Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World (IVP Academic, 2014). Paperback – Kindle 

Gospel in Marketplace of Ideas

Jesus chose Saul of Tarsus for a big task – take the Gospel of Christ to the Gentile world. Why did Jesus choose Saul? Why select a deeply devoted Pharisee from Tarsus to take Christianity to a world of pagans, idol worshippers and lovers of philosophy?

Saul viewed the Lord’s calling as extremely personal: “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16). 

As the authors point out in this excellent book (be sure to read Book Review 1 which looks at the first four chapters of The Gospel in the Markeplace), Saul of Tarsus, Paul the Apostle, was well qualified to take the Gospel of Christ to the philosophers on Mars Hill:

“Paul was knowledgeable about the philosophical and religious beliefs of the Athenians. One prominent Athenian school was Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Cyprus and developed by a later Zeno from Paul’s hometown–Tarsus, another of the three great centers of learning in the Roman Empire (the third being Alexandria in Egypt). Paul would have had plenty of opportunity to learn about Stoicism and competing worldviews. No wonder, then, when Paul was challenged to explain the new foreign gods that the Athenians thought he was proclaiming, he brought together his knowledge of Scripture and Jewish traditions and theology with the practices of Gentile idolaters and philosophers.” (p. 13).

Paul’s Speeches in Acts

Have you ever wondered why Luke included only portions of a small number of Paul’s speeches in Acts? The Apostle traveled across much of the Greek and Roman world for many years preaching the Gospel. The number of his speeches probably numbered in the hundreds (maybe thousands), but Luke shared only about a dozen. And of those dozen or so speeches by the prolific Apostle, Paul could have spoken them in less than a couple of minutes (as recorded in Acts).

Drs. Copan and Litwak make an important point that Luke was being selective in both his choice of which speeches to include in Acts and how much of the speeches to quote: “we should see Paul’s speech in this case, as well as all the speeches in Acts, as summaries or outlines of what the speakers said.” (p. 67)

So, does Luke’s selectivity within Paul’s speeches lead to the conclusion of many critics that the quotes are historically unreliable? The authors think not:

“The criticism of Acts for reporting unhistorical speeches goes along with the views of many scholars that Acts itself is historically unreliable. In general, such assertions (not arguments based upon empirical evidence) ignore the facts and substitute speculation for data. Furthermore, there is good reason to regard the Acts of the Apostles as historically reliable. We may regard Paul’s speech at Athens as a reliable summary of Paul said on that occasion and reject the views of scholars who assert, without evidence, that the speech never took place.” (p 67)

Paul’s Audience

Another important point the authors make about Paul’s speeches is that each one addresses a different audience in different situations. That demonstrates Paul’s desire to reach each person and group of people in ways that were meaningful to them. That’s an important lesson for Christians today who want to reach the world with the Gospel.

“Indeed, according to the statistics, the vast majority of Christians have embraced the gospel because, first, a relationship of trust has been built, and, second, they found that the gospel met a felt need.” (p 74)

Paul’s audience in Athens included at least three primary groups: Jews, religious people who worshiped many gods and goddesses, and philosophers. Even as Paul was able to dialogue well with members of each group, so should Christians today be equipped to share the Gospel with anyone they meet.

Paul’s Gospel for the Educated

“On Mars Hill, Paul challenges idolatry, Greek philosophy and the well-known Athenian intellectual curiosity.” (p 93)

In Chapter 7, the authors show how Paul graciously presented a theologically sound speech to a group of people who were not familiar with the Jewish-Christian theology. Talking with people of other worldviews does not mean that Christians have to leave their theology outside, but it does mean caring for non-believers and demonstrating a real interest in helping them understand the logic of the Christian worldview. Paul’s theology included the truth that there is “One True God” and He is the “Creator of All” and “Judge of the World.”

The Art of Persuasion

That brings us to why and how we do what we do when we share the Gospel of Christ with non-believers. The authors did a great job comparing various methods of persuasion used today as compared with the early Christians. Their section analyzing Paul’s rhetorical method is quite revealing and helpful as we consider how best to approach the people God has placed in our path.

Acting on the Truth

Paul did not address the Areopagus in Athens because he had some time to kill on his way to Corinth. He viewed the worldview of the religious people and philosophers of Athens as a spiritual illness that needed to be cured – and the cure was found in the Gospel of Christ. Paul challenged the core of their belief system and held them up as false and without hope. The real hope, Paul preached, was in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How did his audience respond? Some mocked, some said they would hear Paul again on the matter, and some joined him and believed. 

Sounds much like the kind of response Christians get today when they share the Gospel of Christ with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Drs. Copan and Litwak conclude the chapter by writing:

“We have seen in Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, philosophers and others present a model for (pre-)evangelism. Paul presents core biblical teachings, including the existence of the one true God; his providential activity both in creating the world and in continuing to provide life and breath and everything to its inhabitants; the foolishness of idols; the dignity of humans as created in the image of God; God’s future judgment upon those who worship false deities; and the need to repent from these misguided religious beliefs and practices.” (p 143-144)

Sounds like the making of a great sermon in any church in the country and a great way to help some non-believing friends learn about the God who loves them.

Going to Our Own Mars Hill

“One lesson to learn here: Paul was able to distinguish between persons made in the image of God and the beliefs they held.” (p 146)

This hits home for me and should for any Christian apologist. We are “faith defenders,” so we spend a lot of time in the “on guard” spiritual position. To use a self defense example for a moment, imagine being always in a physical on-guard position. You would always be ready to defend yourself and others, but you would eventually wear yourself out and you would not appear approachable. I think the same is true with “faith defense.” If we are always in a spiritual on-guard position (e.g. ready to pounce on every unbeliever about their unbelief), we will wear ourselves out, and more importantly, we won’t appear approachable to unbelievers. The most experienced martial artists have learned how to conceal their self-defense skills until needed. That allows them to conserve energy for self defense and appear approachable. The Apostle Paul was always ready to defend the faith against any attack, but he tempered his skill with love and respect for those God had called him to serve with the truth of the Gospel of Christ.

Drs. Copan and Litwak did a wonderful job in the final chapter of bringing Paul’s message on Mars Hill to bear on our ministries today. One of the most important aspects of their summary chapter to me dealt with evangelism and apologetics being a process rather than an event.

“A one-size-fits-all approach may actually create barriers rather than build bridges; we should consider more carefully the most appropriate entry points for the gospel by better understanding our audience.” (p 150)

Wise words indeed!

I highly recommend The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas for your personal reading and as a group study. The authors included Discussion Questions at the end of the book to help facilitate group studies. This is one of the best practical books on real-life apologetics I’ve had the privilege of reading and am looking forward to participating in a group study with this book as the guide. You’ll also find the Resources for Further Reading and Bibliography a great help in selecting more great reading on the Christian worldview, evangelism and apologetics.

Mark McGee