In his new book Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, pastor and author Steve Lawson examines the lives of 23 early “pillars” of the Christian faith; men, who, Lawson says “stabilized the church by upholding God’s Word, thereby strengthening the household of faith.” Lawson adds that each of these men, to varying degrees, upheld fundamental principles pertaining to the doctrines of sovereign grace in his God-appointed hour of church history. In so doing, each of these godly men, “formed a colonnade, century by century, in support of the truth of God’s supreme authority in man’s salvation.”
In the first article of the series we discussed how Justin Martyr and the Apologist Fathers clearly understood the dominant worldview of their day and, as a result, had insight into the hot button issues where the gospel could be brought to bear upon philosophical thinking.
In the second part of our interview, we now delve into the role of higher education and philosophy, and how each affected Justin Martyr’s ministry.
Justin was well-traveled and well-educated. He held education in high regard. Was his education and worldly wisdom a part of how God used him?
Absolutely. One thing that I’ve learned in writing Pillars of Grace is the prominent place that higher education held in the lives of these men, all of whom were greatly used by God. This is not to say God does not use others who are less educated. But it is remarkable how, throughout the entirety of this volume, all the way to Calvin in the sixteenth century, there is seen the common thread of a higher, classical education. Such formal training equipped the minds of these men with the ability to think and analyze; to critique, compare, to use inductive and deductive reasoning, to have elevated powers of logic, to draw appropriate conclusions, and to have a command of the language. Education also made them better able to articulate the Christian faith in a clear and compelling way.
Justin Martyr is but one of the 23 men I describe in this book, but this common thread of higher education extends all the way into the Reformation. These were brilliant men who had a firm grasp of the subject matter that was set before them. Before they were converted, their minds possessed an understanding of the humanistic ideas of the time. But after their conversation, they used these same skills—all of which were learned in the better schools of the day—to rightly and accurately handle the word of truth. They had been trained to marshal their arguments well in order to present the claims of Jesus Christ in convincing fashion.
So, Justin Martyr, before he was regenerated, was on a pilgrimage to discover the truth. He went from school to school, studying the great philosophies of the ancient world. As he investigated these philosophies—from Stoicism to the thinking of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates—he saw the bankruptcy of the world’s logic. He saw that without God at the center of the universe, without God at the center of any thought system, man’s thinking, ultimately, led nowhere.
One other thing to point out is that the 23 men covered in this volume, going back to these early Christian Apologists, were all gifted writers. They all were able to reach the people of their day with a well-constructed, written argument.
Justin identified himself primarily as a philosopher. What does that tell us about his approach to Christian apologetics? And about his view of the Christian faith?
Justin Martyr, unquestionably, saw Christianity as a reasonable faith that is intellectually profound. Admittedly, there is a simplicity about the gospel. But at the same time, the full council of God is deeply profound. Therefore, Justin identified himself to the world as a philosopher, even to the point of wearing the garb of a philosopher in order to become acceptable to those he was trying to reach. I am reminded of Paul saying, “to the Jew I became a Jew, and to the one without the law I became as one without the law.’’ By his appearance, Justin was intentionally building bridges to this constituency, all for a reason. It is hard for us to understand today, but the philosophers of this ancient Greek culture were rock stars. These were the men whose images were carved into marble busts. Parents wanted their children to grow up and become great philosophers. To be sure, their command of ideas was more powerful than the imperial force of the Roman army.
So, Justin Martyr wanted to be identified with the philosophers. Because everyone admired these Athenian philosophers, he believed he would be given a pedestal from which to speak truth. As a philosopher, he felt that he could present Christianity as the ultimate truth. In so doing, he could present Christ as the Logos—the ultimate power of the created order.
As Christians, are we philosophical enough today?
I think we probably should be more intellectually adapted to our times. Such an awareness would make us stronger in terms of apologetics and evangelism.
One example I would cite in our present-day evangelical circles is R.C. Sproul. I think R.C. has a fifth gear that many Christian leaders do not have. Admittedly, it does not hurt that his PhD is in philosophy. As I participate in Q&A sessions with R.C. I have seen that he brings an extra dimension to any conversation—whether it is in speaking to the culture, in the exegesis of Scripture, or the interpretation of a given passage. Sproul definitely brings a philosophical understanding to any discussion and debate of ideologies, which is critically helpful.
In addition, I am currently preaching through the book of First Corinthians, chapters one and two, which require an understanding of ancient Greek philosophy. The city of Corinth is only forty-five miles west of Athens, and the relationship between the thinking of Athens’ philosophers is causing the church in Corinth to take on a worldly appearance. This is precisely why the Apostle Paul challenges the Corinthian church saying, “Where is the debater of this age, where are the scribes, where are the wise men?” He has the philosophers of the Grecian world clearly in mind by making this challenge.
Such background serves to open up certain passages of Scripture. So, I think that as we go into specific arenas where there is a high degree of intellectual expertise and sophistication in terms of philosophical arguments, we are going to have to do more than merely quote John 3:16. We need to show an understanding of the world’s ideas before we can reveal how bankrupt they are. This is necessary if we are to show that Christianity is the only reasonable solution to the questions that secularists are asking.
Dr. Steven J. Lawson is the senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. He is also a teaching fellow with Ligonier Ministries and a visiting professor at the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies. Lawson has written fifteen books, including Foundations of Grace, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards, and Famine in the Land.
In our next article, we look at how the doctrines of grace were developed, at some of the early contradictory thinking, and at how the Apologists struggled to resolve their era’s most urgent theological issues.