Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, perhaps there is no other character in the Biblical narrative that has helped to shape the course of the Christian faith and human experience more than the apostle Paul. As a theologian, preacher and teacher, the apostle wholly dedicated his life to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. In addition to his theological insight and his success as an evangelist, missionary and preacher, the apostle Paul was likewise a fierce defender of the faith who had the ability to reach people in their own cultural context with the uncompromising message of the gospel, while at the same time, speaking to them with an attitude of love.
This essay will explore the apologetic fervor and methodology of the apostle Paul in a manner which will work from general references concerning Paul while engaged in the apologetic task, to a specific examination of Paul’s apologetic with the Greeks. Paul, while engaged in apologetic discourse, did not take a “one size fits all” approach when dealing with alternate worldviews. Rather, Paul tailored his apologetic to fit the individual(s) he was speaking with and these different nuances between his dealings with Jew and Gentile will be highlighted. Moreover, Paul’s apologetic was not subjective in nature, but rather, when the apostle engaged in apologetic discourse, he “reasoned” objectively from the Scriptures (Acts 17.2, 17, 18.4, 19, 24.25). Hence, Paul’s presuppositionalism will be highlighted in this essay, with close attention being paid to the apostle’s ultimate faith commitment and epistemological, metaphysical and ethical foundations.
One of the factors which sets Paul apart from others in the faith was his steadfast devotion to the Lord Jesus in all areas of his human experience. Perhaps the best place to demonstrate Paul’s epistemological foundation is found in Colossians the second chapter where in verse 3, the apostle proclaims that Jesus Christ is the fountainhead of all “wisdom and knowledge.” In short, Paul in this section is proclaiming that all truth, wisdom and knowledge is from the primary source of truth itself, the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn 14.6). This was Paul’s epistemological foundation and his ultimate faith commitment. Meaning, Paul’s worldview was an absolute example of Christocentrism and this foundational aspect of Paul’s worldview demonstrated itself in his writings, words and actions.
Paul’s foundational epistemology is further demonstrated in verse 8 of the same chapter, where he proclaims, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2.8, ESV). An often misunderstood verse, Paul in Col 2.8 is not disparaging philosophy or higher learning in general. Instead, he is criticizing this acquiring of knowledge apart from his thesis statement of verse 3, namely, knowledge apart from Christ.
Attached to Paul’s epistemology is the nature of the new mind which takes place through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Being well acquainted with the noetic effect of sin in fallen mankind, this became a critical aspect in the apostle’s theology, as noted in Rom 8.7-8 where he denies the human ability of pleasing and obeying God to the unregenerate individual when he states, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8.7-8, ESV). In contrast to this condition of mind deadness and corruption, there is the new creature teaching of the New Testament, which sees the restoration of the individual sinner through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and the imputed righteousness of Christ. Meaning, when a man moves from spiritual deadness to spiritual life and relationship (restored), he in reality is made into a new man with a new nature and appetite, as Frame notes when he proclaims, “Thus not only is there noetic regeneration, but there is also noetic sanctification (or, put differently, both definitive noetic sanctification and progressive noetic sanctification). There is a radical change when our relationship with Christ first begins and a gradual change thereafter.”
This noetic (or mind) corruption of the unregenerate is contrasted with the new creature in Paul’s writings, as noted by Van Til when he states of the apostle, “His starting point is 2 Cor 5: 17; ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature, old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.’” This is a consistent theme in the apostles writings, where he calls his readers to rest in God’s wisdom and power (1 Cor 2.5), to have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2.16) and to make ones thoughts “captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10.5). What this means is that Paul believed that the very source of proper thought depended on the character of God and man’s renewing in the image of His Son (Rom 8.29); an understanding which demonstrated itself in Paul’s apologetic.
Like Paul’s theory of knowledge, the apostle’s metaphysical outlook was similarly shaped by his Christian world and life view. Paul believed that the created realm was shaped by YHWH Himself, as noted in Col 1.16 where he proclaims that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1.16, ESV). Likewise, it was God who created the provisions of the world (1 Tim 4.3) and He created it good and for human thanksgiving (1 Tim 4.4). Moreover, man in general and believers in particular have been created in the very image of God, as noted in Eph 2.10. In relation to this teaching, the apostle also credited God with being the creator of “all things” via his Eph 3.9 entry. Finally, Paul posited that man himself was a direct creation of God, with woman being made by God and from man, as noted by the apostle when he teaches that “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor 11.9, ESV).
