Wojtyla’s Athenian catechesis: An antidote to the culture of veriphobia

About Eduardo Echeverria 25 ArticlesEduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

A review of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s newly discovered and published 1965 reflections on St. Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus, titled Teachings for an Unbelieving World.

Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Image: Febiyan | Unsplash.com)

Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s newly discovered 1965 reflections on St. Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus (Acts 17: 16-32), Mars Hill, is the starting point for Wojtyla’s cycle of catecheses in this book, Teachings for an Unbelieving World (Ave Maria Press, 2020). In my judgment, this catechesis adumbrates Sign of Contradiction,Cardinal Wojtyla’s Lenten spiritual exercises for Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, March 5-12, 1976. In the following, I lay out Wojtyla’s teachings for an unbelieving world by considering his reflections on St. Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus.

Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Fulfillment

Wojtyla considers the Christian faith to be a total world and life view, and it embodies the objective truth about the whole of human life, including the full spectrum of culture. At the core of this world and life view is an interlocking set of life-orienting beliefs regarding the Creation, the Fall into sin, Redemption in Christ, and the eschatological fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

What is the nature of faith, according to Wojtyla? “Believing means accepting the truth expressed in the Word of God and therefore, opening the human mind to the Truth which is divine in its essence. Faith involves the participation of the human mind in the knowledge which God’s own.” Traditionally put, faith involves both the fides qua creditur (“the faith with which one believes”) and the fides quae creditur “the faith which one believes”). Wojtyla makes clear the question how both asserted truth and lived truth, the fides quae creditur, the beliefs which one holds to be true, affirms, and asserts, and the fides qua creditur, experiential, living, active faith, belong to faith as a whole. Minimally, therefore, faith involves belief, and to have a belief means that one is intellectually committed to the whole truth that God has revealed.

Among the fides quae creditur there are certain truths of natural reason, of history, and of man. Regarding the former, we have “the truth about the creator of all things.” Wojtyla adds, “[I]n the Pauline sermon at the Areopagus, [it] is organically connected to the truth about creation, and in particular to the truth about the human person who is able to know the creator from the creatures.” Regarding the truths of history, which is revelation in history of the Incarnation, of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Wojtyla states, “The acceptance of this truth opened up a completely new horizon in human consciousness. It brought about a profound transformation of human existence: a saving transformation.” Regarding man, indeed, his self-knowledge, Wojtyla cites Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes 22: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

In sum, adds Wojtyla, “Christ fully reveals man to himself. . . . [Christ] indicated that his human existence is the foundation for every human being to resolve questions about the meaning of his own existence and the direction of his calling. In Christ, this sense, as well as the truth about the human person and his dignity, ‘find their root’ and at the same time attain their crown’.”

Creation Revelation

His Athenian Catechesis takes what is called the Areopagus paradigm of Acts 17: 16-34 to illustrate the complex relation of the Creator God not only to the “religion of ancient Greece but also on the phenomenon and on the factor of religion in general.”

Religion is the search for answers to the fundamental questions about human existence,” indeed, religion is the search for God. For the Athenians “religion was above all the expression of man-made traditions” in which “Hellenic people had devised a polytheistic mythology that expressed itself in a popular piety.” This “rich mythology [had] decidedly anthropomorphic features.” He adds, “One can say that in this traditional religion of the people, [man] had created gods (idols) according to the human imagination.” This view of religion contrasts with the people of the “Israelite tradition [who] knew the truth about God, who revealed himself to the people by making a covenant with their fathers.” It also sharply contrast with the revealed truth of the Incarnation. “He also revealed himself—intimate Divine Mystery—to [man] in the Word made flesh”. Here we find a fundamental contrast that is pivotal to John Paul II’s understanding of the difference between the Christian faith and the phenomenon of religion in general. Almost 30 years later, in 1994, John Paul II writes in his Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente:

Here we touch upon the essential point by which Christianity differs from all the other religions, by which man’s search for God has been expressed from earliest times. Christianity has its starting-point in the Incarnation of the Word. Here, it is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in Person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which he may be reached. This is what is proclaimed in the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (1:18). The Incarnate Word is thus the fulfilment of the yearning present in all the religions of mankind: this fulfilment is brought about by God himself and transcends all human expectations. It is the mystery of grace. (no. 6)

Despite this fundamental contrast, Wojtyla, and hence St. Paul, does not draw the conclusion that the Athenians are in total darkness. St. Paul recognizes that the Athenians had some knowledge about God, and hence this knowledge implies some grasp of truth and reality. In the Catholic tradition, the possibility of this knowledge of God is grounded in the objective reality of general revelation. Briefly, general revelation is God’s revelation of himself to all men in and through the works of cre­ation. “This self-revelation of God is inscribed in the history of creation, and in particular in human history from the beginning (from the first three chapters of the book of Genesis.” Regarding this revelation, God reveals himself to all men at all times and all places such that men, in principle, may know something of God’s existence, of his attributes, and his moral law (Rom 1:20; 2:14-15).

