The God of Justin Martyr by Rudolph P. Boshoff.

Recently there seem to be a great interest in the early apologetic fathers of early Christianity and there are plenteous attempts to re-interpret and find what their conception was surrounding their faith. In this article, I will look specifically at the Theology of Justin martyr and show that he was rather complex in his understanding of who God is. A recent Unitarian professor resounds with the following words: ‘…the one true God for Justin is the God of the Jews and is one and the same as the father of Jesus. Justin is a Unitarian’.[1] In my study and reading of the earliest Apologists, I do not find such a blanket affirmation and when it comes to the theology of someone like Justin Martyr, cannot conceive of such a minimalist attempt to explain his writings.  

The mind of the apologetic fathers:

The early Apologetic fathers attempted to defend the Faith and heritage of the early Christian community by repeating the Scriptures giving a clear explanation of the centrality of Christ from the Father by the Spirit. We need to understand that Orthodox Christians do not claim infallibility for the conception and writings of the earliest Fathers but only deemed the Bible unequivocally perfect! The central question “of the early Apologetic Fathers was “whether the Logos was of the very Being of God Himself from all eternity, the discussion was not some remote point of ancient metaphysics. The Question was: Is the redeeming purpose, which we find in Jesus part of the very being and essence of God? Is that what God is? Is it His very nature to create, and to reveal Himself, and to redeem His creation? Is it therefore not some subordinate or intermediary being, but the Eternal God Himself, that reveals Himself to us and become incarnate in Christ Jesus for our Salvation?”[2]  Again we need to emphasise that for Justin, he was seeking to communicate to a specific community as to the complexities as deduced in the earliest ‘paradosis’ evident in the Church of faith.

Justin Martyr (100- 165 A.D.).

There is little doubt that Justin “anchored his Christian faith in his Greek heritage. When he became a Christian he did not renounce philosophy, he became a better philosopher, a true philosopher. He said that the relationship between philosophers and Christ is that between the incomplete and the complete, between the imperfect and the perfect. So while Justin was positive towards his Greek past, he was not bound by it ”[3]. As we will investigate the clear intention and content of Justin’s faith, we realise that he is treading on new ground and trying to explain the reality of his faith through the disciplines that he received:

Platonism, Christianity, and Judaism. Justin does not introduce a blend of these ideas, rather, he communicates to the different mindset by utilising their understanding of various themes and theology. It is also important to notice Justin’s religious climate, “by Justin’s time there had been a revival of a nonsceptical form ofPlatonism. This revival resulted in the so-called Middle Platonism, which was especially strong during the second century C.E. Middle Platonism was characterised by an emphasis on the reality of the spiritual and the need to cultivate the soul by virtuous living, religious piety, and philosophical inquiry. An emphasis on the Divine, or supreme, reality, on God as holy, transcendent, far removed from the material world but approachable through religious reverence, and on moral self-discipline and philosophical quest, made Middle Platonism congenial to Christianity, with its roots in a Jewish monotheism that also emphasized the transcendent remoteness but nearness to human life of the creator ”[4]. We will see later that Justin was definitely not advocating for this conception of semi-deism, but rather speaks of a personal God evident and revealed in his own Creation. “It is important to remember that in the Philonic tradition the Logos, so far as hypostasized at all, was conceived as an intermediary being, between God and man.”[5] Justin does not make Christ the sole function or plenipotentiary of the One God, but shows quite drastically that God was in Christ restoring relationship back to the World. There is the essential idea that Christ was an emanation from the mind of God. “The Logos which appears in Christ is the eternal God consciousness [Goddelike rede] which emanates from God [Being] as self-consciously God [Logos], although in being and potency intimately related with God.”[6] Here we can see Justin stagers to make the analogy, the semi-divine figures of Second temple Judaism and Middle- Platonism cannot give ample reason for Christ to be constricted to be just an intermediary being. “The Doctrine of the Logos is not a ‘higher’ Christology than the common one; it falls short of the genuinely Christian estimate of Christ, but the Logos, as depotetiated God, a God who as God is subordinate to God Most High.”[7]