The purpose of this extend section is to demonstrate that Paul’s metaphysical understanding was in and of itself based greatly on the Genesis creations narrative. This understanding is a fundamental aspect of Paul’s understanding of the nature of reality, man and his purpose and reason for being. This metaphysical understanding is likewise not separate from his theory of knowledge in that it is fully dependent on the sole provider of truth and knowledge Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This metaphysical understanding extends even further when one considers Paul’s eschatology, which taught a recreation of believers via their resurrection from the dead (Phil 3.10), while likewise positing eternal damnation for those outside of a salvific relationship with Christ. As noted in 2 Cor 5.10, the apostle believed that Christ would one day judge the world upon his “judgment seat,” where believers will be raised to everlasting life (Rom 2.7), with unbelievers receiving destruction (2 Thess 1.9). Hence, Paul’s metaphysical outlook was roundly Biblical in nature and much like his epistemology, and fully dependent on God and His revealed word as the foundation of such belief.
Likewise, Paul’s understanding of ethics was influenced and driven from the revealed word of God and His character. As such, Paul’s ethic ran parallel to that of the OT law on many occasions, with the moral law of God revealing the character of YHWH being the backbone of Paul’s belief system. For example, Paul, in dealing with homosexuality in Rom 1.32, proclaims that such individuals are “worthy of death,” thus paralleling the penal sanctions against such acts in Lev 20.13. In similar fashion, Paul deals with homosexual offenders in 1 Cor 6.9 with an appeal to the LXX rendering of this same Levitical verse with his utilization of the term ἀρσενοκοῖται to describe these offenders. On this point, Bahnsen notes the following;
Paul excluded from God’s kingdom both malakoi and arsenokoitai. The former (literally meaning “soft, gentle,” and in moral contexts “yielding, or remiss”) refers to those who allow themselves to be homosexually misused, taking the passive role; the latter is in the masculine gender and is a compound from the words for “male” and “bed” (English transliteration, “coitus,” from its Greek euphemism), thereby referring to men who have intercourse with men; it is analogous to the Old Testament reference to men who go to bed with (“lie with”) other males―i.e., those who take the active role in a homosexual relation.
The apostle likewise made appeal to the moral law in 1 Tim 1.8 when he proclaimed, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim 1.8, ESV). What follows is a sin list from the apostle which is grounded in the very law of God, such as the prohibitions against the profane, those who would strike their parents, murderers, the sexually immoral, homosexuals (both the passive and active agent), liars, perjurers and the like. This consistent appeal to the law of God on ethical matters is consistent with Paul’s theory of knowledge and understanding of reality in that it is thoroughly Christian based. However, this is not to say that Paul held to the entirety of the law with equal weight. Rather, the apostle was a fierce defender against the application of the ceremonial feature of the law, not because he felt it was in error, but rather, because he realized that the redemptive-historical aspect of the law had been mere foreshadows which were fulfilled in Christ. But, at its foundation, it was this same law code which drove Paul’s ethic, as revealed via his many references in the Pauline corpus.
The NT Scriptures provide the reader with a plethora of examples regarding the apologetic nature of Paul’s ministry. Whether it was reasoning with his fellow countrymen or in the streets of Athens, the apostle never backed down from defending God’s word and character. Yet, he also did so as an act of love and not as an intellectual gunslinger who was simply attempting to win an argument.
PAUL’S APOLOGETIC: GENERAL REFERENCES
Paul was not opposed to theological debate, as demonstrated in the many references to such acts in the NT literature. For example, the apostle debated “men from Judea” in Acts 15.1-2 regarding the issue of circumcision and the New Covenant believer. In similar fashion, Paul “calls out” the “debater of this age” in 1 Cor 1.20 in reference to the foolishness of the world and the necessity of both Jew and Greek in understanding that “Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1.24, ESV). Likewise, Paul “argued” before Festus in Acts 25.8 regarding his own innocence and the false charges set against him by his Jewish accusers. And, in Acts 17.2, he “reasoned” with the Jews in the synagogue, “as was his custom” (Acts 17.2, c.f. Acts 18.4, 18.19 and 24.25).
