Reading Theological Classics #3: Apologies of Justin Martyr

Some time ago, I have written a blog post about the earliest group of Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. Another group of writings that begun to form in the 2nd century are early Christian apologists. To this group belongs the Epistle to Diognetus (which is included in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers) as well as writings of Quadratus of Athens, Tatian, Tertullian, Origen and others. Some of their works are preserved, others are known to us only from the name or short fragments cited by other authors.

Recently, I have read two apologies by Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165). He was a Gentile born in Samaria who undertook in his life a quest for truth that lead him to study several major philosophical schools of that time and, eventually, embrace Christianity as the true philosophy. Following his conversion, he started teaching Christianity as a travelling philosopher. He died in Rome, beheaded for being a Christian. From all writings attributed to Justin, it is agreed that three major works are authentic: Dialogue with Trypho and two apologies, as well as four shorter fragments preserved by other authors.1 

Summary of Content 

As even the name suggests, apologies were works aiming to defend Christianity against various accusations and argue that it is true religion. Justin’s First Apology is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Justin undertakes refutation of those who slander Christianity. He argues that no one should be prosecuted only for bearing certain name such as ‘Christian’ but everyone should be tried for his own deeds. He goes on to answer three main charges that were brought against Christianity: atheism, immorality and disloyalty. Justin contends that Christians are not atheists for although they do not worship pagan gods they do worship the creator God (1 Apol. 6-10). Neither, argues Justin, are Christians disloyal to Rome for they do not seek earthly kingdom (1 Apol. 11) nor are they immoral for they fear omniscient God (1 Apol. 12). 

Having refuted slanders, Justin begins to argue for the truth of Christian faith. He points out that Christians lead exemplary moral life reflecting Jesus’ ethical teaching (1 Apol. 14-20). He criticises also pagan myths about sons of gods (21-22). Subsequently, Justin argues that only Jesus is the begotten Son of God and His Logos (1 Apol. 23). He argues against Simon Magus and Marcion (1 Apol. 24-29) and then presents arguments from the Old Testament prophecies testifying to various facts from Jesus’ life (1 Apol. 30-53). In the conclusion of his work, Justin discusses sacraments of baptism and the eucharist – probably to show that these rites are innocent and not some scary secret ceremonies.

The Second Apology is much shorter and it was stirred by specific evens in Rome: a certain man who was rebuked by his Christian wife for his immoral conduct and, subsequently, she divorced him. Seeking revenge he charged her teacher with being Christian what lead to the execution of the teacher and two other Christians. Justin argues in this work that Christians do not fear death but neither seek it of their own will. He argued that God created the world for them but they suffer evil due to the activity of evil demons. Nevertheless, claims Justin, God spares the world for the sake of Christians. There will be, however, a time when He will judge everyone for what they have done. Christianity, argued Justin, reveals fully God’s logos which was in part apprehended by ancient philosophers such as Plato.

Justin and Ancient Philosophy

One of the most significant events in early Christian history is when the way of the Lord reached pagans. Although originally a Jewish sect, Christianity was eventually embraced by multitudes of people throughout the Greco-Roman world. This gave rise to the question of how believers should view their pagan culture or origins? What should they think about Greek philosophy? How Jewish they need to become in order to be followers of Christ? In many ways, similar questions are still very relevant in modern Christianity. Believers in the 21st century still need to ask themselves how to appropriate wider culture. Not surprisingly Christian attitudes to broader culture range from strong rejection in fundamentalist circles to almost uncritical adoption of current Zeitgeist

Justin is an example of critical but generous adoption of non-Christian culture. He was strongly influenced by Middle Platonism and in many ways saw it as preparing the way for Christianity. Justin finds several commonalities between Platonism and Christianity. He says that according to Plato wicked will be punished after death (albeit not in the same bodies and temporarily, 1 Apol. 8). He also argues that both Plato and Genesis teach that the world was created by God from unformed matter (1 Apol. 59). Justin claims that Plato learned from Moses who wrote before him (1 Apol. 59-60). He also sees several ancient figures who followed reason such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato as Christians before Christ.

