The Unapologetic Apologist: Five lessons from St. Justin Martyr

Our forebears in the Faith were much stronger than us morally and spiritually. Not for them the lax observance and flaccid sentimentality that characterize so much of contemporary Christianity.

Left: Engraving of Justin Martyr in André Thévet, “Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres” (1584); right: A bearded Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor. Engraving by Jacques Callot; published by Israël Henriet (1632-1635). [Images: Wikipedia]

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.” – Justin Martyr to Emperor Antoninus Pius

By the second century A.D., the Christian religion had spread beyond its original Jewish context into a pagan world that very often misunderstood and hated it. Its circumstances were, in that respect, much like our own. Only worse, of course. For in those days, to become a Christian was to invite more than merely the contempt of the intelligentsia or mockery within the popular culture. It was to risk death at the hands of the state.

But though in a much weaker position than us politically and culturally, our forebears in the Faith were much stronger than us morally and spiritually. Not for them the lax observance and flaccid sentimentality that characterize so much of contemporary Christianity. No, the response of the Church to its second-century predicament made the highest demands on the will and on the intellect. First, rigid obedience to Christian moral and theological teaching, to the point of death if necessary. Second, the rational demonstration of the superiority of orthodox Christian doctrine to the errors of infidels and heretics.

In short, martyrdom and apologetics. That was their program, and it worked. Slowly but surely, the Church conquered the empire that had sought to conquer her. More importantly, she saved the souls of the persecuted and persecutors alike. Sooner or later this program will become ours too. For it is the only program that works, and it is the only program which – in the rigor both of its theory and its practice – can bear witness to the truth of the Catholic Faith. We cannot expect the world to accept that Faith unless we are able to prove it, and willing to live by it and to die for it.

St. Justin Martyr set the pattern. He is widely regarded as the first Christian philosopher and the first great Christian apologist. As his name implies, he defended the Faith to the death. Having lived c. 100-165 A.D., he was extremely close in time to the era of the Apostles, so that he had a visceral understanding of the ethos and teaching of the primitive Church. Accordingly, his intellectual, moral, and theological credentials cannot be disputed. What might he teach us about how the Church ought to encounter a hostile world?

Lesson 1: The Faith has no place for fideism

Throughout his First Apology, Justin emphasizes that Christians can and must provide “the strongest and truest evidence” for their religion, and that “we do not make mere assertions without being able to produce proof.” The modern reader might find this surprising. For doesn’t Justin speak also of the Christian’s “confession of faith”? And isn’t faith a matter of believing something without evidence?

No, it is not. In traditional Catholic theology, faith is essentially a matter of believing something because it has been revealed by God. And when we speak of “the Catholic Faith” or of “the deposit of faith,” what is meant is that body of divinely revealed moral and theological doctrine that has been handed down to us from the time of the Apostles. But how do we know that something really has been divinely revealed and is not just a human invention? How do we know that the deposit of faith really does come from God? For that, the Church has always acknowledged, we need rational arguments.

In particular, we need what are called “the preambles of faith” – philosophical arguments that establish the existence and nature of God and the possibility of a divine revelation backed with miracles. And we need what are called the “motives of credibility” – philosophical and historical arguments showing that a purported divine revelation is genuine, because it is associated with events that could not have occurred without special divine action (e.g. the resurrection of Christ). Only if these things can be rationally and independently established can the question of faith even arise, because only when we know through reason that a true revelation has occurred can we have something to have faith in.

Properly understood, then, faith is not in conflict with reason but presupposes rational arguments. And as Justin’s example shows, this basic idea was not the invention of medieval Scholastic theologians like Aquinas but goes back to the very beginnings of the history of the Church.

As Justin recounts in his Dialogue with Trypho, it was his study of Platonist philosophy that prepared the way for his conversion to Christianity. Specifically, Justin’s philosophical formation was in what modern historians of philosophy call Middle Platonism, which had incorporated Aristotelian elements into the Platonist system, such as Aristotle’s famous argument for a divine Unmoved Mover of the world.

