Justin Martyr, the second-century apologist, knew what it meant to live as a sojourner and exile (1 Peter 2:11).
He lived in Ephesus and Rome before the time of Constantine—where there was no general presumption of God, when there was no common understanding of His active involvement, and when there was little—socially, politically, or economically—that so much as acknowledged God’s presence. In Justin Martyr’s time, God wasn’t assumed or, in any appreciable way, visible in the life of the culture.
In the eyes of those around them Justin, along with other believers of his era, lived by strange beliefs and a peculiar set of values. According to theologian Miroslov Volf, the distinction would have been so great, the value system so vastly discrepant, that they had to be aware—in a way no Bible Belt Christian could possibly be—of how it felt and what it meant to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
But soon, even Bible-belt Christians may know the feeling. Spiritually and culturally, the post-Christian culture of today more and more resembles the pre-Christian culture of Justin’s time. Which means his defense of the gospel might inform ours.
In an interview on byFaithonline.com, Steve Lawson, a pastor, church historian, and the author of Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, says that Justin was a frontline Christian intellectual. He was a gifted teacher and exceptional writer who defended Christianity in the marketplace of ideas, which was then dominated by the Greek philosophical thought that was pouring out of Athens, the intellectual hub of the known world.
Justin, whether or not he was innocent as a dove, was shrewd. He studied his culture. He knew its views of right and wrong, of what mattered and what didn’t. He understood the prevailing “worldview,” even if the term hadn’t yet been coined. His goal, always, was to present the gospel in terms his neighbors knew, could grasp, and therefore believe.
Logos: From Impersonal Power to the Son of God
Justin and the first apologists, Lawson says, may at times have brought an overly philosophical approach, but “they understood the mindset of the unconverted in need of Christ’s gospel.” And in that, there’s a lesson for us, 20 centuries later.
In the pre-Constantinian era, Lawson explains, the Greek philosophers spoke of logos as the controlling force of the universe. It was an impersonal power, yet it embodied ideas of creation, purpose in life, ultimate meaning, as well as one’s eternal destiny. In their view, logos was directly connected with one’s personal fulfillment and happiness.
That’s why, says Lawson, when Justin argued his case for the gospel, he spoke of Jesus Christ as the Logos. “This is precisely how the Apostle John speaks of the Word—the Logos—at the beginning of his gospel and first epistle. In both places,” Lawson tells us, “John shows that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the personal power of creation.” Justin and the early apologists therefore, knowing how the Greek philosophers understood the world, argued that Jesus, being the Son of God, was the controlling force of history. They argued that He is the One who governs our eternal destiny, “the One who gives true meaning and purpose in life.”
The Apostle John, and then Justin Martyr and the apologist fathers, Lawson says, borrowed their vocabulary. “They took this very word logos and gave it its true Christian meaning.” Justin, because he understood the mindset of the era’s great thinkers, captured the concept and used it to point to Christ and the truth of the gospel.
The Logos Becomes the Universe
The exact circumstance and opportunity is before us today.
Amy Tan, one of the country’s most respected novelists and thinkers, recently spoke to a gathering of TED: Ideas Worth Spreading (ted.com). She spoke about the nature of creativity and the delightful role that serendipity so often plays. Amused by these “random” occasions of good fortune, Tan rhetorically asks: Why do these things happen? It has something to do with the “cosmological constant,” she explains, the reality, from her un-Christian perspective, that there’s something operating behind the scenes of the cosmos. The author talks about “hints from the universe,” things that seem coincidental—help, she says, that not only comes from the universe, but puts our lives and creative endeavors into clearer focus. We don’t know what it is, she admits, but we know there’s something there.
Tan, like other cultural elites of our time, and like the Greek philosophers of Justin Martyr’s day, senses God’s presence. Which means that we, like Justin, need the language to show her Christ—the force behind the universe, the One who gives meaning and purpose to life, and the One who deserves her gratitude.
Author and University of Virginia scholar James Davison Hunter, in his recent book To Change the World, also speaks to the importance of language. There were once aspects of our common life that reinforced Christian belief, he says. It was once “relatively easy to integrate the language of faith into the discourse of everyday life—commerce, education, civic life, and so forth.” But today, in our pluralized culture, just as in Justin’s more homogeneous setting, “this kind of speech becomes less probable because it is indecipherable to those outside of the community of faith.”
These early Christian leaders understood that if they could reach the intellectual community, they would influence the wellspring of the world’s thinking.
Christianity today, as in the second century, seems bizarre to those outside. It’s no longer natural, Hunter says. Christian words, customs, and practices are foreign and awkward. Christian jargon may remain possible within the church, Hunter believes, but it has no resonance outside. Like John and like Justin, today’s apologists must present Christ on, and in, the world’s terms so that they can understand, and believe.
A Platform to Penetrate the Imagination
Justin Martyr and his fellow apologists, it’s likely, would tell us that Tan is a key apologetic target. They believed the intellectual community had pervasive influence. “These early Christian leaders understood that if they could reach the intellectual community, they would influence the fountain of the world’s thinking,” says Lawson.
