprise was doomed. The whole quest for ultimate truth and ultimate reality must be a fool’s errand. The skeptics stepped onto the stage and said we really cannot have any lasting or significant knowledge. Knowledge itself is impossible. Everything is relative. There are no absolutes.
Both Are Necessary (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
Then a certain gadabout in Athens started disturbing the skeptics by asking them penetrating questions and driving them to different conclusions. His name was Socrates, and his most famous student was Plato. Socrates said we cannot have a coherent view of science, of philosophy, or of any kind of knowledge itself unless we account both for being and for becoming. He believed both are necessary. A coherent philosophy, a coherent science, must have both unity and diversity.
“You can’t step into the same river twice.” –Heraclitus
So Plato constructed his massive theory of ideas in order to solve this problem, but he was left with a few difficulties that his most famous student sought to resolve. His name was Aristotle. Even though Aristotle came to a different conclusion from his master, Plato, he was driven by the same issues — being and becoming, unity and diversity. Aristotle said that there has to be a being who is the source of all motion, but who is not the result of someone else’s motion. So he postulated that the first or ultimate cause is God, as it were, whom he called the Unmoved Mover.
If there have been any real titans of philosophy and science, they were Plato and Aristotle. In fact, Aristotle’s nickname to this day is “the philosopher.” Contemporary scholars have said that all philo-sophical inquiry since Plato and Aristotle amounts to mere footnotes to the work of those two men. In the centuries that have come and gone since Plato and Aristotle, the questions have not significantly changed.
Philosophers are still seeking to unravel the conundrum of metaphysics, of being. We are still baffled in many ways by the mystery of life. Scientists are offering rewards for fully intelligible explanations of motion and all of its intricacies. So Plato and Aristotle did not resolve these questions. In fact, when Plato and Aristotle could not come to an agreement, a new wave of skepticism swept over ancient Greece and brought forth the minor philosophical schools of the Stoics and the Epicureans.
Another Wave of Skepticism (Stoics and Epicureans)
The Stoics and the Epicureans were archrivals. They disagreed fundamentally about many points of philosophy and of psychology. But they were both equally skeptical about the ability of the human mind to come to a final conclusion as to the ultimate questions. So in a real sense, they abandoned the quest for ultimate reality, for ultimate truth, and turned their attention to things they could learn, things that they could use right away.
Though they were different in many ways, the Epicureans and the Stoics were both trying to answer the same question: How can I live in this world and be happy? In other words, how can I have peace in my mind, in my soul? Their quest was for adorakia. You probably have never heard the word adorakia unless you have taken a tranquilizer that has that brand name on it, but in ancient Greek the word adorakia meant freedom from oppression and anxiety. It had to do with gaining what the Stoics called “a sense of imperturbability.”
The Epicureans were radical hedonists. Hedonism is defined by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Epicureans would have banquets, gorging themselves with food, and then would induce themselves to vomit so they could eat more. They would drink until they were stumbling drunk, then they would vomit and drink some more. They engaged in orgies with unlimited sex to get as much pleasure as they could endure.
But soon they discovered what has been called the hedonistic paradox, the truth that if your desires are not met, you become frustrated, and if they are met, you become bored. So, few Epicureans ended up satisfied with that lifestyle. That’s why the Stoics came up with a calculus, as it were, to balance the ledger. They said you must have just the right amount of gluttony, just the right amount of drunkenness, and just the right amount of sexual activity so that you could avoid the clutches of the hedonistic paradox.
Thankfully, John Piper has rescued the word hedonism and has taught us about spiritual hedonism, godly hedonism (See Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist). He understands the foundational principles of our humanity as it was created by God, the truth that we will never be fully satisfied, we will never discover ultimate pleasure, until we find it in God himself. This is the pleasure we should be seeking with all our being.
The Apostle Paul Comes to Athens
Let’s return now to the apostle Paul. He came for the first time to Athens, the cultural center of the ancient world, the city of Socrates, of Plato, of Aristotle, of so many great minds of the ancient world within the fields of medicine, political theory, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. But since the advent of skepticism, the golden age had been tarnished, and Athens had become a different kind of city.
The hedonistic paradox states that if your desires are not met, you become frustrated, and if they are met, you become bored.
When Paul saw it for the first time, as Luke tells us, he was deeply moved, not by its art, not by its medicine, not by its political structures, but because he saw that the city was given totally to idolatry. The city had become a factory devoted to the manufacturing of pagan idols. When he saw that, Paul was moved to action.
He went to the synagogue. He went to the agora, the marketplace. And wherever he went, he preached Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. It was there that he encountered some Epicureans and Stoics, and they took him up to the Areopagus, to Mars Hill, within sight of the agora and the Parthenon, and there on that small mesa, as it were, he conversed with these philosophers whose practice it was to meet every day to discuss what was new.
Intoxicated with Novelty
People have always been intoxicated with novelty. In our day, we have the Internet or the television news networks to tell us what’s new. In earlier times, people relied on the newspapers. You can still buy a newspaper on the corner, but it will not have the latest news. Plus, if you put in your coins and open the box only to find yesterday’s newspaper, it is worthless. Nobody cares about yesterday’s newspaper. We want to hear the latest news.
