Before he was a god

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

Justin Martyr is giving us a fascinating glimpse into the Christian church as it existed in the early second century, before there was any official dogma of the Trinity, or any official canon of Scripture. In this week’s installment, he shares with us (or rather, with Caesar) some of the sayings of Jesus. The text on the CCEL website includes a footnote warning us that “Justin quotes from memory, so that there are some slight discrepancies between the words of Jesus as here cited, and the same sayings as recorded in our Gospels.” What the editor overlooks, though, is the fact that Justin isn’t quoting the Gospels, he’s quoting Jesus. There is no canon of Scripture yet.

That said, there’s not a whole lot here that’s surprising, really. The wording is different here and there, but then again, there are discrepancies between the different gospel records of Jesus’ sayings too. The fact that Justin is quoting from memory is really no more significant than the fact that Matthewet al. were quoting from memory as well. What’s more interesting is the noticeable difference between Justin’s assumptions and attitudes, and those we find among modern-day Christians, particularly those of the Bible-believing variety.

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Saved by works

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

Justin Martyr may be one of the early heroes of the Christian faith, but for all that I’m not sure he’d be overly welcome in today’s churches, or at least, today’s Protestant churches. Not when he teaches doctrines like this:

[It] is alike impossible for the wicked, … and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God… [Each] man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions.

Luther, for one, would probably save Caesar the trouble of giving Justin the name Justin Martyr. After all, if we can get into heaven “according to the value of [our] actions,” then what do we need a Savior for? On the other hand, maybe Justin is just exaggerating the importance of good works in order to impress Caesar with what fine upstanding citizens Christians are supposed to be. Maybe, in the interests of political expediency, he’s tampering just a leeeeetle bit with the essential gospel of Christian salvation. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time—or the last.

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Idle worship

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

According to Justin Martyr, Christians are atheists, at least as far as other people’s gods are concerned. Sadly, Justin’s reason for not believing in the Greco-Roman gods is not that such beliefs are irrational and superstitious, but merely because his God allegedly revealed to the apostles that Jupiter and friends were demons pretending to be gods. He continues in the same vein in Chapter 9, concerning the worship of idols.

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Justin’s Jesus, justice, and judgment

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

We’re up to Chapter 6 already, and this one’s pretty intriguing. Justin is writing in the second century, well before the official formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity that took place in Nicaea in the fourth century. At a casual reading, it seems like Justin follows more or less the modern Trinitarian view of God—with one sharply discordant note. Referring to the fact that Christians were called “atheists” for refusing to worship the Greco-Roman gods (which he declared to be demons), he writes:

Hence are we 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 the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him, and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught.

Whoa, since when do Christians worship and adore “the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like Him”? Something has clearly changed in Christianity since the second century, and it’s not just the worship of angels.

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