Needless to say, Justin and other early apologists were, in their thinking about God and his nature, also deeply influenced by scripture and by Christ’s emphasis on God as our heavenly Father. However, as L. W. Barnard points out in his book Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought:

The earliest Christian writers were much concerned with God as Creator and far less with his attribute of Fatherhood. This was quite natural in the face of the popular eclecticism of the age which addressed its worship to many deities…

Although… [their] ideas derive from the biblical background of the early Church they also reflect contemporary philosophic speculation. Thus Clement of Rome’s references to God’s ordering the cosmos echo later Stoic beliefs. This influence becomes more pronounced in the writings of the Greek Apologists as would be expected in view of their philosophic training. Aristides of Athens opens his Apology with an outline demonstration of God’s existence based on Aristotle’s well-known argument from motion…

This twofold background is also evident in the writings of Justin Martyr… Justin remained a Platonist even after his conversion to Christianity. He retained the idea of God as unknowable and transcendent, the Unmoved first cause… (pp. 76-77)

It may seem surprising that a Christian apologist would put initial emphasis on notions such as these rather than on the idea of God as Father, but on reflection it should not be. As Barnard notes, the pagan context in which the early apologists were operating reflected an “eclecticism” which “addressed its worship to many deities.” Hence, much of Justin’s audience did not even properly understand what God is. It is no use preaching that God is a Father and Jesus is his Son if your listeners are likely to interpret that as comparable to (say) Zeus being the father of Apollo.

Hence Justin and other apologists first had to demonstrate the existence of God understood as the transcendent, unchanging, uncaused cause of everything other than himself. Only with that background in place can it be clear that to speak of God as Father is not merely to speak of the head of some novel pantheon. This takes philosophical reasoning, and it is reasoning that even some of the pagan philosophers themselves had already done much to develop. Hence the apologists could use the work of these philosophers to do double duty: They could appeal to ideas like those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics as a common intellectual framework by reference to which Christians and pagans could communicate; and they could use these good pagan ideas to criticize the bad, polytheistic ones.

Now, whereas the pagans had too many gods, the trouble with modern secular Westerners is that they don’t recognize even the one true God. But in other respects our situation is not so different from Justin’s. For as with Justin’s audience, the modern secular listener too needs to be given a rational demonstration of God’s existence before he can reasonably be expected to take any specifically Christian claims seriously. Today no less than in Justin’s day, philosophy must establish the “preambles of faith” before faith can be a live option.

Once those preambles are in place, though, the job is still only half done, for the “motives of credibility” have also to be established. Justin’s own way of doing this was to emphasize fulfilled prophecy – and in particular, the various ways in which the Old Testament predicts the details of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth – as evidence that a genuine divine revelation has occurred. This is an appeal to miracles, and nothing less than a miracle – the occurrence of something that cannot in principle have a natural explanation but can only have been brought about by special divine action – possibly can justify the claim that a divine revelation has occurred.

Old-fashioned apologetics of the kind that emphasizes philosophical proofs of God’s existence, historical arguments for the occurrence of miracles, etc., was a staple of the Neo-Scholastic theology that dominated Catholic thought in the decades prior to Vatican II. But in recent decades it has been dismissed by many Catholics as too “rationalistic,” and resort is made instead to the longings of the human heart, the beauty of the Faith, etc. as means by which to convince a modern audience to take Catholicism seriously. Unsurprisingly, such intellectually soft and subjectivist approaches have succeeded only in giving aid and comfort to the New Atheist accusation that Christianity stems from wishful thinking and lacks any rational foundation.

As the case of Justin (not to mention Aristides, Clement, and other Fathers) shows, the old-fashioned apologetics of the Neo-Scholastics is the approach that actually follows the example of the early Church. The New Atheist phenomenon, as well as the widespread apostasy from the Faith that has occurred in recent decades, show that this approach is as necessary today as it was in Justin’s time.

Lesson 2: The point of dialogue is conversion

As his familiarity with and respect for the best of pagan philosophy indicates, Justin was no bigot. The Dialogue with Trypho recounts his quest to learn from the different schools of thought extant in his day, and he consistently tries to reason with his opponents rather than to heap abuse on them. All the same, Justin was not afraid to criticize pagan culture for its superstition and degeneracy, and he was not afraid to call a heretic a heretic.