Justin and Divinity

When I say Justin failed to reconcile this perceived reality, we can be sympathetic to his plight, as this was the state of thinking in his time, and as a man of his time, Justin searched to communicate the reality of his believes in these concepts and terminologies. For “the Christian intellectuals were engaged in a critical appropriation of pagan philosophy. The results were that they tended to use Platonic monotheism as the model for understanding the relation of Jesus to God. God, the Father, is the supreme God, while Christ, the Logos, is god in a subordinate and derivative sense. And, just as the Platonist did not confine worship to the supreme God but allowed the worship of lesser divinities to appropriate degrees, so the Christian practice of the worship of Jesus could be permissible as the relative worship of the principal divine intermediary, while absolute worship is reserved for the one who is God in the fullest sense. The danger in this Christian Platonism was the loss of monotheism in the Judeo-Christian sense.”[8] For the Second temple, Jewish conception of intermediaries the immanent worship and occupation to throne of God was not deemed preferable in any account. I have previously written on Semi-Divine figures and their relation to these realities. Richard Bauckham remarks though that “In relation to worship, we can see one possible effect in a surprising passage of Justin Martyr’s first Apology, in which he defends Christians against the charge of atheism by claiming that, in fact, they worship a number of divine beings: not only God, but also ‘the Son who came from him…, and the host of other good angels who follow him and are made like him, and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore (sebometha kai proskunoumen)’ (1 Apol. 6). The inclusion of the angels represents an attempt to assimilate the Christian view of the divine world as closely as possible to the Platonic hierarchy of divinity: first God, second God, and a multitude of lesser divine beings (cf. also Athenagoras, Leg. 10.5; Origen, Cels. 8.13). This is apologetic and should not be taken as a serious claim that Christians worship angels, but it illustrates how Platonic influence could undermine the Jewish principle of monotheistic worship.”[9]

Justin, God and Christ. 

Now as we read through Justin’s works we can identify that there is more going on in the relationship between Christ and God, especially in how Justin understood the place of Jesus Christ and the person of Jesus Christ. For Justin his “formulas… led him to contrast fatally the Father and the Logos, the conception he was endeavouring to express was in no sense disloyal to Christ. More than once, he protested against being accused of Worshipping a mere man. Christ, the Logos, is the true Son of God, and has His place essentially in the sphere of the Creator.”[10] For Justin, if the Son were only an intermediary, he would not have insisted as to the occupation of the Son and the proximity of His being as God. He definitely knew the difference between false gods and lesser gods, but for Him Christ is the almighty God. Justin is also equally familiar with “[Israel’s] practical monotheism, requiring a whole pattern of daily life and cultic worship formed by exclusive allegiance to the one God, presupposes a god who is in some way significantly identifiable. The God who requires what the God of Israel requires cannot be merely the philosophical abstraction to which the intellectual currents of contemporary Greek thought aspired. Jews, in some sense, knew who their God was. The God of Israel had a unique identity.”[11] For Justin, Jesus was that unique identity as we will know see.

Martyr’s synthesis of Divine proximity.

Here is where Justin makes a bold move; he opts not solely for pure ‘middle Platonism’ but attempt to show a Christ palatable to the logicians yet, proper to the Jewish monotheist. I believe there is an essential dichotomy that can be dismissed and even is somewhat overlooked. Justin tries not to merely ‘blend’ the two communities of faith, but rather wants to show Christ to be the epitome of both these culturally rich and complex perspectives. Here is somewhat of an indication of his own perceived synthesis:

  • Surviving works:

