Old Stuff: Justin Martyr for Post-Magisterial Culture

This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course in Fundamental Theology in 2011.

Usually, when I post “old stuff,” it’s enough that there’s an understanding that whatever the post contains reflects what I thought at the time of composition, not necessarily currently. In this case, I do wish to explicitly retract with apology footnote number 7 which, though I reproduce it here unaltered, is offensive, and no longer reflects my perspective on the dignity of homosexual persons’ self-understanding.

Justin Martyr as Pre-Magisterial Model for Evangelizing Post-Magisterial Culture:

A Critical Reappropriation of the First Apology


29 November 2011


From the earliest beginnings of Christianity, propagation of the faith has been an essential element of Christian identity. A Church which does not effectively engage the culture to “make disciples of all nations” is fundamentally flawed in living out its mission.1 Contemporary Western culture, once widely, if not deeply, rooted in Christianity, is now marked by a deep-seated perspectivalism. Claims to authority are met with reactions ranging from suspicion to scorn; the objectivity of truth is widely rejected. Historically, the Church has evangelized largely by attempting to establish its teaching authority, or magisterium, and, arguing from that authority, demonstrating the truth of its claims.2 Inspired by the Pauline exhortation to “become all things to all people, that (we) might save some,” the Church must explore new models of evangelization to reach a post-magisterial culture.3 Second century philosopher, apologist, and martyr St. Justin, as a figure both cosmopolitan and pre-magisterial, has the potential, through a critical reappropriation of his key themes, to provide a prototype of such a model.4 Toward this end, certain themes problematically wedded to their original sitz-im-laben will be analyzed, after which ideas of enduring value will be identified and applied to contemporary life.

A Brief Exposition of Post-Magisterialism

Post-magisterial culture is marked by a profound resistance to any real or perceived imposition from an external authority of absolute definition of truth in the realms of ontology, teleology, or ethics. Catalyzed by recent centuries’ historically unprecedented intercultural exposure, the contemporary West is inspired by a healthy appreciation of diversity of human perspectives. In an effort to preserve human freedom, post-magisterial culture relativizes conflicting perspectives on reality, placing the impetus for defining the meaning of important questions on particular cultures, communities, and, ultimately, individuals.5 “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself…Man is at the start of a plan which is aware of itself…(N)othing exists prior to this plan…(M)an will be what he will have planned to be.”6

Self-definition of meaning is inherently arbitrary, as no person is the source of his or her own being. While contemporary culture attempts to capitalize on its perceived liberty through defying traditional taboos7 and creating an artistic popular culture that mocks as absurd the very concept of meaning,8 men and women cannot escape the realization that, as firmly as they may cling to self-determined identities and norms, those norms are, in the end, by definition make-believe.9 With an intuitive desperation that rarely emerges as conceptual, post-magisterial men and women seek distraction from the hopelessness of absurdity. Some turn to a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure; others to a pursuit of wealth.10 Still others, drawn toward any reputable source of objectivity, have embraced a reductionist materialist scientism.11 Sartre himself recognized the dark side of liberty rooted in the absence of genuine meaning: “(M)an is condemned to be free.”12

All is not darkness and hopelessness in contemporary culture. The great value placed on the diversity of human perspectives has blossomed into a growing respect for human dignity. Recent decades have seen great strides in the recognition of gender, racial, religious, and lifestyle orientational equality.13 Perspectivalism has empowered men and women to recognize in the face of the other one who is fundamentally like oneself. Grounded in compassion, movements abound within the West to ease the suffering of others and establish just societies.14 Christians recognize self-giving love as a theological virtue, and so cannot fail to see in progressive movements toward justice, even among non-Christians, evidence of the presence of “the One and Triune God (as) their origin, motive, and object.”15

Christians, then, must engage the surrounding post-magisterial culture, of which they, too, are a part, critically, but not adversarially. For all its shortcomings, Western culture is engaged in a project aimed at the common good.

(W)e…believe in universal truth, too, though we are less certain that we have it all ready (than are more traditional cultures). It is not skepticism about the very idea of truth that guides us; it is realism about how hard the truth is to find. One truth we hold to, however, is that every human being has obligations to every other. Everybody matters: that is our central idea.16

The Church must approach its post-magisterial neighbors as the contemporary Good Samaritans—men and women who, despite flawed ideology, are genuinely if imperfectly involved in the good work of the gospel.

The Life and Work of St. Justin Martyr

St. Justin, a Samaritan by nationality, of uncertain ethnicity17, and pagan upbringing, was born in Flavia Neapolis, modern Nablus, Israel, in the late first or early second century. Well educated, Justin studied and taught the then-current varieties of Middle Platonic philosophy. Sparked by an encounter with an elderly Christian man18, Justin examined Christianity and, convinced he had discovered the true philosophy, converted to the faith. Continuing to wear the robes of a philosopher, Justin became a prominent itinerant Christian teacher, using Greek philosophy to enhance the presentation of Christian doctrine during extended terms at Christian schools throughout the Empire, including at least two lengthy stays in Rome. Between 162 and 168, Justin suffered martyrdom by beheading.19

Of a once sizable corpus, only three genuine Justinian works are extant, the Dialogue with Trypho20, the First Apology, and the Second Apology. Only one manuscript of independent value, the Parsinus graecus 450, dated 11 September 1364, is extant.21 The First Apology is a petition addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius and his sons, eloquently arguing for toleration of Christians within the Empire. Minns and Parvis argue convincingly that the original petition was continually expanded and adapted by Justin for use in his Christian schools. What is commonly called the Second Apology consists of various notes and excisions from Justin’s lesson plans, and is not an independent work.22

Due to the lack of extant material, one must be cautious in attempting to synthesize a complete model of Justinian thought. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that neither of the extant treatises were composed for a Christian audience.23 With the exception of adaptations of the original First Apology, which cannot be specifically identified with any certainty, no exposition of Christian doctrine for his Christian students remains. While this critically impoverishes Justinian studies per se, the non-Christian audience of the First Apology is a fortuitous reality in the effort to reappropriate its key themes to engage post-magisterial culture.