Christians of Justin’s day were accused of atheism because they rejected the gods of the various polytheistic religions. Justin does not finesse the issue in the interests of politeness. Rather, in his First Apology, he frankly admits that “we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned”; he condemns these false deities as “wicked and impious demons” and ridicules idols as “soulless and dead”; and he commends thinkers like Socrates for criticizing the superstitions of his fellow pagans. Justin also condemns the sexual immorality and infanticide that were rampant in some parts of the pagan world, and he denounces the view that good and evil are mere matters of opinion as “the greatest impiety and wickedness.”

This was Justin’s model of “interreligious dialogue”: Where non-Christians get something right, acknowledge and praise it. And where they get something wrong, call them out on it and clearly condemn their errors.

His approach to ecumenism was even more uncompromising. In the First Apology, Justin harshly condemns heretics such as Simon Magus and Marcion, complaining that since these false teachers were labeled “Christians,” their erroneous doctrines often came to be attributed to all Christians, which helped bring the Church into disrepute among the pagans. (Compare the way that fideism and other tendencies and doctrines which the Catholic Church has always condemned tend to get indiscriminately attributed to Christianity in general by New Atheists and other critics.)

This mixture of calm, rational discourse on the one hand and frank criticism on the other may seem paradoxical to some modern readers, but in fact it is perfectly consistent. Justin is interested in pursuing the truth, not in mere affable chit-chat. That is precisely why he both praises the pagans when they get something right and criticizes them when they fall into error. And since he is convinced that Christianity is both true and rationally demonstrable, he wants to persuade pagans to convert to it and heretics to stop distorting it.

These days, “dialogue” has become a buzzword for those who want to avoid proselytization or clear condemnations of doctrinal error. They can find no support for such an attitude in Justin or the other Fathers. On the contrary, the aim of Justin’s Dialogue with his Jewish interlocutor Trypho was to change Trypho’s mind. These days, when a Christian “apologizes,” he is typically badmouthing the Church of the past for its purported wrongs. Justin’s apologetics was aimed at showing that the Church is right.

Lesson 3: Damned if you don’t

Now, the reason Justin was so keen to convert non-Christians was not merely that he held that Christianity is true, though of course that is part of it. The main reason was in order to save their souls. Again and again in his First Apology, Justin warns his readers of the damnation that faces those who do not repent of their sins. He speaks of “everlasting punishment,” “punishment in eternal fire,” and the fate of “the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, [sent] into everlasting fire with the wicked devils.”

Once again Justin appeals in part to pagan thinkers themselves – in this case, Pythagoras, Plato, and the like – who argued on philosophical grounds for the soul’s survival of the death of the body and its postmortem reward or punishment. But he also has in view the teaching of Christ, who unambiguously warned of eternal damnation. And given his proximity to the time of the Apostles, there can be no doubt that once again Justin was simply reiterating the common teaching of the early Church.

Here too modern Christians have strayed far from the example of Fathers like Justin. Their tendency is instead to hold that all will be saved, or at least to speak as if we may have good hope that all are saved. Justin, like the early Church in general – which, again, was much closer in time to Christ and the Apostles and thus had a much more immediate knowledge of what they actually taught – evidently saw no grounds for such optimism.

Lesson 4: What kills us makes us stronger

With so much at stake, it is no surprise that Justin and so many other early Christians were willing to suffer martyrdom rather than renounce the Faith. As Justin writes in the First Apology:

For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain… But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off.

In his Second Apology, Justin explains that Christian steadfastness even in the face of death is part of what drew him to the Faith while he was still a pagan:

For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure.

Living in danger of violent death made the early Christians serious. If you are willing even to be slaughtered for Christ’s sake, and know that this is a live possibility, then following his teachings is relatively easy. The hardest decision has already been made. The everyday temptations of the flesh, and the prospect of being scorned by the surrounding culture, are trivial by comparison with being crucified, torn apart by lions, or burned at the stake. This moral seriousness is attractive, and won converts like Justin himself. As Tertullian, another early Christian apologist, famously put it, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

We modern Catholics in the West are a pretty sorry spectacle by comparison. Whereas our forebears in the Faith were willing to die for it, enormous numbers of contemporary Catholics will not even live by it. They casually reject the solemn teachings of Christ and his Church as if they were options rather than requirements of salvation. Even many orthodox Catholics minimize the significance of unpopular doctrines, and refrain from talking about them even if they would not go so far as to deny them. Whereas the Christian leaders of Justin’s day faced execution with equanimity, many of today’s churchmen live in terror of finding themselves criticized in the media or shunned by the intelligentsia.