Of all Justin’s writings, only three survive: Dialogue with Trypho, his first and second Apology. His ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ captures his intention to account for his conversion to Christianity. His ‘First Apology’ seeks to defend his faith by appealing to the Emperor and in his ‘Second Apology’ seeks to account for the same before the Roman senate.[12] “Justin Martyr’s work is particularly interesting, partly because he attempts to defend the tenets of the Christian faith against the objections of both a Jewish and Roman audience.”[13]The proximity of his theology clearly covered both spectrums trying to account for the basic torrents of the Christian Faith. For a Jewish audience Justin mentions that they read wrongfully and missed the suffering messiah (I Apol.18) that will return for a second time (Dial.139). This messiah have abrogated the law of Old giving a New one (Dial.133a) proclaiming the New with His crucifixion and death (Dial.133). The Son was impeccable and without sin (Dial.134a) and before all things proceeding from the Father (Dial.141) being the recipient of divine worship and prayers (Dial.144). The Son functioned as “King, Priest, God, Lord, Angel and Man (Dial.137)”.To a Roman audience Justin attempts to show there are false gods and the One true God (I Apol.113) Jesus Christ who is the Lord restoring mankind to Himself by the Holy Spirit (I Apol.116). These peculiar people are called Christians; they have found the truth acknowledging God the sole originator of all things in the Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit striving for purely fleeing all manners of moral lusts (I Apol.118; 126). This Son was the pre-existed One who is God (I Apol.127) who receives Worship with the Creator and the Holy Spirit (I Apol.129). These comments actually sealed Justin’s fate, as all the above mentioned was the very religious and social milieu of the Roman Empire. This could also explain why Justin’s second Apology was therefore directed then to the Senate, rather to the emperor himself. In the Second Apology Justin accentuates the revelation of the True God as Father and the Lord Jesus Christ the anointed Messiah who would be the only Saviour of the world and conqueror of demonic forces (ii Apol.130). Further, Justin shows that primary invocation and devotion is given to the Word establishing our salvation (ii Apol. 131).

 

  •           Synthesised Theology: 

There is no doubt that Justin tried to wear both hats of ‘Jewish Monotheism’ and ‘Logos Christology’. These ideas could be appreciated in the following ways. “[Justin] explored the relationship of the pre-existent Christ to the Father. They used the idea of the Divine Word or Logos, from the Jewish philosopher Philo… they saw Christ as the Father’s thought, expressed in creation and revelation .Two things were stressed- his eternal oneness with the Father, as the Word immanent in God, and also his appearance in human history, as the word emitted and expressed- but without reference to a distinct personal identity”.[14] It is essential to remember that the Apologists “lacked a technical vocabulary adequate for describing eternal distinctions within the Deity; but that they apprehended such distinctions admits of no doubt [15] Robert Letham also caution that “We must evaluate them in terms of their own times. The main issue for them was the unity of God.”[16] Justin equally perpetuated that the Son was not essentially just an intermediary as conceived by ‘middle-Platonist’ conceptions but mentions the Son not a created being but an eternal being worthy of Worship and rule. [17] In fact, contrary to the Platonic conception of intermediaries, Jews in Second Temple Judaism agreed on three things: first, principle agents (vis. Angels & Patriarchs) are clearly created. Second, they only serve God and never rule! Evidence of this is that “they never sit with God on His heavenly throne” and “they stand in postures of Worship” and third; ‘they explicitly reject worship’.[18] For Justin, Christ evidently is qualified as god by receiving all of the above: created/non-created (ii Apol.6, Dial.28; 61; 100); enthroned (I Apol.2; 52, Dial. 40, 49, 81, 110f); receiving worship (Dial.68; 63f. ii Apol.13). We can therefore recognize that Justin is not be quenching one idea for the other, he is simply trying to make sense of the transcendent/immanent reality as seen in the revelation of Christ. Justin is answering the who and what question of God and we affirm that “identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is”.[19]

 

  • Son of God:

Justin makes no excuses for the present word of God being God Himself as well as the Lord of Hosts (I Apol.63; Dial. 36). He affirms that scripture supports this reality (Dial.37; 56) and that God testifies to the reality of His place and demands devotion to Him (Dial.63). For Justin God was born from a virgin (Dial.66) ready to suffer on our behalf worthy to be worshipped as God (Dial. 68). Justin makes nothing of the fact that Jesus was Angel of the Lord in a pre-existing state, He existed as God before the ages, and Christ submitted to become incarnate as a man (Dial.48, 60, 63) for our salvation yet, fully God (I Apol.23). Justin did not have a perfect conception of divine procession but truly affirms that there is a sequence of succession from the eternal God, to the Son of the true God in the Second place, and the Spirit of Prophecy in the third instance (I Apol.13). There is some doubt as to the personification of the Holy Spirit but it is important to notice that Justin here is emphasising the sequence of procession and not trying to explain the ontology of persons within the One being. Justin do emphasize that the Spirit is to be worshipped (I Apol.6) and also calls for the exclusive worship of God alone (I Apol.16,17). The logical deduction is that we can clearly see Justin is looking to describe the proximity of devotion to the true God as revealed in Father, Son, and Spirit. Even the very action of God proceeds through these means (Dial.56, 61-62). The Son and even the Spirit [even though Justin does not specify] is numerically distinct from one another yet still One God (Dial 56, 60).  