Of added benefit to this endeavor is Justin’s status as a pre-magisterial figure. Justin antedates the first act of the extraordinary magisterium of the Church by nearly two centuries.24 The Church of Justin’s era had no explicit formulation of a concept of ordinary magisterium, whether manifested as formal inter-diocesan collegiality or Petrine-rooted Roman primacy. Second century ecclesiology focused predominantly on the local Church; assertions of catholicity were reliant on unity of spirit, not of structure. Justin’s own ecclesiology is nearly nonexistent in his surviving corpus; he speaks only of the congregational level and names no ordained ministers other than deacons and an unidentified president coordinating the assembly.25 Indeed, in the account of his martyrdom, Justin is remarkably portrayed saying of his congregation: “I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other [congregation].”26 It is precisely as an apologist presenting the Christian faith to educated non-Christians without relying on the vicarious divine teaching authority of ecclesial leaders that Justin in his First Apology serves as a model for evangelizing contemporary post-magisterial culture.

Thematic Synopsis of the First Apology

The First Apology follows the standard format of an imperial petition or libellus. In its original version, it was most likely presented for the emperor’s consideration, though it is an open question whether it was ever read directly by the emperor. Such libelli were commonplace in the second century; “(t)hey follow a well set pattern. They begin with an address of the petitioner in the nominative to the recipient in the dative, set out a problem, go on to make a specific request…and often end with the citation of legal precedent.”27 Thus begins the Apology:

To the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrian Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to Verissimus his son, philosopher, and to Lucius, the son of Caesar by nature and of Pius by adoption, lover of learning. I, Justin, son of Priscus, and grandson of Bacchios who both come from Flavia Neapolis in Syria Palestina, have drawn up this address and petition on behalf of a group, to which I myself belong, drawn from every race of human beings, who are unjustly hated and abused.28

Appealing to the emperor’s reputation as a man of piety and of reasoned thought, Justin urges him to reconsider the imperial stance toward Christianity accordingly.

Reason prescribes that those who are truly pious and philosophers should honor and hold in affection the truth alone…Turning to you, then, you hear on all sides people calling you pious and philosophers and guardians of justice and lovers of learning. But whether in fact you are remains to be seen…(We) demand that you give judgment in accordance with careful and exacting reason, instead of being held fast by preconception or the desire to please superstitious men…29

With the confidence of a true believer in eternal life, Justin, while hopeful that the imperial family will recognize the harmlessness to the empire of Christianity, directly challenges the emperor: “You have the power to kill us, but not to harm us.”30

Justin presents the persecution of Christianity by the state as an injustice perpetrated by the very institution the sole raison d’etre of which is the establishment and preservation of justice within society. For Justin, Christians are targeted with meager cause, solely on account of the name “Christian.”31 That a name alone cannot be rightly construed as a detriment to the common good is evidenced by the widespread pardon of Christians who, once accused, renounce the faith, by which it is clear that the empire is “in no way able to convict (them) of doing anything wrong.”32 Likewise, Justin highlights an unjust double standard in imperial prosecutions. Christians were not unique in challenging the imperial cultic status quo.

Some (philosophers) in their teaching denied the gods and those of them who were poets proclaimed the promiscuity of Zeus as well as of his sons, and you (O, Emperor) do not bar performers who take up there teaching. Rather, you give prizes and rewards for those who are in good voice when they offer insult to (the gods).33

Justin counters accusations of Christian impiety by presenting Christianity as the true piety, in that among Christians is worshiped the true God.

Hence it is said that we reject the gods. And we admit that we do reject such supposed gods as (those of Greece and Rome), but not the God who is most true and Father of justice and temperance and the other virtues and who is unalloyed with evil. This God we do venerate and worship, and also the Son who came from him and taught us these things, and the company of the other good angels who follow him and are like him, and also the prophetic Spirit. We honour them with reason and in truth, and hand on ungrudgingly to everyone who wishes to learn exactly what we were taught.34

This true God is contrasted by Justin with the scandalous and immoral behavior of the pagan deities as recounted in the traditional myths of the time.

And what sort of stories are told about the doings of those who are called sons of Zeus it is not necessary to say to those who know, except that these things are written to persuade to corruption those who are being educated. For all think it is good to imitate the gods. Far let it be from a sensible mind to be schooled in such an idea concerning the gods—that even Zeus, according to them the leader and begetter of all, was both a parricide and the son of a father who was also such, and, enslaved by love to evil and shameful pleasures, had sex with Ganymede and with the many women he debauched, and that his own children did similar things.35

In an oft-recurring Justinian theme, the apologist attributes the moral failure of the gods to their demonic nature: “The evil demons did these things.”36

While Christians of Justin’s days were often maligned for perceived moral perversity, Justin attributes these accusations to demonic deception.37 Far from Christian morality being a threat to imperial concord, Justin portrays the Church as a potentially great benefit to the empire.

