National Catholic Register


Weekly Catechesis 04.01.2007

Justin Martyr: Salvation in Jesus Christ

BY John Lilly

April 1-7, 2007 Issue | Posted 3/27/07 at 10:00 AM


REGISTER 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 time.

Thus, 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.

Justin’s Conversion

Justin 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 philosophy.”

Bidding 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.

Indeed, 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 Ecclesiastica 4,26,7).

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 truth 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).

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