In this post, I want to examine some of the methods and apologetic approaches that Paul used in reaching his culture for the Gospel. There has been a lot of debate on the topic of apologetic methodology. Which approach should we take in following Paul’s example? Presuppositional or Evidential? Many will quote one Pauline text and assert Paul favored one approach more than then the other. Sadly, this is not helpful at all. We need to look at various approaches Paul used before declaring there is only one approach to use in our present culture. I have noted elsewhere about the educational background of Paul.
Paul’s use of General Revelation
General revelation serves to explain the worldwide phenomenon of faith. Many people are religious, because they have a type of knowledge of God. All people have knowledge of God although it may be suppressed to the extent of being unrecognizable or unconscious. It is still there, and there will be areas of sensitivity to which the message may be effectively directed as a starting point.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. ;For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.;For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”-Romans 1: 18-21.
First, Paul says God’s “divine nature” should be evident to all. This means we can see the non-moral attributes of God in creation such omnipotence in the created order. “Perceive” means to “perceive in the mind.” “What has been made” means God’s workmanship can be seen. The created order is more than a physical act, but the work of design, or art where the craftsman brings his will, thoughts or emotions, love and skill into it.
Remember, the Greco-Roman religious world which Paul is addressing would have assumed that only the wise were the ones who had knowledge of their gods. Also, being that Paul was Jewish, he knew that Jewish people would have seen the pagans as having no knowledge of the one true God. So Paul is turning things upside down here in saying that knowledge of the true God is available to all. Paul says that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature).
When we observe the effects in the world, we can infer there are two kinds of causes—natural and intelligent. In other words, there are really two general kinds of explanations for events: intentional accounts (which demonstrate signs of value, design, and purpose) and non-intentional accounts (which lack values, design, and purpose).
“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-15).
The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. The issue of moral knowledge is what C.S. Lewis discusses in The Abolition of Man. Lewis recalls that all cultures, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian etc. show that natural revelation is true. In Romans 2:15, “suneidesis” stands alongside with the “heart” and “thoughts” as the faculty that allows the pagan world to live a life that corresponds to the Jewish people who have the written law (The Torah).
The argument Paul is making is not whether people know they have moral knowledge. From an epistemological standpoint, they most certainly do!
Paul’s Use of Historical Revelation: Messianic Prophecy
In many cases Paul’s audience were Jewish people who were already theists. Paul is seen going to the Jew first (Rom. 1: 16) in The Book of Acts. Paul goes to the synagogue first in Salamis (13:5), Pisidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:2), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and 19:8). In other words, they were already believed in the God of Israel. Hence, Paul had no need to establish whether there was a God with them. That is why his apologetic methodology was to go right into the Jewish Scriptures.
Let’s see where Paul utilizes prophecy:
In his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13: 16-41), Paul says Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant.
Paul also says Jesus is the fulfillment of Ps. 2:7 and Ps.16:10 (see Acts 13:33-37).
Let me mention some other Pauline passages:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:1-17).
We see here:
1.The Messiah died according to the Jewish Scriptures (most likely he is referring to the entire redemptive plan of the Old Testament).
2.He was raised according to the Scriptures (once again, he is probably referring to the redemptive plan of the Old Testament ).
Let’s look at Romans 1:1-7:
“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We see that:
1 Paul says that the information about the coming Messiah was written about beforehand in the Jewish Scriptures.
2. Paul says through the resurrection, Jesus is installed (by God) as the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). Paul is not saying Jesus is being appointed as The Son of God is a change in Jesus’ essense. The appointment is not in terms of his nature but in terms of his work as a mediator—the messianic age has dawned. Jesus is the Lord—the anti-type of the previous “sons” in the Old Testament (Adam, David, Israel).
3. Remember, the New Testament authors unanimously declare Jesus as the one who is from the “seed of David,” sent by God to restore God’s kingship over mankind (Matt. 1:1; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3,4; 2 Tim:2:8; Rev. 22:16). As seen in 2 Samuel 7:12-17, the immediate prophecy is partially fulfilled in David’s son Solomon. However, the word “forever” shows there are future descendants to come. God promised David that his “seed” would establish the kingdom. There were two ways for this prophecy to come to pass. Either God could continually raise up a new heir or he could have someone come who would never die. Does this sound like the need for a resurrection?
“Paul went into the synagogue reasoning and giving evidence that the Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead.”
In this passage, Paul appeals to fulfilled prophecy which is probably a reference to Isa. 53:1-12; Ps. 22:1-16;16 or the entire redemptive plan of the Old Testament.
What about today? Can we use Paul’s approach with Jewish people? The answer is yes and no. When I debate Orthodox Jews or anti-missionaries(e.g.,Jews for Judaism), we are always debating prophecy and the issues in the Old Testament. So it depends on the Jewish person. However, there are many Jewish people that are not Jewish theists. They are agnostics or in many cases atheists. The majority of Jewish people that I have spoken to on a major college campus don’t have any strong convictions about whether God exists or not. Hence, I have to establish that God exists with them.
Paul’s Preaching and The Crucified Messiah
For Paul, “Christ Crucified” is central to his preaching and apologetic.
Donald Juel dicusses the challenge of a crucified Messiah:
“The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive” (1)
Even Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)
A Misunderstood Text?
