Justin Martyr—Apologist for Today

Justin Martyr Stained GlassToday is the Feast Day for Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 AD), considered by many to be the first great apologist of the Christian church. The apostle Paul is surely a better candidate for that distinction. But Paul was an inspired author of Scripture. This is not true of any of the other great Christian apologists. And Justin apparently was the first of these. Certainly, he is the first whose writings have survived and are available in English translation.

Justin is mentioned with admiration by many of the ancients. Tatian, his pupil (according to Irenaeus), was fond of Justin. We learn from Tertullian that he was martyred for his advocacy for Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea, the first church historian, who was himself an apologist, has much to say about Justin.

We have an account of Justin’s conversion in chapters 7 and 8 of his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. What he recounts sounds like the story of a stranger’s witness to the truth of Christianity by various evidences and the stranger’s persuasion of an open-minded philosopher—namely, Justin—by these evidences. With the word of the stranger’s testimony, says Justin, “my spirit was immediately set on fire.”

Justin’s meditations, in addition to further study, led him to conclude that Christ had revealed “the only sure and useful philosophy.” Though the authenticity of this account is uncertain, Justin’s zeal for Christ and perseverance in defense of the faith are incontestable. Chapter 2 in the Second Apology reflects a debt to the faithful testimony of other Christians in his movement from Platonism to Christian belief (see also Second Apology, chapter 12).

His chief works in Christian apologetics include Dialogue with Trypho the Jew; First Apology; and, Second Apology. There is much that is admirable and worthy of fresh consideration in all of his writings. As to the first, the following understatement, from The Oxford Classical Dictionary, very nearly says it all: “He seems never to have been attracted to Judaism.”

Here are a few nuggets from Justin’s First Apology:

Criteria for Rational Belief

Early in his First Apology, Justin set forth a controlling principle, which we today might call a basic intellectual virtue.

Reason dictates that those who are truly pious and philosophical should honor and love only the truth, declining to follow  opinions of the ancients, if they are worthless” (chapter 2).

He invited scrutiny of the evidence and did not expect an irrationalist response to Christian preaching. And he urged his audience to weigh the evidence and resist any temptation to accept what is less reasonable because it is more palatable.

The Possibility of Resurrection

David L. Edwards relates that “as a young man he [Justin] had been a Platonist, until he had ceased to believe that souls could, if they tried hard enough, remember their pure life before birth.” This belief gave way to Christian hope in a future resurrection. For anyone who thinks it laughable that a dead body, dissolved into its constituents and diffused into the earth, might be raised physically from the dead, Justin makes an interesting observation. He asks them to imagine that they had no knowledge of the means of procreation, and to consider how they would react if they were shown both human seed and a picture of a mature human person, and then were told that from such a seed the man was produced. This would exceed anyone’s capacity to believe. And yet it would be true. As it is by the power of God that this thing comes to pass, so it is no less possible that God clothes the soul again in the future with the same body of the person who has died. He then recites Matthew 19:26 and Matthew 10:28. (See chapter 19.)

Common Ground in Reasoning with Nonbelievers

Justin also took pains to seek common ground with nonbelievers in his proclamation of Christian doctrine. The details of his method cannot be developed here. But students of Justin have examined his appeal to ancient philosophers (e.g., Socrates and Plato) in drawing out the truth of Christian belief. He held that many vital elements of God’s truth—shown forth more fully and in greater glory through the Old Testament prophets, Jesus Christ, and the New Testament writers—are latent in ancient pagan philosophers.

This point served at least two purposes. First, it pointed to the incompleteness of secular philosophies; second, it suggested such a connection with the complete truth realized in Christ that this would count in support of the Christian philosophy. (See chapters 20-23). Still, whereas “we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ” (chapter 24). Christ’s philosophy goes beyond the classic creeds of the pagans, and this is a point of resistance for many.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

I find especially interesting a passage in chapter 28. Speaking of God’s delay in bringing final judgment on on Satan and his minions, Justin writes:

For the reason why God has delayed to do this is His regard for the human race; for He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, and perhaps some not yet born. In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and of acting rightly, so that all people are without excuse before God; for they have been born capable of exercising reason and intelligence.

