In the third installment of the Great Minds series, we will look at Justin Martyr, one of the first apologists of the Christian faith. To start with, we note that Martyr is not Justin's surname. He received that name because he died a martyr.
Justin was born around AD 100 in the Roman city of Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem in Samaria). He loved learning and devoted himself to the study of philosophy. He aimed to find the meaning of life in the philosophies of his time. He started his search for truth in Stoic philosophy and criticised it for having no real interest or belief in God. After this, he followed a wandering philosopher who taught Aristotelian philosophy. They were not interesting enough for him, so he moved on from them too. He also rejected the Pythagoreans, another ancient school of philosophers, because they required a prerequisite knowledge of music, astronomy, and geometry. Eventually, he discovered Plato, whose ideas he thought were consistent with the Old Testament prophets.
Justin lived between the two worlds of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. His conversion to Christianity was sparked by a conversation he had with a wise, elderly Christian man who instructed him on how Christ had fulfilled the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Justin subsequently started a school in Rome where he taught philosophy and proclaimed Christianity as the ultimate philosophy. For him, Christianity fulfilled the highest intellectual and moral aspirations of classical philosophy—Platonism.
Justin was probably the first person to synthesise Plato and Christianity systematically. He aimed to make Christianity understandable to the intellectual culture of his day by teaching that Platonism had been allied to Christianity from the very beginning. Ultimately, Justin views Plato as prefiguring the teaching of Christ and so is a sort of Christian before Christ.
Justin made some vital contributions to Christianity. We know from historians that this was a precarious time to be Christian. Christianity was under attack both politically and philosophically. The Romans persecuted Christians because they would not worship the emperor or the Roman gods. Secondly, they branded Christians atheist because they would not bow down to Roman deities. Under these circumstances, the Christian movement needed a figure who would rationally defend the apostles' teachings against pagan philosophers. Justin was that figure. He was one of the first apologists of the church, defending the Christian faith against heretical views, particularly Docetism, meaning Jesus was not fully human.
His main contribution to the church is to do with systematically developing the idea of Logos to explain the nature of Christ. If there is anything Christianity shares with the Greek philosophy, which has had a lasting influence, it is the idea of Logos. And Justin is primarily responsible for this lasting influence.
The first one to use Logos in a specialized sense was one of the pioneers of philosophy we all know: Pythagoras. He believed that the world is three-dimensional.
1. Monad - representing the unification of whole reality, the singularity of everything.
2. Dyad - a principle of diversification and differentiation.
3. Harmony - the relation of one thing to another. This Harmony is ordered by logos, the role of which is uniting Monad and Dyad, two seemingly opposing principles.
Another thinker who talked about Logos around the same time was Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE). He is famous for saying, "No man steps into the same river twice". His idea is that everything is in a state of flux except the Logos. The Logos holds everything together.
Justin adopted the concept of Logos from Greek philosophers. He taught that Logos was that by which all had been ordered and created. The Logos was God, and God is the ordering principle behind everything. More importantly, he borrowed the idea to teach that what philosophers have long thought of as the Logos is what we Christians now understand expressly to be Christ.
Justin reflected on John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God," and believed that Logos was originally something within God. An aspect of God's being. When God first created, Logos was expressed in words. And ultimately, the Logos was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. The Logos becomes a historical, material reality.
In opposing Docetism, Justin began the problematic discussion that eventually led to Trinitarian theology. Christians believed that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament was God, and so was Jesus Christ. But how might that be possible? What exactly is the relationship between God, the creator of the universe, and the person of Jesus Christ? How can an infinite God who is spirit become a finite historical person, like Jesus? Christians had not yet raised these questions, but Justin got them started. He is single handily responsible for starting a conversation that will eventually culminate in what we now know as the Trinity.
Perhaps, contemporary Christians can learn a great deal from looking at church history and the great thinkers who presented and defended the faith in the past. Justin Martyr's wisdom, courage, and single-minded commitment to Christ are worthy of emulation by today's believers.
Justin was ultimately arrested for his Christian convictions and was given a chance to recant his Christian faith by offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Still, he stood firm in his commitment to Jesus as the only Lord and Saviour. Roman authorities executed him early in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was later dubbed "Justin Martyr" because of his martyr death.
Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought, L. W. Barnard.