June 1, 2010

Justin Martyr: An Apologetic Hero

The Samaritan’s head rolled from his twitching body. Another Christian was dead. He knew the cost, and yet refused to denounce Christ. Society felt threatened by the new religion and could not tolerate those who rejected the gods of the state. “Kill them, kill them all” was the cry.

The martyr’s name was Justin. A passionate man of probing intellect, he studied and rejected many of the philosophies of second-century Rome. Instead, he found great joy in the teachings of Socrates and Plato. That changed one day. A stranger confronted him with the Gospel of Christ, and Justin embraced it with his whole heart. It became the focus of his life—and the reason for his death.

In the millennia since Christ’s ascension, many men and women have traded life for faith, mostly in anonymity. Justin’s name is known and his story is repeated because of his literary deposits to history. Eusebius reported that Justin had written many valuable books, and listed at least eight that were in circulation in the fourth century (Eusebius, pp. 154-155). Today, only three works remain that are accepted without question to be genuinely Justinian: The First Apology of Justin, The Second Apology of Justin, and Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew. The latter work is a discussion between Justin and Trypho (a prominent Jew of his day). In it Justin tells of his conversion and urges Trypho to accept Christ as Messiah. (Interestingly, they argue over whether Isaiah 7:14 should be translated “young woman” or “virgin.”)

His Apologies (which are addressed to Roman authorities) argue that, when correctly understood, Christianity need not be persecuted. Christians should be judged on their own merits—not on rumors or the deeds of evil-doers who merely claim allegiance to Christ. His approach contains strategies that are useful to modern apologists.

First, Justin’s apology centers on the belief that man is a rational being and that Christianity is a sensible religion. He wrote: “In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative” (1:172). He thus pleaded with the Romans to base their decisions about Christians upon clear, honest thinking. “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true...it is incumbent on the lover of truth, by all means, and if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to do and say what is right.” (1:163; cf. 1:191). This appeal to rationality is foundational to any defense of the Faith. Without that footing, no meaningful discussion can be built.

Second, Justin compared the behavior of Christians to that of the average Roman. Christians, he argued, are morally, ethically, and spiritually exemplary (1:167-168). He revealed the inconsistency of persecuting Christians by showing the absurdities of idolatry. Confusion over what was to be worshiped by the Romans was common. Some people worshiped animals that others used as sacrificial offerings (1:171). In light of such comparisons, Christianity was not deserving of persecution. This line of argumentation may be employed today. What better citizen can a country have than a morally upright person who believes that governments rule by divine right, and that prayers are to be offered for rulers before the Almighty’s throne? (See Romans 13:1-6, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, and 1 Peter 2:13-17.)

Third, the great apologist argued for Christianity by showing that Christ fulfilled a host of Old Testament prophecies (1:173-181). So convinced was he of the force of this argument that he made no excuse for referring to Scripture. Clearly, fulfilled prophecy remains one of the most impressive evidences for Christianity. It not only demonstrates the divine origin of Scripture, but also shows Christ to be worthy of praise, glory, and honor.

Western culture is running headlong into the same corruption of ancient Rome. Justin’s society is now ours, as is his battle. The Lord still summons His people to stand in defense of the Faith (1 Peter 3:15; Philippians 1:16-17). Who will stand with Justin Martyr?

The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1955 reprint).

The First Apology of Justin, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973 reprint).