1 Corinthians 1: 19-21: ” For it is written, I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
This is the text that many presuppositional apologists like to point out. For them, any apologist who tries to appeal to mankind’s fallen reason is on shaky ground. In response, no mature apologist thinks reason alone could give anyone a relationship with God. I have been at this long enough to know that sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. In other words, sin affects the whole person—mind, emotions, and will. Human beings are radically depraved in their being. People can and do harden their hearts towards God. Sometimes they can reach the point where they are desensitized towards the ways of God. Furthermore, in relation to the text above, Greek orators prided themselves with possessing “persuasive words of wisdom,” and it was their practice to persuade a crowd of any side of an issue for the right price. So, since Paul is most likely condemning hubris (pride), he is against false pride, or prideful use of reason, not reason itself. (2)
From Idolatry to Devotion to Jesus
Given Paul was a Torah observant Jew, he was well aware of the prohibitions against idolatry. For example:
“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. Furthermore, the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Deut 4: 15-24.
So here we have a prohibition against creating any male or figure into an idol. But Paul says the following:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”- Phil 2: 5-11.
Following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, the Jews no longer fell prey to physical idolatry. Also, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament(1 Cor. 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph. 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8). Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor. 5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even commends the Thessalonian for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9). So I guess my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act and but then later speak against idolatry? It seems rather inconsistent.
They are also the earliest letters we have for the Christology of Jesus. In several of Paul’s Letters Jesus is referred to as “Lord” (Gr. kyrios) (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6-8). Hence, the willingness to do this place Jesus in a role attributed to God in Jewish expectation.” For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity.
Also, as pointed out by Richard Bauckham in his work on this topic, Paul believed that Jesus was God by attributing attributes to him that were distinctly reserved for God. And he did so in a distinctly Jewish manner while also preserving monotheism. There were three attributes that first century Jews uniquely assigned to God:
1. God is the Sole Ruler of all things
2. God is the Sole Creator of all things
3. God is the only being deserving of worship
So let’s look at how Paul matches up the data here:
1. Jesus participates in God’s sole rule over all things
Phil: 3:20-21: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Eph. 1:21-22: Paul speaks of Jesus being ”far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet…”
Here, Jesus is clearly given the authority to rule above every one of God’s created beings.
2. Jesus as the Creator of all things
Jesus is clearly thought by Paul to have been the creator of the universe. This attribute is reserved only to God in Second Temple Judaism. Paul makes it clear that Jesus created all things.
Col. 1:15-16: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
3. Jesus as worthy of worship (see Phil 2 text above).
As discussed above, only God was worthy of worship in Second Temple Judaism. Nevertheless, Paul discusses the worship of Jesus. Since God is the sole Creator and Ruler of all things He alone should be worshiped. Even within the Roman Empire, Jews worshiped God alone. No other entity was worthy of worship.
Paul and Work of the Holy Spirit
Paul insists that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14).. But Paul does not say that the undegenerated person cannot perceive truth about God, but that they do not receive (Gk. dekomai, “welcome”) it. Paul emphatically declared that the basic truths about God are “clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). The problem is not that unbelievers are not aware of God’s existence but that they do not want God to exist because of their desire to live an autonomous life apart from God.
Anyone who does evangelism will generally experience several objections to the Christian faith. Hence, it is almost impossible to do evangelism apart from some apologetic training. Josh McDowell has gone on record saying, “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not.,”
Therefore, the mature apologist knows the Holy Spirit has to play an integral part of the entire process. Apologetics may serve as a valuable medium but the mature apologist knows faith is never the product of historical facts or evidence alone. For example, in James 2:19, it says that the demons believe that God exists. But just because the demons think God exists, this doesn’t mean they have saving faith. Objectively speaking, apologetics or evidence for God may help someone believe that God exists. However, the individual still needs to place their trust in God. This can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15).
What Can Apologists Learn From Paul?
1.Know your audience: As we see, Paul knew when to use general or historical revelation.
When Paul appeals to the evidence for design in nature (Rom 1:18-21), that takes us to the Intelligent Design debate. ID scholars have written enough on that topic. I will leave it up to the reader to pursue further study. Also, to use Romans 1 and to walk up to a skeptic and shout “You know God and are suppressing the truth” probably will fall on dear ears. This doesn’t mean I doubt what Paul is saying. I do think God has given knowledge of himself. But I have yet to have any success by telling people “You already know God.” It just may be a matter of how we explain this text. Maybe we can ponder the following comment by Alvin Plantinga:
“Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can be transformed into resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant. In the traditional taxonomy of seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements.”
2. Paul’ use of messianic prophecy: I am not going to hold back here: many popular level apologetic books are too simplistic on this topic. If you really want to engage the topic, see our bibliography here. I don’t advise using the common line, “There are over 300 messianic prophecies and they are all fulfilled in Jesus.” Skeptics and Jews as well have written on the problem with this approach. So while the good news is that there are answers, Christians need to work harder on this topic. Furthermore, given all the supersesessionism that permeates the Church ,many Christians don’t know the role of Israel and Jewish missions (Rom 1:16).
3. Education: I gave some background on Paul’s education. It is evident that God used Paul’s education and background to reach different audiences. So the question is the following: Who is your audience? What area of study should you target?
4. The Power of the Gospel: Paul preached the crucified and risen Messiah. This is the first task of our outreach efforts. We are called to be faithful and let God handle the results.
1. Donald H. Juel, “The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith (Word &World Supplement Series 3 :St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.
2. J.P Moreland and W.L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 13.
3. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000), 214-125.