Explanation of Acts 17:22-23
Do Pagans worship the True God without knowing it?
A Look at St. Paul’s Discourse to the Athenians
In Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, we find St. Paul discoursing with the pagan inhabitants of Athens, Greece. The city is immersed in idolatry, and the holy Apostle notices an altar dedicated “to the unknown god”. He uses this as a cue to preach to the Athenians the true God, whom indeed they do not yet know but are apparently disposed, however confusedly, to worship.
This incident is sometimes used by Novus Ordo apologists to support the positive view of paganism that the Vatican II religion has been fostering, and none more than Jorge Bergoglio, the man otherwise known as “Pope Francis”. But is this justified?
Let’s have a look at what the divinely inspired text says, first in the Douay-Rheims translation and then in the Mgr. Ronald Knox translation. Verses 22 and 23 are the most pertinent, and these we have underlined:
Now whilst Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred within him, seeing the city wholly given to idolatry. He disputed, therefore, in the synagogue with the Jews, and with them that served God, and in the marketplace, every day with them that were there. And certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics disputed with him; and some said: What is it, that this word sower would say? But others: He seemeth to be a setter forth of new gods; because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And taking him, they brought him to the Areopagus, saying: May we know what this new doctrine is, which thou speakest of? For thou bringest in certain new things to our ears. We would know therefore what these things mean. (Now all the Athenians, and strangers that were there, employed themselves in nothing else, but either in telling or in hearing some new thing.) But Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you: God, who made the world, and all things therein; he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing; seeing it is he who giveth to all life, and breath, and all things: And hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation. That they should seek God, if happily they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and are; as some also of your own poets said: For we are also his offspring. Being therefore the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, and device of man. And God indeed having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declareth unto men, that all should everywhere do penance.
(Acts 17:16-30; Douay-Rheims translation)
And while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his heart was moved within him to find the city so much given over to idolatry, and he reasoned, not only in the synagogue with Jews and worshippers of the true God, but in the market-place, with all he met. He encountered philosophers, Stoics and Epicureans, some of whom asked, What can his drift be, this dabbler? while others said, He would appear to be proclaiming strange gods; because he had preached to them about Jesus and Resurrection. So they took him by the sleeve and led him up to the Areopagus; May we ask, they said, what this new teaching is thou art delivering? Thou dost introduce terms which are strange to our ears; pray let us know what may be the meaning of it. (No townsman of Athens, or stranger visiting it, has time for anything else than saying something new, or hearing it said.) So Paul stood up in full view of the Areopagus, and said, Men of Athens, wherever I look I find you scrupulously religious. Why, in examining your monuments as I passed by them, I found among others an altar which bore the inscription, To the unknown God. And it is this unknown object of your devotion that I am revealing to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, that God who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples that our hands have made; no human handicraft can do him service, as if he stood in need of anything, he, who gives to all of us life and breath and all we have. It is he who has made, of one single stock, all the nations that were to dwell over the whole face of the earth. And he has given to each the cycles it was to pass through and the fixed limits of its habitation, leaving them to search for God; would they somehow grope their way towards him? Would they find him? And yet, after all, he is not far from any one of us; it is in him that we live, and move, and have our being; thus, some of your own poets have told us, For indeed, we are his children. Why then, if we are the children of God, we must not imagine that the divine nature can be represented in gold, or silver, or stone, carved by man’s art and thought. God has shut his eyes to these passing follies of ours; now, he calls upon all men, everywhere, to repent[.]
(Acts 17:16-30; Knox translation)
How are we to understand these words of St. Paul in verse 22 and especially verse 23? Are we to believe that the pagans at Athens were already worshipping the Most Holy Trinity and simply didn’t realize it? Is this conceivable, considering that they were steeped in idolatry, that is, in the adoration of false deities, mere creatures?
The short answer is: The historical facts are not entirely clear as to the identity of the “unknown god” the Athenians had in mind, and thus different Catholic scriptural authorities have expressed divergent views on this.
For example, the 1953 Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by the Benedictine Fr. Bernard Orchard (1910-2006), explains: “Pausanias and others record that there were several altars to unknown gods in Athens. The altar was erected to whatever god it might be who needed thanking or placating. St Paul takes the title in a mystical sense, and defends himself from the charge of setting forth new gods…” (p. 1038; n. 838d).
