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Acts 17:22-25

22. And, standing in the midst of Mars’ Street, he saith, Men of Athens, I see you in all things, as it were, more superstitious. 23. For, passing by and beholding your manner of worshipping, I found also an altar wherein was written, To the Unknown God. Therefore, whom you worship ignorantly, him do I preach unto you. 24. God, who hath made the world, and all things which are therein, seeing he is Lord both of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands: 25. Neither is he worshipped with man’s hands, needing any thing, seeing that he giveth to all life and breath through all things.

 

22. Men of Athens. We may divide this sermon of Paul into five members. For though Luke doth only briefly touch those things which he set down in many words, yet I do not doubt but that he did comprehend the sum, so that he did omit none of the principal points. First, Paul layeth superstition to the charge of the men of Athens, because they worship their gods all at a very venture; 284284     “Fortuito,” fortuitously. secondly, he showeth by natural arguments who and what God is, and how he is rightly worshipped; thirdly, he inveigheth against the blockishness of men, who, though they be created to this end, that they may know their Creator and Maker, yet do they wander and err in darkness like blind men; fourthly, he showed that nothing is more absurd than to draw any portraiture of God, 285285     “Deum statuis vel picturis figurare,” to figure God by picture or statues. seeing that the mind of man is his true image; in the first place, he descendeth at length unto Christ and the resurrection of the dead. For it was requisite to handle those four points generally, before he did descend unto the faith of the gospel.

As it were, more superstitions. The Grecians do oftentimes take [δεισιδαιμονια] in good part; notwithstanding it doth sometimes signify immoderate fear, wherewith superstitious men do carefully torment themselves, whilst that they forge to themselves vain doubts. And this seemeth to be the meaning of this place, that the men of Athens pass all measure in worshipping God, or that they do not perceive what manner [of] work moderation should be; as if he should say, that they deal very undiscreetly in that they weary themselves in going byways. Thus much touching the words; now to the matter. He proveth by this one reason, that all the worshippings of the men of Athens are corrupt, because they be uncertain what gods they ought to worship, because they take in hand rashly and unadvisedly divers rites, and that without measure. For in that they had set up an altar to the unknown God, it was a token that they knew no certainty. They had, indeed, a great company of gods whereof they spake much, but when they know nothing of the true divinity. Furthermore, whosoever doth worship God without any certainty, he worshippeth his own inventions instead of God. Howsoever credulous men do flatter themselves, yet neither doth God allow any religion without knowledge and truth, neither ought it to be counted holy and lawful. Yea, how proud soever they be, yet because they doubt 286286     “Perplexi haerent,” remain perplexed. in their consciences, they must needs be convict by their own judgment. For superstition is always fearful, and doth ever know and then coin some new thing.

Therefore we see how miserable their condition is who have not the certain light of the truth, because they do both always doubt in themselves, and lose their labor before God. Notwithstanding, we must note that the unbelievers, whilst that they sometimes make themselves blind through voluntary stubbornness, and are sometimes amidst divers and manifold doubts, [yet] strive and fight with themselves. Oftentimes they do not only flatter themselves, but if any man dare mutter against their folly, they rage cruelly against him; the devil doth so bewitch them, that they think nothing to be better than that which pleaseth them. Nevertheless, if there arise any doubt, if any seducer put up his head, if any new folly [delirium] begin to appear, they do not only waver, being in doubt, but also of their own accord offer themselves to be carried hither and thither. Whereby it appeareth, that neither in judgment, neither in quiet state of mind, they stay and rest in the common custom of worshipping God, but that they droop like drunken men. But carefulness and doubtfulness, [anxiety,] which doth not suffer the unbelievers to flatter and please themselves, is better than amazedness. 287287     “Tali stupore magis tolerabilis est,” is more tolerable than such stupor. Finally, though superstition be not always fearful, yet forasmuch as it is inwrapt in divers errors, it disquieteth men’s minds, and doth prick them with divers blind torments. This was the cause that the men of Athens did mix their domestical gods (whom they thought they knew, because in their vain opinion they had invented them) with unknown gods. For thereby appeareth their unquietness, because they confess that they have not as yet done as they ought, when they have done sacrifice to the familiar 288288     “Popularibus,” popular. gods, which they had received of their fathers, and whom they called their country gods. 289289     “Indigetas et patrios,” native and country gods. Therefore, to the end Paul may pluck out of their minds all vain and false persuasions, he taketh this maxim, that they know not what they worship, neither have they any certain divine power, [deity.] For if they had known any god at all, being content with him, they would never have fallen away unto unknown gods, forasmuch as the knowledge of the true God alone is sufficient for the abolishig of all idols.

23. To the unknown God. I can well grant that this altar was dedicated to all strange gods; yet I cannot yield to that which Jerome saith, that Paul did, by a certain holy wiliness, attribute that to one God which was written of many. For seeing the superscription [inscription] was common in every man’s mouth, there was no place for subtilty, [craft;] why did he then change the plural number? Surely, not that he might deceive the men of Athens, but because the matter did so require, he said, that he brought doctrine concerning an unknown god. And after he hath showed that they are deceived, because they knew not what god thee ought to worship, and had no certain godhood in a great leap of gods, he doth now insinuate himself, and doth purchase favor for his doctrine. Because it was an unjust thing to reject that which was uttered concerning a new god, to whom they had already given over themselves; and it was far better first to know him, than rashly to worship him whom they knew not. Thus doth Paul return again to that principle, that God cannot be worshipped rightly unless he be first made known.

