Justin Martyr’s On the Sole Government of God

justin_martyr_iconOn the Sole Government of God is a classic example of a Christian apologist seeking to point people to divine truth through the usage of culturally known pagan texts.  It is, in other words, a 2nd century example of contextualization.  In this work, Justin is essentially modeling Paul’s approach in Acts 17:28 where Paul quoted the Phaenomena of Aratus in his speech before the Athenians.

Justin is seeking to demonstrate that the great Greek writers and philosophers themselves bore witness to the fact that there is a powerful God above all others, that we are accountable to this God, that we should reject false gods, and that we should seek righteousness.

Thus, to prove the unity of God, Justin appeals to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Philemon, and Orpheus.  Concerning the reality of a future judgment, Justin quotes Sophocles.  Concerning the need for righteousness, Just appeals to Philemon and Plato.  Concerning false gods, he quotes Menander, Hippolytus, Ion, Archelaus, Bellerophon, Piscatores, Fratres, Tibicinae, Phrixus, Philoctetes, and Hecuba.  Concerning the need to acknowledge only one God, Justin appeals to Homer.

This is an engaging little work that is basically an anthology of ancient writers addressing theological themes and reality.  The most significant element in all of this for our day is the fact that Justin, a Christian, engages his audience with these texts.  Of course, he could not do so unless he himself had engaged these texts.  If nothing else, Justin’s impressive grasp of pagan writings and the able way that he employs them in his apologetic task should challenge us to escape the Christian ghetto in which only explicitly Christian texts are read.  Justin has shown us a better model:  careful, critical engagement with a culture’s texts for the purpose of understanding and engaging that culture with the truth of the gospel.  It should also be noted that such an approach to such writings does not rule out the simple enjoyment of the writings or the appreciation of them as works of art.

Lastly, it should not be missed that Justin does not actually argue for the reality of Christ in this work, only for the reality of a theism that is consistent with Christian theism.  In this we may see the limitations of general revelation.  The pagan world, as Paul acknowledged in Romans 1, has a general knowledge of God, but it cannot deduce the gospel from nature or from an observance of the human heart.  What it can deduce, however, is what Justin argues for here:  the reality and presence of a God above all others before Whom we are accountable.  This means that a culture’s texts may include insights that can be used to argue for theism and for some aspects of Christian theism, but explicitly Christian truth will eventually need to be employed if the gospel is going to be advanced.

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