Paul as a non-Philosopher

OratorPaul frequently distinguishes himself from Greco-Roman philosophers. In several different texts, Paul boasts in his weakness and claims he is unskilled as a public speaker. In 1 Thess 2:1-7, for example, he clearly distances himself from the typical orator the Thessalonians likely encountered every day. He has “pure motives in contrast to those who use slick rhetoric to manipulate their audiences. Perhaps he is using some false humility to over emphasize the boasts of the opponents, since it is appears he was at least an effective speaker if not familiar with the way ideas were presented in the Roman world.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city. Abraham Malherbe suggested this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry is not really apologetic but a presentation of Paul’s model of the moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. “The philosopher presented himself as a moral example to follow.”  Gene Green cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists.)

But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom, 32.11)

It is possible that Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents (either Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonians themselves).  It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church.  After all, Paul did spend a minimal amount of time in the city and he leave under suspicion from the civil authorities.  He did in fact leave town after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.

TrumpMy guess is most Christians do not know much of anything about Philosophy or methods of rhetoric used by ancient philosophers. Perhaps a useful analogy for the methods of an orator in a modern context is a politician. The goal of a politician is to get elected (and then re-elected). They give speeches in which they say things in order to convince people to vote for them, whether those things are strictly true or not. The facts are usually presented in a way which is appealing to the audience. Politicians have become masters of “spinning the truth” in their favor. Ancient Sophists were trained in this very skill. They developed the ability to argue for or against anything at any time, spinning the facts in a way which gave the result their patrons desire.

In 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul says this is not the way he presented the Gospel. He was not a huckster trying to get rich off the Gospel nor was he a slick philosopher trying to manipulate the audience to believing the Gospel.

What implications can we draw from these observations for how churches “do ministry” today? I am not an advocate of rejecting all modern methods and tools for the presentation of the Gospel, but how does a church or individual avoid the more manipulative methods used by advertisers, for example, or even politicians? What can we draw from Paul’s example?

20 thoughts on “Paul as a non-Philosopher

  1. Modesty is a dying trend in modern church tactics. Karl Barth has a lot to say regarding this. He often wrote about reading into God’s word with a neutral perspective trying to not spin it one way or another. Depending on the audience, I find myself often “spinning” God’s word in a way that is suitable for the time and place. In the world of philosophy I think that perspective is key. Paul writes about being “all things to all people” which is really a pretty classic political tactic if you think about it. In some ways Paul’s theology and his writing takes a pretty conservative approach to presenting the gospel. He’s not drifting too far into the academic world of the romans, but also not adhering to the strict moral code as much of the jews either. In this way I think that Paul tries not to spin it all one way or another. In this way modern churches fall into the category of “marketing” more than presenting, or proclaiming God’s message through is son. “If you come to this Church you will further solidify your identity as a Christian hipster” or otherwise. Pick your culture/stereotype, really. Thankfully, I think that Paul had none of these thoughts in mind. I think that we can safely assume that he tried to stay out of the way of the message of Christ as much as possible.

  2. In churches today we have a language all our own and we use it to reach people. We have become masters at this. We have phrases such as, “come as you are or hate the sin love the sinner “. We say the right things because we have learned the tricks. Going so far as to even make atmosphere just right. The temperature is set, the lights are flashy, and the band as an ambient sound track playing. Do we just say and do these things to get people in the door or are we doing it because we want to actually reach them? Are we doing it for the numbers or for the souls?
    It is the same question of was Paul doing it for money or to reach the city. With Paul’s case could he really have been in it for money if he spent so much time with these churches? It seems like he genuinely cared for the people he ministered to. So, even if he was using philosophical language it was to reach others not for a selfish gain.

    • Right on, brother!
      So called “churches” nowadays try everything to attract people to their super ultra mega comfortable seats and listen to a great chord progression full of reverb while their message is poor of content and Gospel confrontation. But in reality I don’t blame them much…it is how society is demanding. Everything today need to be in our comfortable zone and everything that challenge us will make us uncomfortable. Paul was definitely NOT like that. He even defend himself on 1 Thess 2:4b-6, against the judgement of him and his companions to be charlatans and people-pleasers. Paul was truly genuine as a preacher, mentor and apostle. What really shows his genuine intentions is the fact that the churches and places that he visited and preached grew instead of dying.

  3. Miller, I would definitely agree with what you are saying, that the church sometimes conforms to the trend of this world to gain more followers or reach people. In my neighborhood there is this new church that was just built, known as the Edge. The Edge is a hip hop urban church that holds services on Saturday nights. This church creates an atmosphere for young people to come and worship. They worship with rap and hip hop style type of music and have very loud speaker everywhere in the room. They Edge believes that holding services on Saturday instead of the common Sunday morning, gives the kids in the neighborhood a chance to escape the trouble they could be getting into on Saturday. I believe that the Edge is out reach the young people in way that they feel young people are comfortable in. As Paul was doing, he mission was to simply reach to the people.