(W)e more than all people are your allies and fellow soldiers for peace, since we think it impossible for one who does evil, or is grasping, or a schemer, to escape God’s notice and that each goes to eternal punishment or salvation just as his actions deserve. For if all people knew this no one would choose evil even for a little, knowing that he is going to be condemned to eternal fire, but he would restrain himself in every way and adorn himself with virtue so that he might obtain good tings from God and be saved from the regions of punishment.38

Far from socially destructive behavior, Christians, seeking to secure salvation from eternal punishment, conduct their affairs in such a fashion that imperial civilization is thereby strengthened. While conceding that immoral behavior may exist among those professing Christians out of communion with Justin’s congregation and, presumably, due to their heterodoxy, the greater Church,39 Justin’s fellowship is marked by virtue; indeed, rational worship of the true God consists in virtuous living, which Justin contrasts with pagan cults.40

Justin strongly argues for the superiority of Christian morality, citing Christian aversion to suicide,41 monogamy and marital fidelity,42 temperance,43 love of neighbor and generosity,44 lack of hubris,45 honesty,46 piety,47 and civic responsibility.48 With typical Justinian irony, the apologist scathingly turns imperial suspicions of Christian perversity around on the emperor:

But, so that we might avoid any injustice or impiety, we have been taught that to expose the newborn (to the elements to die) is wicked. First, because we see nearly all reared for sexual immorality, not only the girls but also the males, and just as the ancients are said to have gathered herds of grazing cattle or goats or sheep or horses, so now people gather children only to use them shamefully. And similarly a multitude in every nation of women and passive males who commit unspeakable acts have been brought to this defilement. And you receive the wages of these as taxes and levies, when you ought to extirpate these practices from the world. And it might happen that anyone of those who use these in godless and impious and unrestrained sex, might have sex with his child, or relative, or sibling. And others prostitute even their own children and wives, and some openly emasculate themselves to be come catamites, and they present the mysteries to the mother of the gods and the viewing of the things you suppose to be divine is proclaimed before everyone as a great symbol and mystery. And the things which are openly done and honoured by you, as if the divine light were overturned and absent, you ascribe to us.49

Thus, Justin strongly urges the emperor to do justice to the Christians, lest he himself “pay penalties in eternal fire according to the worth of his actions.”50

Christian liturgical gatherings of the second century took place in secret due to imperial persecution. This secrecy only served to further fuel popular suspicion that every manner of wicked behavior occurred during church assemblies. To deflect this suspicion, Justin provides outsiders with a glimpse into Christian services. While the nature of ordained ministry in in a primitive, fluid state, the key elements of the Eucharistic liturgy are already in place in the Roman Church of the second century.

And on the day called Sunday there is an assembly of those who dwell in the cities or the countryside, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, for as long as there is time. Then, when the reader has stopped, the president, in an address, makes admonition and invitation of the imitation of their good things. Then we all stand up together and send prayers…(W)hen we have stopped praying, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president sends up prayers and thanksgivings in similar fashion, to the best of his ability, and the people give their assent, saying ‘Amen’. And there is a distribution and a partaking of the eucharistized elements to each one.51

Recognizing the apparent absurdity of worshiping a crucified criminal, Justin, capitalizing on his background as a philosopher, made what would prove to be his most lasting contribution to Christian thought by stressing commonality between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy, stressing the unity of truth. While Christianity from its earliest beginnings, through the influence of Hellenistic Judaism, was influenced by Platonic and Stoic philosophy, evident especially in the Pauline and Johannine literature, Justin broke new ground in explicitly philosophizing as a Christian.

“(T)here seem to be,” explained Justin, “seeds of truth amongst all (philosophers).”52 Among the truths discovered by philosophy with which Justin perceives commonality are the creation of the universe by one God through his Logos,53 the chaotic nature of the pre-creation universe,54 the rejection of the pagan pantheon,55 the freedom of humankind to choose good or evil,56 the coming end of the world, 57 eternal punishment for obstinate sinners,58 and, though imperfectly, certain ethical norms.59 True to form, Justin attributes discrepancies between the philosophers and poets and Christianity and between one another to the influence of “evil demons.”60

A century and a half earlier, the concept of Divine Logos then-current in Middle Platonic and Stoic thought, particularly in Philo, the divine agent of communicative reason, influenced Johannine understanding of the nature of Christ to the lasting enrichment of Christian theology. By reintegrating the theme of Christ-as-Logos into a philosophical context, Justin made great leaps in the Church’s Christological development. “Our doctrines, then,” Justin celebrates, “are shown to be more majestic than every human teaching through the fact that the whole rational principle became the Christ, who was made visible for our sake, body and logos and soul.”61 Here the apologist formulates

a way to conceptualize the relation of the Son to the Father, while still preserving belief in one Supreme Bring (which many philosophers thought was the highest form of religion). The Logos is numerically distinct from the Father as the agent of his will, but is unified with him as well. This understanding fit…into the Hellenistic worldview. It was also the very beginning of the church’s theological reflection on the problem of the Trinity.62

In a brilliant synthesis of philosophical insight and Christian revelation, Justin universalizes the work of Christ as the ground of all truth, regardless of the source.

As well as being identical with the Word through whom God revealed himself in the theophanies described in the Old Testament, and in those scriptures themselves, the Logos whom Justin believes has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth also has an affinity with the principle by means of which human beings are able to think rationally.63

Justin proposes a certain connaturality between the human person and the Logos, by which “the seed of reason has been implanted in the whole human race.”64 For Justin, men and women bear within their persons “the seed from God, the Logos,” or, the spermatic Logos.65 Thus the prototypical Christian philosopher can

confess not that the teachings of Plato are alien to those of Christ, but that they are not in all ways the same as them, just as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and prose-writers. For what each of them proclaimed was good, when he saw from a part of the divine spermatic logos what is connatural to it…Therefore, anything good that has been said by anyone belongs to us Christians, for, after God, we worship and love the Logos who is from the unbegotten and inexpressible God, since he also became a human being for our sakes.66

While both natural human fallibility and the demonic interference have prevented any philosopher from discovering the fullness of truth, Justin asserts that

Christ is the first-born of God, being the Logos in which the whole race of human beings shared. And those who lived with Logos are Christians, even if they were called atheists, such as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus…(T)hose who lived or do live with Logos are Christians and fearless and unconfounded.67

The insights of the Hebrew prophets are superior to those of the philosophers and poets precisely because, through a sovereign choice, the Logos directly moved the prophets to see the fullness of truth.68 Justin elaborates at length on Christ’s fulfillment of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible as evidence of the veracity of the Christian faith. At length, Justin argues from prophecies regarding Christ’s Davidic descent,69 the virgin birth,70 the miracles of Christ,71 the paschal mystery,72 the rejection of Christ by the Jews and the Gentile mission,73 and the destruction of Jerusalem and desolation of Judea and Samaria,74 among other themes. The proof from prophecy will be extensively revisited in the Dialogue with Trypho.