Observe, first, Justin’s doctrine of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. He is not altogether explicit here, but he intimates that God knows in advance what men and women, including perhaps those who do not yet exist, will freely do when presented with the opportunity to repent. His mention of those who have not yet been born invites curiosity about how he might regard the Molinist doctrine of divine middle knowledge. Second, he stresses the accountability of men and women for believing what is true, on the grounds that they are created with the capacity for “exercising reason and intelligence.”

Fulfilled Prophecy

Justin put much stock in the evidence of fulfilled prophecy to support the Christian verdict about Jesus Christ. He lists many prophecies of the Hebrew prophets and reasons that they are fulfilled in Jesus. He notes that the work of Christ was predicted even by Moses (see Gen. 49:11). He appeals to Isaiah 7:14 as a foretelling of the virgin birth of Christ (see Luke 1:32 and Matt. 1:21), and to Micah 5:2 regarding the place where Christ, as Messiah, would be born. He sees in Jesus fulfillment of such  prophecies as we find in Isaiah 52:2, 58:2, Psalm 22:16, and Zechariah 9:9-10. (See chapters 30-53.)

This method in Christian apologetics is nothing new. Justin even addresses the objection that the alleged fulfillment of prophecy is evidence for fatalism (see chapters 43 and 44; see also Second Apology, chapter 7). And he mounts an inductive argument, from the fulfillment of past prophecies to the reasonable expectation that those that remain will also be fulfilled. This claim serves both as a confirmation of Christianity and as a warning not to neglect the philosophy of Christ. (See chapter 52.) Justin even rebuts the objection that the Christian doctrine of salvation is compromised, since those who, living before Christ, could not have obeyed Christ for salvation (see chapter 47).

The Second Apology

If the First Apology is a more general treatise in apologetics, the much shorter Second Apology addresses more practical concerns due to the experience of Christians under pagan persecution. He touches on the problem of divine wisdom in the permission of suffering. He includes a note about why persecuted Christians do not commit suicide (chapter 4).

