22 But Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.
23 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:
24 God, who made the world, and all things therein; he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 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:
So, St. Paul criticized the Greeks for believing in gods which “dwelt” in the altars and temples.
However, we Catholics also believe that Our Lord is fully present in the Host and, in some way, “dwells” in the church tabernacles.
I can imagine the Protestants potentially using this fragment against the Catholic faith, accusing us of “idolatry”, etc… How should we respond?
With kindness and charity… As a former Protestant I know that getting around the actual presence of the Body and Blood of Christ is a major stumbling block, as is the idea of Catholic idolatry, So, we turn to learned men like John Martignoni or Scott Hahn. There are a number of audio recordings out there of those two and many others that you might point a skeptical non-Catholic to. But always with kindness, love and charity.
However, where God dwells is not really in question. Paul’s issue with all of the Greek Gods was their plurality and their physical existence as statues that were worshiped directly as the God himself. Paul was also using Greek legend from hundreds of years earlier to show his knowledge of the local people.
Paul was trying to convey to them that the unknown God was not Zeus but the true God, Jesus Christ. The true God who created all things and every man.
Paul was quoting Epimenides who stated in his work entiled Cretica “They fashioned a tomb for thee. O holy and high one. But thou art not dead, thou livest and abidest forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.”
The Greek writer, Diogenes Laurtius writes: “Altars may be found all over Attica which have no names inscribed upon them, which are left as memorials to this atonement.”
Paul uses this history to introduce the Greeks to the death and resurrection of the true God, Jesus Christ.
The historical account of Epimenides would also tie in nicely with presenting Christ to the Greeks for the first time. In the 6th century B.C., when Epimenides lived, there was a plague which went throughout all Greece. The Greeks thought that they must have offended one of their gods, so they began offering sacrifices on altars to all their various false gods. When nothing worked they figured there must be a God who they didn’t know about whom they must somehow appease.
So Epimenides released hungry sheep into the countryside and instructed men to follow the sheep to see where they would lie down. Since hungry sheep would not naturally lie down but continue to graze, if the sheep were to lie down it must be a sign from God that this place was sacred. To everyone’s surprise, many sheep did lay down and the Athenians built an altar at each spot and sacrificed the sheep on it. Afterward the plague stopped which they attributed to this unknown God accepting the sacrifice.
This story is not found in the Bible or in Hebrew scriptures but was a local history known to the well educated Paul who put it to good use. Here he comes knowing who this previously unknown God is and filling in a long standing mystery. Perfect!.
So, easily appease your non Catholic brothers and sisters about this passage. God did not instruct the building of those many altars, Epimenides did trying to cover all the bases, and when it worked, and the plague was lifted, the altars to the unknown God remained. God did not dwell in these altars, any more than he dwells in the altars of our churches, rather, he dwells in everything about us. No Christian will deny that God dwells in the trees, the rocks, the mountains and in every living thing on earth but we do not worship those things, we worship the God who made them.
The pagans thought that their god needed a place to dwell and would only be present in that one place. Here is the commentary from the Haydock Bible on that verse
Ver. 24. God…dwelleth not in temples. He who is infinite cannot be confined to space; nor stand in need of what human hands can furnish. Temples are not for God, but for man. It is the latter who derives assistance from them. The same may be observed of all exterior acts of worship. They are serviceable, inasmuch as they proceed from, or powerfully assist, interior devotion, by the impressions which exterior objects leave upon the soul. The reciprocal action of one upon the other, in our present state of existence, is great and inevitable. (Haydock) See chap. vii. above, ver. 48. — God, indeed, dwelleth in the temple, yes, and in the soul of the just man, but he is not confined there, as the idols were to their temples. Hence the prayer of Solomon at the consecration of the temple: if heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thy immensity, how much less this house, which I have erected? God dwelleth there, then, to receive the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful, but not as though he needed any thing. See ver. 25. — God is not contained in temples; so as to need them for his dwelling, or any other uses, as the heathens imagined. Yet by his omnipresence, he is both there and every where. (Challoner)
I have been thinking and I realised that any Protestant attempt to use the passage as you suggest would contradict what God actually did in the Old Testament, i.e dwell among his people in a tabernacle and temple made by hands.
Maybe a key to understanding the passage comes later in V29:
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.
…these are two distinct and separate issues… non-gods (idols) could not dwell in the Temple hence the practice of creating offshoot temples and altars was idol worship.
Jesus, on the other hand is God. But not just an absent God but a Present God:
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:26-28)
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.
After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— (Ephesians 5:23, 29)
And he is the head of the body, the church;
24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossian 1:18a, 24)
…and it is He Who Guarantees that He Remains with the Church, His Mystical Body:
18 I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you. (St. John 14:18)
Clearly, there has been changes in the form of Worship and Christ is not an idol:
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (St. John 4:21-24)
…and Jesus’ Sacrifice continues in the Believer’s life:
9 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:9-25, 29)
We are to remain in Worship, upholding Christ as the Head of the Body, the Church, and obeying His Command:
54 Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. 55 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. 56 For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. (St. John 6:54-46)
26 And whilst they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke: and gave to his disciples, and said: Take ye, and eat. This is my body. 27 And taking the chalice, he gave thanks, and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this. 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins. (St. Matthew 26:26-27)
23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread. 24 And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me. 25 In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me. 26 For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. 27 Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. (1Corinthians 11:23-29)