“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.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!