I would love to put the Mars Hill paradigm to rest, as in rest in peace.
In Acts 17, Paul speaks to the Athenians about their unknown God. He uses some of their own lingo, and even quotes some of their popular literature. He ultimately claimed that Jesus is the judge of the living and dead and is proven to be by being raised from the dead. This episode has become paradigmatic for contemporary gospel preaching – specifically in attempts to be culturally relevant or missiological or strategic, etc. It is sometimes claimed that Paul searched through the secular literature in hopes of finding an analog to the gospel message. It is more often stated, as a matter of irrefutable fact, that this method must be employed if we hope to make the gospel message relevant. I submit, or rather aggressively assert, that this is a large pile of hogwash.
First, Paul’s excursion on Mars Hill was, arguably, measurably, his least significant and least effective. No Mars Hill church was planted that day (irrespective of attempts at contemporary cool expressions thereof). We have no epistle to the church at Athens. There were very few converts (in comparison to Paul’s other endeavors). There were no ongoing meetings. No baptisms. No elders. There were a small handful of names were recorded as believing. In comparison to Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, et al, Athens stands out as the model to be least imitated.
Second, the approach Paul uses in Acts 17 is the single recorded use thereof. Meaning, if we saw Paul use this approach in other cities and locales, we might should consider it as a paradigm for proclamation. But we do not. If that passage weren’t recorded, we would have zero Bible for any attempt or thought that we must make the gospel relevant by seeking an analog with a targeted culture’s literature or legend.
What we do see from Paul, far more often and far more effectively, is the claim that Jesus Christ died and rose again and will judge all men – but there is forgiveness for those who believe. And we observe Paul trust in (and remind his audience that he trusted in) the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the reality of the risen Christ. It appears from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that he was exasperated after the events at Athens and just swore-off trying to outwit his audience. We do not just need 1 Cor. 2:4. We have Galatians 3. We have I Thessalonians. We have Romans. We have repeated reminders that Paul thoroughly relied upon the demonstrated power of the Holy Spirit.
It is this that makes the gospel relevant. That God anointed Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit and power, and that those who bear His Name go about doing good and healing all under the tyranny of the devil. What makes the gospel relevant is that Christ has (literally) entered into our sickness and pain and bore them, carried them. Jesus is relevant when Jesus does what Jesus does. God testifies to the Gospel with signs and wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is God’s preferred method of relevancy. Power is relevant. Healing is relevant. Deliverance is relevant. Every human being can understand being healed. Pain is common to every tribe and tongue and culture and land. Healing is the clearest sign that something is wrong, but that there is Someone who can make it right. To claim we must find a cultural analog in order to make the gospel appealing is not just false, it is heresy. If analogs exist – fine. If they can be used to illustrate – fine. If God has hidden symbols of the gospel in the hearts and minds of world cultures, wonderful. But not primary. Not pride of place. Faith must not be entrusted to the wisdom of man; it can only rest upon the power of God.
RIP, Mars Hill.