To the Roman emperor reigning at the time of the First Apology, Justin declared, with a nobility that seems beyond our reach today: “You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.” He knew that what counts is our eternal destiny, and that absolutely nothing that we suffer in this life – not the secular world’s contempt, not persecution, not illness or poverty, not even death itself – matters one whit so long as we are true to Christ.

Lesson 5: Go and do likewise

Where St. Justin and his generation were intellectually rigorous, we are woolly-minded and sentimental. Where they insisted on conversion and orthodoxy, we tolerate grave error and immorality lest we hurt anyone’s feelings. Where they warned sternly of eternal damnation, we pretend that all is well and thereby endanger souls. Where they did not fear even death, we are frightened by bad press. Where they won the respect of their persecutors, we have earned the contempt of the secular culture we flatter and endlessly compromise with. They converted the world, whereas the world is converting us. They had things hard in this life, but have things easy in the next. We want things easy in this life, and will find them hard in the next.

They were doing something right, and we are doing something wrong. We need to return to their example. What that requires, as St. Justin shows is, is more intellectual muscle, more moral austerity, more doctrinal consistency, more holy intransigence. Fewer apologies and more apologetics. Less comfort and more suffering. We need to be less effeminate and more like our Fathers.

(This essay originally appeared on the CWR site on April 22, 2018.)

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About Dr. Edward Feser 44 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press, August 2022), and Five Proofs of the Existence of God and is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both also published by Ignatius Press.


    • Dr. Feser is far and away the best American thinker and writer at the present time.

      Dr. Feser, please continue your great work and please continue to make the “New Natural Lawyers” look like the heretics that they really are.

      There is more than one cause of the chaos in the Church at the present time- one cause is indeed the subjectivism and fluffiness propagated post VII; another cause is the New Natural Lawyers.

  1. Thankyou very much for your clarity, counsel and encouragement. God bless you as do. You have helped me a lot in my daily life.

  2. I like him but since the second century…the Church has done wrong things. Justin had a clean slate Church that never had power and thus one whose peaceful behavior coincided with that. At end of lesson 2, Feser writes: “ These days, when a Christian “apologizes,” he is typically badmouthing the Church of the past for its purported wrongs. Justin’s apologetics was aimed at showing that the Church is right.”
    Purported wrongs? Purported?? How about Papal silence as the Catholic rep in 19th century China opened all provinces by war to missionaries and British opium…lol. That is the kind of mistake philosophers make..history isn’t real. Justin Martyr at his time had virtually no bad baggage of the non powerful Church to explain away….like four successive Popes from 1454 AD onward turbo charging slavery and property seizures in Latin America ( a mess that blesses us today with the cocaine drug trade inter alia ). Nor did he have to explain away major Catholic pundits like Bishop Barron on youtube siding with the empty hell gurus. Nor did he have to answer for the Church doing next to nothing against clergy child molestors and teen seducers for decades…with over 4% of clergy involved….in 26 countries. Can Mr. Feser enunciate that presently both right and left clergy and magisterium figures edit scripture at will….with Benedict XVI saying in Verbum Domini 42 that the OT massacres were immoral whereas no previous Pope had said that. Three Popes just all sought world abolition of the death penalty and all were silent on Romans 13:4….whether they were conservative or liberal in anyone’s eyes.
    Modern man needs courage just to drive on the highway or go to a waffle house where they may be killed by an AR15. I do daily indulgence work for murder victims. They all needed courage just to venture out and they died like Justin did but for that different courage of just risking travel in the usa where a nano decimal of murderers are executed….hence they grow in number…with Popes posing for the Nobel prize on that issue…and a Catholic non death penalty northern Latin America being the most murderous area on earth from Brazil to Mexico per UN figures. Justin Martyr didn’t have to evangelize in a bizarro Catholic context like this one. If he were here right now ringing a doorbell and proposing Catholicism to a well educated affluent address where an evangelical history professor couple lived….lol…he’d be addressing baggage questions like the newly discovered 34 gay priests in southern Italy issue for hours…and philosophy expertise wouldn’t help. One solution….evangelize working class areas only where they won’t bring up the 34 gay priests or the Opium wars even though they’ll be thinking about the gay priests news like the more vocal history prof couple who will not be polite.

