39. The Logos and Justin Martyr

The virtuous pagans of the Presocratic era missed the mark on uniting faith and philosophy. Justin Martyr was able to bring the two together with Christ as Logos and the idea of logos spermatikos.
Justin Martyr by André Thevet, 1584

Well, we have finally come to the end of this miniseries on Logos that started in post 32 with Heraclitus and will end with the life of Justin Martyr in this post. The operative question we’re asking in this post is why Justin Martyr is so important in exploring the relationship between reason and revelation, faith and philosophy.

Life and Death

Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) was born in Flavia Neapolis, Palestine (modern day Nablus)1, located in Samaria near Jacob’s well. This would make Justin a Samaritan by birth. If tradition holds true, he could have been born in the same year that St. John the Apostle died, a symbolic passing of the baton.

The purpose of this post is to explore the relationship between Greek reason and Hebrew revelation in the Catholic Church, which is where Justin Martyr comes in. Unlike Tertullian, who was opposed to Greek philosophy and viewed it as a dangerous pagan influence, Justin Martyr took a more optimistic approach. He saw Greek philosophy in more of a positive light and saw the synthesis between the two as a beneficial thing for Christianity.

One reason for this may have been the role philosophy played in his upbringing. He was raised in a Jewish environment in Palestine, but as a pagan. From an early age, he studied the Stoic and Platonic philosophers2 and at the age of 32, he converted to Christianity in Asia Minor, possibly in Ephesus. Around the age of 35, he started moving from city to city in the Roman Empire, becoming an iterant preacher, trying to convert educated pagans to the faith.

Eventually, he ended up in Rome and spent a considerable amount of time there, debating and defending the faith. One day, he debated a Cynic philosopher named Crescens, getting the better of him in the debate.3 When Crescens realized that he couldn’t win the argument, he did what we see many people do today in similar circumstances – appeal to the power of the state. Crescens denounced Justin and his companions to the urban prefect Junius Rusticus, in essence bringing the power of the Roman State down upon Justin’s head. Junius ordered that Justin and six of his companions be scourged and beheaded.

Junius said to Justin at his trial, “Let us come to the pressing matter at hand. Agree together and sacrifice with one accord to the gods.”

Justin replied, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.”

To which Junius said, “If you do not obey, ye shall be punished without mercy.”

And finally, Justin said, “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved, for this shall be our salvation and confidence before the terrible judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior which shall judge the whole world.” 

This is an example that Christians should keep in mind, for we are increasingly facing a hostile world where those who cannot engage in rational debate turn to violence and intimidation, bringing the power of an ever increasingly corrupt government down upon our heads.

Justin Martyr’s Writings

Of all his writings, only three survive: First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho. His First Apology, written around 156 A.D., was written for no less than the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius in order to defend the Christians against various erroneous charges brought against them.4 His Second Apology was a supplement to the first and was written to the Roman Senate. Dialogue with Trypho is an account of Justin’s journey through the world of philosophy, culminating in his eventual conversion to Christianity.

As an interesting aside, in Justin’s defense of Christianity in First Apology, he explains in chapters 65-67 what Christians do in their worship. In essence, he describes the Catholic Mass as he discusses prayer, Scripture reading, baptismal regeneration, and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. If you are interested in reading this as well as the First Apology in general, please check out this link at New Advent.

Justin, Platonism, and Socrates

Justin, like St. Augustine who came after him, was an avid Platonist.5 And like Augustine, he felt that in converting to Christianity, he had moved beyond Platonism, but at the same time, he credited Platonism with leading him to Christ. Because of that, he never abandoned it. Christianity, he felt, was the consummation of Platonism. For example, by teaching the idea of the world-soul in his work the Timaeus, Plato was was really discussing the idea of a world ordered by logos.