In the face of imperial persecution of the Church as a threat to the concord of society, Justin ably defends Christianity as a morally superior way of life. The Christian life inspires such ethical behavior because Christians possess the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ, who is the Incarnation of the Logos, the divine rational principle which sows seeds of reason in the hearts of men and women of all ages. Foretold by the prophets of old, he suffered, died, and rose again, and will return at the end of days. Thus, he concludes his message to the emperor:

And if (these words) seem to you to be not far from reason and truth, honour them. But if they seem to you to be portentous nonsense, despise them as nonsensical matters and do not decree death against those who do nothing wrong as though they were enemies. For we warn you that you will not escape the coming judgment of God if you remain in wrongdoing. And we ourselves shall cry out: ‘Let what is pleasing to God be done.’75

Problematic Themes

All literature is culturally conditioned, and the First Apology is no exception. While Justin has had lasting impact on the development of Christian doctrine and is a strong candidate for a model for evangelizing post-magisterial culture, certain of his themes are so integrally wedded to the historical context of their composition that they must be significantly adapted or excised from that model. Chief among these are Justin’s pervasive speculative demonology, his reliance on the probative value of Old Testament prophecy, and his subordinationist Christology and Pneumatology.

Belief in the reality of malevolent spiritual beings, in rebellion from God and antipathetic to humanity, is a common feature to many archaic and living religious traditions. The existence of demons and their potential to negatively impact human affairs is a tenet of the Christian faith.76 Certain segments of post-magisterial culture, particularly those inclined toward New Age or syncretistic spiritualities may indeed be receptive to a presentation of the gospel as a counter-balance to demonic activity in the world. More secularly-minded persons, on the other hand, will be inclined to view demonology as a whole as an outdated, pre-scientific absurdity.

The Church certainly cannot deny or renounce her own belief in the demonic in order to make the gospel more palatable. Integrity demands that the faith to which we invite our post-magisterial neighbors be unadulterated. Should we attempt to remove elements of the faith to suit the whims of the culture in the model of a radical correlationalist theology, we would ultimately be succumbing to the same relativism from which we seek to save our culture.

At the same time, Justin’s continual attribution of demonic influence to various events and concepts is entirely speculative. It is one thing to recognize the existence of demons; it is quite another to assert that demons did such and such thing at such and such time and place. In doing this, though he differs little from either Christians or pagans of his own time, Justin is asserting as fact that which he could not possibly know. Pervasive as his speculative demonology may be, it is neither demonstrably true, nor essential to his argument, nor helpful toward a contemporary proclamation of the gospel, and, as such, is to be left out of the contemporary evangelical model.

Inherent in the proclamation of the gospel since the very beginnings of the Church has been Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament. Indeed, Christ is only of interest to Jews as the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant, and the Mosaic Covenant is only of interest to Gentiles as the preparatory witness to Jesus Christ, so close is the Word made flesh intertwined with the written Word. For Paul and the authors of the canonical gospels, the Jewish prophets time and again explicitly foretold the advent, life, death, resurrection, and salvific value of Jesus Christ.

Justin invokes myriad biblical texts as prophecies of Jesus Christ and presents them, both in Apology and especially in Dialogue, as evidence for the Christian faith. In doing so, he is continuing an already old Christian tradition and passing on what will be standard practice of the Church into modern times. Yet even contemporary Christians cannot help but see in much of Justin’s typology an arbitrary eisegesis. “Students of patristic exegesis,” states Oskar Skarsaune, “have sometimes felt inclined to quote Shakespeare (of Justin): ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.’”77

Attempting to demonstrate from the gospel accounts of the life of Christ how Jesus fulfills prophecies of the Hebrew Bible begs a certain response from contemporary skeptics: as the gospels themselves were composed decades after the events they recount, is it not more likely that the narrative of the life of Christ was fabricated intentionally to cohere with biblical prophecy?78 Not only skeptics, but Christian believers familiar with historical-critical biblical studies, without proposing intentional falsification, recognize that the literary genre of gospel is not the same as contemporary history; the gospels are historiographical theological reflections in which the authors did indeed consciously craft their narratives with an agenda of demonstrating prophetic fulfillment.

The inspiration of the scriptures and Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant are essential elements of the Christian faith which cannot be renounced without doing substantive damage to the gospel. In light of historical-criticism, how can prophetic fulfillment in Christ be salvaged?

The canonical Hebrew prophets have not provided contemporary readers with a thorough enough phenomenology of prophetic inspiration to definitively understand what the ecstatic experience entailed. From Christian teaching that the scriptures, parallel to the Incarnation, are both the inspired Word of God and the product of human beings as true authors79 and from the clearly distinct personalities of the prophets evident in their writings, the believer can safely rule out a dictatorial locution model of inspiration. It is likely, then, that inspiration occurs in the prophet as an encounter with the divine at his intuitive, preconceptual core, or spiritual unconscious.80 In translating the divine experience for his audience, the prophet, utilizing his higher faculty, mediates the experience according to his own preferred means, ranging from direct proclamations to poetry to apocalyptic, dream-like imagery to the bizarre, performance art-like spectacle.

