Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Justin Martyr –
We ended up in Asia Minor last post, hearing from both Polycarp himself as well as his followers. As shown, Polycarp died the martyr’s death for his religious exclusivism – his one and only “Lord” was Christ Jesus, not the emperor, not anyone else. In the second century, history tells us that just about 10 years after the martyrdom of Polycarp, another very important Christian was killed for the faith: Justin Martyr. He, of course, did not have a last name of “Martyr,” but was the recipient of such an honorary title later on.
Justin was born in approximately A.D. 100. To put this in perspective, the entire New Testament canon had just been completed less than a decade prior to his birth. He called the Roman city, Flavia Neapolis, his hometown which was formerly known as “Shechem” and is now “Nablus.” He was not born with the blessing of Christian parents, though they certainly sought to provide their son with rather impressive educational opportunities. His later letters portray a man with a deep grasp on popular philosophies of his day. In reading his extant writings, it is rather challenging if you do not have a strong background of knowledge in pagan religion. Indeed, these teachings were once part of his worldview. He delved into the teachings of Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and then Platonism. To Justin’s dismay, however, none of these philosophies could truly satisfy his intellectual and spiritual needs. Finally, through the reading of how the Hebrew Scriptures anticipated a Messiah, and how Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies, Justin converted to Christianity.
There is a good reason why Justin earned the last-half of his name, Martyr. He certainly was not shy about his Christian faith, writing to both religious skeptics and governmental rulers. In my opinion, his “First Apology” is probably his best extant writing on explaining the Christian faith. What we find is that Justin confronts the emperor of Rome, trying to explain that it is unjust for Christians to be persecuted for their faith. Some have misinterpreted Justin to try to say that he teaches pluralism (specifically, that paganism is no different from Christianity). James White has a terrific video about that issue here. Suffice it to say that Justin Martyr was not teaching pluralism; rather, he was explaining that there is no just reason to martyr Christians when there are “general” similarities with pagans over certain doctrines, though in actuality, paganism is truly just demonic, according to Christianity. So, the specifics and foundational truths are immensely distinct, but there are general ideas that are similar. Why, then, should Christians be killed, especially when they are doing so much good for society? Well as it turned out, Justin himself, who argued for the legalization of Christianity and the freedom of worship, was indeed martyred in approximately A.D. 165.
What can we learn from Justin Martyr? We must be wise about “loving wisdom.” I would say that his Christology is a little too philosophical. In fact, he calls Christianity the “True Philosophy.” Perhaps one can argue that he was simply engaging his context, which was quite pagan. But nevertheless, this is a helpful reminder that Christian doctrine must draw out truth from the Bible and test the propositions of other worldviews by the Scriptures as well. Also, I think that studying Justin Martyr should remind people who live in a country of religious freedom to be extremely thankful. Likewise, those who live under a state of religious persecution should pray for their country to one day allow freedom (see also 1 Timothy 2:1-6). Allow me to end with this quote from this early church father:
“And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid” (First Apology, ch. 11).
Church History Tip: While I think the name Justin “Martyr” is an easy reminder in and of itself as to whom he was and the part he plays in church history — that he was martyred for his faith — I think it is also helpful to keep in mind that he is usually referred to as the first “apologist” of Christianity, post-New Testament times. I believe it is important to remember why he was martyred: he was a strong defender of Christianity. He needed to be “dealt with.” It’s no secret that many of modern-day Christian apologists are also quite influenced by Greek thinkers (Aristotle especially). So, try to keep in mind the influences of Justin Martyr, so that you can remember whom he influenced.