“Unknown god altars,” “innocent natives,” and “anonymous Christians.”


 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

Background to the text

            The apostle Paul had a few extra days in Athens and observed ---literally made careful observations---the objects of their worship. We are told that he had a paroxysm, or his guts churned with the idolatry of the Athenians. He preached the gospel in the marketplace and then was summoned to defend himself. This is where v. 22 starts, and he tells them, with very wise word-use, that he perceives them to be “very religious” or highly devoted. The Greek word can also mean “stupidly superstitious” and it can be argued that this is what the apostle was thinking, especially in light of the anti-idolatry statements of Isaiah of which he was highly aware.

            Then he told them that he had carefully studied what they venerated and found a certain altar “to an unknown god.” Then he says---and I paraphrase to convey the literal sense---“the indeterminate what, that you continually venerate, acknowledging openly your ignorance, I proclaim to you.” As we will see, the apostle was not commending their religiosity, their worship, or their wisdom, but very much to the contrary. Yet, this passage is frequently appealed to in mission literature.

Contemporary appeals to the altar

            Kevin Greeson, who wrote the book CAMEL on outreach to Muslims, refers to this altar and suggests that just as the apostle Paul referenced an unknown altar in his presentation to the Athenians, so it is advisable to use “words and symbols familiar to their faith and point them to Jesus the Messiah” and that “he paused to build a bridge for them from their ‘altar to an unknown God’ to the Christ who had revealed Himself to a lost world.” Greeson’s application by analogy is that it is prudent to employ the “Qurʾān [which] contains many bridges that we, too, can use to introduce Muslims to Jesus Christ.”

            The past president of the Southern Baptist mission board, Jerry Rankin makes a similar appeal and states, “What our missionaries are doing with The Camel is much like what Paul did when he went to Athens. He saw an altar ‘To The Unknown God’ and stated, ‘him declare I unto you.’ In seeking to reach the Muslims, you start with where they are and with their worldview and bring them to the bridge, to the passage in the Qur’an that speaks of Isa (Jesus) and then take them to the gospels.”

            A few other mission writers and commentators take the same passage and make it state that the Athenians that they have been worshiping the true God all along, but simply need a bit more information to complete the whole picture. Millard Erickson notes, “the god whom they sensed from their speculations, without having had special revelation, was the same God whom he knew from special manifestation.” Kenneth Cragg, states, “Paul proceeds to affirm an identity (Whom...him) between the God of its intention and the God of the Gospel. He invites his hearers to a totally new assurance and awareness, yet links it to the groping worship they already offer.” Fouad Accad argues that the apostle appealed to this altar as he used “the things which were at their level, things they had made themselves and about which they knew.” Kevin Higgins meanwhile argues that the altar was simply an altar to YHWH and the Athenians just did not know it. He states, "A Jewish monotheist (Paul) is using a pagan altar as a sign that the people he addresses are religious and that they have in fact been worshipping the true God without knowing it."  He continues, “Before Paul’s sermon, who would have guessed that the altar to the unknown god was really an altar to the God of the Old Testament?”

Indigenous religions and the altar

            Perhaps you have heard someone assert that because aboriginal peoples acknowledge the Great Creator and have a concept of the Great Spirit, they are somehow worshipping the true God and simply need a bit more information for them to be fully Christian. It is asserted that prayers like the “Great Spirit Prayer,” the Lakota Prayer to “Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery,” or the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono prayer address the Triune God of the Bible. Do they?

            In a fashion, this appeal is not unlike those appeals to the altar to an unknown god, as Kevin Higgins would like to assert, that the Athenians [or substitute Incas/Cherokee etc.] ”were worshipping YHWH, but simply didn’t know it. It might be as Tapiwa N. Mucherera put it, “Rather than condemning the Athenians for being pagan in their worshipping an ‘unknown god,’ Paul used what they already knew to introduce the new religious teaching—God in Christ as the unknown God they were worshipping.” Likely those who would affirm aboriginal religions would simply substitute the word Athenians in the above quote for an aboriginal group, for example, “Rather than condemning the Incas/Cherokee/ [etc.]…..” It is as if they apply the term coined by Karl Rahner, “anonymous Christians” to anyone who shows deep religiosity. But are they right?

A closer look at the text of Acts 17:22-23

            Does the apostle Paul actually affirm the religiosity of the Athenians via the altar, and by extension, can we affirm the religiosity of adherents of other religions or of aboriginal religion? To answer that question, I will take a close look at the text, under the areas of Athenian wild-card theology, the word for altar, the description of this generic god, the words for worship, and the gist of the overall text.

Wild-card theology

            In constructing such an altar, the Athenians are expressing their religious worldview, namely, that each and every deity, known or unknown had to be placated. This has been called a “wild-card theology,” or as Hans-Josef Klauck put it, “if gods are continually overlooked, they react in anger by punishing the human beings who refuse them the sacrifice that is their due. In order to be on the safe side, this system provides a neutral place.” The altar with its inscription to “an”—implying any one out of multitudinous choices—unknown god, thus is more of a monument to fearful polytheistic superstition than to worship of the living God.

The word for altar  

            In describing this altar, Luke uses the word bōmós, which is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe pagan altars. The Israelites are ordered to destroy them (Ex 34:13–14) rather than to affirm them. The apostle told the Athenians that the true God does not need things made by or supplied by human hands (vv. 24–25) (Gk. cheiropoiētos)—which is an echo of idols made by the same (e.g. Is 46:6)—and in the same way, he is referring to the fact that this is a human-made altar with a human-made inscription, or simply an idolatrous manifestation of their religiosity.