By our assent of faith, Christians can confess that God intended the prophetic revelation to refer to Christ without the necessity of asserting that the prophet himself was aware of this.81 Christians, then, can avail themselves of all the data provided by historical-critical biblical scholarship regarding the literary genre, historical context and development, and original authorial intent of the scriptures without sacrificing the time-honored canonical-critical method of interpreting the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus Christ as its fulfillment.

In assigning specific prophetic passages concrete fulfillment in Jesus Christ, Christians should use caution. We must speak with dogmatic certainty of a Christological interpretation of an individual passage only when that interpretation is given by a New Testament author to whose inspiration we also assent. Discovering Christ in prophecy remains a valid enterprise of lectio divina, and a comparative discussion of likely interpretation of prophecy may on occasion remain a fruitful enterprise when engaged in dialogue with persons who also recognize the inspiration of the scriptures, such as Christians not in full visible communion with the Catholic Church. Asserting probative value to biblical prophecy in the pervasive fashion of Justin in proclaiming the gospel to post-magisterial culture, however, is unlikely to be effective.

The beginnings of an adapted form of the proof from prophecy, admittedly moving beyond what Justin would likely recognize as his own, which may retain effectiveness in presenting the gospel to post-magisterial culture may look something like the following: As humankind evolved and developed throughout the world, we shared in common certain deep longings and needs. Beyond the instinctive drives toward material necessity and reproduction, we have been enraptured by an impulse toward the timeless and transcendent. Men and women have seen in the deepest core of their hearts a connection to an infinite source. In every time and place, wherever people have turned to art, music, dance, and ritual, they have been responding to an inexpressible interior calling. Throughout the ages and throughout the world, wherever men and women have moved beyond their selfish desires and given of themselves for the good of others in building up human societies, they have been drawn closer to that source. While every tribe and people have witnessed failures and great evils, nevertheless there is evidence in the people of great creativity, of great intuition, of great wisdom, and especially of great love, the movement of that same source drawing them to itself from within themselves. Among the ancient people of Israel, the draw of the infinite expressed itself in a growing consciousness of its unity—that there is one God—and a growing recognition that this God is encountered in just and loving treatment of one another. Like any culture, Israel did not perfectly live up to its historically groundbreaking insights into the nature of the infinite, but unlike other cultures, Israel did give the world one man who did, and in so doing this man, Jesus Christ, fulfilled all that it meant to be Israel, all that it means to be human.

Problematic not for its potential impact on post-magisterial culture but rather for its inadequate presentation of the gospel is Justin’s Christology. For Justin, the Logos is clearly subordinate to God the Father. Justin presents the Christ as the angel of God par excellence and the Holy Spirit can reasonably be interpreted in Justin as inferior in dignity to the angels en masse.82 The Logos is another god, second to the Father, who came into being by the Father’s will.83

Justin is not to be dismissed on the count as heretical. Rather, he represents an early stage in Christological development. Though his Christology would be made obsolete by Nicaea and Chalcedon, he stands at a moment in history which was essential to the later development of orthodoxy. In this, he is not alone. “There is no theologian in the Eastern or Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian controversy who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.”84 While much of Justin’s Divine Logos and spermatic Logos philosophy can be salvaged, Christians must use caution. Without advocating a strict philological expressivism which would deny the need—or even the possibility—of developing extra-Chalcedonian language to present the gospel to contemporary culture, any proposed newer modes of expression must not be anti-Chalcedonian, as it is inherent in Christian doctrine that the definitions of the ancient councils, while not exhaustive of the infinite reality of God, cannot be in error.

Toward a Neo-Justinian Model of Evangelization

Historically conditioned as it is, the First Apology has continued to resonate with Christians of all ages from the second century until our own time. In the confident faith of the apologist Justin, 21st century Christians recognize the same salvific relationship with Jesus Christ which they themselves experience as the center of their lives. The Church is moved, not only by the biblical command, but by her very being, to continue to invite men and women to join with her in entering into that same salvific covenant. Certain key themes in the pre-magisterial Justin are of timeless value to Christians; foremost among these are the commonality of truth, the freedom of the human person, and the call to virtuous living. By critically reappropriating these themes, we propose the following as a potential model for beginning to evangelize post-magisterial culture:

It seems as if the world is shrinking. Rapid development of transportation and communication technologies has put diverse cultures in contact with one another like never before in human history. In some ways, this can shake us; we no longer live in closed-in societies, and we can no longer be under the illusion that our ways, our customs, our beliefs, our perspectives are the only valid possibilities. Old certainties have evaporated, and only the self-deceptive fundamentalist can bury his or her head in the sand deep enough to pretend that it isn’t so. With so many perspectives in the marketplace of ideas, all available at the stroke of a computer key, how are we to know what is true? Is it even meaningful to speak of truth?

At the same time, our encounter with other perspectives has greatly enriched our experience of what it is to be human. We learn so much from one another. Cultures exchange scientific discoveries and technologies; they exchange art, and poetry, and philosophy, and religion. Looking into the eyes of the stranger, of the other, no matter how different the externals of his or her culture may seem, we see reflected there ourselves. Whether people are in New York or New Guinea, they fall in love, they take pride in their children, they laugh and cry, they search after the infinite, and they just try to find to a way to get by. Where most certainties have dissolved in the sea of perspectives, one new certainty emerges: we human beings are all in this together. In the exchange of information, in commerce, in environmental stewardship, in geopolitics, and in the quest for meaning, we are all connected.