In other words, according to this view, St. Paul didn’t mean that the Athenian idolaters were literally worshipping the true God in addition to their idols, but simply used the pagans’ recognition that there might be a god they do not yet know and their willingness to worship him, as a way to introduce them to the only true God, whom they indeed did not yet know, but whom they appeared not to be indisposed to worship.
More light is shed on Acts 17:22-23 in the popular Bible commentary of Fr. George L. Haydock (1774-1849), who provides the following insights:
Ver. 22. Over-religious. Or very superstitious. To be superstitious, or given to superstition, is commonly taken for a vain and groundless religious worship, but it is also sometimes used in a good sense. And perhaps St. Paul, in the beginning of his speech to so many men of learning, does not so openly blame them for being vainly and foolishly superstitious, but by their inscription, to the unknown God, he takes notice how nice and exact they pretended to be, in not omitting to pay some kind of homage to any god, or gods of all other nations, whom they might not know. For some interpreters think, that by this altar they designed to worship every god of any nation, who was not come to their knowledge: or to worship that great God hinted at in the writings of Plato: or as others conjecture, that God of the Jews, of whom they might have heard such wonders, and whose name the Jews themselves said to be unknown and ineffable. However, from this inscription St. Paul takes an occasion, with wonderful dexterity, with sublime reflections, and with that solid eloquence, of which he was master, and which he employed, as often as it was necessary, to inform them, and instruct them, concerning the works of the one true God, of whom they had little knowledge, by their own fault: that this one true God made the world, and all things in it: that from one man he raised all mankind: that his presence is not confined to temples made by the hands of men, being every where, and in all creatures, preserving them every moment: that in him we live, move, and have our being, or subsist: that it is he, who hath determined the time, limits, or bounds of every empire, and kingdom, and of every man’s life: that this true God, who made, preserves, and governs all things in heaven and on earth, cannot be like to gold, silver, or any thing made by the art, or fancy of men. He puts them in mind that according even to one of their own heathen poets, Aratus, men themselves are the offspring of God, being blessed with a being and knowledge above all other creatures in this world: who by the light of reason ought to seek God, and by considering the visible effects of Providence over the world, and the creatures in it, might come to the knowledge of this one God, the author of all, at least to an imperfect knowledge of him, as men find out things by feeling, or as it were, groping in the dark. He then adds, (ver. 30.) that having, as it were, overlooked, and permitted men for many ages to run on in this ignorance and blindness, in punishment of their sins, (this their ignorance of one true God, the author of all things, being wilful and inexcusable) now the same true God hath been pleased to announce to all men, that henceforward they acknowledge, and worship him, that they repent, and do penance for their sins. (Witham)
Ver. 23. It may be asked, why they had not implicit faith, worshipping the true, though unknown, God? 1st. because the worship of the true God can never exist with the worship of idols; 2nd. because an explicit faith in God is required of all; 3rd. because it is repugnant to implicit faith, to admit any thing contrary to it, as comparing this unknown God with the pagan idols; for God to be at all, must be one. …
— What, therefore, you improperly worship, that I preach to you, and instruct you in the true worship, far different from what you pay to your strange gods.
(Haydock’s Bible Commentary on Acts 17; italics and bold print given; underlining added.)
Perhaps the best, or at least the most substantial, commentary on Sacred Scripture is that of Fr. Cornelius à Lapidé (1567-1637). The Jesuit scholar compiled a commentary based on the best theological authorities for every book of the Bible except for Job and the Psalms.
Unfortunately, most of his commentary has never been published in English, and that includes the Acts of the Apostles. In order to make available Fr. Lapide’s commentary on Acts 17:22-23 in English, Novus Ordo Watch commissioned an expert in ecclesiastical Latin to translate the relevant portion, specifically for publication on this web site.
This exclusive English translation can be found here:
- From St. Paul’s Discourse to the Athenians at the Areopagus: Acts 17:22-23
(Rev. Cornelius a Lapide, The Great Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Fr. Lapide’s exposition of Acts 17:22-23 does not make for light reading; we will quote just a few excerpts here, therefore, whereas the full text is available at the above link:
Accordingly, Paul says: I see that you, O Athenians, in all circumstances are excessively religious and superstitious, since in all circumstances I see your gods, offerings, sacrifices, lights; however, in the first place, those deities are false; in the second, [they are] too many; in the third, [they are] unknown. For no man wisely worships that which he does not know and with which he is not acquainted. Therefore, I have come to this place in order to change your superstition into true religion, so that in place of false gods, you may acknowledge and worship the true [God]; in place of many [gods], the one [God]; in place of unknown [gods], the indisputable and known [God].