    • I wonder what Paul would make of Hip Hop dance as a missionary method. Is that too much “like the world”? Is it possible that is a cultural equivalent to Paul attending banquets at a pagan temple to share the gospel? Perhaps this is a case of “I’m old and I don’t like it,” but there are real issues which i do not think everyone has thought through yet.

  4. I think the reason Paul’s ministry was so successful had to do with the fact that he was genuine in his care for them and in the message that he was giving. Paul was not foreign to the idea of using rhetoric in order to make a point. This is seen in Acts 13 and 17 where Paul uses tactics in order to preach to the people. However, these tactics must be accompanied by genuineness. This group was known for their love for each other and others ( 1 Thes 4:9-10). They already seemed to understand the genuine love that necessary for the church. The church today could benefit from this idea not by abandoning technique and research that aids in better ministry but by making sure that these things are accompanied by genuine concern for people.

  5. Regardless of what era you are in, people can tell when a person is being disingenuous and inauthentic. It is no small wonder that Paul wanted to distance himself from the orators the people saw every day. it is evident that Paul was a trained speaker. His use of philosophy, history, rhetoric and forethought can clearly be seen in his speech at Mars Hill in Acts 17, where he would have had to be on his game. Also his speech in Acts 21-22 is equally as brilliant. Both presentations were crafted to their respective audiences. One thing that does not come across well in the written word is whit and sarcasm. It is entirely possible that Paul could have been making a tounge-in-cheek statement when he said he wan’t a good public speaker.

  6. It seems that many churches today “do ministry” by trying to appeal to the masses. They may do this by watering down the Gospel to an “accept Christ and everything gets better” scenario or by acting as though they have it all together. They make life in Christ sound easy and enjoyable, leaving out the part of the Gospel that clearly tells us we are to suffer for Jesus’ name and that life is not easy–”If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20); “when we are persecuted, we endure it” (1 Cor. 4:12); “we kept telling you that we would be persecuted” (1 Thes. 3:4); “In fact, everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12); “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Gospel was not given to us to make life easy, but to give us a means by which to bear the suffering, to see the bigger picture. Paul talks of the anti-Jesus Jews doing something similar to the Galatians as modern churches are the masses–“Those who want to impress people by the means of the flesh….is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12). Churches can avoid the more manipulative methods of advertising the Gospel by simply sticking to what the Bible says and living it out. We are to let our “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). If we simply live as Jesus instructed, people will be drawn into the church by the people that compose it and what they see within them. Paul himself demonstrates this, as he tells his newly founded churches to follow his example, which is something the church can draw from themselves. Paul suffered as his fellow converts were and would suffer, just as the church should be in the midst of suffering with its congregation and even unbelievers, not acting as though they are above them. Paul’s instructions to his congregations were “consistent with the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus” (TTP 73), of whom should be our prime example to follow in ministry.

  7. I think that Paul was very caring and genuine in what he had to say. The ways he presented the gospel was very smart and brilliant. He clearly knew what he was talking about and cared about the people he was speaking to.

  8. Some churches nowadays have missed the point of authentic ministry. So many times in pastoral classes, we talk about how ministry to lost broken people is done by creating a relationship with them. If a pastor ever, at any point, in a relationship seems like he is being fake or just doing it to save face, that is going to drive the person far away quickly. Maybe a way that a church can show to people that they are not just there for the money and the fulfillment of running a big church would be to have more prayer services than dinner events after sunday service. or at least that they would equal them out (I realize that i said ministry is best done in relationships and relationships happen at dinner events). It could be shown by the pastor preaching relentlessly about a rough topic and continuously holding true to the Word. We can definitely learn from Paul’s example of proving the “pure motives” (1 Thess. 2) we say that we have by living and being exactly who we say we are. It is a great witness to non-believers, and even believers to simply not be fake, but genuine in all that we do.