Therefore, in principle, all have access to some knowledge of God via his general revelation, and it is this revelation that is the divine source of what is true and good in these other religions. Furthermore, since God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:16) in his creation revelation, “every religion is ‘intentionally’ open to the Truth that is God, although this truth finds in different (historical) religions an expression that is inadequate and at times even wrong’.” Against the idea of general revelation, we should also understand Wojytla’s references to Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate 1, 2. Of course the reception of this general revelation is open to resistance and hence to distortion, misinterpretation, and denial (see Rom 1:18-32).

Consequently, then, although St. Paul is “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), he also expresses appreciation to the Athenians: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22). Yet, he speaks to the Athenians of the “unknown God” that he found as an inscription on an altar (v. 23), amidst the city that is “full of idols.” St. Paul polemicizes against the Athenian idolatry. He says, “What therefore you worship in ignorance, that I proclaim to you.” The unknown God is the God in whom all live and move and have being.” This inscription is proof that “He is not far from each of us” (v. 27). Says Wojtyla, “For the apostle Paul, this inscription was the proof of the Athenians’ religious belief more than all the statutes of the gods he had seen on other altars. In this way, the ancient Greek tried to express his religious sense.” The Athenians know that men are God’s children, as even some of their own poets said, and hence that as his offspring, men live and move and have their being in and through God (Acts 17:28).

Still, since they know and worship in ignorance an “unknown God,” St. Paul proclaims: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, that I proclaim to you” (Acts 16: 24). He refutes their idolatry by concluding from the knowledge of God they do have that therefore “we ought not think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone” (vv. 28-29). Moreover, this is God the Creator who made humanity from one man and who ordains the history of nations so that human beings will seek Him (vv. 26-27). This God is, however, not only the God of creation but also the God who raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). God created the world good. Indeed, the creation, especially humans who are its crown, actually manifests God’s truth, beauty, and goodness. This manifestation is God’s thesis, his affirmation, his yes to the creation (Gen. 1:31).

Thus, we must also say that some of the Athenian claims about God were false because they were logically incompatible with Christian truth claims. Furthermore, Paul treats Athenian religion as a praeparatio evangelii. This concept can only be properly understood against the background of special revelation. According to Dei Verbum 2, special revelation is about God revealing himself especially in and through salvation history, a history that runs through the events and people of Israel, culminating in the concentration point of that history in Jesus Christ who is the mediator and fullness of all revelation. Furthermore, jointly constitutive of God’s special revelation are its inseparably con­nected words (verbal revelation) and deeds, intrinsically bound to each other be­cause neither is complete without the other; the historical realities of redemption are inseparably connected to God’s verbal communication of truth in order that we may, as Catholic theologian Francis Martin puts it, “participate more fully in the realities mediated by the words.” Moreover, St. Paul’s message is a warning. Heretofore, St. Paul says, the Creator God overlooked (huperorao) Athenian, and general pagan, ignorance, but the time of ignorance (agnoia) is at an end (v. 30). Why? Wojtyla explains:

At the Areopagus, the apostle Paul announces the risen Christ, whom God “has appointed” as judge (cf. Acts 17:31). All, then, are called to conversion, because God “has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in Righteousness” through him. The certainty of God’s judgment is a fundamental religious truth.

Wojtyla adds, “To ‘repent’ means to enter into the life-giving mystery of Christ!” Hence, were the Athenians to repent, they would both reject the errors of these religions and fulfill the “seeds of the Word” (semina Verbi), rejecting false notions of divine nature and abandoning false worship, but also coming to genuine knowledge of a God in light of the “eternal divine plan concerning [man], and indirectly all creation,” a plan that was fully “revealed only by Jesus Christ.”