What is highlighted in all of the above accounts is the apologetic mentality which Paul held, whereby he never missed or passed by an opportunity to proclaim the word of God and/or correct an errant sinner. This is further highlighted in 2 Cor 10.5 where the apostle proclaimed that the apologetic goal was to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10.5, ESV). In doing so, the apostle attempted to correct and “close the mouth” (Rom 3.19) of those who held a faulty view of God and/or theology in general. And as such, Paul realized that his proclamation brought glory upon God and it was for this reason that he was willing to open his “mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6.19, ESV). Likewise, due to his bold efforts, many “were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17.4, ESV).
Paul’s Apologetic Attitude of Love
Yet, this apologetic and often evangelistic attitude was not pressed forth in harshness or bitterness. Instead, the apostle’s methodology, at its foundation, was for the glory of Christ and because he loved lost sinners. Just one example of Paul’s love for the lost is noted in his critique of the Jews in Rom 9, where, in writing to those at the church in Rome, the apostle proclaims of his fellow countrymen “that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9.2-3, ESV). On this passage, Radmacher, Allen and House note that “Paul’s pain was so great that he was willing, if possible, to be separated from Christ if it meant Israel could be united to Him.”
Paul’s Apologetic Attitude of Boldness
Yet, the apostle likewise was not afraid to raise his temperament to the next level when it came to the defense of his Christian brethren from outside attacks or errant theology. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wished that those who were misleading the faithful of that local church would “emasculate themselves” (Gal 5.12, ESV). Likewise, Paul refers to the Judaizers of his day as “dogs . . . evildoers . . . who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3.2, ESV). Similarly, in Acts 23.3, Paul calls the high-priest of his era a “whitewashed wall” in opposition to his false imprisonment and abuse.
Paul’s Apologetic Goal
Perhaps the apostle’s methodology and attitude is best described via the previously mentioned passage of 2 Cor 10.5 and his proclamation that Christians are to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10.5, ESV), as noted by David Abernathy when he proclaims the meaning of this verse as:
It means that every scheme for spiritual and intellectual independence from God and every mind is to be drawn to a new allegiance and obedience [Car]. Their thinking must submit to the lordship of Christ [NAC]. Paul intends to expose false patterns of thinking and belief [NTC]. People must submit to the truth of the gospel [AB]. Instead of thinking and planning in a self-centered way, they must think and plan in obedience to Christ [HNTC]. It means a consistent submission of a person’s thinking to Christ [NIC2], to think in a way that is obedient to Christ [TG, TH].
In this sense, the apostles apologetic (and discipleship) goal was to relay a similar worldview to those in whom he was speaking, preaching and teaching, which would also include a similar epistemological attitude and foundation. This “mind of Christ” attitude means for the believer that “We can understand spiritual truths and wisdom in a way similar to the way the Lord knows them.”
The results of such a methodology were for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom, even when it resulted in harsh and unjust punishment for the apostle. Just one example of such inequity of justice is found in Phil 1, where the apostle, while writing from prison, proclaims that his efforts and subsequent imprisonment have helped to “advance the gospel” (Phil 1.12, ESV). As Bruce notes regarding this passage, “Paul’s presence in Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial had really served to advance the gospel.” And this was one of the main goals of Paul’s (apologetic and evangelistic) ministry and in noting such, it becomes apparent that Paul was concerned not just with making converts, but also, in assimilating the whole of human experience into the Christian worldview.
