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2008 Mid-America Conference on Preaching, Part 7

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Dave Doran’s First General Session
Part 3 – Horn and Conley’s General Sessions
Part 4 – Dawson on Culture
Part 5 – Snoeberger on Culture
Part 6 – Doran’s Second General Session

Paul and Educated Unbelief – Rolland McCune

The third session of Thursday that I attended was taught by Rolland McCune. Dr. McCune’s session on Paul’s Mars Hill Address is summarized below.

Dr. Rolland D. McCune is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan, having previously been the President of the Seminary for ten years and Dean of the Faculty for six years. He was born and raised near Berne, Indiana. He earned the Bachelor of Arts degree at Taylor University, Fort Wayne Campus (Indiana), and the Bachelor of Divinity, Master of Theology, and Doctor of Theology degrees at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He has made six trips to the Middle East, visiting such countries of the Bible as Italy, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. Twice he participated in the Bible Geography Seminar at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He was ordained to the ministry by the First Baptist Church of Warsaw, Indiana.

Dr. McCune pastored churches in Missouri, and Indiana, and has had numerous interim pastorates in Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan. For fourteen years he was on the faculty of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, serving in the capacities of Professor, Registrar, and Dean. He at one time served on the Board of Trustees of The Minnesota Baptist Association and on the faculty of the Indiana Baptist College in Indianapolis. In 1977 he was chosen by his college alma mater for honorary membership in the Delta Epsilon Chi, the honor society of the American Association of Bible Colleges. In 1986 he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree by Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, Owatonna, Minnesota. He began his ministry in Allen Park in 1981.

Dr. McCune has written numerous articles and extensive course syllabi in Systematic Theology, New Evangelicalism, History of Israel, Basic Bible Doctrine, and Dispensationalism, as well as authored a teacher’s handbook on the Book of Daniel. Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism was published by Ambassador-Emerald in 2004.

Dr. McCune is married to the former Daisy Heller of near Berne, Indiana, and they have three married children, The McCunes reside in Allen Park, Michigan, a southwest suburb of Detroit.

Any rejection of Christ or any of the truth-claims of Christianity is unbelief. In Acts 17, Paul at Athens encountered educated but ignorant unbelief. We see here how the apostle “contextualized” the gospel to modern man in ancient Athens.

As Paul was going through Athens he encountered the pagan unbelief of the city and the culture. Paul did not unplug his total Christian wordview; rather he viewed the world around him in terms of the self-contained triune God of Scripture. He was constrained to confront it with the truth-claims of Christianity. He was compelled to speak against the pagan, godless culture. Be believed there was complete antithesis between belief and unbelief.

The Prelude to the Address (16-21)

Paul’s spirit was stirred (paraxuno) within him. The word means to become irritated or angry. This signifies that Paul’s address here is definitely confrontational and negative, and most translations reflect this. He was not attempting to gain “common ground” with his audience.

Paul first reasoned in the synagogue, and then took advantage of the Agora, the center of everyday life in Athens. Two observations stand out: (1) Paul exploited the liberties and opportunities afforded him, and (2) his message was the same before religious Jews and pagan Greeks. What he said in the Agora through the week was the very thing he gave in the synagogue on Saturday. He did not have two messages: one for the religious types and one for the intellectual types.

Paul was approached by some would-be thinkers. Epicureans held pleasure to be the chief goal in life. They were materialistic. Stoics believed in the immanence of God (pantheism) which in turn led to a heavy emphasis on providence and fate. They were “conversing” with Paul. This word is sumballo. Here it probably has negative overtones of dispute, quarrel, or argument, especially in light of the dismissive epithet attached to Paul — “idle babbler.” They were not hungry for the Word of God, but for some “new” intellectual scraps Paul evidently had picked up.

The Address of Paul (22-31)

Paul first evaluates their false religion. He comments that they are “very religious.” Some say that Paul is actually being complimentary in order to gain a hearing. This seems doubtful in light of the overall context of the incident. Even his reference to “their objects of your worship” has a negative tone when compared to other uses in the NT. The Athenians’ “worshiping” was in ignorance or error. Again, the remark is negative in tone since the Unknown God here is a public idol among many others.

What is the significance of this religiosity and worship for Paul? The Apostle did not view it as a complimentary condition nor was he granting them some kind of “common ground.” Their worship was embedded in abysmal, apostate, and culpable ignorance.

At best Paul viewed their ignorant religiosity as a reflection of the image of God by which man is inherently a religious, worshipful being. But, because of total depravity mankind responds to God in his own self-made, autonomous, apostate religion.

The designation “Unknown God” appears to be code language for the idea of an open pantheon. It is an expression of the total inadequacy of their religion. There is something decidedly negative about this whole scenario in Paul’s mind; his address is an indictment of their whole religious system, not just a particular part of it. He seems to be making a word-play between the participle agnoountes (ignorantly or in ignorance) and the adjective agnosto (unknown) of the idol’s inscription, amounting to something like “the idol of our ignorance.” In other words, Paul capitalizes on this public profession of ignorance concerning the realm of deity/worship and sort of reads it back to them as a perfect characterization of their entire religion, using their own words against them.

Paul’s assertion that God has “overlooked” their ignorance has the idea of forbearance, not of toleration. He was not giving these thinkers a mild reproof; their ignorance was worthy of divine judgment, but God had temporarily postponed it.

Paul clams that he alone has the answer to the problem of the big UG; he also claims that he could meet their need immediately. Some assert that Paul appeals to them on non-biblical grounds. However, this authority he claims is common in both the OT and NT — the revelation of God. In his address, there are at least 22 allusions to the OT. The remedy for apostasy is an authoritative one coming from God himself.

He “proclaims” to them the Gospel. The Athenians would gladly recognize Paul if he came as an “expert on religion,” but they would not willingly listen to an absolute authority from God proclaim to them about that which they thought was unknowable.

Paul moves then to truth about God. God is the Creator and therefore the Sovereign of the world and man. Paul thus injects the Creator-creature distinction early into the discussion. He begins where they are, rather than beginning with the “God of the Covenant,” as he did with Jews. The purpose of God’s creation and control of mankind is that they would seek Him since He is immanent or present in the world. This is what people ought to do but depravity prevents it. “Though He is not far from each one of us” is a polite slap at their ignorance and inability to find God.

Many feel that Paul appealed to the poets as further rapport and common ground with these philosophers. He appears to attach validity to the quotes although they are totally subordinate and incidental to the thrust of his address. He seems to be indirectly employing the truth of Psalm 36.9. The point is that God is near, even for spiritual blind poets. Pagans respond to general revelation and natural theology in such a ways that even their perversions presuppose the truth and genuineness of the revelation itself. Bahnsen comments, “Paul was noting the basic schizophrenia in unbelieving thought.”

He further argues that God is self-sufficient, contrary to Greek thought that argues that all is one. He also talks about the Judge God. This apostate ignorance will be judged with certainty. He concludes with a call for repentance and submission to Jesus Christ.

The Response of the Hearers (32-24)

The people responded with sneering by some, interest by others, and belief by others. So it was that some were brought to faith in Athens, and so it is wherever God specifically directs the Gospel to be given.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.