Fr. Albert Vanhoye - On the Holy Father's Encyclical 'Fides et ratio' - 5

The discourse at the Areopagus and the universality of truth

Fr Albert Vanhoye, SJ                                                                              Reflections Index  

At the beginning of chapter four of the Encyclical Fides et ratio, John Paul II notes: "The Acts of the Apostles provides evidence that Christian proclamation was engaged from the very first with the philosophical currents of the time" (n. 36). In this regard he says that "in Athens St Paul entered into discussion with 'certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers'" (Acts 17:18). Actually, the reference to these two philosophical schools call attention, raises various questions and opens new horizons. For the reader of Acts, it thus describes the context of the Apostle Paul's famous discourse at the Areopagus, which follows immediately (Acts 17:22-31). Luke implicitly presents this speech as a model of missionary preaching in a pagan milieu marked by a philosophical culture. It is very interesting and instructive, then, to analyze this discourse and to examine what position the Apostle takes in it and how it reveals his conviction about the universality of truth.

We should first note the clear difference between the discourse at the Areopagus and the speeches given to audiences of Jews and proselytes. In the latter addresses, the Apostle talks of the God of Israel and the history of salvation and relies on Sacred Scripture. In the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, for example, Paul's first words are: "Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers …"(Acts 13:16-17). One could say that the Apostle presents God as a particular god who is defined by his special relationship with a specific people, the "people of Israel", and their ancestors, "our fathers". A very different idea of God is offered at the start of the discourse at the Areopagus: "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth ..." (Acts 17:24). A universal God, who is defined by his relationship with the entire universe. We can see how the Apostle's contact with the Hellenistic world led him immediately to adopt a universal perspective corresponding to the universality of truth.

St Paul sides with the philosophers

On the other hand, the address at Antioch in Pisidia makes repeated references to Old Testament texts, most of them implicit (Acts 13:17-23), but some explicit, as in Acts 13:27, where he recalls "the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath", or in Acts 13:33, where he cites a verse from Psalm 2, introduced with the formula "as it is written in the second psalm", in Acts 13:34-35, where we find a quotation from Is 55:3 and one from Ps 16:10, and lastly in Acts 13:41, the concluding admonition, which consists of a quotation from the prophet Habakkuk (Hb 1: 5).

The discourse at the Areopagus, however, contains no explicit reference to Scripture. Only one text is cited, a brief sentence from a pagan author: "For we are indeed his — i.e., God's — offspring", introduced with the formula "as even some of your poets have said". This quotation has been identified: it is a verse from the poem Phaenomena, written by Aratus, a third-century B.C. author of Stoic inspiration. This is a significant recourse to Hellenistic culture, which was steeped in philosophy. It is an implicit recognition of the human ability to attain universal truth even on very profound matters.

The precise interpretation of the speech in Acts 17:22-31 naturally provokes much discussion. It has been said that "Paul begins his address, not with elements of Greek philosophical monotheism, but with popular religious ideas", and that "Paul's message is a proclamation, not a reasoned argument".1

These overly negative assertions are debatable. It is no surprise that they do not appear in the new edition of the work.2 One thing is accurate: in his discourse the Apostle is not concerned with philosophers but is combating certain aspects of popular pagan religiosity which attached great importance to temples, to the cult practised in them and to idols. About temples, the Apostle states that God "does not live in shrines made by man" (Acts 17:24); about cult, "nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything" (Acts 17: 25); and about idols, "we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17: 29).

It should be noted, however, that in this struggle Paul sides with the philosophers, who before him had criticized the beliefs of their time in an effort to satisfy "the demands of universal reason" (Fides et ratio, n. 36). Moreover, the Apostle not only makes three negative statements, but is careful to base them on positive reasons which are closely related to the reflections of certain philosophers. "Paul's message", then, is not a mere "proclamation" but contains "a reasoned argument". The latter, in fact, is not fully developed, as in a philosophical treatise; it is only stated briefly. Its sobriety is obviously due to the fact that what is called "Paul's discourse at the Areopagus" was not an entire speech (it would have taken two minutes to deliver it), but only the outline of a discourse, indicating the principal themes without being able to develop them.

