Sunday, November 30, 2014

Justin Martyr: The Christian Philosopher by Chris White


Justin Martyr was born in Roman Palestine in the province of Samaria around 100 AD.  His parents were not Jewish by race or faith but were Greek and Roman and had migrated to Israel for reasons of employment.  As Justin grew up he knew about the Jewish and Christian religion as both had their origins in his homeland and were the faith of most of his neighbors, but as Justin began his own quest for ultimate things, he looked in the direction of philosophy and the life of the mind and was inspired to begin his journey.

The Philosopher Plato

In Justin’s day institutional universities as we understand them didn’t exist but higher learning certainly did.  Philosophers and scholars would teach pretty much any student who was a paying client.  Justin traveled through several schools of philosophy studying Aristotle, Pythagoras, Stoicism, and finally found himself at home studying Plato.  Justin truly was studying philosophy to understand the deeper meaning in life and Platonic teaching on the soul’s vision of God captured his mind.

Ephesus seaport dried up today

Justin was at the time living and studying in the seaport town of Ephesus in Asia Minor where only 30 years earlier the last of Jesus’ apostles St. John had died at the ripe old age of 100 and was buried outside of town.  It is during this period that Justin has a fateful encounter with an elderly Christian man while in the midst of meditating on the existence of God at the seashore.  There is an illustration here of Jesus’ principle that if we act on the light we are given, we will be given more (Mt. 13:12).
We don’t know the exact content of this conversation or even who really initiated it, but we know three important details.  First, that the evidence that proved convincing to Justin was how the Old Testament prophets gave detailed information about the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ centuries before it happened.  Secondly that there was a gentle, yet firm confrontation of Justin’s motives in studying philosophy as being more about winning debates than seeking to live by the truth.  And finally an exhortation to seek the God of the Bible in earnest prayer asking Him in humility to reveal Himself  and Christ to his heart and mind rather than trust his own philosophic reasoning.

His encounter in Ephesus set the tone for his future ministry.  After coming to the Christian faith he became the first apologist (from the Greek apologia “a defense”) for the Christian church, writing books aimed at showing ordinary people the reasonableness of the Christianity.  Ultimately Justin ends up coming to Rome where he opens a school where he teaches Christianity as the fulfillment of all philosophy.  An interesting sidelight to this is that for the remainder of his life he wears the costume of a philosopher which makes him the first minister in the church who wore any specific clothing to conduct their ministry.
Philosophic debate a public activity in the ancient world

For what is believed to be the next 35 years, Justin studied, collected information, wrote, taught, and even debated other religionists and pagans in an effort to show Christianity was the reasonable path to take and the true philosophy.  Justin was eventually beheaded in Rome under the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 165 after being betrayed by a disgruntled critic of his work.  Justin was brought to trial and refused to renounce his faith and make a sacrifice to the Roman gods.  He famously said “you may be able to kill us (fellow Christians) but you can never actually do us any harm.”  As Justin faithfully ended his life and laid down his work here on earth, it was taken up by others and has been an important ministry in every generation of the church ever since.
You can kill us but you can't really hurt us

Although Justin is quite removed from us by time and culture, I would like to end this essay by focusing on 10 ways his thinking has become a legacy to the Church:

1.  Christ is the culmination of all partial knowledge discovered by the Greeks (in philosophy) and the completion of all Jewish history.

2. Justin believed Christ is the Logos who was present in the Greek philosophers and is in germ form in all men.  God dwells in men insofar as they are susceptible and open to Him.  To the pagan and evil man he dwells not at all.

3.  All truth, no matter where it comes from is God’s truth.

4.  Prophecy is the supernatural basis by which the Christian faith is established.

5.  While Christianity can be understood philosophically, intellectual powers alone will not make you a Christian.  You must have a changed heart.  Teaching must include reaching the mind and heart.

6.  He believed that Plato was like Abraham.  He was a Christian before Christ who acted upon the light he had by God’s universal revelation.

7.  Justin took the Apocalypse of John quite literally and believed Christ would return to earth, rebuild Jerusalem as his capitol and would reign there for 1000 years.

8. Justin one of the earliest writers to refer to the Eucharist as a sacrifice offered to God and that the bread and wine once “eucharized” become the actual flesh and blood of Christ to the faithful.

9. Oddly, virtually all the knowledge in the world today that we possess about Gnosticism and other mystery religions which were Christianity’s competitors, is found only in the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus (the Church’s most important ancient apologists).  These groups themselves did not produce their own theologies.

10.  People must be reached with a language they can understand.  In Justin’s day philosophy was an important medium and culturally relevant way of communicating.  While speaking in terms of philosophy is not as important today, the principle of finding the language of a culture in evangelization remains.
Justin's burial spot today


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