July 11: Acts 17:16ff; Rom 1:18-32 (continued)

Having established the background (in the previous day’s note) for a comparison of the Areopagus speech in Acts 17:16-34 with Romans 1:18-32, let us begin the comparison here by listing out some essential points of the speech (for more detail, cf. the series on the Speeches of Acts and my supplemental article):

    • Paul notes the religious devotion—deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine powers”) / eu)se/beia (“good/proper fear”)—of the Greeks in Athens (17:22-23). This is done with complimentary language (rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae); earlier in the narrative (v. 16), Paul’s spirit was stirred/angered (“brought to a [sharp] point”) by the number of idols/images throughout the city.
    • A two-fold argument is presented against temple buildings (and the ritual/objects associated with them) as things “made with hands” (17:24-25):
      (1) God as Creator made all things (with his hands)
      (2) He gives all things to human beings and needs nothing from them
    • God created all human beings with a two-fold purpose (17:26-27):
      (1) to live and dwell upon the earth, with the seasons and natural features appointed to them as a divine gift
      (2) to seek God, emphasizing that he is close to (“not far from”) all human beings
    • The divine origin of humankind—stated by accommodation to Greek religious-philosophical language—is presented as a decisive argument as to the true nature of God (“Deity”, to\ qei=on), and against the worship of images (17:28-29)
    • The entire situation described in vv. 22-29 is summarized as the “times of unknowing/ignorance” which God has (up till now) overlooked (v. 30). This is contrasted in verse 31 with the “day” on which God will ultimately judge the world (and which is about to come).

Verses 22-29 are about as close as we come in the New Testament to an objective, positive appraisal of pagan/polytheistic (Greco-Roman) religion. To see this more clearly, note the following chiastic outline:

    • V. 22-23: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious forms (altars/temples), with praise for their religious devotion, though emphasizing (at the end of v. 23) that it is done without knowledge (of the true God)
      • V. 24-25: Two-fold presentation of the true nature of God (the Creator)—contrasted with the temples/altars, etc. of Greco-Roman religion
      • V. 26-27: Two-fold presentation of God’s purpose in creating human beings—emphasizing God’s nearness to them (i.e. requiring no temples, sacrificial ritual, etc)
    • V. 28-29: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious-philosophical language (triadic formula and citation from Aratus), stressing the kinship of human beings with (the true) God, and using it as a powerful argument against the worship of God through idols/images

Only in verse 30 does the tone shift to the more familiar theme of judgment against human wickedness, which is the very point at which Romans 1:18-32 begins. In this light, let us see how pagan religion is described by Paul here in Romans. The relevant discussion is limited to vv. 19-23, verse 19 following the announcement of God’s judgment (his wrath/anger) in v. 18 with the connecting (subordinating, causal) conjunction dio/ti, “through (the fact) that”, “for (the reason) that”, i.e. “because”. The clause governed by this conjunction is fundamental to Paul’s argument, and should be examined carefully:

    • to\ gnwsto\n tou= qeou= “the (thing) known of God”—i.e., that which is (or may be) known of God (or about Him); this motif of the knowledge of God is shared with the Areopagus speech
    • fanero\n e)stin e)n au)toi=$ “is shining (forth) in/among them”—i.e. is manifest to them (and among them); the specific idea of God manifesting himself in Creation is generally foreign to the Areopagus speech
    • o( qeo\$ ga\r au)toi=$ e)fane/rwsen “for God has shone forth to them”—i.e. the (true) God has manifest himself to them; the emphasis in the Areopagus speech was on knowledge of the true God, a distinction more or less taken for granted in Romans

Verses 20-21 come very close to providing an early Christian theory on the origins and development of polytheistic/pagan religion; while not satisfactory from the standpoint of an objective modern analysis of the phenomenology of religion, it remains most incisive, even apart from its theological/doctrinal value.

V. 20: “For the unseen (thing)s [a)o/rata] of Him, being brought to mind by the (things that are) made [poih/samen] from the production [i.e. creation] of the world, are seen accordingly”

These unseen aspects and attributes of God are specified as his ever-present/everlasting [ai&dio$] power [du/nami$] and deity [qeio/th$]. The noun qeio/th$, related to qeo/$ (“god”), is literally “god-ness”, which in ordinary English can only be rendered as “deity”; sometimes it is translated here as “Godhead”, but that is rather inaccurate and misleading. The word occurs only here in the New Testament, and has a parallel (of sorts) with the substantive adjective qei=o$ in Acts 17:29, which likewise is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. The idea of God’s divine and eternal attributes and nature being present and recognizable in the natural world is not specified in the Areopagus speech; at best, it might be inferred from vv. 26-27. Even more distinctive is the phrase at the end of Romans 1:21: “…unto their being [i.e. that they are] a)napolo/ghto$“—this adjective literally means “without (the ability to offer) an account for (onself)”, as before a tribunal, i.e. “without a defense”, here in the sense of “without an(y) excuse”. The idea seems to be that God’s manifestation in creation should be sufficient to bring forth proper recognition and worship of Him among human beings. While not specified as such in the Areopagus speech, there is a similar assumption that God—the true God—can be found and recognized by all human beings. In modern theological terminology, this is described as the knowledge of God by natural revelation; however, Paul makes no clear division between “natural” and “special” revelation, and the categories/labels do not exactly apply.