From whence comes this interconnectedness, this commonality we call the human condition? Reductionist materialism would have us believe that consciousness and personhood are nothing more than emergent properties of a mass of raw physical material. Indeed, from this perspective, the very self is but an illusion. Yet that dead and gloomy portrait of hopelessness rings hollow in our hearts. After all, if personhood itself is illusory, by whom or what is the illusion experienced? People intuitively understand that this will not do; for all their smallness, they perceive “eternity in their hearts.”85

What, then, is the source of commonality? At its most fundamental, it is that every person, when undistracted by conceptual noise, intuits that he or she is. Every person can say, “I am.” I exist, and so there must be such a thing as Existence. I exist, yet I do not exhaust what it is to Exist. I can only exist by participation in Existence, yet I did not bring myself into existence, so Existence Itself must have brought me into being in order to share itself with me. It shares itself with me, but not exhaustively. I exist, but I am limited in that I have only have the potential to exist in a certain fashion and no other. Paradoxically, this limitation does not stifle; it is precisely that which makes me what I am. Participation in the act of Existence Itself in a specifically limited fashion gives me a certain relatedness to all things which participate, in their own fashion, in Existence. In the eyes of men and women of every time, place, and culture, I see beings that share my limited participation in Existence, beings that, like me, exist as human, and with them I have an even deeper connection. This being-in-relationship with other human persons is exactly what it means to be a human person, and, so integral is my relationship with the community of human persons that it is only through that community that I become aware of myself. “Like Sleeping Beauty, we must first be touched by another before we can wake up to ourselves.”86

The experiences, expressions, and perspectives of every person, every community, every culture, every discipline work together to enrich the human condition, which is the gift self-aware communal participation in the act of Existence Itself, this act being that which we call God. Every philosophy, every religion, every science, every art, every dream contributes to common human journey toward “a polyphonic relatedness.”87

Every human perspective is valuable because every human person is valuable. God has shared himself with us in a particular way—a particularly human way—that has given us the potential for both self-awareness and, through the reflective relatedness with other beings which we call knowledge, a union with all of the universe that empowers us to recapitulate the universe in ourselves as connatural to us. Truly we are made “in the image of God,” and are “participants in the divine nature.”88 Reality is indeed perspectival, though not as it is in itself. In itself, it merely is, it is the one, infinite, undivided act of Existence, and that is God. Our perceptions of reality, however, are framed by our finite perspectives, and each of these contributes to the whole. What we propose, then, is neither relativism nor objectivism, but a relational realism.

There is a liberating beauty in this, for every man and woman is truly free to develop his or her perspective in close engagement with the perspectives of others, always challenging, always learning, always refining. Celebrating our freedom, we walk together, seeking out the meaning of our existence. We renounce all hubris, all arrogance, all foolish pretense to have mastered this quest as individuals, and we lean on one another, on every friend, every relation, every lover, every teacher, every discipline, every philosophy, every faith, every culture we encounter. Thus supported, we do, indeed, freely choose our own meaning.

This choice can be to define meaning or it can be to discern meaning. Between the two is an infinite gulf, like that between Paradise and the abyss. We would like to define meaning, to determine based on our own preferences what is good, what is true. Yet this rings inevitably hollow. “(I)f the human being claims to define the total meaning, he can only end up exalting his own point of view, one point of view. He cannot avoid claiming totality for a particular, inflating a detail to define the whole.”89 Thus we run the risk of, in a misguided pursuit of freedom, enslaving ourselves to lies we ourselves have told.

The quest for meaning of the truly free person, then, must be the quest to discern meaning. Since we are not the cause of our own being, we must look to that First and Final Cause, for only in the Author of Life can we find the meaning of life. Never arrogant enough to believe any one of us can do this in its entirety alone, we value the perspectives of all others who, together with us, look to the God who spoke us into being, the God who shares his Being with us, the God who wove seeds of himself into our very beings. In the shadow of the wings of this transcendent God, we, free men and women, can only sanely choose to live from a perspective of awe, gratitude, and, ultimately, trust.

Grateful to the God who freely chose to make us and grateful for our fellow men and women with whom we engage in the adventure of personhood, we desire all the more to engage with one another in love. We are because Existence Itself freely gives of Itself to us; we can only begin to find joyful meaning when we give of ourselves to one another. Being is gift; if we wish to truly be, we will truly give, for only in this way will be be truly alive, will we “have life, and have it abundantly.”90 We give ourselves in love, or we inevitably take, like a thief who “comes to steal and kill and destroy,”91 and inevitably, our most gravely wounded victims are ourselves.

Long ago, Justin Martyr may have spoken about ethical behavior in terms of crime and punishment, but he was writing an official criminal appellate document. We intuit that we must love—that we, trusting in the common source of our being—must treat one another with inviolable dignity as fellow “enperspectived” beings. We know this is not easy; we know we often fail, that we often treat our fellow persons as objects to be used. The apostle laments, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”92

The apostle’s words ring true. His condition is our condition; his perspective is our perspective, the human perspective. So we resolve, not out of fear of punishment, though we intuit that, in our freedom, we can make the ultimate tragic choice and fundamentally opt to dehumanize ourselves, to work for the good of all in a just society. We hear St. Paul say that “in Christ Jesus…the only thing that counts is faith working through love”93–trust manifesting in giving of ourselves for the good of others—and, perhaps for the first time, this Christ Jesus starts to make sense.

Then we pause. What of our continuing failures? Having acted selfishly, having used persons as objects, having thereby rejected love and—and now a word long meaningless to us hits home for the first time—having sinned, how do we, limited, finite beings make things right with God? After all, we are like ants who ruined a picnic, and then wished to make things right with the offended. The chasm between us and them is so great that making amends is not only impossible; it is utterly meaningless.