A careful examination of the topics presented reveals that the Apostle has very skillfully blended certain truths contained in the Bible with similar truths discovered by the philosophers. The possibility of this fusion shows that the Bible does not only contain the attestation of particular facts of salvation history and the revelation of mysteries inaccessible to human reason, but also presents general truths that can be reached through systematic reflection and thus be universally recognized.

A critique of popular religious practices

To demonstrate that God "does not live in shrines made by man", Paul recalls that God "made the world and everything in it" (Acts 17:24). This statement corresponds both to the account of creation in the Book of Genesis (Gn 1:1-31) and to the conclusions of Greek philosophers. In one of his dialogues, Plato asks the question as to whether the world had a beginning and a creator, and then demonstrates with rational arguments that the answer must be yes (cf. Timaeus, 28b-c). For "creator", Plato uses the noun poietes; Paul applies the corresponding participle, poiesas, to God. In speaking of the "world" (kosmos), Paul uses a Greek word which has no exact equivalent in Hebrew, since kosmos first expresses the idea of good order and then of ornament. But in adding "and everything in it", the Apostle takes his inspiration from the Bible, which often mentions "the earth and the fullness thereof" (Ps 24:1; 50:12; Jer 8:16; etc.). Equally biblical is the expression "heaven and earth" (Gn 1:1; 2:1, 4; etc.; Ps 121:2; 124: 8), but to say that God is "Lord of heaven and earth" corresponds to an idea expressed by the Stoics; in a hymn to Zeus they said: "Zeus, principle of nature, who rules all things by law", and added: "This whole cosmos, which revolves around the earth, obeys you wherever you lead it, and submits to you with pleasure".3

The creator of the world cannot be enclosed in a temple made by human beings. This is a philosophical reflection, even if it is found in the Bible. The one to express it is the "wise" king, Solomon, at the very moment the temple is being dedicated in Jerusalem: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house which I have built!" (1 Kgs 8:27). After the temple was destroyed, a prophet used the same thoughts to oppose the plan to rebuild it: "Thus says the Lord: 'Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me ... ? All these things my hand has made'" (Is 66:1-2). For its part, Greek philosophy reached the same conviction. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, stated: "You should not build temples; a temple does not deserve great esteem; it is not holy; something done by workers does not deserve great esteem".4

In addition to criticizing temples, the discourse immediately criticizes the usual idea of cult: the Creator "is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything". The idea of serving God in his temple comes naturally to popular religiosity and was accepted by the Bible. God smells the sweet odour of the sacrifices (cf. Gn 8:21); "the showbread" is to be set before him every week (cf. Ex 25:30; Lv 24:5-9). The prophets, however, criticize this cult (cf. Is 1:11-15; Jer 7:22; Am 5:25; Hos 6:6), but not radically; they criticize it when it is practised by people whose behaviour offends God. One psalm, however, contains a more general criticism, which is also directed at the sacrifices offered by people sincerely docile to God. These sacrifices are without value; God has absolutely no need of them, because, the psalm says, "every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills" (Ps 50:10), and it continues: "If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of praise" (ibid., 12-14). Praise, then, should replace the sacrifices. Once again we have a critique of popular religion, a critique which is per se philosophical.

God is not far from each one of us

Paul's argument goes beyond the psalm's. It is not based merely on the fact that God is very rich, but that it is he who gives "everything" to "everyone" with astounding generosity (Acts 17:25). To think that we could give God something would be an incoherent reversal of the real situation: we would be acting as God's benefactors, when in fact we have always been the ones to benefit from him. The Greek philosophers reached similar conclusions and affirmed God's complete self-sufficiency. The Epicurean Philodemus coined a new adjective, aprosdees, to say that God is free of all need. Even earlier, Plato had expressed the same idea in simpler terms (ouk epideues: Parmenides, 8,33). According to Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana harshly criticized the sacrificial cult (Life of Apollonius, V, 25 and VIII, 7).

