God’s logos enlightens Justin Martyr
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2; The Word, Greek: logos)*
Saint Justin Martyr, a mid-second-century Church Father, was martyred between 162 and 167 C.E. A Samaritan, Justin was born at Flavia Neapolis, near what was the ancient Canaanite, and then Israelite, city of Shechem. As we have read: “Abram passed through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, by the oak of Moreh”, and, “[t]he LORD appeared to Abram and said: To your descendants I will give this land. So Abram built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.” (Gen. 12:6-7)
Justin, born late first century or early second, was a lover of truth. He sought for it in philosophy. He found it by fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Justin Martyr, called a “pioneer type of Greek Apologist”, is “concerned to show that philosophy is truth, reason a spiritual power, and Christianity the fullness of both.” (3) Justin, a young man and Platonist, happened to meet an old man. Through that old man this truth-lover was overcome by “[a] love of the prophets, and of those people who are friends of Christ” (4). The Old Testament was a key factor in converting and convincing Justin that Jesus Christ is the Logos. Jesus, the Messiah, is the one anticipated for so long through the prophets, and sought after so long by the philosophers.
“[T]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1: 5 & 9)
By the middle of the second century, Justin, now a philosopher steeped in the Old Testament, was a follower of The Way. Justin saw his fellow Christians being victimized unfairly by pagan mobs. This was not the age of widespread, systematic persecution of the early Church. That would come later. Justin saw abuses of a more localized, sporadic nature. Even so, intent upon stopping the unfair treatment of Christians by their pagan neighbors, Justin appealed to the Caesar by letter.
Upon reading Justin’s First and Second Apologies, one thing is obvious. This philosopher-Christian is fluent in the Scriptures. Quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, drip from his pen. He knows Ezekiel. Justin knows the New Testament writings as well. He takes Sacred Scripture very seriously. Justin’s whole worldview, at first a jumble of philosophies containing truth mixed with error, now is corrected by God’s Word, both the written Word and the Incarnate Word.
Justin undertook to tell Caesar about Christian worship and practice. Justin explains that these second century Christians were not engaging in the wickedness as rumored by their slanderers. Recall in The Wheat of God, posted January 4, 2018, we saw how Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church in Smyrna seven years into the second century, showed me how the early Church saw the Eucharist – – as the flesh of Jesus Christ. Ignatius did it in a roundabout way, trying to explain to his readers how they can recognize the Gnostics of their day, false teachers that denied Jesus Christ came in the flesh. Ignatius was not trying to convince me, nineteen hundred years later, that the Bread is really the Body of Christ. That was a given to Ignatius and to his readers. And that given made the point to me. Ignatius, by making a different point altogether, itself premised upon the Christian belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, confirmed to this former Baptist-then-Presbyterian that our traditions were built on negations and denials. Our traditions contained truth from Scripture, yes, but only partial truth. In our negation, I was missing the Incarnate Christ who really came to meet me in the here and in the now.
Justin Martyr had a similar effect. Justin did not set out to correct my understanding of the Sacraments. Justin undertook to inform Caesar of Christian worship. In reading his Apologies, I could see Justin’s intimate knowledge of and reverence for Sacred Scripture. However, in explaining the Eucharist and Baptism, Justin did so without our western, reductionist system of interpretation. To be sure, Justin appeals to Holy Scripture. However, and this is key, Justin appeals to what he was taught and what he learned. Justin had been taught that the Bread and Wine are really the Body and the Blood of Jesus:
“And this food is called among us eucharist . . . For we do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God’s logos took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate.” (70, The First Apology at 66, emphasis added)
Similarly, Justin explained to Caesar that baptism really does something, citing both the Gospel of John and the Prophet Isaiah. Baptism is not a mere picture. It is not just a symbol. Importantly, Justin does not reach these conclusions with a “me and my Bible” methodology. Rather, “we have learned from the Apostles this reason for this rite.” (66, The First Apology at 61, emphasis added). Yes, Justin’s interpretation is supported by Scripture. However, when I come to the text of Scripture 1,900 years later, without the assistance of the early Church’s teaching and understanding, I was apt to come away with a tradition that negates and denies truth and goodness and beauty found in Sacred Scripture. In the Catholic Church, I am taught the truth of the Eucharist held by the Church from the beginning. In the Catholic Church, I meet with and receive Jesus Christ, the Logos of God made flesh, in the here and now.
Justin endeavored to show that the seeds of the Logos (John 1:1) are seen wherever the pagan philosophers spoke truth, notwithstanding their mixture of error:
“Therefore, whatever things were rightly said among all people are the property of us Christians. . . . For all the writers were able to see realities darkly, through the presence in them of an implanted seed of logos.” (84, The Second Apology at 13)
I discovered something similar in our Catholic – Protestant divide. Whatever things are rightly said among the Protestant denominations and sects are the property of us Catholics. For all truth is God’s truth. All that is true and good and beautiful in my former Protestant traditions, I found completely, and without the mixture of error, in the Catholic Church. That explains how now, as a Catholic, I can look back and truly see Christ in my Protestant past, albeit through a veil of error. That veil explains how then, as a Protestant, I was unable to see the Catholic Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church (The Nicene Creed).
Saint Justin Martyr is so named because he gave the ultimate confession of faith. He witnessed for Christ with his blood. This holy philosopher, transformed by the Logos, would not bow the knee to Caesar. Tradition says that Justin, together with some of his students, chose rather an eternal reward, Jesus Christ. And so it was, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Saint Justin Martyr saw God with his own eyes.
There I was, in the two-thousand-seventeenth year of our Lord, in a tradition estranged from Saint Ignatius of Antioch (107 C.E.), in a church separated from Saint Justin Martyr (167 C.E.), asking myself, By what authority do I stand where I stand? This question would come only later, much later. First came the problems of unity and authority. I plan to get there, eventually.
As for me, I know that my vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him: my inmost being is consumed with longing. (Job 19:25-27)
Additional, suggested reading:
Rod Bennett, Four Witnesses, The Early Church In Her Own Words, Ignatius Press, 2002
Mark Shea, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, Ignatius Press, 2013
*Citations to Sacred Scripture come from New American Bible, Revised Edition. Other citations, unless so noted, come from St. Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, translated with introduction and notes by Leslie William Barnard, Paulist Press, 1997.