If this is the end of the story, then truly the human condition is far bleaker than Sartre ever dreamed. God, the act of Existence Itself, freely chose to share Existence with us. There is no distinction within the One God; self-gift is love, God is self-gift, therefore, “God is love.”94 Would Love leave us orphans after calling us from nothingness into being and placing us as the crown of creation?

And then our thoughts turn again to this Christ Jesus, to this man who is called the Logos made flesh. We ponder the claim that God himself took on human flesh, appropriated to himself a human perspective, endured the human condition out of love for us. This Jesus Christ, supposed conqueror of that ultimate meaninglessness, death, stares us in the face. The news is good. The news is beautiful. Might it be true?

He invites us to “come and see.”95 He invites; he does not ravage. Jesus leaves us with the freedom to make the choice to follow him, to discover for ourselves if he is who he says he is.

The Church, the whole people of God, exists to make that invitation present to every person in every time and place. Through the intuition of being, through the commonality of personhood, through the freedom of the will, and through the call to live in love, the gospel calls out to contemporary culture with a message that may very well answer all its deepest needs while perfecting all that is already good within it. Every person who encounters the gospel must ultimately make a free choice. It is our responsibility as Church to present that choice, without adulterating any essential tenets of the faith, in a fashion that speaks to the needs of the real men and women with a real need for salvation. In the above model, thoroughly contemporary yet authentically Justinian in essentials, we have attempted a starting point for issuing the timeless invitation to communion with God through Jesus Christ. “Let what is pleasing to God be done.”96

1Matthew 28:19. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical citations NRSV.

2While we will argue against the effectiveness of this magisterial approach for the contemporary West, it is by no means aberrant. The great commission cited above is immediately prefaced by the risen Jesus’ claim to “all authority in heaven and earth,” an authority vicariously shared by implication with the apostles. cf. Matthew 28:18

31 Corinthians 9:23

4See below for a fuller explanation of Justin as “pre-magisterial.” By this label, we do not intend to deny the reality of infallible, Spirit-led teaching authority within the Church, though in undeveloped form, from its foundation.

5Cultural perspectivalism and individualist relativism, somewhat fittingly, rarely manifest themselves as absolute. A culture endowed with a self-understanding which legitimates genocidal acts against another or an individual from whose perspective the rape of children is acceptable, for example, continue to earn condemnation. Relativists, however, have great difficulty in providing a rational grounds for such condemnation, as the logical end of relativism is, inescapably, nihilistic.

6Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism” in Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Citadel Press, 1985), 15-16. Other English editions title this piece “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

7Perhaps the most prominent contemporary example of this is the gay subculture. Of far greater concern than the relatively minor issue of engagement in consensual extra-marital sexual intercourse is the dehumanizingly shallow source of identity definition provided by sexual temptation. One who primarily identifies oneself as gay engages in the same self-diminutive absurdity as one who says, “First and foremost, I consider myself a masturbator.” When Gay Pride parades march through town, it is not “Gay” that threatens society; it is “Pride.”

8For popular culture steeped in individualist relativism, cf. Family Guy; for skeptical perspectivalism, cf. South Park.

9The present author once visited a mental hospital in which resided a man who believed he was Bat-Man. Wealthy, successful, athletic, respected, and appealing to women across the globe, Bat-Man is certainly a good thing to be. Yet, for all the wonderful attributes claimed by this man, he was all the more to be pitied because, in point of fact, he was not Bat-Man.

10Prima facie, Randian Objectivism appears to be an exception to relativism. However, we would hypothesize that its epistemological absolutism, divorced from a theistic ground, is but an entirely arbitrary, inherently absurd, self-determined choice on the part of individual adherents and that its laissez-faire Capitalism is but a non-violent manifestation of a nihilistic will to power. Ayn Rand’s laudable aversion to physical violence could conceivably be renounced in future developments of Objectivism should her own magisterial authority be cast aside.

11Scientism itself ultimately fails to solve the problem of meaninglessness: “The universe we observe (has) precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless, indifference.” Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (London: Phoenix, 1995), 133.

12Sartre, 23. Emphasis mine. Elsewhere, “The existentialists say at once that man is anguish.” ibid., 18.

13A credible argument can be made that the progressive strides made in the West in recent decades would not have been possible in a culture not historically rooted in Christianity. Regardless of such a possibility, it is clear that this did not in fact occur in any other culture. Nevertheless, Christians must avoid portraying some nostalgic, utopian Christian past as a halcyon time. Christendom provided the Church ample opportunity to reform society in line with the gospel message of human dignity, and the Church failed miserably. Christians risk sacrificing all credibility by harkening society back to the days without widespread cohabitation or exposed breasts on television when those same days witnessed segregation, rampant domestic violence, gender discrimination, feudal oppression, slavery, wars of religion, and cruel and unusual capital punishment, among other abominations.

14Compassion is doubtlessly a good thing, yet it is far too subjective to serve alone as a foundation for justice, as illustrated in post-magisterial culture’s darkest aberration, the misattribution to abortion of the status of human or civil right, contemptibly enshrined in the laws of most Western nations. The human mind has not evolved to recognize in the embryo a likeness to the self such as one recognizes in a child or adult, and thus its human dignity is not readily apparent or defended.

15Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), paragraph 1812.

16Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 144. The entire monograph is an excellent example of a secular, perspectival effort to determine meaning in the contemporary world.

17Justin’s grandfather bore a Greek name, Bacchios, and his father a Latin name like his own, Priscus. In the unlikely event he was an ethnic Samaritan, he did not practice the Torah-based Samaritan religion.

18Or possibly a presbyter.

19See Craig D. Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon, and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninkljke Brill, 2002), 27-31.