With this, there is connected Justin’s original idea of logos spermatikos (2 Apol. 8, 10, 13). It seems that this concept of ‘sowing logos’ refers to Christ being in some way present in all men. Everyone, therefore, has divine potential for knowing God.2

Justin and the Doctrine of God 

Justin Martyr as the 2nd-century theologian did not, obviously, use the language of Nicene trinitarianism. He does, however, express trinitarian doctrine in a seed form. His language is a reflection of Christian worship rather than speculative theology. As he says: 

[A]nd we will show that we worship Him rationally, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third rank.3

Justin says that Christians worship Father, Son and the Spirit. It is noteworthy that he speaks of the certain distinction of rank (taxis) though it does not suggest subordination of persons to each other.4 Justin also, speaking of God’s transcendence, uses the term ‘unbegotten’ (ἀγέννητος) rather than ‘uncreated’ (ἀγένητος). During the Arian crisis, this kind of language became problematic.

Justin and Free Will

Another interesting feature of Justin’s apologies is his strong insistence on free will (1 Apol. 43-44). Justin is concerned that no one should infer from biblical prophecies concerning Jesus that things happen according to an inevitable fate. His polemic is directed especially against Stoic views and bears much resemblance to Middle Platonic arguments. According to Justin, there is no moral responsibility without a free choice and, hence, there can be no genuine virtue or evil in the fate-driven world. 

Justin, Sacraments and Church Governance

We also find in Justin the description of the early Christina service. He says that Christians gather on Sunday (ἡ Κυριακὴ ἡμέρα) since it is the first day of creation and the day of resurrection (1 Apol. 67). A worship service consists of: (1) reading memoirs of apostles (gospels) or the writings of the prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures), (2) sermon, (3) prayers, (4) thanksgiving over eucharistic elements, (5) distribution of elements, (6) collection of aims for needy. Interestingly, there are three eucharistic elements mentioned: bread, a cup of water and water mixed with wine. 

A for baptism, Justin says that it is preceded by a period of instruction. Subsequently, converts are brought to water and there baptised. Justin considers baptism to be new birth (ἀναγέννησις) and reads John 3:5 as referring to baptism:

Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again in the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were born again, for they then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, ‘Except you are born again, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ (1 Apol. 61).

He also believes that bread and wine in eucharist are received as Christ’s body and blood:

For we do not receive these things as common bread not common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savour having been incarnate by God’s logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him,  from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate. (1 Apol. 70)

Justin’s apologies contain very little information about the church’s structure. He does, however, speak of the ruler of brethren (ὁ προεστώς) who presides over the Lord’s Supper and delivers exhortation (sermon). It is possible that this is an early reference to the bishop but, apparently, names of offices are still flexible at this period.

Justin and Creed-Like Statement

Finally, it captured my attention that Justin several places makes creed-like statements that appear to be a form of the rule of faith: 

Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who was also born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the time of Tiberius Caesar; (1 Apol. 13)

And when we say also that the Word, who is the First-begotten of God, was born for us without sexual union, Jesus Christ our teacher, and that He was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven … (1 Apol. 21)

Concluding Thoughts 

Justin is interesting as a testimony of Christianity facing the wider pagan world. His apologies are born of the need to defend Christian faith against accusations and persecutions. Justin responds to this challenge by both trying to persuade Romans that Christians are not guilty of things of which they are accused and by attempting to positively expound Christian faith to them. It is another question, of course, whether the emperor to whom the work was addressed ever read it. But Justin also struggles with Greek culture and philosophy himself. He finds in it some evil things (e.g. he condemns many myths as deceitful creations of demons intended to lead away from the truth) but also some admirable thoughts. He is especially receptive of Platonism and although he believes that Plato’s knowledge of the Logos was incomplete and sometimes mistaken, he nevertheless accepts him and some Greek philosophers as Christians before Christ.

Reading Justin also shows a gradual development of Christian theology. There is a continuity between his declarations of worship of the Father, Son and Spirit and Logos-Christology and later trinitarian dogma. His faith, however, is not expressed in the sophisticated language of later theology but rather in the language of the church’s worship. Some of his terms, also, will later become problematic – like ‘unbegotten’.

Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies. Trans. Leslie William Bernard. Ancient Christian Writers, no. 56. Paulist Press: New York & Mahwah, NJ, 1997. 

  1. Leslie William Bernard, Introduction in: Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Bernard, Ancient Christian writers, no. 56 (Paulist Press: New York & Mahwah, NJ, 1997), 6.
  2. Leslie William Bernard, Introduction, 15.
  3. 1 Apol. 13 cf. 1 Apol. 61.3, 13, 65.2  67.2.
  4. Leslie William Bernard, Notes to the First Apology, n. 77.

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