Volume 10, Issue 1: Patres
Justin Martyr was a gentile born in Samaria around AD 114. He was martyred (as his name might have suggested) in AD 165 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Justin began as a pagan philosopher, studying under a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean, and lastly, before his conversion, a Platonist. After becoming a Christian, he devoted himself to evangelism, writing and debating with both the pagans and the Jews. Although Justin was an historic premillenialist, he was clearly covenantal. This is evident in his explanations of salvation, the covenants themselves, and the nature of the church and Israel.
His covenantal understanding of Scripture becomes exceedingly clear in his debate with Trypho the Jew. While explaining to Trypho that circumcision was the `sign' of righteousness and not righteousness itself, he adds that righteousness before Christ was `by reason of faith' (Dialogue with Trypho, 23). He continues to say that true circumcision is that done by Christ (24) and is extended to the gentile world (28). While discussing the purpose of the law with Trypho, Justin explains that "if the law were able to enlighten the nations and those who possess it, what need is there of a new covenant?" In describing the New Covenant, he explains, "What then is Christ's inheritance? Is it not the nations? What is the covenant of God? Is it not Christ?" (122). He concludes this argument by citing Psalm 2:7, "Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the nations for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession." Justin believed in a gospel of world conquest.
He explains to Trypho that Israel was not done away with or put on hold at the cross, but that the unfaithful Jews were judged and the covenant was expanded to the nations. In his understanding, the Jews ignored the sign of Jonah (Christ's death and resurrection), and, therefore, their nation and city (Jerusalem) were destroyed (108). The apostles, however, went out preaching repentance to the Gentiles in fulfillment of Micah 4. Justin believed that the apostles going forth from Jerusalem preaching the law and the word to the Gentiles was the manifestation of the mountain of the Lord being established and that the preaching of the gospel had already accomplished the "beating of swords into plowshares" (109,110).
The destruction of Jerusalem was clearly, in Justin's mind, a defining moment in the history of the church, as it symbolized God's judgment on the nation of unbelieving Jewsó"God who foreknew was aware that your nation would deserve expulsion from Jerusalem" (92). Jerusalem, however, lived on in the church. He describes the gospel "gone forth from Zion." The Christian church sends the message to the world, "Come, all nations; let us gather ourselves together at Jerusalem, no longer plagued by war for the sins of her people" (24). Justin explains to Trypho that the reason for his preaching to the Jews is "in the hope that some one of you may be found to be of the remnant which has been left by the grace of the Lord of Sabaoth for the eternal salvation" (32).
For Trypho the Jew, this was difficult to swallow. Justin, however, leaves no room for Trypho to mistake his point. After citing a number of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of Christ, the conversion of the Gentiles and Christ's parables regarding the judgment of the Jews, he explains, "As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we [the Gentiles], who have been quarried out of the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race" (135). Justin continually stresses the continuity of the covenants and the right of the church to claim the title of Israel. His understanding leaves no room for modern dispensationalism.
Justin often stresses the free will of man in salvation in a way that would probably make the Calvinist nervous. Free will, as described by Justin, however, is set up as opposed to the Greek notion of impersonal fate. "But neither do we affirm that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer, but that each man by free choice acts rightly or sins" (7). Justin does not seem to have been thinking in Calvinist / Arminian categories, but was emphasizing the individual's responsibility for choice. He does, however, emphasize the need for grace from God in understanding the gospel, telling Trypho, "But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things can not be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom" (7).
Fans of the C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy might enjoy his description of the fallen angels. He explains how the angels were appointed to rule over men. When the angels fell in love with the women of earth and had children with them, their offspring were demonic. These fallen angels and demons were the spiritual entities behind the early Greek and Roman gods, Neptune, Pluto and the like (Second Apology of Justin, 5). This sort of cosmological view has always been controversial, but discussion of it goes back to the early second century.
Eusebius writes that Justin died "in consequence of the machinations of Crescens" (The Church History of Eusebius, 16:7). Crescens was a rival philosopher and Justin had "frequently refuted him in public discussions" (16:1). As a result of Crescens' plot against him, in AD 165 Justin and four of his friends were brought before Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, for refusing to worship the pagan gods. They were ordered to burn incense to the pagan gods, but refused, answering "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety" (The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, 4). Rusticus ordered them scourged and beheaded. Justin's response to Rusticus was, "Do what you will, for we are Christians, and do not sacrifice to idols" (4).