So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts17:22-31)
At this point I should clarify to followers and viewers that in going chapter by chapter through the New Testament I am not intending to provide a systematic Bible study but am drawing out those elements of the narrative which directly relate to the thesis presented in The Little Book of Providence. There is virtually something to be said in that context in every chapter of Acts.
In chapter 17, having journeyed through and preached in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea, the former reported as being hostile, the latter more conciliatory (v11) Paul arrives at Athens. His spirit is perturbed by the extent of the idolatry he encounters in that city. He is slightly more encouraged to notice an altar ascribed “To an unknown god”. For “What you currently worship in ignorance, I can now proclaim to you”. Here is a basic example of natural law – an innate awareness that there is a deity who should be sought after and worshipped. The problem was the Athenians were ignorant of the Being they were intended to worship and how He should be served.
But were such pagans under divine condemnation? Not according to Paul: “These times of ignorance God has overlooked” or as the King James Version expresses it “He had given them the wink”. God does NOT condemn idolaters or anybody for matters concerning which they are ignorant. Indeed it was His wish that fallen human beings should “seek after God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist (vv27-28). From Paul’s perspective Christianity does not supersede natural theology but rather builds on it. Even pagan literature, philosophy and mythology contain wisdom that could be regarded as a preparation for the gospel, and that is how the apostle Paul utilized it in this passage. His statements in verse 28 directly draw upon a Greek poet Epimenides and a Greek philosopher Aratus.
However, when God choses to reveal Himself more intimately to a race of people or individual the situation changes somewhat. Addressing His chosen people Israel through Amos He declares
You alone have I intimately known of the families of the Earth. That is why I shall punish you for all your wrong-doings (Amos3:2)
The same principals apply to those who have or have not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel accuratelypresented – the latter shall not be condemned on religious grounds. But as was hopefully made clear in the previous post, ignorance is by no means bliss. For unless a man hear and faithfully respond to the true gospel and become united to Christ in his spirit (1Cor6:17), he cannot be saved from the weakness of human flesh so as to serve God wholeheartedly in the present. Neither can He be transformed into the image of Christ so as to become His corporate spouse in the ages to come (Rom8:29). It should also be noted throughout Paul’s preaching in Acts that the God he presents to those ignorant of Him is good, just and loving in ways that are eminently comprehensible to human reason, He is a God worthy of the praise of all creation, not just a proportional few who understand themselves to have been granted underserved mercy. That such universal praiseworthiness has been historically obscured is the ultimate reason for my endeavours and The Little Book of Providence.
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Related post: Conscience and natural law