Justin Martyr: A Model for the 21st Century

Western Christians share a lot with the early church. Like the early church, we live in a culture that nods towards theism while denying basic tenets of Christianity. The early church also had a degree of freedom as long as they didn’t take their Christianity too seriously. When we live out our convictions or stand for our beliefs, however, we, like the early Christians, face criticisms and insults.

In the second century AD, the church witnessed the rise of the second-century apologists who sought to answer these charges from culture. Justin Martyr was the most significant of the second-century apologists.

Justin was born around the year AD 100 and pursued religious truth through philosophy. One day, an elderly man told him about Christianity. Their conversation haunted Justin who began to search the Bible for religious truth. Justin later wrote that the words of scripture “possess a terrible power in themselves.”[1] Justin soon became a Christian, writing, “I found this philosophy [Christianity] alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.”[2]

One of the unique parts of Justin’s thought is that he considered Christianity to be a philosophical system. After all, philosophy attempts to discover truth about reality. Christianity makes truth-claims about God and the world. Thus, Justin understood Christianity as the true philosophy. All other philosophical systems were only true insofar as they agreed with Christianity. For Justin, “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.”[3]

Since Christianity is the sole repository of truth, Justin believed that an honest examination of truth would lead unbelievers to faith in Christ. Throughout his writings, Justin exhibited a confidence that if people would just give Christianity a chance, they would see that Christianity is true. Protestants have doubts about this, however. We know the Bible says that we “were dead in [our] transgressions and sins”[4] prior to our salvation. Similarly, Romans 1 and 2 doesn’t sound overly positive about the prospects of an unregenerate person seeing the truthfulness of Christianity. For an unbeliever to see that Christianity is true, they definitely need to be taught the gospel; however, they also need God to work in their hearts.

Our reservations notwithstanding, presenting the truth of the gospel is still our job. After all, we can’t do God’s work within a person’s heart. However, God commands us to present the truth of the gospel to others. Justin was willing to present the truth of the gospel to those around him, and we can imitate this example. Though we may be less optimistic about the religious understandings of unbelievers, we can agree about the importance of evangelism.

Like us, Justin lived in a culture that was hostile to Christianity. The difference between Justin’s culture and ours is that Justin’s culture hated Christianity in a way that the West hasn’t seen since the days of Constantine. In Justin’s culture, vicious rumors circulated about Christian practices. One rumor, for example, held that Christians engaged in lust-driven, incestuous orgies as a regular part of their worship services. As if the allegations of sexual misconduct were not enough, other rumors claimed that the Christian practice of Communion was cannibalistic.

Though we might chuckle at the idea of Christians being cannibals, this was a real threat in Justin’s day. If people believed that Christians were cannibals, they would almost certainly be closed to the gospel. The chance of a person listening to a gospel presentation with an open mind is much lower if they’re afraid that you might eat them later!

To respond to this challenge, Justin gave us one of his most interesting contributions: He described early Christian worship practices in great details. Justin described how second century Christians celebrated Communion: “There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks… When the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”[5]

While the details may differ, we can understand the need to answer challenges against Christianity. I’m not aware of anyone claiming that Communion is cannibalistic; however, I have heard people say that a good God wouldn’t allow so much evil, question where God came from, and claim that the Bible is riddled with contradictions. We can imitate Justin and obey 1 Peter 3:15 by providing explanations of our beliefs in a hostile culture.

As you probably noticed, Justin—whose real name is Flavius Justinus—has an honorific title: We know him as Justin Martyr. Justin was overtly evangelistic, he publicly answered those who attacked Christianity, and he provided reasons for people to become Christians. Being so openly evangelistic and living out one’s faith is a quick way to gain a chorus of critics, both in Justin’s day and in the 21st century.

As he continued his ministry, Justin knew his life was in danger. In his last writing, Justin says “I, too, expect to be plotted against and fixed to the stake.”[6] Justin knew that sharing his faith was endangering his life; he persisted nonetheless. Soon, Justin was arrested and interrogated. After refusing to recant his faith, the Roman government beheaded him.

Justin became Justin Martyr because he was so open about his faith. Like Justin, we should each do our part to share our faith with those around us, should answer the criticisms levied against our beliefs, and should persist in the faith no matter how difficult life becomes. May we live such lives of such evangelistic boldness that we can agree with Paul who said, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”[7]

Notes & Sources

[1] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), c. 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), c. 13.

[4] Ephesians 2:1, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[5] Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ante-Nicene Fathers; Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), c. 65.

[6]Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” c. 3.

[7] Philippians 3:10-11.

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