The Church Fathers is the title respectfully given to those writers, leaders, and pastors who led the church in the first 600 years of its existence. Any modern student willing to mine writings of these old saints will find a rich repository of history, theology, and devotion. The writings of the Fathers – available as a multi-volume reference set in most higher-education libraries – are generally divided into two categories: the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who lived before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and the Post-Nicene Fathers (those who lived and ministered after Nicea).
During my sabbatical, I devoted myself to reading the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series (containing the writings of those fathers who lived before 200 AD) as well as three volumes from the most eminent of the Post-Nicene Fathers: the great St. Augustine, who died in 425. Today’s reflection is from one of the preeminent apologists of the early church: Justin Martyr.
The First and Second Apologies of Justin Martyr
[In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885).]
Justin lived circa 110-165 AD and was a convert to Christianity from Greek paganism. As a philosopher trained in the Socratic/Platonist tradition, he used reason, logic, and sarcasm to contest the persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities. The Romans in Justin’s day often condemned and persecuted Christians for the faith they professed, falsely assuming that Christians were atheists (because they did not worship the Greek pantheon) and cannibals (because of the Lord’s Supper). Justin’s First and Second Apologies are polemical works designed to refute these false claims and chide the Roman authorities for their lack of thoughtful reasoning.
The First and Second Apologies display a number of notable features:
- They establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the historical veracity of the life and death of Jesus. Justin is writing less than 150 years after Jesus’ death, and he appeals for proof of Jesus’ life and teachings not only to Scripture, but also to secular historical documents that would have been accessible to his pagan readers. “There is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea” (Chap. XXXIV). [Speaking of the crucifixion]: “And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate” (Chap. XXV).
- Justin spends much of the First Apology appealing to fulfilled prophecy as an apologetic for the Christian faith. This is interesting in light of the fact that he is writing to Romans who are not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. It suggests that fulfilled prophecy has a strong apologetic value even for non-religious audiences.
- Justin gives a detailed synopsis of the worship services and traditions of the church in his time. For all who are interested in learning about the early church’s practice of baptism, communion, and gathered worship, these chapters of the First Apology (chap. LXI – LXVII) are worth consulting.
- A key component of Justin’s apologetic method is his appeal to the changed lives of converts: “…we who formerly delighted in fornication, but now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts, dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all” (First Apology, Chap. XIV).
- As a philosopher, Justin claims all truth as God’s truth and asserts that Christianity brings resolution to every other philosophical system. This is perhaps my favorite quote in his writing: “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians” (Second Apology, Chap. XIII)