This article continues the discussion of the Christology of the early church fathers. The introduction to this series defined the Trinity doctrine and gave a historical and conceptual development of this doctrine. The second article discussed the views of Polycarp. This third article discusses the Christology of Justin Martyr.
Justin Martyr was an early Christian apologist. He was born around AD 100. Most of his works are lost, but two apologies and one dialogue did survive. The First Apology, his most well-known text, passionately defends the morality of the Christian life and provides various arguments to convince the Roman emperor to abandon the persecution of the Church. But apparently he failed, for he himself was martyred, more or less in the year 165, alongside some of his students. It is for that reason that he is called Justin Martyr.
In Justin’s view, the Greek philosophers had the most essential elements of truth but derived it from the Old Testament. Thus he declared that many historical Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Heraclitus, in whose works he was well studied, were unknowing Christians (Apol., i. 46, ii. 10). However, in his view, the Greek philosophers had only a part of the Logos (the Word or the Wisdom), while the whole is in Christ.
According to Justin Martyr, Jesus is the same as the Old Testament Angel of the LORD.
He wrote that God begot Jesus “before all creatures a Beginning.” Perhaps we can understand this as something more than ‘the first’, but the Beginning from whom all created things flowed. In other words, the “Beginning” already contained everything in the creation. “Through the Word, God has made everything.” In other words, it is still God who created, but God begot the “Word” as the means through Whom God created.
Justin proposed that God begot Jesus “from Himself;” “born of the very substance of the Father.” This harmonizes with the word homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed. However:
He defined the Logos as “numerically distinct from the Father.” Justin used the sun and the light from the sun as a metaphor to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son; highly related but still distinct.
Justin also described the Father as “God” and as “Lord of the universe” in contrast to “our Savior Jesus Christ.” This implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Justin explicitly stated that Jesus is “in the second place” next to God. This is inconsistent with the Trinity theory.
Justin did not mention that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature or that the Holy Spirit is self-aware. These concepts developed in later centuries.
These concepts will now be discussed in more detail:
Angel of the Lord
Justin Martyr identified Jesus with the Logos of John 1 and Revelation 19, He also identified Jesus with the Angel of the LORD and with many other Theophanies of the Old Testament. He used this argument to convince Jews of the truth of Christianity.
Origin of Christ
Justin Martyr described Jesus as follows:
“God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself” (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 61). He was “born of the very substance of the Father.”
To describe the Word as “a Beginning” implies that God’s purpose, in begetting the Son, was to create all things. We often read in the Bible about “the beginning,” such as that “in the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” But Justin Martyr thought of Jesus Himself as the Beginning. Jesus is also described as “the beginning” in Colossians 1:18, and Revelation refers to Him as “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14).
Since the Word is “rational,” He is a separate Person.
He was “born of the very substance of the Father.” This aligns with the word homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed.
Justin Martyr wrote, “through the Word, God has made everything.” In other words, it is still God who created, but the “Word” was the means through Whom God created.
Justin Martyr described the Logos as “numerically distinct from the Father;” “Numerically distinct” is a phrase that philosophers use in contrast to “qualitatively distinct.” Two things are “numerically distinct” if they are two different things, even when they are extremely similar; qualitatively the same. Justin used the sun and the light from the sun as a metaphor to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son: The sun and the light from the sun are highly related but still distinct entities.
For Justin Martyr, the Father is God. This is seen in the statement quoted above that “through the Word, God has made everything.” That also means that Jesus is also distinct from God.
In Matthew 28;19 Jesus told His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Justin similarly wrote:
“For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water” (First Apol., LXI).
This expands Matthew 28, for Justin replaced “the Father” with “God, the Father.” This confirms the distinction between God and Jesus.
Justin also added in a few words to exalt the Father over the Son and over the Holy Spirit. The description of the Father as “God” and as “Lord of the universe” and implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father.
Justin continues to speak about baptism in the next paragraph. He again equates God with the Father, in distinction to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and describes God alone as ineffable (indescribable):
“No one can utter the name of the ineffable God…And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost …” (First Apology 61)
In his First Apology 8, Justin explicitly states that Jesus is “in the second place” next to God. This clearly evidences his view that the Son is subordinate to the Father.
Matt Slick quoted Justin’s version of the baptismal creed because it mentions all three Persons, but the way in which the church fathers in the second and third century used these triadic passages makes a distinction between God and His Son and declares the Father to be superior over the Son.
Justin Martyr’s understanding of Christ and the Trinity may be summarized as follows:
The Father, who is God, begot the Son before all creatures. The Father begot Him as a Beginning; born of the very substance of the Father; a rational power that proceeded from God; numerically distinct from God and subordinate to the Father. Through Him, God has made all things. In Old Testament times the Son appeared as the Angel of the LORD.
Justin understood the Son to be “born of the very substance of the Father,” but still distinct from and subordinate to God, the Father. Justin did not mention that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature or that the Holy Spirit is self-aware. These concepts developed in later centuries.
Articles in this series
Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
– Justin Martyr – Current Article
– Ignatius of Antioch
– Tertullian – work in progress
– Origen – work in progress
– Jesus is our god.
Fourth Century (State Church)
– Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325
– The Nicene Creed Interpreted
– Fourth Century Arianism
– What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
– Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
– Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
– Fall of the Western Roman Empire
– Why the Roman Empire fell
– The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
– The massacres of the Waldensians