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.

As a politician, Justin leaves a lot to be desired, mixing at times reasonable discourse with not-so-subtle smackdowns of the emperor whose favor he’s trying to woo.

For those who … endeavour to escape detection when they offend (and they offend, too, under the impression that it is quite possible to escape your detection, since you are but men), those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing … can escape the knowledge of God, would by all means live decently on account of the penalties threatened… But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish. Such would be the concern of public executioners, but not of good princes.

Now that’s not an unreasonable argument, if you’re willing to accept the premises. People do whatever they expect to get away with, and if you convince them that they can’t get away with anything—I mean really convince them—then they won’t try. So far so good, but just when he’s got a reasonable argument going, Justin turns around and accuses Caesar of not wanting people to abstain from crime? What the heck? Jesus promised his disciples that when they defended their faith before kings and rulers, the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say, but in this case either the Spirit was snoozing or else He’s kind of an ass.

Justin goes on to imply that Caesar prefers opinion over truth, and compares him to a robber in the desert, but before we head down that road I want to back up and look at the problems with Justin’s original argument: that Christians make better citizens because they believe God is watching everything they do. That’s a popular claim, even today, but there’s a wide gap between the theory and the practice. Nowadays, of course, the gap is even wider because people believe in salvation by faith alone, and “once saved, always saved.” A huge consequence of Luther’s revolution is the dogma that your salvation is by faith alone and thus cannot be influenced by your deeds either for good or for ill. Contrary to Justin’s claim that Christians will fear Hell too much to sin, today’s Christians are completely unfazed, secure in the knowledge that they are forgiven no matter what they do.

Obviously, this negates Justin’s whole point. While his argument sounds plausible on the surface, it completely omits any mention of the idea that God forgives you no matter what you do. The only way Justin’s argument works is if you believe in salvation by works alone, apart from the forgiveness of Christ. And if that’s the case, then Christ died in vain, because forgiveness was allegedly the whole point of the cross. In effect, Justin is lying to Caesar, either by misrepresenting the basis for Christian conduct, or by misrepresenting the basis for Christian forgiveness. He is sinning in the very act of telling Caesar how righteous Christian conduct is. But that’s ok because God forgives him.

Ok, back to Justin the Politician. Or should I call him Justin the Rhetoritician? Either way, he’s got a lot of room for improvement. Have a look at this hacked-up grammatical mish-mosh.

But just so much power have rulers who esteem opinion more than truth, as robbers have in a desert. And that you will not succeed is declared by the Word, than whom, after God who begat Him, we know there is no ruler more kingly and just. For as all shrink from succeeding to the poverty or sufferings or obscurity of their fathers, so whatever the Word forbids us to choose, the sensible man will not choose.

I think the point Justin is trying to make here is that robbers in the desert have the power to steal and kill and do violence, but not to rule or become great. In other words, he’s rather clumsily trying to shame Caesar into halting violence against Christians and into agreeing with whatever he (Justin) says, on the grounds that it’s the truth. But more than just shaming him, he’s also threatening him by declaring that Jesus (whom Justin refers to as “the Word”) both predicted Caesar’s failure and was himself a better ruler than Caesar. “How To Win Friends And Influence (Powerful) People,” the early and less-successful edition.

From here, Justin goes off on a tangent about how Jesus predicted it all, and look, it’s starting to be fulfilled, etc—the by-now classic end-times fulfilled-prophecy fantasy that is still deluding believers to this day. Move over Harold Camping, Justin saw the beginning of the end 1800 years before you did. Not that Jesus showed up then either, of course.

Justin wraps up Chapter 12 with one last slap in Caesar’s face.

[Because] we are well aware that it is not easy suddenly to change a mind possessed by ignorance, we intend to add a few things, for the sake of persuading those who love the truth, knowing that it is not impossible to put ignorance to flight by presenting the truth.

I kind of like that first part. “It is not easy suddenly to change a mind possessed by ignorance. — Justin Martyr.” I might have to get that printed on a T-shirt to wear then next time I go to a creationism convention. Then again, I’m not sure I’m ready for the name “Duncan Martyr,” so maybe not.

Chapter 13 begins with the declaration that Christians are not atheists, and also, interestingly, with an apparent rejection of the entire Old Testament sacrificial system.

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring … that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; … as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need…

Take that, Moses! Justin is certainly right that it makes a lot more sense to use food and drink to care for the needs of the worshipper and of the poor. But what an ego-centric definition of “honoring God”! It’s like Justin is saying “The true worship of God is when man’s appetites are satisfied.” Yeah, that’s certainly convenient, but it doesn’t really make much sense—any more that it makes any sense at all for an omnipotent deity to need or want anything from us, whether sacrifices of pigeons, praises or prayers. Religion exists because of man’s needs, and therefore men define it in terms that inevitably talk like God is being served but act in ways that ultimately serve man.