Conclusion:

Even though influenced by Middle Platonism and Jewish Monotheism, Justin reveals quite a complex interest to be a voice to both a Jewish and Roman conception of the Divine. This is evident in his intention of writing to a Roman audience as well as a Jewish audience. Justin Martyr is not exclusively Unitarian as some recent theologians and philosophers have claimed, nor is Justin oblique when confirming the unique identity of Christ and the essential fulfillment as God’s vice-regent. Jesus, to Justin, was Messiah, Lord, and Theophany. Christ is not just the expressed will of God in motion; He was God coming to humankind in a distant world as in middle Platonism. Even “to the Arians God was remote, inaccessible, incapable of directly approaching the created world. And thus it is not the Eternal God Himself that comes to us in Christ for our Salvation, but an intermediary being, distinct from God, while God Himself is left out, uncondescending, unredemptive.”[20] Even though Justin relates his conception of God as ‘though a glass dimly’, he clearly shows that the God of Scripture was Triune! Justin in his letters was not confined to one stream of influence, Justin took a bold stride trying to confirm the reality of Scripture, and the revelation of the One God as expressed in Jesus Christ.  

Sources: 

P.S. What is Justin predominantly drawing upon? In fact, he tells us, from the ”memoirs” which again is the earliest Gospels (Chpt. CV). Further, Justin leans extensively on all these ”memoirs” as we clearly see: [Dial.106.4 -> Matt.2:1 + Mark.3:16-17, Dial.103. 8 -> Luk.22:44,42, First Apol.61.4 -> Joh.3:3.

For a scholarly reference look at Osborn’s ”Justin Martyr. Beitrage zur historische Theologie” Pg. 47 and Von Loewenich’s ”Das Johannes-Verstandnis im zweiten Jahrhundert”.

God bless.

Rudolph P. 

  

Sources:

[1] D. Tuggy “ The Lost Early History of Unitarian Christian Theology” paper delivered at CoGGC Theological Conference, Atlanta [May, 2013], 7:24-32)”.

[2] D. M Baillie “God was in Christ: An essay on incarnation and Atonement”. Pg. 70.

[3] T. Lane “A concise History of Christian Thought”. Pg.11.

[4] R. C. Monk & J. D. Stanley. “exploring Christianity: An introduction”.  Pg.131.

[5] D. M Baillie “God was in Christ: An essay on incarnation and Atonement”. Pg. 70.

[6] J .F. F. Du Rand “Die Lewende God: Wegwysers in Dogmatiek.” Pg. 17.

[7] W. Sunday “Christologies, ancient and Modern.” Pg. 14-21.

[8] R. Bauckham “Jesus and the God of Israel” Pg.148.

[9] R. Bauckham “Jesus and the God of Israel” Pg.148-149.

[10] H. R. MacKingtosh “The person of Christ” Pg.144.

[11] R. Bauckham “Jesus and the God of Israel” Pg.6.

[12]  T. Lane “A concise History of Christian Thought”. Pg.10.

[13] C. A. Hall “learning Theology with the Church Fathers”.  Pg.253.

[14] R. Letham “The Holy Trinity”. Pg.89-90.

[15] J. N. D. Kelly “Early Christian Doctrines”. Pg.101.

[16] R. Letham “The Holy Trinity”. Pg.90.

[17] First Apol.13,3  & Dial. with Trypho, ch. 56

[18] R. Bauckham “Jesus and the God of Israel” Pg.14-15.

[19] R. Bauckham “Jesus and the God of Israel” Pg.7.

[20] D. M Baillie “God was in Christ: An essay on incarnation and Atonement”. Pg. 70.

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