The Next Faithful Step
Justin Martyr lived from around 100 C.E. to 165 C.E. Born of pagan parents in Samaria, he would become among the most famous and important of the Greek-speaking defenders of the Christian faith in the early Church.
From early on, Justin was a philosopher. As he tells his own story, he flitted about from one philosophical school to another, searching for the truth that he could settle on. But he remained unsettled, trying this and that—Stoicism, Pathagorianism, and finally Platonism (which he found most satisfying for a while)—until he met a wise old Christian and things changed for Justin… mostly.
Unlike the late 2nd century theologian and apologist Tertullian in the West who identified a discontinuity (even antagonism) between Christianity and philosophy, famously stating, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, Justin kept to his philosophical track, finding in Christianity the “true philosophy.” The story goes that Justin, for the rest of his life, continued to wear the distinctive philosopher’s robe as an identifying mark.
Justin began to teach Christianity in the city of Ephesus and eventually began a Christian school in Rome. He addressed himself in writing to the Emperor and Roman Senate, defending the thought and practice of Christianity, and left behind a variety of writings that give us insight into both the relation between Christianity and philosophy in some portions of the early Church and the worship life and liturgy of burgeoning Christianity. In him we see developed a new understanding of the activity of God in history as presented to the Greek-speaking world. Ever the philosopher, Justin could not help but concede to the enduring wisdom of historical giants such as Socrates and his student Plato. And so Justin left us with his theology of what he calls the “Word Seed.” What he means by this is simply that all truth comes from Truth. And so anything that Socrates, Plato, or any of the pagan philosophers said that was good and true must have come from the Truth Himself. While these ancient thinkers did not have the full enlightenment of Christ, the Word incarnate, they did have within them a beginning—a seed—of the Word that planted and brought to fruition truth in them. For Justin, then, Socrates is well within the faith tradition, a sort of proto-Christian. In this way, Justin canonizes Greek intellectual history, effectively making the Greek philosophical tradition the Old Testament of the Gentiles. And the upshot of all this is that Christianity is now able to be presented to the dominant ruling culture not as a subversive cultural interloper, but as continuous with and fulfilling that culture’s own history and traditions. It is a massive cultural, philosophical, and theological move. And it would continue to reverberate throughout the centuries as Christians continued to wrestle with intellectual history and cultural context.
But his name isn’t Justin Philosopher. He is Justin Martyr. Interestingly, it is as martyr that the Church has remembered and memorialized him, but this is the aspect of his life that receives the least attention. Reported to the authorities—likely by an intellectual rival—Justin was beheaded under emperor Marcus Aurelius around the year 165 C.E. And so he is Justin Martyr.
I remember starting ordained ministry and wondering what it was that I was going to be known for. I really wasn’t looking to make a name for myself. It was just that, in seminary, it was often clear who was who. This one was the smart guy. She was the preacher. There was the organizer, the counselor, the denominational expert, and the worship leader. We knew who was who and what each was going to contribute.
It is difficult not to wonder what your contribution will be. Again, it does not necessarily have anything to do with making a name for oneself—although those looking to do so slip in here and there often enough. But we spend so much energy in our modern time exploring our particular giftedness that I wonder if we subtly reduce ourselves and others in ministry to our own contributory functions. And it probably doesn’t help that congregations will often pride themselves in having a pastor particularly gifted in A or B.
Justin is helpful here. He was among the most able of the Apologists—a true intellect, cultural interpreter, and instructor. Just was a philosopher who contributed in significant ways to the developing theology of the Christian Church and the way in which the Church both understood itself and was understood in the midst of its cultural surroundings. When Justin is written about today, it is overwhelmingly because of these things. He contributed.
In no way attempting to lessen the worth of these startling contributions, it has to be pointed out that this is not how the early Church remembered him. They called him Justin Martyr. It was less his philosophical contribution and more the faithfulness of this contributing intellect that the Church grabbed hold of, memorializing him with the name he would forever be known by.
Likely no one is going to read about me when I’m gone. I do have my own giftedness that contributes to the work of the Church in the world. Justin, though, challenges me to ask whether I seek more to be marked by a faithfulness that could be the end of me, or my contributory function—as the intellectual, the preacher, the organizer, the counselor, the denominational expert, the worship leader. With Justin’s help, I am looking to become more interested in what the Church would name me than what people might write about me.