Beginning with Acts 17:16, the beginning of that portion of Scripture, Luke records
“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. ” (v16)
This is important. What Paul thinks about the worship of idols is not a dormant or neutral activity. For Paul, worship of idols is the fellowship of demons. In his first epistle to Corinth, he wrote the following, warning the Corinthians to abstain from eating food offered to idols (not for the reasons they chose, but for other prudential reasons), namely as follows:
“Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?” (1 Cor 10:20-23)
Here, the is an incompatibility between the worship of the true God and the worship of idols with is the communion of the demonic. Therefore, I argue that when Paul saw that Athens was “given over to idols”, I understand Paul’s perspective to not be consistent with an admission that the Athenians were truly in fellowship with God. In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul describes the movement of Gentiles from their lostness to salvation with the following summary: “ For they [Macedonia/Achaia] themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). But if those who say that Gentiles were serving God already during their time worshiping idols, in a way known to God, then it is unlikely that Paul would say that they have “turned to God from idols” when they converted to Christ.
In Ephesians 2, Paul describes the Gentiles of Ephesus prior to their coming to know Christ in the following terms:
“You were at that time aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ”. (Eph 2:12-14)
Alienation from salvation is what Paul is saying in so many words. Aliens from the “commonwealth” of Israel is not the socio-economic strata, but the heritage of Abraham’s seed, i.e. eternal salvation. Alien from the covenants and the promises, likewise. And that this is not to be interpreted in some sort of Rahner/Balthasarian sense of alienation from the “visible” kingdom is proven when Paul says “without God” and “without hope”. So if Paul thinks that Gentiles who do not know Christ are without salvation, without God, and without hope, there is little room to believe they are actually saved, with God, and with the hope of salvation in light of natural revelation (or something of that sort).
So now we get to Luke where he records the hotly debated passage:
“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you”
Paul recognizes that the people are religious and that they have many objects of worship. This altar with the inscription was the result of their religious speculations, and they just so happened to realize that they needed another altar for a god whom they might not know. Again, this is not for Paul some sort of code that they have a partial communion with God through partaking of the good, true, and beautiful. We have already seen from his other statements that this sort of religiosity and objective worship has demonic effects, and leaves men and woman separated from God, without hope, and thus without salvation. At least, there was sufficient reason for St. Paul to describe this as the normal state of affairs.
Notice the construction of the verse. He says that he made note of how religious the Athenians were because they even had an altar with the inscription “to the unknown God”. In other words, they were so zealous for religion that they even made an extra altar for a god they might not know.
Then Paul proceeds to tell the Athenians that God is not worshiped with objects, human hands, etc,etc. And that he is rather sought through a different manner, in light of his eternal immanence in creation; something the Athenians were clearly unaware of. Thus, Paul in this sermon is precisely telling them they don’t worship the true God with this altar and inscription.
Sure, they set it up like that, and Paul utilizes the fact that they, in their zeal for religion, left open an altar to a God they don’t know, as a way to introduce the subject, but his is not Paul somehow saying that the Athenians were God-worshipers. How could it be? He just negated that God is worshiped through those means.