After the critique of the temples and of a certain idea of worship, the Apostle prepares to criticize the idols by speaking of the search for God by the men he has created (Acts 17:26-28). Once again the expressions used correspond both to biblical revelation and to the teaching of the philosophers. When Paul says that God "made from one every nation of men", the phrase "from one" alludes to the Genesis account (Gn 1:27-28; 2:21-23; 3:20), which speaks of one ancestor for all mankind, but it corresponds all the same to the Stoic viewpoint which insisted on the unity of the human race; the Greek expression, in fact, is ambivalent, either masculine or neuter, and can thus indicate one man or one race. The theme of the search for God is also found in the Bible, which understands it in an existential way, inviting the people to "seek the Lord ... with all your heart and with all your soul" (Dt 4:29) and declaring that "he who has clean hands and a pure heart" belongs to the "generation of those who seek him" (Ps 24:4-6; cf. 27:8-9). The philosophical search for God was more intellectual, but not exclusively so. Plato speaks of it in a very profound way; he wrote: "Finding the creator and father of this universe is toilsome and, after he has been found, it is not possible for everyone to speak of him" (Timaeus, 28c). Paul echoes this admission by the great philosopher when he says that men search for God "gropingly" (Acts 17:27). For their part, the Stoics did not limit themselves to an intellectual search for God, but were committed to a very demanding discipline of life.

The difficulty in finding God does not come from his distance. The Bible says that God is very close to his people (cf. Dt 4:7) and finds marvelous ways to explain his omnipresence. "You beset me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.... Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your presence?" (Ps 139:5,7). Certain philosophers, however, reached the same conclusion. A first-century Stoic author, Dion Chrysostom, uses the same phrase as St Paul: "not far". The Apostle states that God "is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27) and Dion Chrysostom: "we have not been scattered on our account far from the divinity nor outside it, but we have grown in the midst of it, rather, we have grown together with it" (Dion Chrys., Disc., XII,28). True, these statements smack of pantheism. Paul does not adopt pantheism at all, but accepts the sense of God's nearness expressed by the Stoics and indicates its foundation with a threefold philosophical affirmation: "In him we live and move and have our being", confirmed immediately by a quotation from Aratus: "For we are indeed his offspring" (Acts 17:28).

The Stoic poet was not the first to affirm a kinship between God and men. In the Greek world, actually, the idea was very ancient. Homer gave Zeus the title "father of men and gods" (Iliad, I, 554); Aeschylus said: "of your blood we have been born" (Seven Against Thebes, 141-142). Later the philosophers took up the subject, speaking of a kinship (syngenea) of man and the human soul with God. Plato, for example, writes that "a certain affinity attracts man to his kinsman (i.e., God) and makes him honour and believe in him" (Laws, X, 899d); he calls man "not an earthly but a heavenly plant, whose soul raises him to his kindred in heaven" (Timaeus, 90a). The Stoics related this theme to their pantheistic system. But it is significant in this regard that the discourse at the Areopagus does not quote a passage from Stoic philosophy, but a Stoic poem, more precisely, a hymn of praise to God in poetic form. The great difference should be noted between the Stoic system and this hymn of praise. In this hymn, as in the famous Hymn to Zeus of Cleanthes, Zeno's successor, Zeus does not appear as the pantheistic whole, but as a personal God who can be addressed in praise and in prayer of petition. The Hymn to Zeus even bases the possibility of prayer on men's kinship with God, saying: "It is right that all mortals should address you, because we have been born of you" (vv. 4-5). This last phrase is very close to the words of Aratus cited in Acts 17:28; perhaps for this reason, the orator introduces the quotation with a reference to more than one poet. Cleanthes addresses very beautiful prayers to Zeus. He asks him to "free men from deadly ignorance" and to give them "the intelligence with which you govern everything in accordance with unfailing justice" (vv. 33-35). It cannot be denied that these verses express an intense personal relationship with God implicitly recognized as a person.