From here, though, things are definitely getting more interesting, because Justin says he’s going to explain to us all about who Jesus really is in relation to God. A lot of Justin’s language is going to use terms familiar to Trinitarians, but remember, Justin is writing in the second century, not the fourth, so the Trinity isn’t really an established doctrine yet. We’ll need to let Justin explain himself to us in his own terms, not in the terms of theologians who won’t even be born for another century or so.

Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove. For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.

In the second century, “Son of God” does not necessarily mean “God the Son”—that’s post-Nicene thinking. Justin is telling us, not that Jesus is the eternal and unchangeable God, but that he’s a crucified man whom Christians worship in second place to God. The Holy Spirit is worshipped as an even lower, 3rd-place figure, rather than as a co-equal personage within some kind of polyvalent “godhead.” This isn’t your great-grandpa’s Trinity.

But this wouldn’t be Justin Martyr if he stayed focused on any one topic for more than a few lines, and just when it’s getting interesting, he goes off on a paranoid, superstitious tangent again. Watch out, demons gonna mess with your head and keep you from figuring out the truth.

For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to hold you their slaves and servants; and sometimes by appearances in dreams, and sometimes by magical impositions, they subdue all who make no strong opposing effort for their own salvation. And thus do we also, since our persuasion by the Word, stand aloof from them (i.e., the demons), and follow the only unbegotten God through His Son…

And from this point he hares off on yet another tangent about how Christians are people who used to live really evil lives and now they’ll all good and noble and stuff—you know the drill. But right there at the end of the quote above is a fascinating word: “unbegotten.” If you’ve been exposed to church ritual at all, I’m sure you’ve heard Jesus referred to as the “only Begotten Son of God.” It means “fathered,” i.e. produced as a consequence of sexual intercourse and reproduction. The notion of Jesus as “the Only-Begotten” is a concept that goes way back to the early days of church history, to the point that it’s been embedded in the formulation of Trinitarianism itself. In classic Trinitarian terms, Jesus is not merely the Only Begotten, he was actually Begotten before the foundation of the world. Somehow, God managed to beget Jesus without there even being a Mother around to beget him in!

That’s fourth century, though. Justin is referencing here a concept that’s even older than that. In Justin’s mind, Jesus is Begotten, but God Himself is not. God is UNbegotten. Not just the Father within the godhead, but God Himself is unbegotten, in contrast to Jesus who, by the fourth century, will have become not only Begotten, but eternally Begotten. The God of the fourth-century Trinity, and “the only unbegotton God” worshipped by Justin, are very different gods, not just in name but in nature.

You get the feeling that Justin was just a little insecure about sharing his proto-trinitarian dogmas, despite his bold language. He promises a wise and reasonable explanation, but no sooner does he scratch the surface of this “wisdom” than he has to run off and reassure Caesar (or maybe he’s reassuring himself?) that what he’s about to say must be true because it has made Christians better persons than they used to be. And even then, he hesitates, warning Caesar that his material might prove to be a little, um, sparse.

But lest we should seem to be reasoning sophistically, we consider it right, before giving you the promisedexplanation, to cite a few precepts given by Christ Himself. And be it yours, as powerful rulers, to inquire whether we have been taught and do teach these things truly. Brief and concise utterances fell from Him, for He was no sophist, but His word was the power of God.

After all the praise Justin gives to philosophy and reason and basing one’s beliefs and actions on a thorough and rational consideration of the truth of things, it’s time to present Jesus as the greatest of all teachers. Unfortunately, though Jesus was allegedly wiser than Socrates and Plato and all the rest put together, he did not present or explain or teach well-reasoned, rational philosophy. So poof, the whole philosophical approach Justin urges on Caesar becomes—for the moment—mere sophistry. Jesus doesn’t bother with it, and therefore it’s unnecessary. Dogma is just dogma, and thinking rationally is irrelevant. Just believe what you’re told.

Next week we’ll pick up in Chapter 15, and the “Greatest Hits” edition of favorite quotes attributed to Jesus. Maybe if we’re lucky, Justin will even continue with the explanation he promised. Stay tuned.

3 Responses to “Saved by works”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Good stuff, like the style, very ‘uplifting’.

  2. KG Says:

    Presumably the stress on “unbegotten” is to contrast the Christians’ god with Jupiter/Zeus, who was quite definitely begotten by Saturn/Chronos on Ops/Rhea.

  3. descriptivegrace Says:

    In Justin’s days, of course, Marcion had just finished writing the Pauline epistles. They were still the property only of the Gnostics and wouldn’t be stolen and canonized by the emerging orthodox church until 170-180. So its no wonder Justin’s doctrine is pre-Pauline.


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