Wojtyla further explains:

The pedagogical method of the apostle, his ability to root the evangelical kerygma [Jesus Christ—the Incarnate Son of God who died and rose from the dead for us—is Lord] in the culture of the place, should be admired. Although the concept of ‘seeds of the Word’ (semina Verbi) is expressed later in the Hellenistic world by the thinkers of early Christianity, we can see that it was not unfamiliar to Paul of Tarsus. The apostle is also the pioneer of ‘inculturation’.”

The latter means that Paul proclaims the evangelical kerygma in a context where, already before his encounter, God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:17)—hence the “seeds of the Word.” In this context, in the city full of idols, St. Paul encounters God-seekers, and engages them in disputation, not only in the synagogue (v. 17:17), but also with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v. 17:18).

Christian Anthropology and Epistemology in Light of Creation and Redemption

Wojtyla grounds the foundation of Christian anthropology in the truth: “God created [man] in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Constitutive of Christian anthropology, which distinguishes it from Platonic anthropology, is that the human person is essentially bodily, and not just an immortal soul contingently related to a body. Thus, as Wojtyla states, this truth indicates that the body together with the soul [constitutes] the essence of the human person.” Furthermore, man is a rational and free person.

On the one hand, then, “By means of rationality—a property of the intellect of the individual subject—the Creator ‘consigns’ the whole of reality in terms of truth.” In other words, God created the world to be known through human reason, and created man to be a knower of that world. Wojtyla, in this connection, affirms that man can know the truth about reality. “Through reason, all existence is given to [man] in truth: as truth. . . . Rationality . . . is the capacity, and also the task, of ‘communing’ with [reality] in truth. The relationship with the whole [of reality] in truth and through truth constitutes an essential characteristic of [humanity].” In short, “the intellect-reason seeks the whole and the totality.”

Wojtyla affirms, thus, both the existence and recognizability of objective truth. That man can know objective truth pertains also to his knowing the “truth about God through the created world.” Wojtyla rightly underscores the point that we touch upon a “matter that is important for the objective truthfulness of religion”, the truth not only of creation but also of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Christ’s redemptive work.

On the other hand, the nature of the person is not only rational but also constituted by a will that is free. Wojtyla clarifies that the will reveals itself “as a choice and a decision” in pursuit of the good and the avoidance of evil. This pursuit is proper to a rational being that is “capable of self-determination” and that is dependent on the truth. By virtue of free human actions the whole person “becomes good or bad as an individual: good or bad in a moral sense.” The self-determining will chooses responsibly only when it is based on truth. This “dependence of freedom on the truth . . . constitutes the very dynamic core of the personal being.” Choosing responsibly for his own actions, his acts of self-determination, is determined “by the relation of the truth to the good and by internal dependence on this truth.” Wojtyla elaborates:

This dependence does not undermine freedom; on the contrary, it defines and liberates it. Christ’s words on the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32) are confirmed by the very intrinsic structure of the acts of the human will: dependence on the truth determines the freedom of the will and its individual subject. This explains the close link between freedom and responsibility (first of all in a moral sense). The human person, created as an individual, is responsible for his own actions. Responsibility means that the whole personal agency of a human being and its effects [becoming good or bad] depend on the truth concerning the good.

This dynamic core of the personal being—man was created for freedom—bears the wound of original sin. How does that wound affect both human rationality and freedom?

Wound of Original Sin

God created the world good. Indeed, the creation, especially humans who are its crown, actually manifests God’s goodness. This manifestation of goodness is God’s thesis, his affirmation, his yes to the creation (Gen. 1:31). Now all creation is fallen through original sin. Human nature has lost its original harmony, and humans are wounded at the very root of their being, estranged from God, from themselves, and from their fellow humans, such that to be human means to be sinful, prone to sin, the violation of God’s will and purpose. Wojtyla describes it this way, “What the Bible calls the ‘sin of the world’ accompanies human history from the beginning. It has put its roots into the human being and from him it spreads ever further.”For example, we find this “spread” in the noetic effect of the fall into sin that St. Paul presents as “a debased mind” (Rom 1:28; 1 Tim 6:5), “alienated and hostile” (Col 1:21), a “fleshly mind” (Col 2:18; cf. Gal 5:19-21), and “a darkened understanding” (Eph 4:17-18).

