Book review: Justin Martyr’s Apologies

The other set of books that I have stored at my parents’ place is a complete set of the works of the early Church fathers. After my mission, I was intent on reading everything I could about early Christianity, but never was able to actually tackle the huge library of works by Augustine, Hippolytus, Basil, Hilary, and Jerome. I have run into the names in many other works I have read along the way, and perhaps can appreciate some of the context I get this time around.

I chose to start with the first volume, which includes works by… These are really the earliest works we have of early Christianity, from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, a few generations after the first apostles and disciples. From the introduction to the works of Justin, I gather that many before Latter-Day Saints have turned to these works in attempts to find correlations with their own doctrines: in one passage on the Eucharist, a footnote explains that Lutherans, etc, have sought to justify their doctrine for/against transubstantiation, as it isn’t very clear. While such hunts are interesting, that isn’t my primary intention here. Rather, I want to get a feel for what the faith of these early saints was like, what it was like to be a minority faith in a time of great change and persecution, and perhaps also to witness how they reconciled their doctrines with the world around them.

Christians accused of atheism

Justin addresses his apologies of the Christian faith to the Roman emperor and Senate. Interestingly enough, throughout both apologies, one of Justin’s main criticisms he seeks to address is the accusation of atheism. Because Christians refused to worship the many Roman gods, insisting on a strict monotheism (granted, it is clear throughout the letter that the doctrine of the Trinity is not established) that perhaps could come off as atheism:

In obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things [the Greek and Roman gods who performed many heinous acts], but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue. Hence we are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and other virtues, who is free from all impurity.

I find it compelling that both Christians and atheists were fellow sufferers and outcasts at one point in time. Christianity lived long enough to become the bad guy, and atheists and Christians don’t seem to always be on the best of terms these days (granted, perhaps they weren’t buddy buddy back then either). Still, perhaps we could learn a bit if we reflected on a time when Christianity wasn’t a dominant force in society, we could learn form the vibrant yet humble example of these saints in the early Church.

References to Greek/Roman philosophy and gods

The Bible makes some references to the religion and philosophy of Greeks and Romans. One memorable example is Paul’s creative use of the altar to the unknown god:

*Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with the inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I declare unto you.*

But later generations of Christians, including philosopher converts such as Justin Martyr, who really interact with it and use it as a teaching tool. Justin uses several stories of Greek gods to demonstrate that what Christians believe isn’t any crazier than what they already believe:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Aesulapius who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt and ascended to heaven.

He also called upon Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, using them both as an example of similar persecution and claiming them as pre-Christian forbears:

And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies. And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized.

Perhaps if Talmage had read this (and perhaps he had), he would argue that this was already evidence that the Church had begun its long descent into apostasy, adding in elements of Greek and Roman philosophy to make it more respectable, but losing truth (read The Great Apostasy for his entire take on the matter). Perhaps so. But I think it is an inevitable aspect of having a growing, dynamic, and living Church on the one hand, and also an important admission that faith shouldn’t divorce itself from reason. I think of the recent conference talk by Elder Soares where be compared the Amazon River to the community of saints:

In a similar way that the Solimoes and Negro Rivers flow together to make the great Amazon River, the children of God come together in the restored Church of Jesus Christ from different social backgrounds, traditions, and cultures, forming this wonderful community of Saints in Christ. Eventually, as we encourage, support, and love each other, we combine to form a mighty force for good in the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, flowing as one river in this river of goodness, we will be able to provide “fresh water” to a thirsty world.

I loved this talk, because it emphasized the good and even necessary aspect of bringing our own unique backgrounds to the table. It isn’t just a dash of salt or pepper, but something integral to the structure and growth of the Church. What Justin Martyr brought to the early church as a philosopher and seeker of truth feels like it added a lot to the Church of his day.

Devils abroad spreading negative things about Christians

There was one aspect of Justin’s writings that made me look twice: he is constantly referring to demons, and warning his readers to not give heed to them because they will try to blind them to the truth:

For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say.

It sounds silly here, even a weak attempt at manipulation. When you are convinced of your message, and you tell your listeners not to listen to any sources that disagree with you because they’re evil, you don’t really believe your message can stand on its own merits. Latter-Day Saints have a similar tactic, though. I remember missionaries and members warning new converts to be extra careful after they are baptized, because Satan will do everything within his power to make sure they don’t show up the next Sunday to receive the Holy Ghost.

Doctrine of free will

I was also impressed by the centrality of free will, or in Mormon lingo, free agency (I suppose we can’t say that anymore; read “moral agency”) in Justin’s message. Take this passage here where Justin refutes the idea of fate:

But lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever happens, happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate.

That could have come out of a 2nd century edition of Preach My Gospel. We too assert the central aspect of free will in God’s plan. Future Church fathers will make this all much more complicated (Pelagius, another advocate of free will, was accused by Augustine and others of denying grace). But Justin Martyr’s logic here seems very sound, if both justice and mercy are to abound.

The apologies of Justin give a compelling picture of how the early saints wrestled with their faith. It still seems to be the same doctrine as preached in the Bible.

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