You will ask, who is this unknown God? First, St. John Chrysostom and more fully [the exegete] Oecumenius, whose words worthy of note I shall attach here, answer: ‹‹[Sources] report,›› says [Oecumenius], ‹‹that there are two reasons why among the Athenians “To the Unknown God” was written on the altar, seeing that some say the Athenians had sent Philippides to the Spartans in the matter of bringing help when the Persians were leading their army into Greece. In the vicinity of Mount Parthenion, the apparition of [the god] Pan, produced on the path of their [viz., the Athenians’] messengers, reproached the Athenians because they were worshipping other gods, while they had paid no heed to him, and he promised assistance. And so, when they had obtained victory, they erected a temple to him and built an altar; and being attentive in the same way lest either the very same thing or something similar should happen to them if they were to neglect any God unknown to them, they erected that altar [viz., of Acts 17:23], inscribing [it]: To the unknown God, saying: If any other [god] still be unknown to us, this altar shall be erected by us in his honor, whereby he may be well disposed to us, although, since he is unknown, he is not worshiped. But others say that at one time a plague raged at Athens and so consumed them that they could not bear [the weight of] the lightest muslin fabrics. When thereupon they worshipped those that were considered gods among them, they experienced no support. And so, understanding that perhaps there was a certain God whom they had left without high esteem [and] who might have sent in the plague, they built up a new altar, and they inscribed [it]: To the unknown God. And when they had offered sacrifice, they were immediately cured. For that reason, Paul says that Christ Jesus is the God of all, [the One] Whom [Paul] said he was proclaiming to them. However, this is the complete inscription: … “to the Gods of Asia, and of Europe, and of Libya, to the unknown and foreign God.”
But, as [the ecclesiastical historian] Cesare Cardinal Baronius properly observes, at Athens there were many altars inscribed in the plural to unknown gods, but one in particular was inscribed “To the Unknown God.” Indeed, Paul maintains it.
Second, [the theologian] Hugh of St. Victor, [the exegete] Nicholas of Lyra, and [the Jesuit biblical interpreter] Gaspar Sánchez, and also [the priest] Michael the Syncellus, in Laudes s. Dionysii [“Encomium of St. Dionysius the Areopagite”] think that the Unknown God at Athens was Christ crucified. For when Dionysius saw the eclipse produced at the death and on account of the death of Christ, he cried aloud: ‹‹The unknown God suffers in the flesh, and therefore the world is made indistinct in darkness, ›› says Syncellus. Therefore, [he says that] the unknown God is the suffering God, namely, Christ crucified. Indeed, the Athenians had erected an altar to Him in front of the other [gods], because they considered Him the Great God, for Whom nature had performed solemn expiatory funeral rites by means of a marvelous [astronomical] alteration and celestial mourning.
You will say: Why, therefore, does [Paul] call them superstitious? I answer: First, because along with the unknown God they worshiped the statues of the pagans, and they regarded them as equal to Him, in conformity with [verse] 40:25 of Isaias: ‹‹To whom have you considered me similar, and made me equal? ›› Second, because they called Him unknown: for no one worships or loves that which he does not know. To be sure ‹‹ [there is] no particular desire for the unknown.›› Third, because they truly had not known Him, as they were able and were under obligation [to do]. For they did not acknowledge that He is the creator of heaven and earth, the giver of rain, the harvest, the fruits [of the earth], and all things; that he is present everywhere; that our life and breath are in His hand: wherefore Paul instructs them about these matters. Lastly, the devil could lie hidden and conceal himself under the name of “the unknown God”; in the same way as [the Church historian] Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, in book II [of his Historia ecclesiastica], points out, the Argonauts set up a statue to the divinity directing them, and afterward St. Michael the Archangel made known to Constantine the Great that he [the Archangel] had directed them. In such a way Christ, in John 4:22, accused the Samaritans: ‹‹You reverence what you do not know; we reverence what we know.››
Although, then, there are different interpretations possible as to whether the “unknown god” was the true God of whom the Athenians had only some very slight and obscure knowledge, what is clear is that Acts 17 cannot be used to support a positive view of paganism, of idolatry. Even if we choose to go with the opinion that the Athenians were trying to worship the true God, it is certain that their worship was improper and unacceptable.
