Like the modern scene, the New Testament world was filled with diverse worldviews. Many religions and philosophies vied for supremacy in public affairs and private devotion. Originally popularized by the American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, J., the phrase ‘the marketplace of ideas’ frequently appears in discussions of free speech and competing concepts in education.1 Fittingly, Paul contended for the faith in literal marketplaces like the one in Athens, but also used this metaphor to express the saint’s identity in Christ.
Slavery is one of the New Testament’s prevalent metaphors. The slave market’s vocabulary describes mankind’s enforced servitude; yet Christ delivers by redemption. Before belief in the Lord Jesus, humans are in bondage to sin and unrighteousness, Rom. 6. 6-14. But His saving work, effected by His death and resurrection, emancipates believers from these old masters, and transforms them into His servants, vv. 17-23. Their lives now belong to God and have been purchased by Him for freedom and holy service, Gal. 5. 1-6. As 1 Corinthians chapter 6 verse 20 says, ‘For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ NKJV. The next chapter agrees, ‘You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men’, 7. 23 NKJV. The marketplace language of purchase reveals divine ownership, resulting in a new, holy identity for believers.
Beyond the Christian’s position, the New Testament uses the marketplace to discuss the conflict between the gospel and pagan beliefs. In the Graeco-Roman world, the marketplace was an open space for commerce, politics, and intellectual interchange. Athens was past its glory days as the centre of learning, yet it still had a venerable tradition in intellectual pursuits. Besides Epicureans and Stoics, Paul faced various types of idolators. A Roman satirist asserted that it was easier to encounter a god there than a man!2Accordingly, it was an excellent location for Paul to evangelize, as Acts chapter 17 verses 17 and 18 demonstrate, ‘Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshippers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection’ NKJV.
A Christian philosopher notes the connections to classical thought:
‘Paul’s evangelistic method was always suited to the local conditions - and portrayed with historical accuracy by Luke. In Ephesus Paul taught in the “school of Tyrannus”, but in Athens his direct approach to the heathen was made in the marketplace. Paul had already approached the unbelieving Jews and God-fearing Gentiles at the synagogue in Athens. Now he entered the marketplace of ideas to “reason with” those who met him there. The Greek word for Paul’s activity recalls the “dialogues” of Plato wherein Socrates discusses issues of philosophical importance; it is the same word used by Plutarch for the teaching methods of a peripatetic philosopher. Paul did not simply announce his viewpoint; he discussed it openly and gave it a reasonable defense. He aimed to educate his audience, not to make common religious cause with their sinful ignorance’.3
Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees opposed Christ’s ministry, the Epicureans and Stoics held competing philosophies but made common cause against Paul. The former group held an evolutionary cosmology for the universe’s origin, and therefore thought that the universe would one day dissolve in a cataclysm of collapsing atoms producing a great conflagration. One of their devotees, Lucretius, wrote an epic poem exulting in the fact that there is no coming judgement to fear.4 They thought the best life was one devoted to pleasure. It was not hedonism, for that could produce undesirable consequences like illness and economic disruption. Instead, they sought to withdraw from the rough and tumble of life, thereby skating over the difficult side of existence.
Gooding clarifies their view this way, ‘Admittedly, Epicureanism made pleasure the chief good to be aimed at in life; but by pleasure it meant a state of trouble-free tranquility. And since the grosser pleasures often involve emotional turbulence, pain, and hangover, Epicureanism advised avoiding such pleasures altogether. The philosophy in fact produced people who within their own fellowships were renowned for their gentle kindness, friendliness, and loyalty. At the same time it bought this tranquil happiness at the cost of deliberately withdrawing from too much involvement in the rough and tumble of life. It was scarcely a philosophy that the ordinary working man, housewife, or businessperson could follow’.5
Another writes, ‘Epicureans believed that tranquility was achieved through learning about and then practicing that which constitutes a virtuous life: having close friends, avoiding negative people, and having no fear of the distant gods, judgement, or the afterlife. This philosophy was at odds with a biblical worldview that saw the fear of Yahweh as “the start of wisdom” (Prov 9. 10)’.6 They would scoff at the notion of a God who intervened in world affairs by sending His Son to suffer death on the cross.
