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Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, burned with determination to force Christians to obey the gods of Rome. He promised an exquisitely painful death should they refuse. But Justin Martyr, a teacher of the Christian faith dwelling in Rome at the time, resisted his badgering with a calm and confident presentation of Christian truth. Finally, the prefect confronted Justin with an ultimate question: “Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven to receive some recompense?” Justin responded: “I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it.”
So certain was Justin of the truths of the Christian faith that he could say with confidence, “No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety.” But he had not always been so certain.
We learn from Justin’s dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish inquirer, that he was born of heathen parents at Flavia Neapolis, a city of Samaria in Palestine. He studied philosophy intensely under several teachers: a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean, and a Platonist. Though Platonism gave Justin more satisfaction than the other philosophical systems, it did not provide the certainty of truth for which he was searching.
Justin’s conversion in A.D. 130 followed a vigorous discussion with an experienced Christian. The conversation exposed the superficiality of Justin’s understanding of truth and commended to him a serious consideration of Christ. Burning with a zeal to know the prophets and the “friends of Christ,” he began to study the words of Jesus. He concluded, as he says in his words to Trypho, that Christ’s teaching “was the only true philosophy.”
After his conversion, Justin established a “school” in Rome to teach the Christian faith and engage the pagans in debate. He also sought to do evangelism among the Jews. His teaching gave him widespread notoriety among the intelligentsia of the city and led to a debate with a leading Cynic philosopher named Crescens. His defeat of Crescens in this debate probably led to his arrest and eventual decapitation in 165 immediately following the trial under Rusticus.
Most of Justin’s writings are not available to us now. Our knowledge of his thought, therefore, comes from two extant works, Apology (I and II) and Dialogue with Trypho. These works afford us a delightful entrance into Justin’s mind and show us how he presented the gospel to his culture, giving shape and definition to the faith for pagans and Jews.
Three common themes
Three characteristics are common to Justin’s witness to both pagans and Jews. Foundational to all is the rule of faith, or the historical aspects of Jesus’ redemptive mission. Second, Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy finds appropriate and ingenious application for Justin’s distinctly different audiences. Third, Justin clearly presents Jesus as the eternal Son of God, worthy of worship, and since His incarnation, a true man. In all of his presentations, Justin holds Scripture as the highest, and only inerrant, authority, incapable of contradiction. His profound grasp of the doctrines of Christianity, for which he is willing to die, gives power to his spirited defense.
For example, Justin repeatedly holds the events of Christ’s life before Trypho as virtually self-evident of His Messiahship. “But if John came as forerunner,” Justin points out, “exhorting men to repent, and then Christ came . . . and preached the gospel in person, affirming that the Kingdom of Heaven is imminent, and that He had to suffer much at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees, and be crucified, and rise again on the third day, and appear again at Jerusalem to eat and drink with His disciples,” these facts in themselves show that He fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies and types. Justin quotes and gives exposition to large portions of prophecy to demonstrate that in Christ’s appearance in the world, His teachings, His healings, His sufferings and death, His resurrection and ascension, and His promise to come again, He alone could fulfill the Old Testament prophecies.
These same facts of the gospel served Justin in arguing both for the clarity and antiquity of truth in Christianity as opposed to the vagueness of paganism and Greek philosophy. While Justin concedes too much in granting that “those who have lived by reason are Christians,” including several of the ancient Greek philosophers, his point is that any real truth they discovered is clearer in the person, teachings, and work of Christ. “From all that has been said,” Justin argued insistently, “an intelligent man can understand why, through the power of the Word, in accordance with the will of God, the Father and Lord of all, He was born as a man of a virgin, was named Jesus, was crucified, died, rose again, and ascended into Heaven” (Apology, 46). The appearance of Jesus on earth to speak the words the Father told Him and to perform the redemptive task the Father assigned Him, as well as His accomplishment of all that the prophets said about Him, gives superior credibility to all the teachings of Christianity.