For Jorge Bergoglio, however, any pagan who lives harmoniously with nature and follows his conscience by that very fact already renders to God “acceptable worship”. In a letter of June 21, 2018 to the ‘Archbishop’ of Quebec, ‘Cardinal’ Gérald Lacroix, the false pope writes as follows about the worship of God by indigenous peoples to whom the Gospel has never been preached:
For this reason, even though ignorant of the true God, “by the things that are made” (Rom 1:20) His invisible things being understood, many natives living in harmony with all nature and working good according to conscience offered Him acceptable worship [acceptum cultum]. However, wishing to reveal Himself more clearly and more certainly to them, the Lord Jesus “established His Church as the sacrament of salvation, and sent His Apostles into the whole world …, commanding them: ‘Going therefore, teach ye nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:19-20)” [Vatican II, Decree Ad Gentes, 5]. That missionary work the Church is faithfully zealous to fulfill.
(Antipope Francis, Letter to “Cardinal” Gérald Lacroix, June 21, 2018; underlining added; our translation.)
Notice how Francis speaks of the indigenous “working good according to conscience“, as though subjective conscience were the ultimate norm to be followed. (How indigenous Canadians’ acting according to their conscience looks in practice, we saw in the pagan smudging ceremony of July 28, 2022, in which Francis participated.)
Contrast Bergoglio’s ideas with how Pope Pius IX spoke about those who labor under invincible ignorance:
There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace.
(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7)
Pius IX is clear that the standard which invincibly ignorant infidels must follow is the natural law, that is, the law of God as promulgated through nature and discernible through reason. That alone, however, does not justify them, for salvation requires not merely a natural goodness but one that is supernatural: The supernatural virtues of Faith, hope, and charity are absolutely indispensable to attain the Beatific Vision, and these virtues cannot be had without God’s grace, for they are a gift and not something we can merit (see Denz. 813). Thus Pius IX speaks of the need for “divine light and grace”, which God will bestow more and more on those who seek Him sincerely and cooperate with the graces already received. To deny this and instead preach salvation by works, apart from grace, is heresy (see Denz. 811).
What is worse, Francis’ words seem to imply that it is precisely in “living in harmony with all nature and working good according to conscience” that the “acceptable worship” of God by the invincibly ignorant is to be found, and that Christ founded the Church not to deliver them from sin and damnation (see Jn 3:16) but merely to reveal Himself with greater clarity and certitude. In other words: Christ came, not to deliver sinners from hell and make them holy, but only to make what is already good, even better. And that pretty much sums up the Novus Ordo Sect’s idea of missionary activity and accurately describes its misleading “fullness of truth” slogan. But this too is heresy: “If anyone shall say that divine grace through Christ Jesus is given for this only, that man may more easily be able to live justly and merit eternal life, as if by free will without grace he were able to do both, though with difficulty and hardship: let him be anathema” (Denz. 812).
In the remainder of his letter, the false pope has the audacity to refer to the great and glorious Pope Gregory XVI (1832-1846) as “our predecessor” — while totally ignoring, of course, and contradicting, what the Supreme Pontiff Gregory XVI had to say about what constitutes acceptable worship of the Most Holy Trinity:
Omitting other appropriate passages which are almost numberless in the writings of the Fathers, We shall praise St. Gregory the Great who expressly testifies that this indeed is the teaching of the Catholic Church. He says: “The holy universal Church teaches that it is not possible to worship God truly except in her and asserts that all who are outside of her will not be saved.”
…Therefore, [parents] must instruct [their children] in the true worship of God, which is unique to the Catholic religion.
(Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Summo Iugiter Studio, nn. 5-6; underlining added.)
At Jacob’s well our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ told the Samaritan woman that “they that adore [God], must adore him in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). But this cannot be done without the virtue of Faith and the assistance of God’s grace: “But without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6).
Thus, echoing the constant teaching of his predecessors and of Him whose Vicar he was, Pope Pius XI declared:
Wherefore, with a fatherly heart, from the summit of this Apostolic See, We exhort all those who glory in being the followers of Christ, and who place in Him their own hope and salvation and that of human society, that they should ever join themselves more firmly and more closely to this Roman Church, in which alone Christ is believed in with whole and perfect faith, is worshipped with the sincere worship of adoration, and is beloved with the perpetual flame of burning charity.
(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Lux Veritatis, n. 36; underlining added.)
The Roman Catholic religion happily proclaims the Lord’s divine mission to His Church to make all people into Christ’s disciples, that is, into Roman Catholics.
The Vatican II religion, on the other hand, repudiates that idea because it is not the religion established by Jesus Christ.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (Raphael)
License: public domain