Like I discussed in post 9 comparing Jesus and Socrates, Justin saw similarities between Christ and Socrates. Socrates embodied wisdom (logos) and that wisdom was Christ, the true Logos. Justin points out that both Socrates and the Christians in Justin’s time were accused of upsetting the established religious order, when in fact they were both trying to point people away from idols and toward the one true God. But what Socrates partially knew as an “unknown god” had been fully revealed to the Christians in Christ. You can read more about the reforms of Socrates in post 4.

He also makes another interesting contrast between Jesus and Socrates. He said that no one was willing to follow Socrates in martyrdom for his beliefs, whereas Christians in Justin’s day were willing to die for Christ. The following is an excerpt from chapter 10 of the Second Apology found at New Advent:

“For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized. But he (Socrates) cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying, “That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But these things our Christ did through His own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.”6

Justin Martyr in Second Apology

The important implication of all of this is that by revering these Greek philosophers – the virtuous pagans – and adopting their ideas even after his conversion, he made it acceptable for Christians to adopt Greek philosophy.

Justin and Christ as Logos

Like I mentioned above, unlike Tertullian who refused to build a bridge between faith and philosophy, Justin Martyr was, on the other hand, eager to build a bridge between the two – and the name of that bridge was logos. After John declared Christ to be the Logos, the idea of Christ as Logos reached full bloom in the second century A.D., thanks to Justin Martyr and other Christian apologists.

This was a powerful tool in the hands of these apologists. For by “Christianizing” Greek philosophy and literature, and deeming it a forerunner to Christ, the Christian apologists could get one up on the virtuous pagans who claimed that the Greeks beat the Christians to the punch. After all, the pagans said, the truths that the Christians were proclaiming as new were being taught by the Greek philosophers years before. This was the ultimate apologetical judo move. Instead of going head-to-head with his opponents’ strength, he used that strength against them.

Justin liked the term “logos” because it was familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike. He stated that the whole of logos resided in Christ, but all people contain “seeds” of logos.7 This idea really originates with another of the virtuous pagans, Heraclitus. Please read post 33 and post 34 for more clarification. Whereas Philo, in discussing logos, blended Stoicism with the Old Testament concept of the “Word of God,” Justin’s Logos was Jesus Christ himself portrayed against the backdrop of the Old Testament “Word of God” and Greek philosophy. That is why he has additional names for the Logos such as “Israel,” “Jacob,” “First-Begotten,” and “dayspring.”

Logos as the Seminal Word

Justin, in discussing the logos, borrows a term directly from the Stoics – logos spermatikos – which simply means “seminal word.” I did not bring this term up in my post about the Stoics because I wanted to save it for this post. Those who think, speak, and act rightly do so because they have the the seeds of Logos sown in their hearts.

We can look at this in two ways: theologically and metaphysically. Theologically, this is rooted in the doctrine of the imago dei, the image of God. Man is created in the image of God and so has the capability of imitating God or reflecting His attributes. Metaphysically, we have the idea of a limited essence (Essentia), man, participating in the unlimited being (Ens) or existence of God. In both cases, we have a participating in or sharing of the divine being. Without this idea of sharing or participating, we would be either adding to or subtracting from the divine being, which is impossible.

Even the pre-Christian philosophers who thought, spoke, and acted rightly did so because of the logos spermatikos in their hearts, which is only found in Christ and in this way, united faith and philosophy. Christ is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, even among these virtuous pagans. There is only one logos that sows the seeds of spiritual and moral illumination in the hearts of human beings. Justin took the Stoic idea of sperma or seed and developed an original idea that Christ, as the Logos, was in the world before his Incarnation, sowing the seeds of the logos in the hearts of all people. He states:

“For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it.”8

Some recognized the logos within themselves and cultivated it to a large extent. These became the great virtuous thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Some, in the manner of Christ, like Plato and Heraclitus, were even hated and persecuted for their beliefs and actions. For example, in his Second Apology, chapter 8, Justin says the following:

“And those of the Stoic school — since, so far as their moral teaching went, they were admirable, as were also the poets in some particulars, on account of the seed of reason [the Logos] implanted in every race of men — were, we know, hated, and put to death — Heraclitus for instance, and, among those of our own time…others.”9

Justin Martyr in Second Apology

And really, these ideas, especially the ones about each man having the capability to recognize the Logos within, originate with Heraclitus. For those who came before Christ, the ones who did not recognize the Logos, remained in darkness and even became hostile to the Logos. Many who did find the Logos lived enlightened and virtuous lives, having embraced both faith and philosophy. And a few plumbed the depths of the Logos and became the great thinkers and virtuous pagans we know from history.