Arguments for pagans
Justin used some arguments especially designed for confrontations with paganism. One was his insistence on the moral superiority of Christianity. He uses many examples of the grossness of pagan culture—how unjustly they excuse their abominations and how hypocritically they accuse Christians of moral crimes of which they themselves are the true perpetrators. He writes, “We who once reveled in impurities now cling to purity” because we “consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God” (Apology, 14). The skilled artisans who carve pagan gods are “licentious men . . . experienced in every known vice” who “even defile the girls who work with them.” What stupidity! The teachings of Christ, quoted abundantly by Justin, show the clear moral superiority of Christianity and also the absurdity of the false charges brought against Christians. The determination of Christians to escape worldly pollution and reverse the accepted standards of worldly cruelty and disregard for life, even though incurring the wrath of the world in the process, shows that their moral understanding is informed by eternal truth.
Justin also argued that Christianity excels in clarity of truth. He ridiculed the gullibility and criticized the inconsistency of Greeks who received, without proof, teachings that, when asserted about Christ with greater fullness and with historical demonstration, they indicted as absurd. Justin set himself to prove that the absurdity belonged to the pagans because the truth was in Jesus.
In Justin’s argument, proof consists of three elements: historical reality, fulfillment of prophecy, and superior arguments. First, Christianity revels in the irreducible reality of its historical events. No historical evidence or documentation exists for the fabulous tales told of Zeus, Jupiter, Minerva, and others. Even if historical evidence did exist, it would be useless since those deities do not inspire or redeem humanity but brutalize and debase it. The certainty of Jesus’ actions and words is beyond question, however, both as a matter of documentation and as an item still remembered in the Christian communities.
Second, Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy, as already mentioned, was pervasive, accurate, and impossible to fabricate. The world was prepared carefully for His coming through the Old Testament Scriptures. John the Baptist announced it immediately prior to His appearance, and Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of all the prophecies. These facts show that He gives us true knowledge of the One who created the world, sustains it, knows all things, and gives both eternal rewards and punishments in accordance with principles of ineffable justice.
Third, because Jesus is the historical manifestation of the truth, and there is no truth that He did not originate, everything that is true has its foundation in Christ. Justin argued that anything that was spoken well by philosophers came as a result of serious and difficult contemplation of “some part of the Logos.” Because they could not contemplate the “Whole Word,” even when they spoke well, they sometimes contradicted themselves and always knew that speaking of God was a difficult matter. Christ, however, spoke with fullness, absolute accuracy, and utter confidence. His words came from His own power, arising from intrinsic and divine understanding. No one is willing to die for Socrates or Heraclitus. But for Christ’s sake, not only the educated and philosophical, but the workmen, slaves, and uneducated not only scorn all glory but have no fear of death.
Justin argued cogently against the leading principles of several philosophical systems, showing the absurdities to which they led. Such were his interactions with Cynicism and Stoicism, as well as his clear opinions of the Epicureans and numbers of obscene poets. In spite of his high respect for Platonism, he viewed it as inadequate, for the “seed of something and its imitation . . . is one thing, but the thing itself, which is shared and imitated according to His grace, is quite another.”
Justin’s purpose was not purely defensive in the face of paganism, but “so that, if at all possible, they may be converted.” He ended his second apology with the prayer that “the men of every land be deemed fit to receive the truth.”
Arguments for the Jews
Justin’s presentation to the Jews had much of the same theological content, but the context and thrust of his arguments were different. His zeal for proof, however, remained undiminished. He tells Trypho, “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”
Justin shared a belief in divine revelation, the inspiration of the Old Testament, the unity of God, and the promise of a Messiah with his Jewish audience. In several infinitely important ways, however, he saw Christianity as superior. Christians have an accurate understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament because they perceive its typology (such as the Exodus, the snake in the wilderness, the sacrificial system, the redemption of Rahab, and so on) as fulfilled in Christ. They know that circumcision is fulfilled in the circumcision of the heart. Prophecy has clarity for them because they see it in the context of the events of the life of Christ. Their knowledge of the covenant is more complete because they are the recipients of the new covenant promised in the old. And they hold a more mature knowledge of God because they know the Anointed One, the true Son of God, whose begottenness assures that He is of one nature with the Father and is thus worthy of worship.
After laboring with deep earnestness and intensity to convince Trypho and his friends of the truth of Christ’s work for the redemption of sinners, Justin closed his dialogue with these words: “I beg of you to put your every effort into this great struggle for your own salvation, and to embrace the Christ of Almighty God in preference to your teachers.”
Even so must our passion for truth also embrace a concern for souls.