With Justin Martyr’s First Apology, adressed to the Emperor of Rome and his son, Christian writing enters a new phase. Justin has been called “the founder of theological literature,” and one senses in reading him that there is a depth and theological stridency here that we’ve yet to encounter (quite like this) before.
Justin was a philosopher and it could rightly be said that he came to Jesus through Plato. He offers a powerful apology for the Christian faith in this work that, while not without its problems, cannot help but fire the soul of the modern reader. Furthermore, Justin offers some tantalizing insights into early Christian life that are quite important and controversial to this very day.
Justin appeals to his recipients’ reason (Caesar’s son is “Verissimus the Philosopher”) when he lampoons the crude and mindless persecution of the Christians simply because they bear the name Christian. He appeals to a sense of justice by asking whether or not the Christians ought not be persecuted when they behave as bad men worthy of punishment, not when they are simply men and women who bear the name. Of course, the crux of the matter for Justin is that the Christians are not bad men. They are good and they live good lives. This fact is all the more exasperating to Justin (and it’s a theme we find elsewhere among the fathers as well) because it piles ignorance onto cruelty.
Interestingly (and movingly), Justin is so sure of the good behavior of the Christians that he consents to the persecution of any who use that name but don’t live their lives in harmony with Christian principles: “And to those who are not living pursuant to these His teachings, and are Christians only in name, we demand that all such be punished by you.” One cannot help but wonder what would happen if such a policy were enacted against our churches today!
Justin clearly sees the faith through eyes trained in Greek philosophy, and he uses this in his argument without reservation. For example, he writes in ch.5, “For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemnded by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ…” We see here the much controverted, supposed Hellenization of theology, an issue that is argued about to this very day.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at Justin’s condemnation of the political mindset of the day: “But just so much power have rulers who esteem opinion more than truth, as robbers have in a desert.” Nothing really ever changes, does it?
We begin to see a strong sexual aestheticism in Justin. In ch.15 he notes that “many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men.” And in ch.29: “But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently.”
It is hard to calculate the damage that such a mindset has wrought in and out of the church over the ages. The denigration of sex as inherently impure, and of the act of sex in marriage only for procreation has arguably wreaked havoc over the ages in the Christian understanding of marriage and the marital relationship. I do not suggest, of course, that this originated with Justin, but it begins to surface in his writings in ways that it has not heretofore.
In this First Apology we find the fascinating suggestion that heathen mythology is simply the reworking of prophetic truth by demonic forces into tales designed to confuse human beings. In other words, Justin argues that the demons took the truths of Moses and the prophets and crafted the myths of man out of their raw material in an effort to deceive and confuse (ch.LIV).
We also find an intriguing description of baptism in the early Christian community in ch.LXI. I’ll no doubt be accused of eisegesis for this, but Justin appears to know nothing of infant baptism. To be sure, his description of the subjects of baptism (though not necessarily the operation of it) sounds like it could have been written in Nashville: “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ…As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.”
I suppose and advocate for infant baptism would point out that Justin is speaking of the baptism of converts here, and is silent on the question of the baptism of the children of those within the church. But note that Justin goes on to speak of baptism as an aspect of awakening in knowledge and understanding: “And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone.”
It also needs to be pointed out, contra Baptists, that Justin clearly holds to some form of baptismal regeneration.
There is also a strong Eucharistic statement in Justin’s Apology: “And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sin, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ enjoined” (ch.LXVI). We also find here the interesting observations that the deacons distribute the elements and that the eucharist was observed, seemingly, at each gathering of the church.