JERUSALEM MEETS ATHENS
Having already addressed some of the general apologetic encounters of the apostle, this study now shifts to a specific look at Paul’s apologetic methodology. In doing so, it is first helpful to note that Paul’s apologetic was objective in nature. Hence, he did not weigh down or detract from the argument or conversation by giving his personal testimony, but instead, he proclaimed the “good news” of the Gospel, which is Christ’s work in history. Next, the apostle did not take a “one size fits all” approach to the apologetical task. Instead, his attitude was to “become all things to all people that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9.22, ESV). Hence, Paul dealt with individuals where they were and in the context of their own life experience. To the Jews, Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17.2, ESV) because the OT literature was foundational to the Judaic worldview. Yet, when reasoning with the “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” of Athens, he utilized a different approach.
While addressing the Greek intellectual elite of his day, the apostle Paul did not back down from his foundational beliefs. However, neither did he relay these beliefs in a manner similar to that of the Jews. Instead, the apostle utilized a focused Biblical approach in dealing with the philosophers of his era. The text in question is found in Acts 17:16-34, with the apostle’s address before the Areopagus beginning at verse 22. It is first interesting to note that Paul addresses the philosophers as “very religious” (“superstitious” – KJV), because the term utilized here (δεισιδαίμων) was less than flattering, as noted by Bahnsen when he states;
The term used to describe the Athenians in verse 22 (literally “fearers of the supernatural spirits”) is sometimes translated “very religious” and sometimes “somewhat superstitious.” There is no satisfactory English equivalent. “Very religious” is too complimentary; Paul was not prone to flattery, and according to Lucian, it was forbidden to use compliments before the Areopagus in an effort to gain its goodwill. “Somewhat superstitious” is perhaps a bit too critical in thrust . . . It is not beyond possibility that Paul cleverly chose this term precisely for the sake of its ambiguity. His readers would wonder whether the good or bad sense was being stressed by Paul, and Paul would be striking a double blow: men cannot eradicate a religious impulse within themselves (as the Athenians demonstrate), and yet this good impulse has been degraded by rebellion against the living and true God (as the Athenians also demonstrate).
As per Bahnsen above, it is noted that the apostle, while not attempting to offend his audience, was likewise not attempting placate the them in their sin and he was more than willing to sting the Greeks, even with his opening comments of verse 22. Next, in verse 23, Paul describes that which was unknown to the intellectual elite of his day (again, he is not attempting to flatter) as the God who was/is objectively known in history. What transpires after verse 23 is a masterful display of apologetics, and the method that the apostle utilizes is presuppositional in nature. Meaning, Paul is not attempting to reason to the Bible, but instead, the apostle is reasoning from the Bible, which is the foundation of his worldview and he does so without quoting a singular Bible verse.
For example, in verse 24, Paul does not seek cooperation in discovering the god or gods who created the heavens and earth, but rather, he proclaims YHWH from the Genesis creation narrative. It is also interesting to note that this verse is a declaration of Christian monotheism (Isa 43.10); a foreign concept to those dedicated to the Greek pantheon. In verse 25, the apostle continues his presuppositional approach by proclaiming that the Christian God has granted “to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17.25, ESV, c.f. Gen 1.27-28). Verse 26 finds yet another presuppositional reference to the Genesis narrative with the proclamation of “one man” (Adam) being the foundation of all human life; with verse 28 meeting the philosophers in their own experience via quotations from Epimenides of Crete and Aratus. Verse 29 features a summation of the Second Commandment, with verse 30 relaying the necessity of repentance to the apostle’s hearers (Acts 2.38, 3.19). Likewise, verse 31 features the “judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5.10) and the resurrection from the dead (Rom 6.5), while not actually quoting specific verses of support. And finally, the Acts 17 apologetic narrative closes by the persecution and slander of some, and the rejoicing of others. As Bahnsen notes of the apostles presuppositional approach;
Paul understood that the unbeliever’s mindset and philosophy would be systemically contrary to that of the believer—that the two represent in principle a clash of total attitude and basic presuppositions. He taught in Ephesians 4:17-24 that the Gentiles “walk in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding” because of their “ignorance and hardened hearts,” while a completely different epistemic condition characterizes the Christian, one who has been “renewed in the spirit of your mind” and has “learned Christ” (for “the truth is in Jesus”) . . . Paul further understood that the basic commitments of the unbeliever produced only ignorance and foolishness, allowing an effective internal critique of his hostile worldview. The ignorance of the non-Christian’s presuppositions should be exposed . . . By contrast, the Christian takes revelational authority as his starting point and controlling factor in all reasoning.