What Heraclitus started, Justin finished. Heraclitus laid the foundation of the Logos edifice. The builders of the building were the Stoics, Philo of Alexandria, and St. John, among others. John can also be considered as laying the cornerstone. And it was Justin who put on the capstone, harmonizing all of the previous concepts.

Bridging the Gap

Liberal theologians have said Greek philosophy distorted the Christian faith, making it more Greek than Christian over time. Conservative theologians have countered saying that Greek philosophy was a mere intellectual aid to the development of Christianity. Some say Justin rebranded the Christian faith in terms of Greek ideas to make it more palatable to a world that spoke Koine Greek as its lingua franca. Which idea is correct?

All of these perspectives miss the point. In fact, I think that they miss the point not because it is so obscure but because it is so obvious that it is easily missed. It is hiding in plain sight, if you will. Justin did not see a tension between Greek and Christian thought that he sought to reconcile so much as he saw the commonality between them. They were more congruent than not in his mind, which is why he stressed their similarities.

He did not see a great divide between the Hellenic and Judaic minds; he claimed that they could both be traced back to the revelation of Moses.10 But, they both – faith and philosophy – had declined and by the time of Christ, Judaism had descended into legalism and Greek philosophy had fractured into various competing sects and superstition. Christ came when they were both at their nadir. The Gospel of Christ restored the original revelation of Moses and presented it anew as a single teaching, a universal Gospel for both Jew and Greek.

Virtuous Pagans

What about those enlightened and virtuous pagans who lived before Christ? Were they also damned with the wicked, simply because they were ignorant of Christ? Christians have struggled with this question through the years. In his Divine Comedy, the devout Catholic Dante placed the likes of Plato and Aristotle, the virtuous philosophers, in Limbo, where even though they did not suffer, they had hope unfulfilled. Later Protestant thinkers like John Calvin had a more pessimistic view. Calvin viewed those pagans as having virtue on loan from God, but since they were not of the elect, their virtue could not save them. They would be condemned in Hell along with the rest, after their virtue was stripped from them.

Ironically, Justin Marty, who had preceded Dante and Calvin, had a more optimistic view. Justin saw all who embraced the Logos prior to the coming of Christ as “Christians.” These were the noble or virtuous pagans. God would not hold them responsible for that which they could not know, as long as they embraced the Logos through the seeds planted within by Christ. He introduces this idea of virtuous pagans in chapter 46 of his First Apology:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them…So also those who lived before Christ and did not live by the Logos were ungracious enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who lived by the Logos. But those who lived by the Logos, and those who so live now, are Christians, fearless and unperturbed.”11

Justin Martyr in First Apology

This comports with what St. Paul states in Romans 2:

“For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.  For God shows no partiality.

Romans 2:6-11

Jews – Before the Overt Merger of Faith and Philosophy

Lest I overstate my case, Justin did not view Greek and Jewish thought as one without any distinction. He did make a distinction in the fullness of revelation among the Greeks as compared with the Jews. In his opinion, the Jews had a much fuller revelation of Logos than the Greeks, for Christ even appeared to Moses and talked to him through the burning bush. That is why the Jews worshipped the one true God, while the Greeks, in their ignorance, were worshipping idols.

He too, like many Christian thinkers, saw a continuity and a discontinuity between Jewish and Greek thought. In his mind, he saw the continuity as being the preeminent principle.