  9. I think the way many churches “do ministry” today, makes me a little uneasy about the church’s future. I think it has become too much about entertainment and life being made easy with Christ.
    Entertainment is cool; it’s fun and easy to follow, but it’s not ideal. If you are a Christian, you are trying to be a “little Christ,” but if churches are focusing on the wrong things such as hilarious stories to keep their attention and amazing music to keep them coming, isn’t that counterproductive. After all, the music is meant for worship to God and preaching is so we can learn and apply it to our lives, not to keep people coming into this business called church. It seems a lot of churches don’t “[g]ive praise to the Lord” when at church, but rather sing for their own entertainment (Psalm 105:1)
    When it comes to life being easy, Paul says Christians will be persecuted. He was unsure of how the Thessalonians would be on their own, while he was gone, but they stood “firm in the Lord” which made him so happy and proud of them (1 Thes 3:9-10). It is not easy. They “suffered from [their] people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” (1 Thes 2:14b-15a). It is the same thing for the rest of humanity; it will not always be easy being a Christian. Yet, it seems many churches make it out to be like “God will now make your life better and bless you because you are a Christian.” This is not the case; Christians will suffer.
    Churches need to start being bolder and telling people the truths in the Bible, instead of succumbing to how people want to be taught or preached to. Paul did it, so everyone else can, too. The Greco-Roman society had so much sexual immorality like you could not believe. “Prostitution was a widespread and legal phenomenon,” males having sex with “males of inferior status was culturally acceptable,” as well as any “socially inferior women” besides a man’s wife was okay (TTP 63). In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul encourages them to keep “avoiding sexual immorality” like they have been doing (TTP 69). He attacked a pivotal part of their society that was wrong. Churches need to not worry about offending others and proclaim the truth.

  10. 1 way to “do ministry” is by evangelizing. We have created many tools among the years to help us evangelize & to helps us teach fellow Christians how to evangelize. We have the wordless book, the evangecube, etc. To help us gain brothers & sisters in Christ who are our age or older, we like to advertise the good things about being a Christian in hope that will convince them to accept Christ. We tell them the truth, like how we’ll go to heaven & be perfect when our bodies die, but we don’t like to tell them the difficulties of being a Christian. We don’t like to tell them that it will be challenging. That Satan is going to tempt them with habits of their old life or try to strike them down. When evangelizing, we can be like politicians. Politicians like to tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear, or even the full truth if they are telling the truth in the 1st place. I’m not saying that we lie when we evangelize, but we don’t always tell the whole truth.

  11. Phillip, I think the angle on “not a philosopher” here is a valid one. Paul was quite direct and generally not manipulative. And you’d probably agree that another angle may be more central to Paul’s thinking and message: He seems to consider philosophy (or “wisdom of this world”) as part of the deceptive powers of “this age”. In general terms that included what we call “rationality”.

    Contrasted to this is “revelation”. Paul, while attempting to remain attached to Hebrew Scripture and history, was sharing new revelation. He was as much mystic as Pharisaic scholar or rational/logical persuader… probably more the former! He encouraged “spiritual gifts” (including what we now consider “charismatic” ones) and prophetic messages as long as delivered in an orderly way. He claimed multiple revelations himself… thus his occasional disclaimer that something was his, not “the Lord’s” (i.e., he was admittedly going beyond anything he knew Jesus to have said.) The mysticism of Paul is a broad and deep subject, and an important one.

    He represents a fascinating, if sometimes confusing mix of missionary (to me lower case “apostle” – only in the messenger sense), pastor, “charismatic”/mystic, revelator and apocalypticist. With that last one, he hoped to hasten the “appearing” of Jesus to take up the saints within his generation. That dynamic was tied to his work of taking the Gospel to the rest of humanity (besides Jews) so as to complete the work of Christ, provoking the Jews to receive their Messiah along with Gentiles. The fact he was so much mistaken should make us think carefully about the validity of other aspects of his received revelations… and maybe pull a little more rationality back in. (This I say as a proponent of Integral Christian [not orthodox, but Process-oriented] use of all “the gifts” and of many aspects of “mysticism” often in conflict with “philosophy”/science).

    • Thanks as always for your thoughts. I firmly believe Paul had one or more specific “revelations,” although I see him functioning more like a prophet rather than a mystic (although you might ask what the difference is!) Rather than creating an argument from reason, Paul stands on the foundation of previous revelation (the Hebrew Bible) and reads it through the lens of new revelation given specifically to him (Eph 3:1-6) in order to apply the Christ-event to the present situation (gentile salvation).

      It is a fine line, but I think he is doing the sort of exegesis expected of a well trained pharisee along with the guidance / revelation of the Holy Spirit.

      • (I don’t know if this will indent under your 9-29 reply, which I appreciate.) Re. them: I could accept “more like a prophet… than a mystic”, esp. when most people think if mystics as generally introverted and/or reclusive, neither of which seems to fit Paul…. He was a “complicated” guy! We (happily) agree on him having “new revelation” (tho not on the exact mechanism, implications).

        What I have come to hold (over decades of study, for those not aware) with high confidence is that such revelations are common phenomena in the development of almost any religion… especially those of the monotheistic religions. Now I happen to believe that some of what Paul saw/heard was a step forward for the budding “Way” (of life) of Jesus followers. But as to any clear line of authority, I can’t find it. Even after-the-fact (revelation) authorization of his teachings didn’t come in either Paul’s lifetime or, as far as we know, in the lifetimes of any of the Apostles. (Their own identities and authority in relation to Jesus being murky as well.)

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