Verse 21 continues with a dio/ti clause parallel to that in verse 19:

“through (the fact) that [dio/ti, i.e. because] (while) knowing God, they did not esteem (him) as God nor did they show good favor…”

The verb doca/zw is typically rendered “give glory, glorify”, but the sense of “honor, regard with honor” is perhaps better; I have translated here with “esteem”. The verb eu)xariste/w literally means “show/offer a (good) favor”, but it can also refer to the proper response to being well-favored, i.e. “showing gratitude/thanks” (i.e. thanks to God for his favor). Paul thus attributes to all human beings (even pagan Gentiles) some degree of genuine knowledge of God, but that humankind (universally, it would seem) did not respond properly, in two respects: (1) they did not regard or honor Him as God, and (2) they did not offer thanks/gratitude in turn for the grace/favor He has shown. One would very much like Paul to expand on what he means here—precisely how should human beings have given honor to God as God? This can only be inferred from the verses that follow. An interesting comparison with the Areopagus speech may be offered here:

    • In Acts 17:23, Paul states that the Greeks (pagans) are “not knowing” (a)gnoou=te$) the true God in their religious actions and attitudes (playing on the idea of “unknown god”); this idea is echoed by the expression “times of unknowing” in verse 30. Paul praises (in a sense) their religious response, and emphasizes their lack of proper knowledge.
    • In Romans 1:20-21, Paul takes the opposite approach—affirming their knowledge (“knowing”, gno/nte$) of God, but finding fault with their religious response.

The (pagan) religious response is indicated, negatively, by the adversative conjunction a)ll’, “but (rather)”, and is characterized two-fold:

    • “they became vain/empty” (e)mataiw/qhsan)—”in their thoughts“, as typically rendered; dialogismo/$ being derived from the verb dialogi/zomai, lit. “count through, go through an account”, and generally, “to think/reason through, reckon, consider”, etc.; here it can be understood in the sense of religious thinking or conception. In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, pagan idols/images are typically referred to as “vain/empty” (ma/taio$) things, cf. Acts 14:15; 1 Pet 1:18.
    • “their heart was darkened (e)skoti/sqh)”—”heart” being qualified by the adjective a)su/neto$ (“without understanding, unintelligent”, i.e. senseless/foolish); darkness can be used as a motif for a lack of knowledge (ignorance), but also generally for sin/wickedness and immorality.

This last point is stated in harsher terms in verse 22: “declaring (themselves) to be wise, they became dull [i.e. foolish]”; then follows the concluding statement in verse 23, which describes the beginning of (pagan) idolatry and immorality:

“…and made the esteem/glory of the undecaying God other(wise) in(to) a likeness of (an) image of decaying man and (also) winged-animals and four-footed (creature)s and creeping (thing)s”

The verb a)lla/ssw “make other[wise]” more precisely means “make/change (one thing) into another”, i.e. “change, exchange”, and it is this verb which defines the onset of idolatry. Note also these important details:

    • do/ca (of God) vs. ei)kw/n (of man and animals)—do/ca is usually rendered by “glory” and, in reference to deity, covers two aspects of God: (a) corresponding to Hebrew dbk, lit. “weight”, i.e. value, and metaphorically as “honor, dignity, majesty” and the like; (b) according to the fundamental sense of the Greek word of the (favorable) thought/consideration given to someone/something, i.e., by extension, “reputation” or the “honor/esteem” given to someone. Here, then, is a seminal religious distinction between the human conception (or understanding) of God and its translation into physical form and shape (the image [ei)kw/n]).
    • The apposition of ei)kw/n (“image”) with o(moi/wma (“likeness”)—in other words, the conception/image of God is made into a specific likeness (human, animal, etc).
    • a&fqarto$ (God) vs. fqarto/$ (man and animals)—the adjective fqarto/$ relates to the idea of “ruin” and “destruction”, often in the sense of (physical) corruption or decay; I have translated above with “undecaying/decaying”, in order to capture the vividness of the comparison, but other parallel terms could be used (e.g., “incorruptible/corruptible”, “indestructible/destrucible”).
    • The sequence from “man” to “winged (animal)s” [i.e. birds], “four-footed (creature)s”, and “creeping (thing)s” may be meant to indicate or imply a descent into even more ignoble and grotesque forms of idol-worship.

It is here, in verse 23, that we find perhaps the most notable point of comparison (and difference) with the Areopagus speech, as will be discussed (in conclusion) in the next daily note.

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