There may be no group of people more addicted to novelty than theologians. I was recently interviewed by a newspaper in Orlando. One of the things the newspaper reporter observed about me is that I teach and preach a “throwback theology.” What in the world is a throwback theology? I guess he thought it was a theology that ought to be thrown back rather than kept. In other words, he felt that this theologian was out of touch with contemporary views and theology. He saw me as stuck in the mud with classical, biblical theology while other theologians are more progressive.
The philosophers Paul encountered two thousand years ago in Athens were just as interested in hearing something new as we are today. So Paul took advantage of that and began to teach them, and he said, while he was standing on the Areopagus, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (verse 22).
I was once invited to speak at a Christian college in the Midwest that was without a president, and the staff had been engaging in a self-study before calling a new executive. They asked me to address the faculty and the administration on the subject “What is a Christian college?” Before I spoke, they gave me a tour of the campus, through the class buildings, the science hall, the student union, and the faculty office building. I noticed that one of the doors had a small sign that said “Department of Religion.” I was a bit surprised by that.
So that evening, when I addressed the faculty, I said, “Today I was observing your campus, and I see that you have a Department of Religion. Was it always called the department of religion?” Most of them looked at me with blank stares, but an elderly faculty member in the back of the room raised his hand and said: “No, no, no. When I first came to this campus, it was the Department of Theology, but many, many years ago we changed it to the Department of Religion.”
When I asked him why it was changed, he said, “I’m not sure, but I think the main reason was so that our students could transfer their credits to secular universities without difficulty.” I went on to point out that, as I understand the divisions of academic investigation, the study of theology is the study of God. The study of religion should be underneath anthropology or sociology, because the study of religion is the study of human beings and how they behave with whatever they regard as sacred or cultic.
Religious and Far Away from God
A person can be extremely religious and yet be as far away from God as it is possible to be. That was the situation of the Athenians, and Paul noticed. He said, “You people are filled with religion.” He could say that because he had seen their idols everywhere he went in Athens. And just in case they had missed a god, they had an altar devoted to “the unknown god” (verse 23).
“There may be no group of people more addicted to novelty than theologians.”
They were hedging their bets. When WC. Fields was dying in a hospital, one of his friends came to see him and found him reading the Bible. The friend was shocked because Fields was anything but a religious man. He said, “W.C., what are you doing?” Fields replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.” That’s what the Greeks were doing.
To an Unknown God
Paul used their altar to an unknown god as a jumping-off point to tell them that the one whom they were worshiping in ignorance was the same God he had been sent to proclaim, the one who is the creator of all. He does not need prayers, gifts, or worship. In fact, he does not need anything. He is Lord of heaven and earth. He does not live in temples made by men. He is not served by human hands. Instead, he gives to all men life and breath and everything. He made every nation of mankind from one man, and then determined the periods and boundaries of their dwellings. Then Paul urged the Athenian philosophers to seek God in the hope that they might feel their way to him and find him, for God is actually not far from each one of us (verses 24–27).
We Exist, Live, and Move in God
Then Paul gave what may be the most profound philosophical statement anywhere in the New Testament. Quoting pagan philosophers, he said of God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (verse 28).
Did you hear that, Thales? Ultimate reality is found in God and only in God, who is the creator of everything. He is an absolutely pure being. He reveals himself to Moses in the Midianite wilderness by the memorial name, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). He alone eternally is. He alone is pure actuality. What is God’s potential? How can the Lord get any better? He is already perfect.
When I was playing golf recently, I hit my tee shot on a par-three hole, saw that it was going right to the flag, and didn’t see it land. My partner said, “You hit a perfect shot. It’s right next to the hole.” Then it wasn’t a perfect shot. There was room for improvement. But with God, there is no room for improvement. He is pure being and ultimate reality. The only hope for finding unity in the diversity of this world is in his perfect being.
I’m a human being. More accurately, I’m a human becoming. I still have potential that has not yet been realized. I’m changing. I’m undergoing mutations. That is the chief characteristic of creaturely existence — mutability. We change. But God does not. That means my being is not found in me independently. None of us created ourselves. All of us are dependent on something before us to account for our very existence.
“A person can be extremely religious and yet be as far away from God as it is possible to be.”
Where do we find the power of that life? Not in water. It is found in God, who alone brings something out of nothing. He brings life out of death, for he is the God of resurrection. That is why Paul was addressing the Athenians about Jesus and his resurrection. He was talking to them about the ultimate answer to life, which is found in God and in his resurrected Son.
When it comes to motion, the universe cannot move without the providential power of God. The only thing that is hylozoistic in the ultimate sense is God himself. Our power to move is secondary. We have no primary causal power. Primary causal power belongs to God and to God alone.
The Bible Gives the Ultimate Answers
I hope you can see from this brief introduction that biblical revelation gives to us the answers to the ultimate and persistent questions that have plagued the quest of theoretical thought as long as there have been people. We will never find an explanation for being, for life, or for motion if we try to find it outside the being and the character of God.
Almighty God and Heavenly Father,
We praise and extol you, the maker of heaven and earth, the fountain of being, the source and sustainer of life — the one whose glory the heavens declare. Thank you for revealing yourself, and ultimate reality, through your Word. Your Word is truth — sanctify us by this truth. Now as we study your Word, may it reveal to us the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ, who, through his righteous obedience and atoning work on the cross, brings us back to you — to whom be everlasting glory and praise.