July 12: Acts 17:16ff; Rom 1:18-32 (concluded)

In the previous note, I examined Romans 1:18-32 (specifically, verses 19-23) in the light of the Areopagus speech by Paul in Acts 17:16-34. Today, by way of conclusion, I will look at the climactic verses—Acts 17:29 and Romans 1:23—dealing with the matter of the worship of God through images (i.e. idols).

The starting-point

  • In Romans 1:23, it is the do/ca (dóxa), i.e. the proper esteem/honor/glory which belongs to God
  • In Acts 17:29, it is the divine origin of human beings and their kinship with God (“we are the lineage [ge/no$] of God”)

This would appear to be a major difference, the importance and significance of which will be discussed below. In each passage, this is the basis upon which the turning (away) into idolatry should be understood. In Romans, this do/ca is distorted/perverted into images of human beings and animals; in Acts, the essential human kinship with God is ignored in favor of other likenesses.

The likeness—Both passages mention that human beings considered God to be like, or in the likeness of, something else:

  • In Romans, they make/change (the honor/glory of) God “in(to) a likeness” (e)n o(moiw/mai)
  • In Acts, they customarily/habitually regard (nomi/zein) the deity to be “like” (o%moion) something

The emphasis in Romans is on the (active) perversion/distortion of the true nature and character of God, in Acts it is on a lack of proper knowledge and understanding. In Rom 1:23, the regular noun qeo/$ (“God”) is used, in Acts 17:29 it is the substantive adjective qei=o$ (“deity”); this is a relatively minor difference, since qeo/$ also appears earlier in the verse.

The images

  • In Romans, the emphasis is on the particular shape/form of the image (ei)kw/n)
  • In Acts, the emphasis is on the making of the image, in two respects:
    —(a) the material (gold/silver/stone)
    —(b) the work of cutting/engraving (the “cut-mark” [xa/ragma])

These different points of emphasis can be seen as complementary, as both can be found in the traditional condemnation and polemic against (pagan) idolatry in the Old Testament and Judaism, with the stress on the making/fashioning of the image perhaps more common in the Prophets.

The human role

  • In Romans, we are dealing with an image “of decaying/corruptible man”—in other words, the human being is the form and pattern for the image, its character and shape
  • In Acts, it is the artistic skill (“production and inspiration”) of man which is in view—the process of devising and shaping the image

Again, these can be seen as complementary aspects of the creation of images/idols. Human religious history shows ample evidence of man’s tendency to conceive and imagine God in his own image (cf. Gen 1:26-27), with human characteristics and attributes being applied. Today, in an era largely devoid of religious idolatry, we are able to look at this phenomena more objectively; in the ancient world, concrete images and conceptions of deity (of all sorts) were a vital part of religious expression, requiring that the matter be dealt with head-on in Scripture. It can be difficult for us today to get inside of the thinking that is at work here, the religious and theological underpinnings of (pagan) polytheism now being rather foreign to us. The context of these verses require that they be studied carefully.

The loss of human dignity—Both passages suggest not only a departure from a proper conception of God, but also from a proper understanding of human nature:

  • In Romans, this is perhaps indicated by emphasizing images of various kinds of animals, in addition to man; Jewish, Christian and philosophical polemic against (pagan) idolatry occasionally stressed the ‘grotesque’ forms of many animal images (however poorly understood) as an especially perverse feature of idol-worship
  • In Acts, this is emphasized again by the contrast between man’s (metaphysical/spiritual) kinship with God and the fashioning of images in metal and stone

This brings us back to the starting-point (cf. above), whereby it is necessary to take a closer look at the overall difference of approach between Rom 1:23 and Acts 17:29:

Doxa (do/ca)—As discussed above, this refers to the dignity, honor and esteem which is to be accorded God by human beings; it is based on:

    1. God Himself—in traditional theological terms, this would be his nature and attributes; in Romans 1:20 it is summarized as qeio/th$, “God-ness” (i.e., deity).
    2. His Work—indicated here in Rom 1:20 as His power (du/nami$), but power manifested primarily, according to Old Testament/Jewish (and early Christian) tradition, in:
      (a) His work as Creator—giving existence and life to all things, in particular, to human beings
      (b) His work on behalf of Israel—his mighty actions in delivering and establishing His people, especially through the Exodus and Conquest of the land of Canaan.
      Christian tradition and doctrine would extend this salvific work to the deliverance of the people of God from the bonds of sin and darkness.

The improper religious response to God, as described in Rom 1:18-32, involves a perversion of the doxa which belongs to God; this leads to idolatry, and, ultimately (in a similar manner), to all kinds of immorality (vv. 24-32).

Lineage of God (ge/no$ tou= qeou=)—Whereas in Romans much traditional Old Testament (and Jewish) thought is at work, in Acts 17 Paul (and/or the author of Acts) draws more extensively upon Greco-Roman philosophical language and concepts (for more detail on this, see the previous articles on the Areopagus speech). Most noteworthy is verse 28, which contains two elements:

    1. A triadic formula defining the life and existence of human beings “in Him” [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in God]; this is very different from Paul’s usual theological/Christological language—it has been characterized as “panentheistic”, and appears to have much in common (as well as other parts of the speech) with Stoic thought, in particular.
    2. A citation from the astronomical/meteorological poem (or verse-treatise) of Aratus, an early 3rd-century B.C. author (and contemporary of Zeno of Citium) who was influenced by early Stoic thought. Paul picks up on this quotation and uses it in verse 29 as the basis for the argument against the worship of God through images.

The quotation reads: tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men “for we are of (his) lineage”. The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul seems to affirm this Greek philosophical-religious sentiment, by re-stating it in verse 29: ge/no$ ou@n u(pa/rxonte$ tou= qeou=, “then, being of the lineage of God”, or perhaps “…belonging to the lineage of God”, with the word ge/no$ given emphasis. Would the historic Paul (of the letters) have used such an argument? This has been much debated by commentators and scholars. It was not unusual for him to take up statements or concepts, which he might not otherwise entirely accept (without qualification), for the greater purpose of the overall message and teaching (cf. for example, his apparent use of Corinthian ‘slogans’ in 1 Cor 6:12; 7:1; 8:1, 4; 10:23). Consider also his declaration in 1 Cor 9:20-22; if we take this seriously, then Paul certainly would not have shied away from using Greek philosophy if it might help win Greeks to Christ. As I have previously noted, Acts 17:16-34 is really the only example we have of Paul (or any other New Testament speaker/author, for that matter) directly addressing pagan Gentiles. A stronger argument against Pauline authenticity is the significant number of words, expressions and concepts which do not occur in the letters, or are used in a different sense, but even this is far from decisive.

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