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.

This is obviously a troublesome text for Christians, and the English editors of Justin’s writings added a footnote suggesting a couple ways we might rephrase or otherwise rearrange Justin’s words to give them an interpretation more in line with modern Trinitarian doctrine. After declaring (without much basis) that the Justin appears to reject the worship of angels in chapters 13, 16 and 61, the editor writes:

We are therefore driven to adopt another translation of this passage, even though it be somewhat harsh. Two such translations have been proposed: the first connecting “us” and “the host of the other good angels” as the common object of the verb “taught;” the second connecting “these things” with “the host of,” etc., and making these two together the subject taught. In the first case the translation would stand, “taught these things to us and to the host,” etc.; in the second case the translation would be, “taught us about these things, and about the host of the others who follow Him, viz. the good angels.”

As the editor observes, neither of these interpretations is a good fit for what Justin actually wrote. These are interpretations that the modern Christian forces onto Justin’s words in order to assume that Justin’s Christianity corresponds to modern Christianity. In fact, however, if you suspend that assumption, and consider the possibility that Justin’s beliefs might be different from modern Christian teaching, a much simpler explanation becomes apparent.

The key word here is “other.” Notice he says, “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…” By referring to the good angels as the other good angels, Justin is telling us that he has already mentioned at least one good angel whom Christians worship. Obviously that angel is not God, since an angel is a creature. That leaves Jesus as the other good angel whom Christians worship. In other words, for Justin, in the second century church, Jesus was not God. He was a creature, just like any other good angel.

Remember, this is a couple centuries before the Nicene creed established Trinitarian thinking as the official doctrine of the Church. Jesus’ role as the Son of God is still somewhat ambiguous. It’s true that traditionally you’re supposed to worship and serve God alone, but there’s a certain tension between this tradition and the new tradition that Jesus is somehow more than just a man. In Justin’s mind, there’s a four-tiered ranking here: God at the top, then the good angel Jesus who receives lesser reverence as a genuine supernatural power just below God, then the host of other good angels, and finally, in the fourth rank, the Holy Spirit—whatever that is. (After Nicaea, the Holy Spirit will be God, but here in Justin’s day, it’s not quite so cut and dried.) Four tiers of Christian worship, with the One True God at the top.

You see a similar notion in the Catholic Church today, in the way that saints are “venerated” and prayed to, somehow without violating the official sanctions against worshipping anyone other than God. A bit of euphemism, a bit of double-think, and you can worship both, by making some esoteric technical distinction between “worship” and “veneration” that has no practical impact on the worshipper’s daily practice.

In this context, Justin’s words make perfect sense, just as written, without forcing some harsh, anachronistic modern interpretation on them. Justin is defending Christians against the charge of being impious atheists, and his counter-evidence is to point out all the many divine or near-divine spiritual beings they do worship, including angels (like Jesus) and whatever the Holy Spirit is. The only reason this is a problem for modern Christians is that they don’t like to believe that their faith has evolved over time.

Moving on to chapter 7, Justin re-iterates his perfectly reasonable argument in favor of punishing people based on the actual harm they do rather than on the neutral fact of what they are.

And this we acknowledge, that as among the Greeks those who teach such theories as please themselves are all called by the one name “Philosopher,” though their doctrines be diverse, so also among the Barbarians this name on which accusations are accumulated is the common property of those who are and those who seem wise. For all are called Christians. Wherefore we demand that the deeds of all those who are accused to you be judged, in order that each one who is convicted may be punished as an evil-doer, and not as a Christian; and if it is clear that any one is blameless, that he may be acquitted, since by the mere fact of his being a Christian he does no wrong.

Look, (Justin is saying), the Greek philosophers all teach different things and contradict each other and some even promote atheism, and yet they’re all called “philosophers.” In other words, the name “philosopher” doesn’t really tell you whether they teach good things or bad things. And likewise among the non-Greeks (whom Justin calls “Barbarians,” meaning simply foreigners), there are people who are called Christians who do good things, and people called Christians who do bad things. So don’t punish based on whether they’re Christian or not, because the name really tells you nothing. You have to examine the deeds and punish the ones who actually do evil.  Merely being Christian (or Muslim, or gay) is not wrong in and of itself.

That’s a good argument, and one that deserves wider use today, especially as it applies to oppressed minority groups like gays and immigrants and blacks (and even not-so-minority groups like women). What Justin saw so clearly when Christianity was an oppressed minority is still true today even though the victims are no longer the Christians. Justice does not change depending on who the victim is.

Moving on to chapter 8, Justin defends the Gospel as being a harmless pursuit of goodness and eternal life.

For, impelled by the desire of the eternal and pure life, we seek the abode that is with God, the Father and Creator of all, and hasten to confess our faith, persuaded and convinced as we are that they who have persuaded God by their works that they followed Him, and loved to abide with Him where there is no sin to cause disturbance, can obtain these things.

The editor was apparently embarrassed by the idea of “persuading God” by good works, so he changed it to “they who have proved to God by their works…” I’ve restored Justin’s original language.

