Wednesday, January 28, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 3 – Justin Martyr

On the heels of the apostolic fathers was a group of writers known as the 'apologists.' Justin Martyr was known for his clear defense of the Christian faith against philosophers and Jews who found the new religion barbaric or idiotic.

Justin was a philosopher by training, and found that his pursuit of philosophy led him to the conclusion that Christianity was the true philosophy. The Concise History of Christian Thought says the following about his philosophical leanings: "When he became a Christian he did not renounce philosophy, he became a better philosopher, a true philosopher. He said that the relationship between the philosophers and Christ is that between the incomplete and the complete, between the imperfect and the perfect."


He gives the following account of his conversion, which follows directly on the heels of his journey from one tutor to the next, not finding satisfaction with their systems:

"When I wished at one period to be filled with great quietness, and to shun the path of men, I used to go into a certain field not far from the sea. And when I was near that spot one day, a certain old man, by no means contemptible in appearance, exhibiting meek and venerable manners, followed me at a little distance. And when I turned round to him, having halted, I fixed my eyes rather keenly on him. And he said, 'Do you know me?' I replied in the negative. 'Why, then do you so look at me?' 'I am astonished,' I said, 'because you have chanced to be in my company in the same place; for I had not expected to see any man here.'

'I delight,' said I, 'in such walks, where my attention is not distracted, for converse with myself is uninterrupted; and such places are most fit for philology.'
'Are you, then, a philologian,'
(i.e. literary study and classic scholarship)
said he, 'but no lover of deeds or of truth? And do you not aim at being a practical man so much as being a sophist?' 'What greater work,' said I, 'could one accomplish than this, to show the reason which governs all, and having laid hold of it, and being mounted upon it, to look down on the errors of others, and their pursuits? But without philosophy and right reason, prudence would not be present to any man.'

'Does philosophy, then, make happiness?' said he, interrupting.

'Assuredly,' I said, 'and it alone.'

'What, then, is philosophy?' he says; 'and what is happiness? Pray tell me, unless something hinders you from saying.'

'Philosophy, then,' said I, 'is the knowledge of that which really exists, and a clear perception of the truth; and happiness is the reward of such knowledge and wisdom.' 'But what do you call God?' said he. 'That which always maintains the same nature, and in the same manner, and is the cause of all other things —that, indeed, is God.' So I answered him; and he listened to me with pleasure, and thus again interrogated me:—

After the man 'interrogated' him about the truth for a few minutes, Justin asks the following:

'Should any one, then, employ a teacher?' I say, 'or whence may anyone be helped, if not even in them there is truth?'

The old man responds:

'There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. 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.'

"When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Savior. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may—since you are not indifferent to the matter —become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated,
live a happy life."

His conversion is encouraging for you see a man that is completely committed to the pursuit of truth, instead of being blinded by his own agenda or existing philosophical systems. How often do men blind themselves to the truth, choosing to create their own realities? Instead, pursue the freedom that comes with the truth (John 8.32).

In the summer of 2007 I studied some of Justin's writing in the original Greek. The thing I found most encouraging and humbling was his absolute command of the Old Testament (OT). In his Dialogue with Trypho, (Trypho was a Jew who Justin debated publicly) he presented scripture after scripture that pointed to Christ as the culmination of the entire OT. In fact, he rarely cited New Testament writings, if at all, during the debate (thus understanding his audience). I was humbled by how little OT scriptures I had memorized in relation to Christ. Sure, I had read through the OT plenty of times, but have not hidden many of the key sections that clearly point to Christ in my heart. Since the OT is often ignored in today's churches, it seems Justin's example is more important than ever for gaining a greater appreciation for the power of the entirety of God's word.

Death and Martyrdom

Now, you have to wonder that if you grew up with a last name like "Martyr" what your future may hold. Justin was martyred, but not because of his last name. The surname "Martyr" was added later because of his example. The story goes that around 160 AD, when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him, they demanded that he sacrifice to the Roman gods, or be executed. Justin responded by saying, "No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false."

Worship in the Early Church

One of the more exciting part of Justin's writings for me is his comments on the practices of the early church. He says the following in his First Apology:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who provides for the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

This is very similar to what we see in Acts 2.42, 45: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… and they were selling their possessions and belonging and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." Though we tend to make church rather complicated these days, the early church kept it simple: fellowship, food, prayer, teaching, and meeting the needs of others. Of course, there are many different ways to do these basic things, and I am grateful the Bible does not prescribe the form by which we should gather and worship. But it seems we've over complicated our public exercise of devotion and worship these days, creating many hoops to jump through that are not necessarily biblical. Nothing wrong with programs and meetings, but the error occurs when we equate holiness with adherence to those things, especially when those things become substitutes for the biblical examples. For instance, many churches would find the Holy Spirit showing up in fresh new ways if as much time were dedicated to public prayer as were preaching and singing.

If you find Justin's comments interesting, then you'd also enjoy reading the Didache, aka The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache means teaching in Greek). This is an early church document, written during the same century as Justin's works, which describes in great detail the practices of the church of that time. The work is about the length of a long chapter in Matthew. You can read an English translation here.

For all the other men who are 'trying', take encouragement from Justin's example by always seeking truth and standing for that truth, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, knowing your Old Testament, and keeping worship simple.

Page from the Didache

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