  3. Prof. Feser’s article was as bracing as a cold shower on a steamy, humid day. With his usual surgical precision, he puts his finger on precisely the qualities that have vitiated the Faith like an overgrowth of mold.

    I have been involved in education for many years and have recently undertaken an examination of the so-called “classical-Christian” educational reform movement, and more specifically, its Catholic manifestation. I am sorry to report that this reform, which purports to be a restoration of the true liberal arts tradition, suffers from precisely the characteristics with which Prof. Feser indicts Catholic witness today. Where the Faith “makes the highest demands on the will and the intellect,” the classical-Christian reform movement, including the Catholic movement, targets the emotions and the psychology of the student, seeking to evoke in him sentimental responses of “wonder” and “awe” in order to seduce him to worship at the altar of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” It is, indeed, anti-rational and woolly-headed.

    A careful reading of Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University makes it clear how far the conception of Catholic education has diverged from the true tradition of classical education. Indeed, Cardinal Newman’s view has far more in common with Catholic education up until the 1960s than it does with its current putative restoration. The latter has drunk deeply at the well of John Dewey and other progressive educationists, although I am certain its proponents would be shocked to hear such a claim. I fear that such an approach will not produce the heroic Catholic witness which alone can restore the Church to health and reinvigorate a culture in shocking decline.

  4. This is the kind of article sorely needed today but since it goes against the very purpose of Vatican II, consistent, unproductive “dialogue” with no condemnation of errors and blessings to those who teach and preach false religions, it is simply preaching to the choir.

    The hierarchy has long ago abandoned the desire to save souls. They have adopted the ways and workings of the world being New Atheist’s whose gods are man and the earth.

  5. I’ve been looking for a Latin-English version of Justin Martyr’s works. It doesn’t seem to be part of the Loeb series. Failing a Latin-English version, I’d settle for a good translation. Any good suggestions?

  6. Dr. Feser,

    While, in large I accept your assessment of Justin’s philosophical understanding, I do not accept what you appear to suggest that deviance from this is a modern phenomenon. Perhaps, with regard to “the preambles of faith” or the “motives of credibility,” you may be correct, but with regard to the “rigid obedience to Christian moral (…) teaching,” history does show. I disagree with your conclusion, that to “return to their example,” is to simply pull oneself up by the bootstraps, with “more moral austerity, more doctrinal consistency, more holy intransigence. Fewer apologies and more apologetics. Less comfort and more suffering. We need to be less effeminate and more like our Fathers.”

    I largely agree with what you suggest about the historical context of Christians at the time that Justin was writing his apology:

    > For in those days, to become a Christian … was to risk death at the hands of the state….. Living in danger of violent death made the early Christians serious. If you are willing even to be slaughtered for Christ’s sake, and know that this is a live possibility, then following his teachings is relatively easy. The hardest decision has already been made. The everyday temptations of the flesh, and the prospect of being scorned by the surrounding culture, are trivial by comparison with being crucified, torn apart by lions, or burned at the stake.

    However, it has to be noted, that this context did not continue to exist until the modern era and that were changes in social dynamics from late antiquity through the medieval period and into the early modern era, and that the Church’s development of doctrine within the changing social contexts have played a large role in where things stand today.

    The type of tract that you have written is not new; just as you lament the difference between modern Christians and those in the time of Justin, so did many in the medieval period, giving a reflection of the social context in which Christians did not risk death for their faith, but often pandered to social pressures. Perhaps my favourite lament of this type is that of Grimlaicus, a solitary monk, living somewhere near Metz, France around 900 CE., who wrote the Regula Solitariorum, a rule for solitary monks. The work focuses on how a solitary monk should live, but chapters 26-28 are an excursion, and indeed lament, on the observance precepts of Christ by laity and religious alike, at that time. [Trans: A. Thornton, pp. 87, 91]

    > R. Sol. 27.1 I intended to devote one more chapter to the precepts of our Lord Jesus Christ, but when I recalled that in these days there is hardly anyone who is strong enough to observe them or who is interested in doing so, I wanted to weep rather than write. We really ought to grieve for the present time, in which we see so many thoroughly disgraceful deeds being heaped up every day. If we wanted to consider them all one by one, we would never be able to restrain our tears. Everything has become so confused; everything is falling apart so much that we never see even a trace of virtue. We observe that in our days the world is full of filth and lust and other kinds of wickedness. And what is the most wretched of all evils, we neither reform ourselves nor give an example of reform to others.

