The Unknown God
Acts 17:23
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD…

When he saw that the city was "wholly given to idolatry," i.e., literally covered with idols — κατείδωλον refer. ring to the place, not to the people — his spirit was roused; he could no longer keep silence and refrain from proclaiming the message he had come to deliver. Then it chanced that some of the members of the two great philosophic sects, the Epicureans and Stoics, encountered him. Part of these called him a babbler (σπερμολόγος), literally a picker-up of small seeds, like a bird, i.e., a collector and retailer of insignificant scraps of information; and others charged him with setting forth strange gods, foreign divinities.

I. THE UNKNOWN GOD. There is an unknown God today, as certainly as there was in Paul's time; and it is the business of the Christian teacher to declare Him, or set Him forth. In one sense God must always be unknown. The mind of man is finite, and can therefore never comprehend the Infinite.

1. The unknown god of the ancients. It is by no means clear how this altar came to be erected at Athens. By some, it is supposed that Polytheism had made so many gods by the deification of every human passion, that no more could be thought of; and hence, to cover the whole ground, an additional altar was erected to an unknown god at the shrine of which the worship should ascend to any possible deity that might have been overlooked. Others suppose that some special benefits had been received by the people, which could not be traced to any of the known gods — hence an altar to the unknown. More probably, however, it arose from some dim conception of a Supreme Being higher than all the gods of mythology, who, while He satisfied a yearning want of the heart, took no hold on the intellect. This would seem to be apparent from Paul's words, that he would declare the very God thus worshipped. In any case, that altar was a tacit but terrible confession of the failure of heathendom. Nowhere perhaps had the intellect risen so high as at Athens.

2. The unknown God of the moderns. Herbert Spencer prates most glibly of the Unknowable, and Huxley worships at its shrine. Tyndal calls religions "forms of force" which must not be permitted to "intrude on the region of knowledge." Matthew Arnold terms God a "stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being," as though there could be a stream without a source, or things could fulfil any purpose where there was no plan.

II. THE RELATION OF THE UNKNOWN GOD TO MAN. It is difficult to understand what relationship we can sustain to the unknown, or at least to learn what the relationship is, if any such there be. Yet those who teach that God is unknown and unknowable recognise some sort of relationship to this unknown Being. The possible relationship may be considered under three distinct heads.

1. Worship. This, in some form or other, is universal. In all ages men have worshipped something. In fact it is difficult to find a stronger instinct in human nature than this one. We have —

(1) Worship in ignorance. This is what the Athenians were guilty of. They worshipped without ascribing to the object any definite qualities whatever.

(2) Worship of nature. An atheist writing recently in one of the Secularistic journals proposed verbal prayer to nature, and says, "May we not pray or invoke the powers of nature for aid, without any reference to a personal God, calling that power the unconditioned, unknowable Absolute, or what you will; or no name at all? I think so." It is difficult to see what is the object of this prayer, since it is clear that blind forces can neither hear nor answer. But it proves the tendency to worship, even in the atheist. A more mystic form of worship, of an atheistic character, was proposed by the late Professor Clifford, under the name of Cosmic Emotion. The term originated with Mr. Henry Sedgwick; but Professor Clifford used it as a sort of substitute for religion. By it he simply meant the emotion which is called up in the soul when contemplating itself and its moral nature on the one hand, and the mysteries of the universe on the other. But such a worship as this — if worship it can be called — has no cult, and therefore cannot meet the condition required. It is a hollow semblance, nothing more.

(3) Worship of abstractions. The Positivists profess to worship humanity in the abstract. What this is, it is difficult very clearly to understand. Humanity in the concrete we know something of, and it is neither exalted enough nor pure enough to satisfy, as an object of worship, the religious nature of man. This form of worship professes to find a cultus in dead heroes and sages. But, to say the least of it, this is a miserable substitute for an Almighty and loving Father in heaven. The worship of nature, or of abstractions, is, after all, but idolatry. Men do not now make their idols of wood or stone, but cut of their own wild imaginings.

2. Responsibility. The moral law needs a personal God for its basis. The unknown is no foundation on which to raise a superstructure of ethics.

3. Immortality. Most of those, however, who assert that God is unknown do not believe in a personal immortality at all, but speak of the immortality of the race or of a man's reputation that he may leave behind him. There is no guarantee that the race will remain forever, if God be taken away; and if there were, such a fact would not meet the wants of humanity. We long for, and aspire after, an eternal personal conscious existence, and nothing less than that can satisfy the soul.

III. THE REVELATION OF THE UNKNOWN GOD. "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you," or set forth unto you. This was Paul's work, to reveal or make known the unknown God. This he was enabled to do by means of —

1. The Scriptures. God's real character can only be learnt from the Bible.

2. The Incarnation. This is the only means by which God can be really and truly known. "No man hath seen God at any time: the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." He hath declared Him in such a manner that the simplest may understand. Do you want to know what God is like? I point you to Christ. There is the revelation and the Revealer blended in one.

(George Sexton, LL. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

WEB: For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.

The Unknown God
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