Their rivals, the Stoics, were pantheists who believed that all was predetermined by the impersonal ‘world-soul’. Cause and effect mindlessly governed the universe, thereby establishing one’s fate. The best of all worlds is the universe as it currently is. All of the forces and events making up our existence are set and cannot be changed. They held no place for individual resurrection or a future heaven. Their doctrine concentrated on this life, not troubling itself about an afterlife. Eastern doctrines like caste and karma offer similar teaching. One historian contrasts it with the gospel, saying, ‘Pride is the basis of Stoic virtue, while humility is the basis of Christian holiness; the former is inspired by egotism, the latter by love to God and man; the Stoic feels no need of a Saviour, and calmly resorts to suicide when the house smokes; while the Christian life begins with a sense of sin, and ends with triumph over death; the resignation of the Stoic is heartless apathy and a surrender to the iron necessity of fate; the resignation of the Christian, is cheerful submission to the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Father in heaven; the Stoic sage resembles a cold, immovable statue, the Christian saint a living body, beating in hearty sympathy with every joy and grief of his fellow-men. At best, Stoicism is only a philosophy for the few, while Christianity is a religion for all’.7
At their core, all of these worldviews are man-centred and deny God. Modern thought has not progressed any further on this front - the names change, but the self-absorbed unbelief remains the same. Some espouse materialistic naturalism, deifying the creature rather than the Creator, Rom. 1. 18-25. Others hold to a fatalist view of life: whatever will be, will be, and we must determine our own meaning of life. Still others invent idolatrous conceptions of the Almighty, making manageable gods that approve of their followers and generally place few demands on them. Paul counters all of these errors by preaching God’s revelation through the Lord Jesus and His resurrection, Acts 17. 18.
Using the altar of ‘the unknown god’ as a starting point, the apostle proclaimed the true Maker who is omnipotent, transcendent, and immanent. He is not a distant deity or the universe’s absentee landlord. Nor is He manipulated by man’s idolatrous ministrations. He is not confined to physical temples, and He certainly does not require human charity to survive, vv. 24, 25.
He is both outside of His creation and intimately involved in it. Historically, He laid out national boundaries to place peoples in proximity to the truth, vv. 26, 27. This is further evidenced by the Son of God’s incarnation, sacrificial death, and resurrection. He came into this world to deliver it from sin and the futility that it generates. He will ultimately deal with the things done by mankind, even to the point of putting down evil and delivering many sons to glory. God’s intervening judgement is fixed for a certain day, and the judge has been appointed, Acts 17. 30, 31; John 5. 24-30. Consequently, God calls on all men everywhere to repent. Christ’s first and second comings demonstrate that the Almighty is neither remote nor impersonal. Rather, He is personally involved in the destruction of evil and the permanent establishment of righteousness’ reign in the universe. The kingdoms of this world shall become ‘the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ’, Rev. 11. 15 ESV.
People may posit all kinds of false conceptions of reality, but until they believe on the risen and glorified Christ, they remain slaves to sin. The Lord’s redeeming work is the only way to be free and to realize the purpose of human creation. Amid this world’s cacophony of discordant voices, God’s message triumphs over every falsehood. It is rooted in His historical working and will be completed by Christ’s return. His blood-bought people will reign with Him forever, Rev. 5. 10.
The concept also has its roots in the works of British thinkers as dissimilar as John Milton and John Stuart Mill.
Petronius, Life and Epistles, Vol. 1, pg. 363.
Greg Bahnsen, The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens, Ashland Theological Journal Volume 13, 1980, pg. 14.
De Rerum Natura.
David Gooding, True to the Faith: The Acts of the Apostles, Myrtlefield House, 2013, pg. 346.
N. T. Parker, ‘Epicureanism’, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Lexham Press, 2016. Another adds, ‘Epicureans argued against fear of death, since in their view death was merely the dissolution of the atoms entangled to make up the human, and they argued against fear of the gods, who enjoyed their own blessedness without concern for human affairs’. Pheme Perkins, ‘Epicureanism’, HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, HarperCollins, 2011, pg. 252.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, pp. 320, 321.
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