    > R. Sol 28.5: Does it not seem to you, O mortal, that, as I have said, the things we do are completely contrary to Christ’s precepts? Don’t we fight his commandments rather than obey them?

    We could easily say that too, the Christians of the tenth century, with regards to those at the time of Justin, were a “sorry spectacle by comparison,” who “casually reject the solemn teachings of Christ and his Church” or “minimize the significance of unpopular doctrines, and refrain from talking about them even if they would not go so far as to deny them.”

    When we look at the teachings of Jesus from Justin, it is not merely that they are not followed, but that they are not taught in the same that how he did, in fact they are taught in a very different manner, and moral theologians have been minimizing their significance for centuries.

    In chapters 15-17 of his first Apology, Justin mentions many and expounds on some of the moral teachings of Jesus, based largely on sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is widely held that this section is not various quotations picked by Justin himself, but an appropriation of a primitive Roman catechism, a “post-synoptic harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke” [Bellinzoni, p. 140] available to Justin.

    When we read however, how they were understood, and they extent to which they were expected to followed, it reads far more like an Anabaptist or Quaker exposition on the teachings of Jesus, than it does of what we would expect from a Catholic or mainline Protestant one.

    Justin says himself, that “[Jesus’] words are brief and concise, for he was not a sophist, but his speech was the Power of God.” [1 Apol. 14.5, Ed.: Minns & Parvis, p. 113] After going through many of the teachings, Justin notes: “whoever are not found living as he taught are not to be recognized as Christians, even if they speak the teachings of Christ with their tongues. For he said that not those who only speak but those who also do the works will be saved. [1 Apol. 16.8, Ed.: Minns & Parvis, p. 119].

    On the accuracy of the depiction of how these teachings were followed by Christians in general, as you note yourself, “living in danger of violent death made the early Christians serious.” Barnard also notes the following:

    It may well be asked whether the picture presented by Justin is not too idealised. It is of course true that in any age there are many nominal Christians whose conduct and moral level is no different from that of the surrounding non-Christian population. Yet Justin could hardly have made such a bold claim – and this to the fount of Imperial power – unless the astounding moral change of which he writes was a fact. No amount of special pleading would have availed if the moral power of the new religion had not been slowly pervading society so that its effects could be seen. [L. W. Barnard, p. 156]

    For Justin, and his contemporaries, moral teaching was, more often than not, lists of simple vices to be avoided and simple virtues to be embraced, the deviance from which, marked one as false Christian. Yet, from the latter end of late Antiquity and throughout the Medieval period, these vice and virtue lists are replaced with larger tracts and expositions which seek to explain or indeed account for the social pressure that these teachings encountered.

    To take one example, of which I am familiar with the history of interpretation, on the swearing of oaths, from Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12, Justin says the following: “And about not swearing at all and always speaking the truth he commanded thus: ‘Do not swear at all, but let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no”, “no”, More than this is from the evil one.’” [1Apol. 16.5, Ed.: Minns & Parvis, p. 119].

    For Justin, and the community he represents, this shortened form of the Dominical saying, was his almost tautological commentary, which represents the nucleus, the entire principle of the saying. The saying gives two commands, a negative followed by a positive: (1) Do not swear at all and (2) Always speak the Truth. The consequences of not following the commands are “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” in the “everlasting fire.” This was the way they intended to live their lives. To Justin, it was simple, yet profound, as with all of Jesus teachings.