Christians – Accessing the Complete Logos

Compared to the people who came before Christ, all of which had the “seed” of the Logos implanted in them, those Christians who came after Christ have access to all of Christ or the complete Logos. Those who came before saw though a glass darkly, but those who embrace Christ in the Christian era experience the fullness of revelation – faith and philosophy as one via Christ as Logos. This is what St. Paul meant when he said in 1 Corinthians 2 that “We have the mind of Christ.”

Christian revelation is superior to Old Testament Jewish revelation because it is the fulfillment and completion of it. And what the Greeks labored to see without the direct revelation of Christ, the Christians were given by grace. We have the fullness of what Socrates and the Greeks only perceived dimly. Again, St. Paul states in Colossians:

 “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him.”

This Logos contains all of God because He is God and we have all the fullness of Logos because we have Christ. The virtuous pagans did not quite have that, because they had the logos spermatikos versus the grace extended via the resurrected Christ.

The Tao of Logos

Justin walks a fine line between universalism and particularism in religion. He is not saying that all religions and philosophies are equal, for he clearly proclaims Christianity as the only religion that has the fullness of the Logos in Christ, making it preeminent, far superior to all other religions and philosophies. On the other hand, he is not making the distinction between Christian and non-Christian so distinct as to sever any commonality between them and making Christianity an island unto itself.

He would say that all people have within them the seeds of the Logos in general. Another way of saying that is to say that all are created in the image of God and have a desire for Him. Thus we have a commonality when we dialogue with non-Christians about the true Logos. Because the Logos permeates and orders everything, then anything can be used as a touchpoint for presenting Christ, even to the modern virtuous pagans of our current time.

If we look hard enough, we can see the principle of Logos in any culture. For example, some Eastern religions emphasize the Tao or the Way. In reading such literature, the parallels between the Tao and the Logos are striking. I would go so far to say that the Tao is the Logos manifested to Chinese culture. Thus we have a common point of dialogue. Just like Socrates expounded upon an “unknown god,” so too the Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu stated when discussing the universal ordering principle that she perceived at work in the world:

“I do not know its name, but characterize it as the Tao.”12

Interestingly, Lao Tzu, “Old Master,” lived at about the same time as Heraclitus. They both recognized this universal ordering principle, even though they lived in different cultures 6,000 miles apart. Heraclitus called it Logos and Lao Tzu called it the Tao. What they didn’t know is that they each were beholding Christ.13

Back to Where We Started – The Presocratic Virtuous Pagans

To tie this all together, I would like to circle back to where it all began with Heraclitus. If you have read post 25, you remember that the Presocratic philosophers were always looking for an arche or universal element that all other matter was comprised of. Some said it was water, others earth or air, but Heraclitus said that it was fire. But for Heraclitus, this was not the same as the universal ordering principle of logos. He stated that the logos worked through the arche, fire, in order to bring order to the cosmos. I discussed this in post 32.

There is a natural parallel here to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is likened, in both the Old and New Testaments, to fire. Maybe Heraclitus was seeing, albeit through a glass darkly, the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit, the second and third Persons of the Trinity.14 For as Heraclitus’ Logos moved and acted through the arche of fire, so too Christ, the Logos, after his ascension, presents himself to us and works in the world, through his Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who seeks to reveal Christ, the Logos, to all men by appealing to the seeds of the Logos planted within. The germination of these seeds brings life. And this is a message for all nations and cultures.

Implications for Evangelism

It is the Holy Spirit who is at work in the hearts of all people to draw them to Christ, the eternal Logos. Being created in the image of God, the imago dei, means, according to Justin Martyr, that we have the seeds of Logos planted in our hearts. This is a universal fact that spans all cultures. If, as Heraclitus stated, we can recognize that we have been patterned after the divine, then we can behold the true Logos without. Evangelism involves working with the Holy Spirit in order to point out what is evident but in many cases not recognized.

In summary, Justin Martyr’s idea of logos spermatikos has major implications for evangelism today.15 It means that we have more in common with non-Christians of all cultures than we have differences. In a society that seeks to divide, we can seek to find commonality with this knowledge.

