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.

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.

July 10: Acts 17:16ff; Rom 1:18-32

The next several daily notes are part of a recent study on the Areopagus Speech of Paul in Acts 17:16-34; cf. Parts 20 and 21 of my series on the Speeches of Acts, as well as a supplemental article. One of the passages in the Pauline letters which is often compared with the Areopagus speech is Romans 1:18-32. Both deal with the subject of ‘pagan’ (polytheistic) religion and idolatry prior to human beings receiving the Gospel. It has been argued by a number of critical scholars that the historic Paul (of the undisputed letters) would not have spoken the way the Paul of Acts 17 does, and that the speech (like most of the others in Acts) is a Lukan composition, i.e. primarily a product of the author of Acts (trad. Luke). I have previously noted a considerable number of words, expressions, and concepts in the speech which appear to be foreign or otherwise unattested in the letters. It is possible, however, that this is the result of the different audience—the Pauline letters (undisputed and disputed), along with the remainder of the New Testament books, were all written to and for Christians, while the Areopagus speech is virtually the only example in the New Testament of an address to pagan Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. There is no clear and simple solution to the question, on objective grounds. But what of the comparison with Romans 1:18-32? Even upon first glance, one notices a substantial difference in orientation; this difference is primarily two-fold:

    • The emphasis is on the impending judgment of God against humankind, brought out clearly at the start in verse 18, with the basis for judgment expounded forcefully in vv. 19-31 and punctuated in v. 32. The idea of judgment is present in the Areopagus speech, serving as the culminating exhortation of 17:30-31, but it is not the main theme of the speech.
    • Romans 1:18-32 deals principally with the immorality of humankind, viewed as a product of human wickedness and a result of idolatry. This is not present in the Areopagus speech at all.

Elsewhere in the letters, Paul’s references to Greco-Roman paganism are all negative, from the standpoint of salvation—the Gentiles once were in darkness, enslaved by idolatry and immorality, but God has rescued them through Christ (cf. Gal 4:8-9; Rom 6:17-19; Col 1:21; 3:7, also Eph 2:2-3). An importance point of emphasis in Romans, of course, is that all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—were slaves to sin in much the same way, whether they lived under the Law or as “sinners”. Typically, Paul refers to idolatry as well from an ethical standpoint, according to its traditional association with licentiousness and immorality (cf. Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5 [also Eph 5:5]). In only four instances (apart from Rom 1:18-32), does he make reference to idols in the context of pagan/polytheistic religion

    • Twice, in brief statements related to the former state of Gentile believers’, before conversion:
      “…how you turned from images to be a slave to [i.e. serve] (the) living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9)
      “You have known that when you were (as the) nations, (you were ones) being led away toward voiceless images, as you might be led” (1 Cor 12:2)
    • In two separate passages related to the question of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22)

The first two verses imply a condition of enslavement (“being led away”); the references in 1 Cor 8 and 10 deal more properly with the nature of idolatry. There were two views on this subject in early Christianity:

    1. The pagan deities were identified primarily with their images/idols, by way of polemic distortion, and so regarded as vain or nothing, i.e. they did not really exist. This is the view generally expressed throughout the Old Testament Prophets (including the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy–Kings) and in Jewish tradition.
    2. The deities had real existence, but were actually evil/unclean spirits or “demons”. This came to be the predominant view in early Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul seems to express both views in 1 Cor 8 and 10—on the one hand, that the deities and their idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4-5; 10:19; also Gal 4:8), on the other, that they are “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21).

A more sophisticated treatment of polytheistic/pagan religion is presented in Romans 1:18-32 and the Areopagus speech, which will be discussed in the next note.