Justin Martyr and the Two Books, Part 2
Today's entry was written by Mark H. Mann. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
As I discussed in the first two posts in this series, tracing the history of Two Books Theology means understanding how Christian theologians from the very beginnings of the Church have understood God’s self-revelation, as well as the relationship between Scripture and Creation. Therefore, we began with 2nd-century Church Father Justin Martyr, who affirmed that what we now call the Old and the New Testaments were both part a single witness to God the Creator and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Against his contemporary Marcion (who said that the Israelite God was altogether different from the God of Jesus), and the Gnostics (who thought the material world was either evil or filled with ignorance), Justin argued that the Father of Jesus was the very God who had created the earth and had called everything in it good.
While we might take such statement on the continuity of the Biblical witness for granted, the fact that the validity of the Jewish Scriptures was so hotly contested should give the reader a sense of the many theological challenges that Early Christians faced. One of the most complex of these challenges was determining how to affirm that there is only One God and, at the same time, that Jesus Christ is divine. Various models were proposed in the centuries leading up the Church councils at Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) that would settle this question once and for all for the Christian Church, establishing the particular Trinitarian formula we find outlined in what we typically refer to as the Nicene Creed. But, in Justin’s time, no such definitive statement existed, and his solution would be one of the most important contributions to the discussion.
Jesus Christ, the Logos of God
Drawing from the Greek philosophy of his pre-Christian studies (especially Platonism and Stoicism) and perhaps also from the not-yet canonized gospel of John, Justin proposed that Jesus Christ is the personal embodiment of the “divine logos.” The Greek term “logos” (typically translated as “word” in English) has a rich history in Greek philosophy. For Stoics, the logos was understood to be the presence of divine rationality in the material universe that both animates it and gives it the particular order that we observe. For Platonists at the time of Justin (often referred to as Middle Platonism1), the logos was conceived of as a kind of intermediary between God and the world. According to Middle Platonism, God is a purely self-sufficient, impassable, and transcendently spiritual reality and is therefore neither concerned with nor involved in the material world. The logos, then, was that ordering principle emanating from God which formed the world as we know it out of formless matter, or chaos. It was both God and not-God at the same time—a kind of extension of the fullness of God into the material world that exerted God’s divine power and influence within the world, while also maintaining God’s fundamental transcendence over and distance from the world.
These are exactly the kinds of claims that Justin made in calling Jesus Christ the “Logos of God.” With Stoicism, Justin would speak of Christ as the presence of divine rationality in the physical creation gave it both its life and its order. With Platonism, Justin spoke of Christ as a fully divine intermediary between God the Father and the material world that is neither fully equated with nor fully distinct from the Father.2 This is what we mean when we speak of Justin as affirming a "logos Christology": God the Father had spoken the entire universe into being through the Divine Logos, which became incarnate as Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus Christ is both fully divine and yet not to be equated with God the Father. Instead, he is the eternally generated Son and Logos through whom God the Father interacts with Creation.
Of course, Justin could point to a biblical basis for drawing such conclusions about the identification of Christ with the Divine Logos and the pivotal role of Christ in creation. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint and used by most early Christians as they generally could not read Hebrew), the verb form of logos is used to denote God "speaking" the world into being in Gen 1. Recall also that the Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made…” The Greek term for "word" used in John's prologue is in fact "logos."
One final and vitally important point regarding Justin should be made: he affirmed the doctrine of the logoi spermatakoi, variously translated as “seeds of truth” or “rational principles.” According to this doctrine, the germinal seeds of the Divine Logos are scattered through the entire cosmos, and give rise to the particular form and order of the universe. Justin gave this doctrine a particularly Christian twist by identifying the logoi spermatokoi with the truth and presence of Jesus Christ, which he understood to be evident everywhere in the cosmos. In all times and places, those with eyes to see can find evidence of the handiwork of God in Christ, for it is in Christ that God has made all things to be what they are. It is for this reason that Justin could speak of Christianity as the true philosophy, and of other philosophical traditions as holding partial truths that ultimately lead to Christ.
For Justin Martyr, the first great Christian theologian of the post-apostolic era, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, witnessed to in Scripture and manifest throughout all of Creation as the source of its life and order. Although Justin did not explicitly affirm that Scripture and Nature are two “books,” it is clear that his logos Christology provides a strong basis for considering the study of Scripture and Creation as, in the end, a singular enterprise, for both bear witness to the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. Especially considering his doctrine of the logoi spermatokoi, it is difficult to imagine him having the anti-scientific attitude that is unfortunately so prevalent among many Christians today, or to imagine him accepting the idea that the Creation could ever produce evidence against the existence of its Creator. Next time, we’ll see that many of these themes would also play out in the theology of one of Justin’s disciples—Irenaeus of Lyons.
1. The modifier "middle" is to distinguish this variety of Platonic thinking from the teachings of Plato ("classic" Platonism) and those of Plotinus ("Neo" Platonism) and denotes the fact that these ideas were popular in the period between that of Plato (5th-4th cent. BCE) and Plotinus (3rd cent. CE).
2. Admittedly, to speak of a clear distinction between Stoicism and Platonism at the time of Justin is somewhat artificial, for that which scholars call "Middle" Platonism is a complex and varied amalgam of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and others.
Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.