In noting Bahnsen, it is likewise helpful to point out that all of the aspects of the apostle’s philosophical makeup are present within the Acts 17 apologetic narrative. First, the apostle reasoned from his Biblical worldview and in this sense, was faithful to his foundational assumptions about life. Next, Paul’s metaphysic was on display regarding the purpose and nature of life, along with the judgment and the nature of the resurrection. Finally, Paul called for his opponents repentance; a statement which was grounded in the apostles ethical outlook. And he does all of this while presupposing the Scriptures and omitting all references to the Biblical verses which he had in mind. With all of this in mind, it is no wonder that Edgar and Oliphint proclaim that “Paul’s speech given on Mars Hill in Athens also represents a model for Christian apologetics to a mixed audience (Acts 17:16–34). As mentioned above, Paul took this gospel to the capital of the empire, ending his days in Rome, where ‘boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 28:31).”
As noted throughout the course of this study, the apostle Paul attempted to assimilate and interpret everything in his experience via his Christian worldview. Hence, the apostle presupposed God’s revealed word in every aspect of his life and his apologetic methodology demonstrated such commitment. Paul epistemologically attempted to gain the mind of Christ, he viewed the world through the Genesis creation narrative, and he likewise held an ethical standard that was Biblically based on the very character of the God whom he loved and served. In short, the apostle presupposed Christ in all things and he never wavered in proclaiming the foundation of that wisdom and knowledge to any and all who would listen. Hence, Paul proves to be an example of apologetic brilliance which every Christian should model, while also attempting to emulate the apostle’s approach to life, which was glorifying to God in the advancement of His kingdom.
Abernathy, David. An Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians. 2nd. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008.
Bahnsen, Greg L. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. Edited by Robert R. Booth. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996.
—. Homosexuality: A Biblical View. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2011.
Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens.” Ashland Theological Bulletin 13, no. 1 (Spring 1980).
Bruce, F F. Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book Group, 1989.
Edgar, William, and K. Scott Oliphint. Christian Apologetics Past and Present (Volume 1, To 1500): A Primary Source Reader. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.
Frame, John M. Doctrine of The Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987.
Hindson, Edward E. and Woodrow Michael Kroll. KJV Bible Commentary . Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
Radmacher, Earl D, Allen, Ronald Barclay and H. Wayne House. The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Nelson Publishers, 1997.
The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press, 2006.
Trail, Ronald. An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 1–9. Dallas: SIL International, 2008.
Van Til, Cornelius . Reformed Epistemology. Thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, Glenside: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1925.
 In Lev 20.13 in the LXX, the Greek words ἄρσενος κοίτην appear side-by-side in describing the prohibition against same sex intercourse. Paul in 1 Cor 6.9 combines these words in description of his prohibition.
 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version, (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1997), Ro 9:1–3. However, Hindson is correct is in stating of this verse, “The understanding of Paul, however, in relation to justification by faith, does not allow him to actually wish himself accursed from Christ . . . Paul knows that his life is not his own. Therefore he is not the master of his own life and does not have the power to cast away the eternal like that was purchased for him by the blood of Christ. The verb is in the imperfect tense (“I could wish”), meaning that Paul would accept everlasting destruction in return for the salvation of Israel, but God will not allow him to do so.” Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 2246.
 In is noted that Paul does give a personal conversion defense through sections of the Book of Acts. However, this is Paul’s defense of the faithfulness and legal nature of the message previously preached. Hence, while the term apologia can be utilized of this situation, it is likewise contextually different from the focus of this essay.
 “The term δεισιδαιμονεστέρους (deisidaimonesterous) is difficult. On the one hand it can have the positive sense of “devout,” but on the other hand it can have the negative sense of “superstitious” (BDAG 216 s.v. δεισιδαίμων). As part of a laudatory introduction (the technical rhetorical term for this introduction was capatatio), the term is probably positive here. It may well be a “backhanded” compliment, playing on the ambiguity.” Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ac 17:22.