The generic deity

            The appeal to a generic deity by this altar is also underscored by the fact that the apostle Paul also states, “That which [alt. What] you continually worship, acknowledging openly your ignorance, I proclaim to you” (v. 23). Commentators John Polhill, C. K. Barrett and Simon Kistemaker elaborate on this statement by pointing out that its construction would be jarring to the Athenian audience. Polhill, for instance, states, “Paul referred to ‘what’ they worshiped, not ‘who’ they worshiped. Their worship was totally wrongheaded. They did not know God; they didn’t worship him at all.” Similarly in his study of this passage, Flavien Pardigon (following C. K. Barrett and F. F. Bruce) observes that this reference to relative pronoun “what” (Gk. ὁ—τουτο [ho—touto] ‘what—this’) consciously employs the neuter, referring to an indeterminate divine being instead of using the normal masculine form indicating a god.

            This data contrasts with the likes of Rankin and Cragg above, who slip in a personal description (i.e. him/who) of this generic deity.

The words for worship

      When we read this text and see the word 'worship' it could easily be assumed that this is God honoring worship, not unlike what Jesus advocated in John 4 where he told the Samaritan woman that the Father is looking for those who will worship him "in spirit and in truth." The word that the apostle Paul uses “revere” (eusebéō) in the Greek context likely means "devout trepidation to which lip-service is paid just on fixed occasions in cultic homage."  Thus, as Fredric Howe comments, “The vital principle here is that the point of contact for Paul's statement of clarification was not a common knowledge of the true God of Scripture that these hearers were encouraged to discover, as if to say that they all along had really worshiped the true God.  Far from it!  Paul's real principle is that their acknowledged ignorance is to be met with accurate information!  Their ignorance rather than their worship is stressed.”

The overall gist of the text

            Careful exegesis of the text by scholars such as Polhill, Barrett, Kistemaker and Pardigon, meanwhile, demonstrates that the Athenians’ problem is culpable ignorance and that they have simply manufactured yet another deity in their pantheon. It is as John Calvin noted: worshipping God “without any certainty” is indicative of worshipping one’s “own inventions instead of God.”

            Instead of affirming a movement from incomplete information to more complete information which can be seen in the motif of a bridge, the text affirms that the Athenian problem is ignorance and idolatry, which is simply false worship.

Lessons for today

            Reading other instances of the apostle Paul’s writings helps us to gain further insight into this passage. For example, in Romans 1 he speaks of the fact that humans have knowledge of God as a Creator because of what they can see all around them. This is a universal knowledge, applicable to a Muslim in Indonesia, to a Hindu in India, to an Algonquin in Canada, to an Aborigine in Australia, and to a secular humanist in France. As the Psalmist says (Ps 19) the “heavens are declaring the glory of God” yet, as we read in Romans 1, humans are taking that truth and suppressing it in the sphere of unrighteousness. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, Scripture teaches us that there are no “innocent natives” and no innocent secular humanists.

            Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, all humans have, as Paul says in Ephesians (4:18) “become darkened in their understanding” and suffer from both “ignorance” and “hardness of heart.” He also says that those who are not in Christ both cannot and will not apprehend truths of the Spirit (I Cor 2:14). That is why Calvin said that a two-fold knowledge of God was vital, namely that of God the Creator and that of God in Christ as Redeemer. Additionally, the apostle Paul suggests that those who will incur judgment are those who "do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess. 1:8).

            Thus, if we utilize the truths of the Scripture to examine the religious predispositions of humans, we come to see that all humans are incurably religious, but that their religiosity without Christ is misguided. Rather than affirming this religiosity as CAMEL and a few other authors have done, the apostle Paul challenged it for being an excursion into idolatry, or making a god in their own image. John Calvin rightfully called the human heart an “idol factory” and so it seems that if the altar exemplified anything, it exemplified misguided human efforts to maintain their autonomy outside of Christ. Thus the apostle Paul, at the end of the passage in Acts 17, suggests repentance, or a turning away from what he called “these vain things” elsewhere in addressing the misguided people of Lystra (Acts 14). One must ask the question, if the Athenians were already worshipping the Triune God of the Bible in ways that He desires, then why are they called to repent?

Questions for reflection:

a. Can you think of instances where Christians embrace the “innocent [African, Australian, Papua New Guinea, Amazonian, Hawaiian, etc.] native” idea, and how might that manifest itself? Is it any different than appeals by Greeson and Higgins to the unknown altar?   

b. How do you go about the delicate task of affirming that a person is made in the image of God, and has a sense of the divine (as Calvin called it), and work to deconstruct rather than affirm their self-made altars of religiosity?

c. One of your religious, though non-Christian neighbors dies. You attend the funeral and the religious cleric suggests that ‘Joe’ was an ‘anonymous Christian’ and thus will go to heaven. The cleric also suggests that because Joe was from Hawaii and worshipped Kane among others, he would certainly be in heaven. How would you respond?

d. In deconstructing the Athenian religiosity, the apostle Paul took a great risk, as some have compared his address to that of Socrates who also made a defense at the Areopagus. Socrates lost his life for his address, and likely this knowledge was not far from the apostle’s mind. Yet he diplomatically challenged the Athenians even to the point of telling them that the true God does not live in temples---all the while being on a hill surrounded by temples. Could it be that in many of our gospel presentations today, self-preservation against the inevitable scoffing (see the end of Acts 17) and avoiding the offense of the gospel is one of our underlying reasons for a very strong emphasis on a bridge-building approach?  

For further reading:

A very interesting biography is the story of Heneri Opukaha'ia a Hawaiian who came to know Jesus. He describes the worship of the indigenous people before the Gospel came. His book is entitled "Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Native of Owhyhee, and a Member of the Foreign Mission School." ed. Edwin D. Dwight,  Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1830.  Online at Google Books.


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