Reflections on the Faith of Justin Martyr
A new week means a new Church Father. I’ve been blessed to be able to keep up with such a pattern thus far. I hope it continues. This week, I read through the First and Second Apologies of Justin Martyr. While I found plenty of material to write about in the first apology, I didn’t see as much in the second, so this article will only contain his First Apology. It’s rather lengthy, but it was a good read. I did find myself thinking that this Early Church Father — this brother in Christ — seems to have a faith that while built upon the same foundations as mine contains elements entirely different from what I’ve come to believe as biblical truth. This, I’ve been seeing, is a pattern as I read the earliest of the Fathers. It is something that I find rather disturbing, as I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have a better knowledge of the truth than did the disciples of the first few Christian generations. To say that my mind has been assaulted by cognitive dissonance lately would be a tremendous understatement. I continue daily to wrestle with the differences between my Protestant convictions and the seemingly un-Protestant nature of the Fathers’ faith. That being said, there’s a number of categories into which I was able to place St. Justin’s Apology, and I’ll go through them each in turn.
The Importance of Tradition
Like the other Fathers, Justin references the importance of tradition, and that being the passing on of the teachings of the Apostles to the present (AD 150) day:
Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race.
-First Apology, ch. 23
This is written at a time still two centuries prior to the full compilation of the New Testament, at a time when other contemporary Fathers — even Bishops — did not have full copies of the Scriptures. Justin points out that the teachings of Jesus are for the conversion and restoration of the human race. More explicitly referring to the process of tradition, he states:
But we have received by tradition that God does not need the material offerings which men can give, seeing, indeed, that He Himself is the provider of all things. And we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name.
-First Apology, ch. 10
There’s a lot in this section. There’s a rebuttal of material sacrifices to God, which is both informative for the relationship of the early Church to the Old Covenant, as well as — and likely more specifically intended as — a distinction between Christian practice and Roman paganism.
He then also states that the Lord accepts “only those who imitate the exellences (sic) which reside in Him.” Now when I first read this, my mind instantly went to the popular Protestant rejoinder that saving faith is always accompanied by good works. This isn’t a statement against Sola Fide, obviously. But then I kept reading…
Salvation by Faith… alone?
I’ve long been familiar with the concept of Baptismal regeneration (I grew up Lutheran), but have always found the concept to be a de facto rejection of Sola Fide. I know any Lutheran, or even some Presbyterian, readers will immediately object, and I’ve heard the arguments before. I’ve never found them quite satisfying. But Justin’s words seem to be ascribing the power of regeneration and remission of sins to more than just faith, or even faith and baptism:
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.
-First Apology, ch. 61
He seems to imply here that a) living accordingly, b) praying, and c) fasting are for the remission of sins. If this is the case, then this goes beyond Sola Fide and implies not that works, prayers, and fasting are the necessary consequences of saving faith, but in and of themselves play a salvific role, at least to some extent.
I’ll be perfectly honest. I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ll keep the reference handy for later, but if I do not see similar sentiments elsewhere in the Early Church Fathers, it may be safe to say Justin is mistaken here (after all, even the Orthodox maintain that it is through the consensus of the Fathers that ‘capital-T’ Tradition is maintained).
[We] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe…
-First Apology, ch. 61
This is similar to the above quote and comes immediately following in the Apology. In a very short time, Justin emphasizes twice that baptism in water is for the remission of sins formerly committed.
I do see a pattern regarding baptism, though. It seems that Justin is only referring to the recipients of baptism as those who can acknowledge the teachings of the Church. This, obviously, would preclude infants. As a Baptist, I see this pattern a lot in the language of baptism: conviction and assent. I see it here as well as in the Bible. I know the typical response is that even paedobaptists affirm that converts can be baptized as adults, but one would think that — knowing infants do not mentally grasp the faith or assent to the practice — this would be mentioned somewhere. I have yet to see it in my reading, but this is something to keep in the back of my mind.
…now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.
-First Apology, ch. 65
This explicitly contradicts the Protestant notion that good works are an outgrowth of saving faith and not a means of saving faith. In the Protestant view, salvation precedes the good works. Here, Justin speaks clearly of “everlasting salvation” in the future tense, in other words, after the works.
The section of Justin’s Apology I appreciated the most was near the end, where he talks about the administration of the Sacraments and Sunday worship.
Regarding a baptism, he writes:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place… Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. 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 at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to [γένοιτο] [so be it]. And 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.
-First Apology, ch. 65
This seems to imply that baptism is a part of a regular service. After the baptism, the congregation gathers, offers prayers for the one baptized and for others, the “President” (pastor/priest) offers a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving, and then the congregation partakes of communion.
Regarding communion, he writes:
[N]o one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.
-First Apology, ch. 66
I do find this requirement interesting. I know that the general practice of Protestant paedobaptists and Catholics is to withhold communion, even from those baptized until their time of confirmation. The Orthodox, however, practice paedo-communion. As I argued above, infants do not affirm the teachings of the Church, which would seem to preclude them from communion, according to Justin. I imagine the counter-argument to this would be that it’s referencing the distinction between believers and non-believers. This may be the case, as in Justin’s time the Church was still primarily missionary in nature. It may also be the case that those born into the faith were simply included and that everyone in the Church knew it. I’m not as persuaded by this reasoning, but I’ve heard it argued before.
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
-First Apology, ch. 66
As readers will recall from my earlier articles, I already affirm the real presence in the Eucharist, so there’s not much to comment on that here, though it should be noted that Justin quite clearly teaches as such. What I do find interesting here is that a legitimate Eucharist must be “blessed by the prayer of His word”. This seems to be harmonious with Ignatius’ claim to do nothing apart from the Bishops, though I am still wanting that Early Church witness to what exactly makes a proper and legitimate Bishopric.
The final quote I enjoyed in this section was regarding a regular Christian worship service:
[O]n 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 succours 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.
-First Apology, ch. 67
So the service includes:
- The gathering together of the people
- A reading from the Gospels, or
- A reading of the Epistles or Prophets.
- A homily
- Partaking of the Eucharist
- A collection of offerings
There was one thing that I found a bit puzzling, that perhaps someone may be able to clarify:
[T]hose who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them…
-First Apology, ch. 46
It seems here that Justin is proposing some kind of inclusivism or the belief that those outside the faith are in some way saved. He addresses Socrates as one who “lived reasonably” and thus “[is a] Christian.”
I don’t know what to make of this, but I found it interesting enough to comment.
I was challenged by much of what Justin Martyr wrote in his Apologies. I enjoyed them thoroughly, being educated in philosophy myself. His writings were clear, and his points were well-made, but the faith and practice of the Christian Church he expresses in his apology seem much different from the faith and practice I know today. I will continue to wrestle with this pattern as I keep reading.
Any recommendations for the next Church Father to read would be greatly appreciated. And, as always, friends, please pray for me.