20While serving as an excellent example of second century biblical exegesis, the Dialogue is of less interest to the present study because of its pervasive reliance on proof from prophecy (see below) and its radical supercessionism.

21Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

22See ibid., 22-28. Chapters 14 and 15 of the Second Apology are proposed to be the original ending of the First Apology.

23Allert argues convincingly that Dialogue is intended for a Jewish audience, but this is not universally accepted. cf. Allert, 37-61.

24We are considering Nicaea the first act of the extraordinary magisterium, and the apostolic meeting in Jerusalem in c. 49 AD as an ante-type, though a case can be made for Jerusalem being the first and Nicaea the second. cf. Galatians 2:1-10, Acts 15:1-29.

25First Apology (1 Apol.) 67:5. All citations from the Apologies taken from Minns and Parvis, ibid.

26Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, II. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.xi.ii.html>, accessed 27 October 2011. Parentheses in original; brackets mine. If accurate, Justin’s parochialism presents an astonishingly undeveloped ecclesiology in the Roman Church at a late date, less than 20 years before Irenaeus would attempt to trace Pauline-Petrine linear apostolic succession through a catalog of purported monarchical Bishops of Rome. Justin’s claim, however, could also be interpreted as employment of a mental reservation, deceiving his interrogator to avoid exposing other Christians to prosecution.

27Minns and Parvis, 24

281 Apol. 1:1

29ibid., 2:1-3

30ibid., 2:4, emphasis mine.

31cf. ibid. 4:1

32ibid. 4:6

33ibid. 4:9

34Ibid. 6:1-2

35ibid. 21:1-6

36ibid., 21:6

37cf. ibid., 23:3

38ibid. 12:1-2

39cf. ibid., 26:6-8. Justin notes with irony that heterodox Christians, who, says Justin, may indeed engage in immoral behaviors, are not persecuted as are his proto-orthodox.

40Justin argues that sacrificial cult implies that the gods are in need of the material things offered as victim, while the true God has no needs, but rather desires that men and women utilize their reason to conduct their affairs in service to him. cf. Minns and Parvis, 50; 1 Apol. 9:1-10:5.

41cf. Second Apology (2 Apol.) 3:1-4

42cf. 1 Apol. 29:1-3

43cf. ibid. 15:1-8

44cf. ibid. 15:9-17

45cf. ibid. 16:1-4

46cf. ibid. 16:5

47cf. ibid. 16:6-7

48cf. ibid. 17:1-3

49ibid. 27:1-5

50ibid. 17:4

51ibid. 1-5

52Ibid. 44:10. Justin proposes dual explanation for the commonality of truth. The spermatic Logos will be discussed below. Following after Philo, Justin also asserts direct borrowing from the Hebrew Bible on the part of Plato and other philosophers. “And everything whatever both the philosophers and poets said concerning the immortality of the soul or punishments after death or contemplation of heavenly things or similar teachings they were enabled to understand and they explained because they took there starting-points from the (Hebrew) prophets.” (1 Apol. 44:9) Such assertions are to be disregarded as without historical merit.

53cf. ibid. 59:5.

54cf. ibid. 59:1. Justin, following Genesis, does not hold to creation ex nihilo.

55cf. ibid. 5:4

56cf. ibid. 44:11

57cf. 2 Apol. 6:2

58cf. 1 Apol. 18:5-6

59cf. 2 Apol. 7:1-5

60cf. 1 Apol. 44:12

612 Apol. 10:1

62Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 66.

63Minns and Parvis, 65

642 Apol. 7:1. Minns and Parvis argue against connaturality between God and humanity, asserting rather that the seed of reason are the work of God through the Logos within humanity allowing persons to perceive realities connatural to the Logos. As the human person is itself the creative work of God through the Logos, however, this distinction between the human person qua human person and the work of God within him or her seems unnecessary. (cf. Minn and Parvis, 66.)

651 Apol. 32:8

662 Apol. 13:2-4

671 Apol. 46:2-4

68cf. ibid. 36:1

69cf. ibid. 32:12-14

70cf. ibid. 33:1-9

71cf. ibid. 48:1-6

72cf. ibid. 50:1-51:9

73cf. ibid. 49:1-7

74cf. ibid. 47:1-6, 53:3-11

75Ibid., 68:1-2

76cf. CCC 391-395

77Oskar Skarsaune, The Proof From Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition: Text-Type, Provenance, Theological Profile (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987), 1.

78cf. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books, 2007), 114-117.

79cf. CCC 106

80cf. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (New York: Meridian, 1953), 75-82.

81Here again, the lack of exhaustive prophetic phenomenology prevents a definitive answer regarding how explicitly the prophets understood their message to refer to Christ. The Johannine account of Caiaphas certainly provides one example of a man speaking through prophetic inspiration without himself knowing the divine intent of the prophecy (cf. John 11:49-50).

82cf. 1 Apol. 6:2

83cf. Dialogue with Trypho 61:1, 128:4

84Raymond Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 50. Somewhat more hyperbolically, Van Dam continues: “Before Arius, all theologians were ‘Arian.’” (ibid.) A possible explanation for the hesitancy to recognize the equality of Father and Son is the early emergence of Docetism within the Church. As one on the earliest heretical movements denied the humanity of Jesus, hesitancy to unequivocally acknowledge his divinity was a perhaps inevitable over-correction.

85Ecclesiastes 3:11 NAS

86W. Norris Clarke, Person and Being (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993), 45.

87Joseph Ratzinger in Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 79.

88Genesis 1:27, 2 Peter 1:4

89Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 136.

90John 10:10

91John 10:9

92Romans 7:15,18-19

93Galatians 5:6

941 John 4:8

95John 1:39

961 Apol. 68:2


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