    Justin’s (near)-contemporaries were similarly minded on the topic of swearing: Irenaeus of Lyon (Adversus Haereses, 2.32.1), Tertullian (On Idolatry 11, 23), Clement of Alexandria (Paedagogus. 3.11; Stromata 7.8), Cyprian of Carthage (On Mortality, 4; On the Good of Patience, 16; Testimonies 3.12) Origen of Alexandria (de Principiis 4.19; Exhortation to Martyrdom 7; Commentary on Matthew 17; 110), Gregory Thaumaturgas (Metaphrase on Ecclesiastes, 39; 44; c.f. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 207). To quote one fully: And with respect to the precepts enjoined in the Gospels, no doubt can be entertained that very many of these are to be literally observed, as, e.g., when our Lord says, But I say unto you, Swear not at all. [ Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis 4.19 (ANF 04:368)]

    Yet, throughout the Medieval period, tracts from Christian writers get longer and longer, justifying certain “necessary” situations where oaths could be taken, minimising the prohibition, associating a “rigid obedience” of the saying with heretics to such a point where the refusal of an oath would mark one as a heretic. The “precept” became “counsel” only meant for the “perfect,” but moral theologians rarely counselled it. This is done slowly, but noticeably over time. Whereas Justin’s and his contemporaries’ comments were terse, didactic, and almost tautological, the commentaries of the medieval or modern period were so bloated that neither command, precept, prohibition, counsel nor advice could be easily discerned.

    Into the modern era it’s not hard to understand how a highly respected commentary could begin a comment on the saying “Do not swear at all” with the following: “We must not imagine that here are forbidden all oaths” [Haydock Commentary on Mt. 5:34]. Yet it is also not difficult to see how the larger society, even when nominally Christian, has been influencing, indeed, as you say “compromising” and “converting,” the early moral doctrines of the Church, not as a recent phenomenon, but one that has been occurring for centuries, at least on the topic of oaths. However, I think if we are honest, there are very few, if any, of the teachings outlined by Justin that remain untouched by secular influence over the past two millennia.

    If you acknowledge that Christians “are doing something wrong” in this regard, and you wish to right it, it will take far more than a “return to their example,” as moral teachings are far more bloated and obscure than they were in Justin’s time. It will first require a large examination of how the doctrines have developed over time, and how these historical realities should affect Christians’ interpretations and moral behaviours.

    It may require an untangling and possible rejection of certain ideas, which while they may be longstanding in Christian tradition, reflect a certain social context not envisioned by a 1st century Palestinian Jew, or by his Jewish and Gentile followers of the first few centuries after his death, in a state hostile to their existence. Such would result in a return to simpler moral guidelines, which can be followed without consulting various tomes for guidance.

    Or indeed, the opposite may be the case, with an understanding and possible rejection of the teachings of Jesus and the earliest followers as simply not being relevant in a social context so different from theirs. Such would result in the maintenance of the status quo, with a rich, but ever-changing moral philosophy.

    Perhaps there are other solutions, but those are the ones obvious to me. The question I would have is: whether Christianity can survive such a culling of its current moral theology?


    • The question I would have is: whether Christianity can survive such a culling of its current moral theology?

      As long as the Holy Spirit animates the Body of Christ on Earth Christianity will survive. We have it on the highest authority that the Holy Spirit will remain with the Church forever and guide it into all truth.

      The solution to the problems the Church faces is and has always been docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This submission, this “Father not my will but thine be done” obedience is essential to the effectiveness of the Body of Christ. Imagine how ineffective you would become if your members, say, your hands and feet, insisted on doing their own thing instead of doing what you wanted them to do.

      The once and for all time solution to every crisis the Church would face was given to us by Christ in Gethsemane.

  7. I have been under the impression, as heard from many Catholics over the years, that faith itself is not something that can be generated by someone (as opposed to belief) but that faith is an “infused” virtue — that is: given by God through grace. It seems that, rather than mistaking faith and belief to be the same things, it is a matter for persons to have generated enough belief for God to reward them with faith… It seems these conversations produce different results on differents days…

  8. Oh, brother….

    Instead of playing the modern armchair theologians and constantly complaining about the problems and then running away with your marbles, some here should save many words and follow the gist of what Feser is saying….start becoming men and actually know your Faith, live your Faith, and always defend your Faith.

    Christ guaranteed His Church. Grow a set and be worthy of being a Christian.

