Thursday, June 1, 2023

Justin Martyr: The First “Christian Philosopher”

By the second century Saint Justin Martyr—whose feast is observed on June 1—had already taken up the exposition of the harmony between reason and faith. As a philosopher, Justin stressed that Christianity was the fulfillment of everything that was true and good in the thought of the ancient Greeks, whose intellectual heritage had been adopted by the Rome of his day.

Justin was born about the year 100 a.d. As a young man he became a seeker after wisdom—literally a “philosopher,”—and he traveled from his native Palestine to Ephesus where he studied under both the Stoics and the Platonists. Fascinated by the Stoic doctrine of the immanent and pervasive presence of the Divine logos giving rationality to the whole cosmos, and also by the Platonist understanding of the natural kinship between the soul and the Transcendent Good, Justin was nevertheless dissatisfied by incompleteness of the philosophic quest. 

He was also amazed by the remarkable courage and joy of the Christian martyrs he had seen dying for Christ while he was still a pagan. This admiration, along with the guidance of a Christian friend, led him to read the Scriptures. He soon discovered that Jesus Christ was the fullness of Wisdom, who had become incarnate in order to communicate the whole truth to man. Christ was the Goodness and Beauty sought by the Platonists, and the Divine Logos sought by the Stoics.

Justin converted to Christianity, but he continued to wear the "cloak" of a philosopher. He traveled to Rome where he opened a philosophical school that attracted numerous disciples. Finally, as his name indicates, he suffered martyrdom in Rome in the year 165.

Justin taught that Christianity was the fulfillment of philosophy and the correction of its errors. The philosophers had discovered portions of the truth, on account of the Divine Logos who enlightens the intellect of every man. But because they did not perceive the whole of the Logos—the whole of the Divine Wisdom—they contradicted one another and fell short of the full truth. Jesus Christ, however (said Justin) is the "Whole Logos" incarnate, manifesting in his flesh the fullness of the Divine Wisdom and making this Wisdom accessible not just to philosophers but to everyone. 

Thus, Saint Justin concluded, Christian revelation is "more noble than all human teaching." It alone is the complete truth. In his Second Apologia, he states, "Whatever has been spoken aright by any men belongs to us Christians, for we worship and love, next to God, the Logos which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God... For all those writers were able, through the seed of the Logos implanted in them, to see reality darkly. For it is one thing to have the seed of a thing and to imitate it up to one's capacity: far different is the thing itself, shared and imitated in virtue of its own grace" (II Apology, ch. 13).

Justin the Christian philosopher also emphasized something that no philosopher had ever stressed before: the meaning of history. Since the fullness of Divine Truth had become incarnate as a man in history, Justin concluded that the whole of human history had been a preparation for Him. This was clear enough in the case of the Jews; one could demonstrate that their prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. However, Justin was equally certain that philosophy had been given by God to the Greeks in order to prepare them for the Gospel. Justin saw the Incarnation as the center of God's plan for all of history, a plan that was destined to be fulfilled in the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation.

In presenting Christianity as the fulfillment of the philosophic quest of the Greeks, Saint Justin Martyr did not invent new speculations of his own, but sought to convey faithfully what God had really accomplished in history. We should not be surprised, therefore, that even in the middle of the second century Saint Justin would place great emphasis on tradition.

Because Christianity is an adherence to a man in history—to the things he said and did and to the society he constituted—it was crucial from the very beginning to receive and hand-on faithfully the authentic testimony of those He sent forth to bear witness to His name. Thus the measure of genuine Christian thinking and the anecdote to every poisonous distortion of the Christian message could only be fidelity to the apostolic tradition. In his famous account of early Christian liturgical and sacramental practice, Justin indicates that it was already common practice in the middle of the second century for the "memoirs of the Apostles" to be read at the Eucharistic celebration (See I Apology, ch. 67).

It is beautiful to begin the month of June by commemorating the “first Christian philosopher”—the first of a long line of philosophers who acknowledge that human reason (and all of reality) finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.