Justin is trying to persuade Caesar that Christian doctrine is harmless. Then as now, however, the Christian doctrine of hell tended to offend people. Justin responds first of all by trying to claim a precedent from Plato’s philosophy, and then by doubling down on the doctrine itself, and lastly by saying that it does no harm to believe such things.

Plato, in like manner, used to say that Rhadamanthus and Minos would punish the wicked who came before them; and we say that the same thing will be done, but at the hand of Christ, and upon the wicked in the same bodies united again to their spirits which are now to undergo everlasting punishment; and not only, as Plato said, for a period of a thousand years. And if any one say that this is incredible or impossible, this error of ours is one which concerns ourselves only, and no other person, so long as you cannot convict us of doing any harm.

So yeah, we’re only saying what Plato said, except our hell lasts forever, and not just for 1,000 years. And if we’re wrong, we’re only hurting ourselves, so you shouldn’t punish us for it. Punishment should be reserved only for those who do actual harm.

There’s an interesting tension here between the standards of justice that Justin holds Caesar to, and those to which he holds his own God. To Caesar he says, “You should only punish people who are actually guilty, and even then you should only punish those who are guilty of inflicting actual harm to others. People should not be punished for believing the wrong things.” But what are the eternal consequences of believing the wrong things? Justin ought to confront God and tell Him, “If our beliefs are wrong, this error is one which concerns only ourselves, and You have no grounds for punishing us for it.” How far would that doctrine fly in the Church?

We need to be careful, though, to avoid reading modern Christian assumptions into Justin’s ancient beliefs. If Justin spoke a couple centuries before Trinitarianism became the official church doctrine, he lived around a millennium and a half before the Protestant reformation and salvation by faith alone. Clearly, Justin’s concept of salvation is a lot closer to James 2 than the 95 Theses. You may be saved by faith, but to Justin, the way you prove you have a saving faith is by doing enough good works to persuade God that He ought to save you.

That opens up a bit of a problem, though. If you are getting into heaven because your good works outweigh your evil deeds, then Christ is superfluous, because you have earned your own salvation by your good works. Conversely if you do not or cannot do enough good deeds to outweigh the harm you’ve caused by your evil deeds, if God is saving you simply because you’ve persuaded Him that you do in fact have genuine faith, then you’re still doing what Justin says is wrong.

If it’s wrong to punish people simply for believing wrong things, then by that same standard it should be wrong to allow them to escape justice just because they believe the “correct” things. If anything, having true knowledge ought to make you more accountable, not less so. Justin’s whole argument is that you ought to judge people based on what they do, not based on what they believe, but he preaches a gospel that’s the exact opposite, at least to the extent that it allows people to escape justice based on their beliefs rather than their works.

To be fair, Justin’s not really trying to present a consistent and comprehensive approach to justice and judgment. He’s just trying to get Caesar to put a stop to the persecution of Christians. And holding up Christians as a people dedicated to good works is actually a pretty effective argument for convincing an emperor that he ought to leave the Christians alone. The caveat is that he has to convince the emperor that it’s really true that Christians are doing good works as if their eternal life depended on it, and that their idea of “good works” corresponds with the emperor’s notion of which works are good. (Slaves obeying their masters would be an emperor-pleasing good work, but setting the captive free? not so much.)

Meanwhile, I’m not so sure Justin is being 100% honest here in his presentation of the Christian faith. It’s all well and good to say that punishment should be reserved for the wicked, but he’s kind of glossing over the fact that according to Christian beliefs, all men are wicked and deserve to burn forever in hell. That’s a doctrine that defames all men, and defamation is arguably a form of harm. It prejudices you against men, and sets you up for the kind of rationalization that allows you to do evil things to people, on the grounds that God knows they deserve far worse than what you’re giving them.

From here Justin goes on to attack idol worship, in chapter 9. That, however, is likely to lead to a whole post’s worth of discussion in itself, so I’ll just stop here for now. Stay tuned.

One Response to “Justin’s Jesus, justice, and judgment”

  1. Tige Gibson Says:

    The deepest, most fundamental weakness of Christians (and they are so acutely aware of it) is their hypocrisy. Because of this they project their crimes against others and make all of their special pleadings, that circumstances should be convenient to them. They expend a great deal of their mental resources trying to be internally consistent at the expense of external consistency with reality, but they can’t sustain this as it is quite impossible. Failing to think the impossible decimates their thought processes, driving them insane, into a very narrow world where their own hypocrisies cannot be seen.

    Now, in raising Jesus Christ from man to God, it would be so obviously false, even to them to do only that. They needed to formulate Christ’s Divinity in such a way that it would be somewhat immune from the accusation of convenience, and the simplest way is to add a third. It can’t really be imagined that the Father and the Holy Spirit were two Gods before the Divinity of Christ was raised. All modern Christians pretend that there was never a time when Christ’s Divinity was not recognized to conceal this fact.

    The comments of early Christians are somewhat revealing about the reasons for certain Christian formulas, but conservatizing Christians constantly remake the church through repeated subdivision of denominations. Their reasons for doing so are always the same: they see small inconsistencies, and by trying to cover them up, in their own minds they have solved the biggest problems. One small hypocrisy disappears but big ones are ignored.

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