    • It’s best to not give Steven Seagal-like macho speeches while not using your real name….though many of you must do so to protect your jobs these days in the free usa.
      Why would I evangelize to a diocese that had a bi-gay-trans Mass last summer in the cathedral introduced by Archbishop Tobin in which according to the N.Y. Times known living together gays were given Communion. Further…the “conservative” retired Bishop doubled the size of a diocesan mansion on 18 acres with an in ground pool and now has more fireplaces than five consecutive 60 minutes celebrity interviews. His non exempt property taxes are c.30K a year and he added another in house water sport of some sort. One Bishop is liberal and one fled the smell of the flock into water sports that the donator of the mansion probably thought was going to be used for twenty seminarians. I actually do evangelizing of muslims, hindus and others by mail TOWARD scripture and Augustine’s take on the hidden prophecies….not toward the Church while it is a chaos house. I treasure the Eucharist but transmitting that to intelligent people while explaining the chaos is beyond my talents.

      • Bill you continue to enlighten us on reality. A rose is a rose is a rose belongs to Gertrude Stein’s soulless vision of life devoid of transforming grace. We look to transfiguration of what is deformed.

        • I was thinking just today of the resurrected new world in which Aquinas said each person would get back their glorified body at its peak season which is why Christ in the resurrected body was not immediately recognized by many in my opinion….He then looked slightly older or younger and better since Isaiah said he would come uncomely…but those ratios were changed in His glorified state. Babies who died will come back at their adult peak as will the elderly. I volunteer in a Catholic old age home on Sundays…three people above 100….they’ll eventually be young and glorified if they pass their final….;)

          • Beautiful thoughts. I’ve wondered about the same for the resurrected. I too visit with the elderly on Wednesdays at a med center. The staff mostly Protestant show much deference even affection when I visit alert me when they feel a patient needs support. One lady 96 is incapacitated yet thinks clearly, has a sense of humor. A picture of her as a teen shows a lovely young woman I suppose as she will be in heaven. She has great love for the holy Eucharist as do several others. The Apostle said faith is evidence of what he hope for.

      • You can have my real name anytime.

        Ask for it.

        Try evangelizing in West Hollywood and San Francisco. Attacked physically in both places. So what.

  9. Don’t forget Bishop Joe is well known at the gym where he spends a good amount of time working out! I’m sorry, but Brannon is spot on. A very good article, by JMs time and outs are very, very different.

  10. On Lesson #1 (The Faith has no place for fideism) Dr. Edward Feser writes: “The New Atheist phenomenon, as well as the widespread apostasy from the Faith that has occurred in recent decades, show that this approach—[“the old-fashioned apologetics of the Neo-Scholastics”]—is as necessary today as it was in Justin’s time.”

    Overlooked in this ivory-tower approach is Justin Martyr himself, who IS the possibly more convincing proof needed in our narrowed and tautological age of science. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI offers this different kind of proof:

    “Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the standard of certainty posed by modern science, because the form of verification here is of a quite different kind from the realm of testing by experiment—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains” (Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, 2003).

  11. Great article and great inspiration for me at a time when the lab results, so to speak, indicate I’m really a Platonist after all (a shout out to C.D.C. Reeve and his thesis that Plato revised his theory of Forms in Republic and many thanks to the teaching/scholarship/writings of now retired Dominic O’Meara).

    Let’s cut to the chase: the von Balthazar (Patron Saint of the Straw Man Argument Approach to Opposing Views) “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?” is in the drinking water and includes not only Hell but also Purgatory (at most funerals?). Ironically his “question” in practice becomes nearly impossible to NOT be interpreted as “a misrepresentation” or “straw man” of what he’s “really” saying (“He’s not really a universalist though he loves Origen, it seems, more than Augustine or Aquinas.”)

    Does anyone really need to become a Catholic or even a Christian anymore? To die because of that?

    Is there anything “worse than death?”

    St. Justin Martyr, pray for us.

  12. Can l, as an old bloke in England, and getting the drift of this stuff instantly, regarding real faith and Media faith, as it were, just add something to cause the birth of a smiling solidarity? It is remembrance of the final beatific smile on St Maximilian Kolbe’s face in that awful cell, a cross in its very construction, and why l believe the smile will never die out because it was and remains the glimpse of Love Supreme…Robert Blackwell

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