Extensive Source List for the Study of Justin Martyr

  • L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (1967)
  • L. W. Barnard, “Justin Martyr in Recent Study,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 152-64
  • L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (Engl. trans.) (1997)
  • L. W. Barnard, “The Logis Theology of Justin Martyr,” Downside Review 89 (1971): 132-41
  • A. Bellinzoni, The Sayings of Jesus in the Writings of St. Justin Martyr (1967)
  • R. M. Berchman, From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition (1984)
  • A. Bery, Saint Justin: Sa vie et sa doctrine (1911)
  • A. W. F. Blunt, The Apologies of Justin Martyr (1911)
  • L. R. Bush, Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics: A.D. 100-1800 (1983), 1-29
  • H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and Classical Tradition (1966)
  • H. Chadwick, “Justin Martyr’s Defense of Christianity,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 47 (1965): 275-97
  • F. H. Colson, “Notes on Justin Martyr, Apology,” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1922): 161-71
  • F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  • J. Daniélou, Message évangelique et culture héllénstique (Eng. trans. 1973)
  • I. J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine (2004)
  • A. J. Droge, “Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy,” Church History 56 (1987): 303-319
  • D. L. Edwards, Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years (1997)
  • M. J. Edwards, “On the Platonic Schooling of Justin Martyr,” Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991): 17-34
  • A. A. T. Ehrhardt, “Justin Martyr’s Two Apologies,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 4 (1953): 1-16
  • M. S. Enslin, “Justin Martyr: An Appreciation,” Jewish Quarterly Review 34 (1944): 179-205
  • S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2003)
  • N. L. Geisler, “Justin Martyr,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (2006), 395-97
  • B. L. Gildersleeve, The Apologies of Justin Martyr (1877)
  • E. R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr (1923, 1968)
  • R. M. Grant, “Aristotle and the Conversion of Justin,” Journal of Theological Studies 7 (1956): 246-48
  • R. M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (1988)
  • R. M. Grant, “A Woman from Rome: Justin Apol. 2.2,” Church History (1985): 461-72
  • A. Harnack, Judentum und Judenchristentum in Justinus’ Dialog mit Trypho, Texte und Untersuchungen 39 (1913)
  • H. S. Holland, “Justinus Martyr, St.,” in Dictionary of Christian Biography 3:560-87 (1882)
  • R. Holte, “Logos spermatikos: Christianity and Ancient Philosophy According to St. Justin’s Apologies,” Studia Theologica 12 (1958): 109-168
  • Justin Martyr, “Apologia,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, volume 1
  • Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, First Apology (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, Second Apology (various editions)
  • Justin Martyr, “Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, edited by A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, volume 1
  • P. Keresztes, “The Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Christians, Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1971): 1-18
  • P. Keresztes,”The Literary Genre of Justin’s First Apology,” Vigilae Christianae 19 (1965): 99-110
  • P. Keresztes,”The ‘so-called’ Second Apology of Justin,” Latomus 24 (1965): 858-69
  • M. J. Langrange, Saint Justin, Martyr (1914)
  • C. C. Martindale, Justin Martyr (1921)
  • H. Musurilla, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (1972)
  • E. F. Osborn, Justin Martyr (1973)
  • G. T. Purves, The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity (1988)
  • J. S. Romanides, “Justin Martyr and the Fourth Gospel,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 4 (1958-1959)
  • W. A. Shotwell, The Biblical Exegesis of Justin Martyr (1965)
  • O. Sarksaune, “The Conversion of Justin Martyr,” Studia Theologica 30 (1976): 53-73)
  • O. Sarksaune,The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition (1987)
  • C. I. K. Story, The Nature of Truth in the Gospel of Truth in the Writings of Justin Martyr (1971)
  • D. Trakatellis, The Pre-Existence of Christ in the Writings of Justin Martyr (1976)
  • C. J. de Vogel, “Problems Concerning Justin Martyr,” Menemosyne 31 (1978): 360-88
  • J. C. van Windon, An Early Christian Philosophy: Trypho 1-9 (1971)
  • C. M. Watts, “The Humanity of Jesus in Justin Martyr’s Soteriology,” Evangelical Quarterly 56 (1984): 21-33
  • P. R. Weis, “Some Samaritanisms of Justin Martyr,” Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1944): 199-205
  • D. F. Wright, “Christian Faith in the Greek World: Justin Martyr’s Testimony,” Evangelical Quarterly 54 (1982): 77-87
  • J. E. Wynne-Morgan, “The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience in Justin Martyr,” Vigilae Christianae 38 (1984): 172-77

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Other posts in this series . . .

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Justin Martyr—Apologist for Today

  1. Greg Logan says:

    Doug

    For what it is worth, Mormons would say the same about their actions particularly of their apologists. But that was not where I was drawing my tongue in cheek comparison…

    Greg

    Like

  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Justin was not in the least a “proto-Mormon.” His belief was firmly grounded in evidence that he was prepared to present, and did present in his apologetic. It was in response to evidence, rather than instead of evidence, that he found his heart afire with God’s truth. Evidence for truths that really matter can be like this!

    You ask a good question about textual evidence. I suggest Leslie William Barnard’s critical edition of The First and Second Apologies for some help with this. See my list of sources. Barnard is a Justin scholar, and his bibliography in this book is extensive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Greg Logan says:

    Doug –

    Thanks for sharing a few thoughts about Justin. I appreciate this on a couple of levels.

    I am curious what sort of textual basis we have for any of Justin’s writings? Do you have a resource or out line for this?

    BTW – I got a kick out of the “my spirit was immediately set on fire.” quote. My first thought, “Damn, if that fellow is not a proto-Mormon…” (burning bosom).

    Like

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