James Hunter contends that the same holds true today. According to Hunter, lasting cultural change occurs from the top down, not the other way around. If the gospel is to progress—if the truth of the world’s redemption is to resonate in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces—a foundation must first be laid by cultural leaders: “gatekeepers,” Hunter calls them, “who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life.” The reason, in Hunter’s view, and apparently in Justin Martyr’s, is that culture is about how societies define reality—“what is good, bad, right, wrong, real, unreal, important, unimportant … .” And though God’s creation is sustained by all honest labor—white collar, blue collar, in offices, factories, and homes—the capacity to define cultural reality, Hunter says, is not evenly distributed. It is concentrated in certain institutions and among certain leadership groups.
By the same logic, Justin Martyr, some 1,850 years ago, identified himself as a philosopher. According to Lawson, Justin saw Christianity as a reasonable faith, one that was intellectually profound. “There may be a simplicity about the gospel,” Lawson says, “but at the same time, the full counsel of God is deeply profound.” That’s why Justin identified himself as a philosopher, even to the point of wearing the philosopher’s garb.
It is hard for us to understand today, explains Lawson, that the philosophers of the ancient Greek culture were rock stars. Their images were carved into marble busts. Parents wanted their children to grow up and become famous philosophers. “To be sure, their command of ideas was more powerful than the imperial force of the Roman army.”
As a philosopher, Justin believed he could present Christianity as the ultimate truth. He felt as though “he could present Christ as the Logos—the ultimate power of the created order.”
To borrow James Hunter’s words, written to prompt 21st-century readers, Justin sought a platform from which he could “penetrate the imagination,” from which he could “alter our framework of thinking,” and change our perception “of everyday reality.” This rarely happens at the grassroots level, says Hunter. Change of this kind can only come from the top down, from the philosophical rock stars of any given era.
Justin and the apologists show us how critical it is that we understand those we’re trying to reach, Lawson says. “We need to know the pivotal issues in their thinking.” Like Justin Martyr, we need to be aware of those critical places—like Amy Tan’s reverence for the universe—where the gospel can be brought to bear upon their secular worldview. That way, Lawson believes, we can expose “its utter bankruptcy.”
What’s more, Lawson continues, Justin shows us where we ought to be going with the gospel—to the college campus for example—“where we can demonstrate that the claims of Christianity in Scripture are intellectually superior to the ideologies of our day; [where] we can effectively demonstrate that Christianity [can] hold its own in the marketplace of ideas, and show that it is, intellectually, a reasonable faith.”
This, in Hunter’s view, is a key tactic. In our post-Christian era, just as in Justin’s pre-Constantinian time, the claims of Christ are a novel idea. They’re a deviation from the acceptable status quo, an innovation, Hunter might say, that challenges the dominant ideas defined by the cultural gatekeepers. The gospel challenges their legitimacy. It challenges the ideas and practices they’ve established. The goal, then, according to Hunter—on college campuses and in any setting where society’s mores are shaped—is to infiltrate the philosophical/cultural center and, with time, redefine the leading ideas and standard practices.
That’s what happened some 40 years ago. Todd Gitlin, the former president of the 1960s radical group Students for a Democratic Society, noted that after the 1960s “days of rage,” the political Right marched on the White House. The Left marched on the English department. See our recent interview with Nancy Pearcey, where she explains that those who “marched on the English department” are now in the White House. The 1960s radicals became university professors and inculcated their radical ideas into the minds of generations of young people. This, Pearcey explains, is why Christians continue to lose ground culturally. We’ve amassed political power, she says, but Christians overlooked the Todd Gitlins of the world who have already determined what is good, bad, right, wrong, real, and unreal.
Wherewithal to Critique, Analyze, and Compare
Justin Martyr was well-educated and well-traveled. And this, says Lawson, was an important part of how God used him.
One thing that Lawson learned in writing Pillars of Grace, he says, is the prominent place that higher education held in the lives of the 23 men profiled. It is remarkable, the author says, how all the way to Calvin in the 16th century, there lies a 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, Lawson says, equipped them to articulate the Christian faith in a “clear and compelling way.”
Speaking into today’s setting, Hunter talks about how deep-rooted cultural change most often begins with theorists—men and women who generate ideas and knowledge. Which was why, in his era, Justin Martyr was on a pilgrimage to discover the truth. “Justin went from school to school, studying the great philosophies of the ancient world,” Lawson says. “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.”
Seeking Scribes and Wise Men
Lawson believes that Christians today, “… probably should be more intellectually adapted to our times.” Such awareness, he says, would make us stronger in apologetics and evangelism.
He points to his own recent preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. Chapters one and two, he says, require a thorough understanding of ancient Greek philosophy. The city of Corinth is only 45 miles west of Athens, and the thinking of Athens’ philosophers causes 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.”
A broader philosophical background opens up certain passages of Scripture, Lawson says. So as Christians go into specific arenas where there is a high degree of intellectual expertise, and where there is some sophistication in terms of philosophical arguments—we must do more than quote John 3:16. “We need to show an understanding of the world’s ideas before we can reveal how bankrupt they are.”
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith, and the author of two novels.