It is no surprise, then, that Justin Martyr’s ideas are having a resurgence in the Christian world and are alive and well. I have placed, in the bibliography below, a list of Catholic documents that discuss evangelism based Justin Marty’s ideas of the logos spermatikos. Rather than always seeking to reinvent the wheel in order to remain “relevant,” we would do well to rediscover and apply in new ways the wisdom of the ancient thinkers and theologians when studying and acting upon our own understanding of faith and philosophy.

I will end with a couple of quotes. The first is from Heraclitus:

“Listen not to me, but to the Logos.”

The second quote is from Justin Martyr:

“Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being his Logos and First-begotten, and Power; and, becoming man according to his will.” 

And finally, consider the following question:

What can Christians learn from Justin Martyr’s approach to non-Christians today? Please comment below. Thank you!

Footnotes:

  1. St. Justin Martyr, Catholic Faith and Reason website: https://www.catholicfaithandreason.org/st-justin-the-martyr-105-165-ad.html
  2. St. Justin Martyr, Britannica Encyclopedia online, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr
  3. Catholic Faith and Reason
  4. Falls, Thomas B, D.D. Ph.D., The Fathers of the Church, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy of the Rule of God, pp. 23-32, 115-119, The Fathers of the Church Patristic Series, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2008
  5. Martyr, Justin, St. Justin Martyr First and Second Apologies, Translated with introductory notes by Leslie William Bernard, pp. 1-17, Paulist Press, New York, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1997
  6. Excerpt of a translation of chapter 10 of the Second Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm.
  7. Martyr, Justin, St. Justin Martyr First and Second Apologies, Translated with introductory notes by Leslie William Bernard, pp. 1-17
  8. Excerpt of a translation of chapter 46 of the First Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent.
  9. Ibid.
  10. R. M. Price. “‘Hellenization’ and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 42, no. 1, 1988, pp. 18–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1584467.
  11. Excerpt of a translation of chapter 46 of the First Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent.
  12. Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 31, Valaam Books, Patina, California, 2004
  13. Ibid
  14. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 224-226, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  15. Kuruvachira, Jose, Justin Martyr’s Theory of “Seminal Logos,”(AEdu).pdf.

Bibliography and Sources:

Bennett, Rod, Four Witnesses, the Early Church in Her Own Words, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2002

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2011

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion in Two Volumes, Westminster Press, Santa Ana, 1970

Dante, The Divine Comedy Volume 1, Translated by Mark Musa, Penguin Group, New York, 2002

Falls, Thomas B, D.D. Ph.D., The Fathers of the Church, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy of the Rule of God, The Fathers of the Church Patristic Series, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2008

Holte, Ragnar, Logos Spermatikos: Christianity and Ancient Philosophy according to St. Justin’s Apologies, Gleerup, Sweden, 1958

Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020

Martyr, Justin, St. Justin Martyr First and Second Apologies, Translated with introductory notes by Leslie William Bernard, pp. 1-17, Paulist Press, New York, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1997

Damascene, Hieromonk, Christ the Eternal Tao, Valaam Books, Patina, California, 2004

Online Sources and Resources:

Britannica Encyclopedia Online

Catholic Faith and Reason

Kuruvachira, Jose, Justin Martyr’s Theory of “Seminal Logos,”(AEdu).pdf,

New Advent

R. M. Price. “‘Hellenization’ and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 42, no. 1, 1988, pp. 18–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1584467

Catholic writings that contain Justin’s concept of the seminal Logos:

Ad Gentes, Document from Second Vatican Council, (nos. 11,18)

Dialogue and Proclamation, from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, (nos. 16, 24, 70, 82), 1991

Ecclesia in Asia, Pope John Paul II, (nos. 16, 20), 1999

Evangelii Nuntiandi, Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI, (nos. 11, 18), 1975

Redemptoris Missio, On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, Pope John Paul II, (nos. 28,56), 1990

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