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Justin Martyr: Salvation in Jesus Christ
BY John Lilly
SUMMARY Pope Benedict XVI met with 25,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s
Square. He dedicated his catechesis to St. Justin, a philosopher and martyr who
was the most important Apologist Father of the second century. Pope Benedict
XVI emphasized that Justin and the other apologists of his era chose the truth
of existence over the myth of convention.
In this series of catecheses, we have been
reflecting on some of the prominent figures of the early Church. Today, we will
speak about St. Justin, a philosopher and martyr, who is the most important
Church Father from the second century who was an apologist. The word
“apologist” designates those ancient Christian writers who were determined to
defend their new religion amid the virulent accusations of the pagans and Jews
and to promote Christian doctrine in terms adapted to the culture of their
the apologists had a twofold concern: a thoroughly apologetic concern to defend
nascent Christianity (apologhía in Greek means “defense”) as well as a positive,
“missionary” concern to explain the contents of the faith in a language and in
categories of thinking that their contemporaries could understand.
was born around the year 100 in the Holy Land, near ancient Shechem in Samaria.
For a long time, he sought the truth, traveling between the various schools of
the Greek philosophical tradition. Finally, as he himself says in the first few
chapters of his Dialogue With
Trypho, a mysterious personage,
an old man whom he met along the beach by the sea, stirred up a crisis in him
when he demonstrated to him man’s incapacity to satisfy his aspiration to the
divine through his own efforts. He then went on to point him to the ancient
prophets as the people to turn to in order to find the path to God and to “true
him farewell, the old man exhorted him to pray that the gates of light be
opened to him. This story recounts the crucial episode in Justin’s life: After
a long philosophical journey in search of truth, he was led to the Christian
faith. He founded a school in Rome where, without any fee, he initiated his
pupils in this new religion, which he considered to be the true philosophy.
this is where he found the truth and, consequently, the way to live a righteous
life. Because of this, he was denounced to the authorities and was beheaded
around the year 165 in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor to
whom Justin addressed one of his Apologies.
God’s Plan for Salvation
These works, his two Apologies
and his Dialogue With Trypho the Jew,
are the only works of his that remain. In these works, Justin sought to
explain, first of all, God’s plan for creation and for the salvation that would
be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Logos, that is, the eternal
Word, eternal Reason, and creative Reason.
Every man, insofar as he is a
rational creature, partakes of the Logos and carries within
himself a “seed” of the Logos, and is able to perceive
glimmers of truth. Thus, this Logos, which was revealed in
prophetic figure to the Jews under the old law, was also revealed in part as
“seeds of truth” in Greek philosophy.
So, Justin concludes, since
Christianity is the historical and personal manifestation of the Logos
in its entirety, it follows that “Whatever things were rightly said among all
men are the property of us Christians” (Second Apology 13:4).
In this way, Justin, even though he
disputed Greek philosophy with its contradictions, resolutely directs all
philosophical truth to the Logos and justifies the
Christian religion’s unique “claim” to truth and universality from a rational
point of view. If the Old Testament points to Christ in the same way that a
figure points toward the reality that it represents, Greek philosophy also
points to Christ and the Gospel, just as a part points to union with the whole.
He goes on to say that these two
realities, the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, are like two roads leading
to Christ, the Logos. This is why Greek
philosophy cannot be opposed to the truth of the Gospel and why Christians may
confidently draw from it as though it were their own possession.
This is why my venerable
predecessor, Pope John Paul II, described Justin as a “pioneer of a positive
engagement with philosophical thinking — albeit with cautious discernment.
Although he continued to hold Greek
philosophy in high esteem after his conversion, Justin claimed with power and
clarity that he had found in Christianity ‘the only sure and profitable
philosophy,’ (Dialogue with Trypho 8:1)” (Fides
et Ratio, 38).
Philosophy and Reason
On the whole, Justin’s person and
work are indicative of the early Church’s decisive preference for philosophy
and for reason rather than for pagan religion. In fact, the first Christians
vigorously refuted any compromise with the pagan religion. They considered it
idolatry, even at the cost of being accused of “ungodliness” and “atheism.” In
a special way, Justin, particularly in his First Apology, harshly criticized
the pagan religion and its myths, which he considered diabolical “distractions”
along the path to truth.
Philosophy, on the contrary,
represented a special place where paganism, Judaism and Christianity could
meet, precisely on the plane where the pagan religion and its false myths could
be critiqued. Another apologist who was a contemporary of Justin, Bishop Melito
of Sardis, described the new religion as “our philosophy…” (Historia
In fact, pagan religion did not
follow the path of the Logos, but persisted along
the path of myth even though myths were recognized by Greek philosophy as
having no foundation in truth. Therefore, the fall of the pagan religion was
inevitable, stemming from the logical consequence of detaching religion — which
had been reduced to an artificial agglomerate of ceremonies, conventions and
customs — from the truth of being.
Justin, along with the other
apologists, clearly sealed the Christian faith’s choice for the God of the
philosophers over the false gods of the pagan religion. It was a choice for the
of existence over the myth of convention. A few decades
after Justin, Tertullian described this same choice by Christians with a
perennially valid phrase: “Dominus noster Christus veritatem se,
non consuetudinem, cognominavit ― Christ said he was the truth
not convention” (De virgin. vel. 1:1).
In this regard, note that the word consuetudo
that Tertullian used here in reference to the pagan religion may be translated
in modern languages with expressions like “cultural fashions” or “fads.”
In an era such as ours that is
marked by relativism in the debate over values and religion, and also in
inter-religious dialogue, this is a lesson we should not forget. With this aim
in mind — and here I’ll conclude — I again present to you the words of the
mysterious old man that the philosopher Justin met by the seashore: “But pray
that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these
things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom
God and his Christ have imparted wisdom” (Dialogue With Trypho 7:3).