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Paul Was a New and Wiser Socrates (And How We Can Imitate Him)

By Justin Bass

Photo by <a href="">Carlos Peinado</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

The precursor to all philosophizing apologists was the apostle Paul. Paul and Luke, the author of Acts, were on the side of redeeming Greek philosophy and demonstrating its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. This can be seen most vividly when Christianity first encountered Athens in Acts 17:16–34. I will argue that Luke here presents Paul as a new Socrates—a Socrates who knows—and then examine how we can apply Paul’s Socratic approach today.

Paul as a New (and Wiser) Socrates

Given Athens’s legendary status as the home of Socrates and the birthplace of philosophy, any Greek with a modest education reading Acts 17:16–34 would’ve remembered Socrates, especially when Paul is seen walking the streets, arguing in the dialectic method of question and answer in the agora (marketplace) with anyone who might happen to be there (Acts 17:17; Plato, Apol. 29D).

Educated Greeks reading Peter and John who boldly proclaim “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) would likely have remembered Socrates’s apologia “defense” speech, in which he said, “Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey God rather than you” (Plato, Apol. 29D).

The scene in Athens is even more pronounced with parallels between Socrates and Paul. First of all, Paul’s teaching approach in Athens would’ve reminded Greek readers of Socrates’s daily dialectic. Paul reasoned, argued, and debated with those in the synagogue and with those in the agora (Acts 17:17). Similarly, Xenophon notes that “Socrates lived ever in the open; for early in the morning he went to the public promenades and training grounds; in the forenoon he was seen in the market [agora]; and the rest of the day he passed just where most people were to be met: he was generally talking, and anyone might listen” (Memorabilia 1.1.10).

Moreover, identical charges were brought against Paul in Athens that were brought against Socrates (and led to his execution). Of Paul the Athenians said, “‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities [xenon daimonion]—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Similarly, both Xenophon and Plato declare, “Socrates is guilty of rejecting the gods acknowledged by the state and of bringing in strange deities [kaina daimonion]” (Mem. 1.1; Apol. 24B).

Paul even opens his address to the council of the Areopagus, andres Athenaioi (“Men of Athens”), the identical way Socrates addressed his accusers in his Apology (Apol. 17A).

John Stott was right: “Paul was . . . a kind of Christian Socrates, although with a better gospel than Socrates ever knew.” He was not only a Hebrew to the Hebrews, but a Hellenist to the Hellenists. Paul, a man of three worlds—Jewish, Greek, and Roman—truly did “become all things to all people so that by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

That being the case, how can we follow Paul’s Socratic approach to our own culture “full of idols” (Acts 17:16)?

Four Ways to Emulate Paul

1. Immerse

We must first and foremost be immersed in Scripture. Absorb the ancient wisdom of God’s Word deep into your heart. Paul knew the depth of Scripture, but he also understood the Athenian culture—its language, beliefs, heroes, and deepest aspirations.

What is the language of your neighbors—their beliefs, their heroes, their deepest aspirations? How can you retell the story for them, using their language and citing their heroes, with Christ as the fulfillment of all their hopes and dreams?

2. Agree

We must find common ground with other religions, ideologies, and worldviews. Meet them where they are. Paul’s Athenian audience was considered the wisest on earth, and yet it was exceedingly ignorant. So he takes the inscription to the “unknown god,” a visual admission of ignorance, as a launching point to educate them (Acts 17:23).

3. Contradict.

Stoics would have agreed with most of what Paul says in his speech. But once he got to Christ and the judgment, they must have been squirming in their togas! Neither Epicureans nor Stoics believed in a judgment day to come, let alone the bodily resurrection of a crucified man from Nazareth.

Though he said it with tact, love, and gentleness, Paul was saying, “You are wrong, Epicureans! You are wrong, Stoics!” Atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and those who call yourselves “spiritual” (whatever that means) are also wrong. There will be a judgment, and Jesus will be the Judge. It is not with Apollo or some “unknown god” that you have to deal, but with the risen Christ.

4. Christ!

Preach Christ! Lift up Christ—his exquisitely beautiful life, his unparalleled miracles and teachings, his death, resurrection, ascension, and soon return to judge the quick and the dead. The resurrection of Christ is proclaimed in every sermon in Acts. Woe to us if we neglect to proclaim the resurrection!

Someone Greater Than Socrates

Despite what some critics say, Paul was victorious in Athens.

Paul’s philosophy—or better, his gospel—won that day. Centuries after his immortal speech, those temples all over Greece were transformed into churches where Christians still hail the power of Jesus’s name to this very day.

Socrates may be the wisest philosopher who ever lived, and we can learn a lot from him. But as he himself admitted, he knew nothing. Let us then emulate Paul, the Christian Socrates who knows, and engage our culture with “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24).

Article excerpt taken from The Gospel Coalition (U.S. Edition). Read the full resource here:

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