God makes man in his image and likeness

It is not Stoicism as a system, then, that the Apostle accepts in his speech, but a Stoicism tempered by spiritual experience. This observation suggests that universal truth cannot be contained in a rational system, but must be simultaneously sought by reason and spirit, the latter being understood as the capacity to enter into a deep personal relationship with other persons and, in particular, with God. Reason creates abstractions which it uses to build rational systems. These systems try to correspond to certain aspects of reality so that the functioning of the latter can be understood. Spirit is open to vital and life-giving relationships with persons. The Stoics developed a system, but they also created a spirituality which transcends their system and is a more authentic philosophy, one more open to the truth.

Some authors have said that the Aratus quotation does not conform with biblical revelation, but is a foreign body in the New Testament. This opinion does not take into account the observation just made about the difference between the poem and the system. What the poem says does not conflict with biblical revelation, even if it is not expressed in the same terms. Actually, a kinship between God and men is frequently asserted in the Old Testament. True, it is usually restricted to the chosen people; it is the Israelites who say to God: "You are our Father" (Is 63:16). Man is not the "offspring" of God per se, but is his creature formed "of dust from the ground" (Gn 2:7). This creature, however, has closer ties with God than the other creatures. Only of man is it said that the Lord God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gn 2:7). Only of man does God say: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gn 1:26) and this constitutes the true kinship between man and God. The same expression, in fact, is later used to describe the relationship between Adam and his son: "Adam ... became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image" (Gn 5:3). In the New Testament, the Letter to the Ephesians proclaims God the "Father of all" (Eph 4:6) and declares that "all fatherhood in heaven and on earth" is a participation in the fatherhood of God (Eph 3:14-15). Thus it is not unusual that the Aratus quotation, "for we are indeed his offspring", should have found a place in a New Testament missionary discourse. It was a valid part of the praeparatio, evangelica.

The end of the Acts account gives us another teaching. Luke tells us that, when Paul began proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, his listeners interrupted him: "some mocked; but others said, 'We will hear you again about this'.... But some men joined him and believed" (Acts 17:32, 34). Here we see that a certain way of understanding universal truth can be an obstacle to the act of faith, which opens the way to another kind of universal truth. In other words, the listeners who mocked the Apostle were convinced of possessing universal truth through their reasoning and were thus opposed to accepting an event that did not correspond to it. They were unwilling to rely on an interpersonal relationship to acquire new knowledge. Their universal truth was rationally closed, not spiritually open. "Some men", however, had this openness. In nn. 31 and 32 of the Encyclical, the Holy Father explains the specific nature of the knowledge obtained through interpersonal relationships and shows their need and importance. "Belief", he says, "is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring" (Fides et ratio, n. 32). These reflections, obviously, apply in a special way to faith in Christ.

In conclusion, the episode recounted in Acts 17:16-34 clearly shows the universal openness of the Christian faith and its relationship with the philosophers' search for universal truth. Far from opposing this search, faith recognizes it as an aid in correcting certain inadequacies of spontaneous religiosity and in preparing for a more authentic encounter with God. Faith, however, does not subordinate itself to a system of rational thought, because it calls for a greater openness, not only intellectual, but especially spiritual. "The depth of revealed wisdom disrupts the cycle of our habitual patterns of thought, which are in no way able to express that wisdom in its fullness" (Fides et ratio, n. 23).


1. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. II, edited by J. A. Fitzmyer and R. Brown (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1968), pp. 199-200.

2. The New JeromeBiblical Commentary, 1990, cf. p. 755.

3. Cleanthes, third-century B.C. Stoic, "Hymn to Zeus"; cf. R. Penna, L'ambiente storico-culturale delle origini cristiane (Bologna: EDB, 1984), p. 114; or Stoicorum VeterorumFragmenta, edited by J. von Arnim (Leipzig 1903), I, n. 537.

4. Stoicorum Veterorurn Fragmenta, edited by J. von Arnim (Leipzig 1903), I, n. 264.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 February 1999, page 9

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