This sinfulness denies God’s thesis and has its beginnings in Genesis 3. God’s response to sin is yes, but also no. Yes, because God, full of love, mercy, and grace, does not abandon the fallen creation. Indeed, Genesis 3:15 contains the first proclamation of the Messiah, the proto-evangelium. But also no, because God, judging humans in the light of his perfect justice and holiness, is the author of the antithesis, of the sign of contradiction between good and evil, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. As stated by Wojtyla in Sign of Contradiction:

Here, in the third chapter of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, it becomes clear that the history of mankind, and with it the history of the world with which man is united through the work of divine creation, will both be subject to rule by the Word and the anti-Word, the Gospel and the anti-Gospel.

Wojtyla understands the depth dimension in the drama of the history of man’s freedom to be the fundamental choices of humans in history as being either their radical affirmation or denial of God. In other words, says Wojtyla, “a fundamental fracture and opposition has occurred; on the one hand, the love Dei usque ad contemptum sui, and on the other, love sui usque ad contemptum Dei, as the great Augustine of Hippo says.” Furthermore, the deepest dynamic of history is, then, the struggle between Word and anti-Word, Gospel and anti-Gospel, City of God and City of Man. This affirmation and denial reflect two kinds of love, referred to by Saint Augustine as “love of God carried as far as contempt of self” or “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God.” Anti-Word, anti-Gospel, and anti-Love all refer to denials of God throughout history.

Incarnation and Redemption: the Cross and Resurrection

“The Cross and the Resurrection—the Paschal Mystery—constitute the deepest dimension of God’s self-revelation in Christ.” The reality of God’s mercy does not undermine the reality of his wrath against man’s sin. In and through the atoning work of Christ, God the Father not only forgives us our sins, wiping away our guilt, having Christ compensate for them by his sacrificial death on the Cross. But also God the Father acts liberally or mercifully such that mercy realizes fully the aim of justice, which is to restore our relationship with God, and in that sense is the fullness of justice.

Therefore, God’s justice and mercy, with the latter being an expression of love, are, in that sense, but one, simultaneously revealed in the reality of the cross. Says Wojtyla:

Here we stand before the mystery of justice ‘reconciled’ with love. At the same time, we face the mystery of love in which all justice finds its perfect fulfillment. God himself is this ‘reconciliation’ of justice with love . . . and the Cross and the Resurrection constitute its supreme witness.

God acts liberally, or mercifully, because God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Indeed, the love of God sets mercy in motion—mercy is the face of God’s love turned toward sinners, searching them out, and offering them pardon and salvation through Christ’s atoning work, a redemption that reveals the fullness of justice. As John Paul II puts it, “love is ‘greater’ that justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love.” He adds: “The primacy and superiority of love vis-à-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy” (Dives et Miserecordia 4).

“Thus, between the truth about perfect justice, which is God himself, and the judgment as an act of this justice, stands the mystery of Redemption.” Now, John Paul II refers to mercy with the phrases “perfection of justice” (Dives et Miserecordia 8), “most profound source of justice,” and the “fulfillment of justice” (Dives et Miserecordia 14). Insightfully, John Paul says that the relationship between mercy and justice is such that “love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice—precise and often too narrow” (Dives et Miserecordia 5).

Too precise? Because the standards of justice would only give us what we truly deserve for breaking them. Too narrow? Because if it was only about justice—of course, it is certainly about divine justice—Christ would only pay satisfaction for our sins. But rather, as we saw above, justice serves divine love, which is a transforming love that is revealed through mercy. Indeed, as John Paul says, “Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends toward it” (Dives et Miserecordia 7).

So both justice and mercy have their origin in God’s holy love.

God’s love is the single reality that unfolds dynamically throughout salvation history in the dimensions of justice and mercy with these two harmoniously and simultaneously coming together supremely in the cross. In this way, mercy is the fullness of justice—the perfection of justice, the most profound source of justice, and the fulfillment of justice—because mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13), granting man “access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God” (Dives et Miserecordia 7).


What is the enduring importance of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s teachings for an unbelieving world even now, given the state of our culture and the Church? These brief reflections express an antidote to the culture of veriphobia—“the fear of truth.” Thus, in the case of Wojtyla’s Athenian Catechesis, at the forefront of the Church’s mission should be the rational explication of the intelligibility of revelation, of creation, of the Incarnation, of the cross and resurrection, within the framework of He Who is, of the God who exists, who has revealed himself in word and deed, and who is knowable, such that we can assert that the Catholic Faith is true.