But here may a question be moved: how he saith that God was worshipped at Athens, who doth refuse all worshippings which are not agreeable to the prescript of his law, yea, he pronounceth that all that is idolatry which men invent without his Word? If God allow no worship but that which is agreeable to his Word, how doth Paul give this praise to men, who did dote without measure that they worshipped God? For Christ, in condemning the Samaritans, is content 290290     “Nititur et contentus est,” founds on, and is contented with. with this one principle, in that they worship God without knowledge, (John 4:22;) and yet they did boast that they worshipped the God of Abraham. Then, what shall we say of the men of Athens, who, having buried and quite put out the remembrance of the true God, had put in place of him Jupiter, Mercury, Pallas, and all that filthy rabble? I answer, that Paul doth not in the place commend that which the men of Athens had done; but taketh from their affection, though it were corrupt, free matter for teaching.

24. God, who hath made the world. Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited 291291     “Pugnasset,” contended with them by citing. testimonies of Scripture. I said that this was the holy man’s purpose, to bring the men of Athens unto the true God. For they were persuaded that there was some divinity; only their preposterous religion was to be reformed. Whence we gather, that the world doth go astray through bending crooks and boughts, yea, that it is in a mere labyrinth, so long as there remaineth a confused opinion concerning the nature of God. For this is the true rule of godliness, distinctly and plainly to know who that God whom we worship is. If any man will intreat generally of religion, this must be the first point, that there is some divine power or godhead which men ought to worship. But because that was out of question, Paul descendeth unto the second point, that true God must be distinguished from all vain inventions. So that he beginneth with the definition of God, that he may thence prove how he ought to be worshipped; because the one dependeth upon the other. For whence came so many false worshippings, and such rashness to increase the same oftentimes, save only because all men forged to themselves a God at their pleasure? And nothing is more easy than to corrupt the pure worship of God, when men esteem God after their sense and wit.

Wherefore, there is nothing more fit to destroy all corrupt worshippings, than to make this beginning, and to show of what sort the nature of God is. Also our Savior Christ reasoneth thus, John 4:24, “God is a Spirit.” Therefore he alloweth no other worshippers but such as worship him spiritually. And surely he doth not subtilely dispute of the secret substance [essence] of God; but by his works he declareth which is the profitable knowledge of him. And what doth Paul gather thence, because God is the creator, framer, and Lord of the world? to wit, that he dwelleth not in temples made with hands. For, seeing that it appeareth plainly by the creation of the world, that the righteousness, wisdom, goodness, and power of God doth reach beyond the bounds of heaven and earth; it followeth, that he can be included and shut up within no space of place.

Notwithstanding this demonstration seemeth to have been in vain, because they might readily have said, that images and pictures were placed in temples to testify God’s presence; and that none was so gross but that he knew that God did fulfill [fill] all things. I answer, that that is true which I said a little before, that idolatry is contrary to itself. The unbelievers said, that they worshipped the gods before their images; but unless they had tied the Godhead and power of God to images, and had hoped 292292     “An inde sperassent,” could they have hoped? to be holpen thereby, would they have directed their prayers thither? Hereby it came also to pass, that one temple was more holy than another. They ran to Delphos that they might fet [fetch] the oracles of Apollo thence. Minerva had her seat and mansion at Athens. Now we see that Paul doth touch that false opinion, whereby men have always been deceived; because they feigned to themselves a carnal God.

This is the first entrance into the true knowledge of God, if we go without ourselves, and do not measure him by the capacity of our mind; yea, if we imagine nothing of him according to the understanding of our flesh, 293293     “Pro sensu carnis nostrae,” according to our carnal sense. but place him above the world, and distinguish him from creatures. From which sobriety the whole world was always far; because this wickedness is in men, naturally to deform God’s glory with their inventions. For as they be carnal and earthy, they will have one that shall be answerable to their nature. Secondly, after their boldness they fashion him so as they may comprehend him. By such inventions is the sincere and plain knowledge of God corrupt; yea, his truth, as saith Paul, is turned into a lie, (Romans 1:25.) For whosoever doth not ascend high above the world, he apprehendeth vain shadows and ghosts instead of God. Again, unless we be carried up into heaven with the wings of faith, we must needs vanish away in our own cogitations. And no marvel if the Gentiles were so grossly deluded and deceived, to include God in the elements of the world, after that they had pulled him out of his heavenly throne; seeing that the same befell the Jews, to whom notwithstanding the Lord had showed his spiritual glory. For it is not without cause that Isaiah doth chide them for including God within the walls of the temple, (Isaiah 66:1.) And we gather out of Stephen’s sermon, that this vice was common to all ages; which sermon is set down by Luke in the 7th chapter and 49th verse.

If any man asked the Jews whose grossness the Holy Ghost reproveth, if they thought that God was included in their temple, they would stoutly have denied that they were in any such gross error. But because they did only behold the temple, and did rise no higher in their minds, and trusting the temple, and did boast that God was as it were bound to them, the Spirit doth for good causes reprehend them, for tying him to the temple as If he were a mortal man. For this is true which I said even now, that superstition is contrary to itself, and that it doth vanish away into divers imaginations. Neither have the Papists at this day any defense, saying that wherewith their errors after a sort. In some, superstition doth feign that God dwelleth in temples made with hands, not that it will shut him up as it were in a prison; 294294     “In ergastulis,” in houses of hard labor. but because it doth dream of a carnal (or fleshly) God, and doth attribute a certain power to idols, and doth translate the glory of God unto external shows.

But if God do not dwell in temples made with hands, (2 Kings 19:15,) why doth he testify in so many places of Scripture, that he sitteth between the cherubims, and that the temple is his eternal rest? (Psalm 80:1; 132:14.) I answer, As he was not tied to any place, so he meant nothing less than to tie his people to earthly signs, but rather he cometh down to them that he might lift them up unto himself. Therefore, those men did wickedly abuse the temple and the ark, who did so behold those things that they stayed still upon the earth, and did depart from the spiritual worship of God. Hereby we see that there was great difference between those tokens of God’s presence which men invented to themselves unadvisedly, and those which were ordained by God, because men do always incline downward, that they may lay hold upon [apprehend] God after a carnal manner; but God by the leading of his word doth lift them upward. Only he useth middle signs and tokens, whereby he doth insinuate himself with slow men, 295295     “Familiariter... se insinuet,” he may familiarly insinuate himself. until they may ascend into heaven by degrees (and steps.)

25. Neither is he worshipped with man’s hands. The same question which was answered of late concerning the temple, may now be objected touching ceremonies. For it seemeth that that may be translated unto the worshippings of the law of Moses, which Paul condemneth in the ceremonies of the Gentiles. But we may readily answer, that the faithful did never properly place the worship of God in ceremonies; but they did only count them helps wherewith they might exercise themselves according to their infirmity. When they did slay beasts, offered bread and drink offerings, light torches and other lights, they knew that godliness was not placed in these things, but being holpen by these, 296296     “Talibus rudimentis,” by such rudiments. they did always look unto the spiritual worship of God, and they made account of it alone. And God himself saith plainly in many places, that he doth not pass for any external or visible thing, that ceremonies are of themselves of no importance, and that he is worshipped no otherwise but by faith, a pure conscience, by prayer and thankfulness. What did the Gentiles then? to wit, when they erected images, they offered incense, they set forth plays, and laid their cushions before their idols, they thought they had fulfilled the offices of godliness excellent well. Not only the philosophers, but also the poets, do sometimes deride the folly of the common people, because they did disorderly place the worship of God in the pomp and gorgeousness of ceremonies. That I may omit infinite testimonies, that of Persius is well known:

“Tell me, ye priests to sacred rites, what profit gold doth bring? The same which Venus’ puppets fine, certes no other thing. Why give not we to gods that which the blear-eyed issue could of great Messiah never give from out their dish of gold? Right justly deem’d a conscience clear, and heavenly thoughts of mind, A breast with mildness such adorn’d, as virtue hath assign’d, Let me in temples offer these, Then sacrifice the gods shall please.”

And, undoubtedly, the Lord caused profane men to utter such speeches, that they might take away all color of ignorance. But it doth plainly appear, that those who spake thus did straightway slide back again unto common madness; yea, that they did never thoroughly understand what this meant. For though those who pass the common people in wit be enforced to confess that bare ceremonies are in no estimation, yet it is impossible to pull from them this persuasion, but that they will think that they be a part of the divine worship. Therefore, the more diligently they give themselves to such vanities, they do not doubt but that they do the duties of godliness well. Therefore, because all mortal men, from the highest to the lowest, do think that God is pacified with external things, and they will, with their own works, fulfill their duty towards him, that doth Paul refute. There is also a reason added, because, seeing he is Lord of heaven and earth, he needeth nothing, because, seeing that he giveth bread and life to men, he can receive nothing of them again. For what can they bring of their own, who, being destitute of all good things, have nothing but of his free goodness, yea, who are nothing but by his mere grace, who shall forthwith be brought to nought, if he withdraw the Spirit whereby they live? Whereupon it followeth, that they are not only dull, but too proud, if they thrust in themselves to worship God with the works of their own hands.

For whereas he saith, that alms and the duties of love are sweet-smelling sacrifices, that must be distinguished from the matter which we have now in hand, where Paul doth only intreat of the ceremonies which the unbelievers put in place of the spiritual worship of God. By life and breath is mean the life which men live so long as the soul and body are joined together. Touching the end of the sentence, though some Greek books 297297     “Codices,” manuscripts. agree in this reading, [κατα παντα], “through all things;” yet that seemeth to me more agreeable which the old interpreter hath, [κατα παντα], “and all things,” because it is both plainer, and doth also contain a more perfect and full doctrine. For thence we do better gather that men have nothing of their own; and also certain Greek copies agree thereto.


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