Another Way To Respond To Satanists And Other Pagans (Part 3)

Last time we considered Justin’s First Apology (i.e., defense) of the Christians to Caesar Antoninus Pius (AD 86–161). But there is a postscript to that defense that is worth considering in order to understand the world in which and to which Justin wrote, and the reasonableness of such a defense of Christianity and Christians to pagans. In our time, as the West descends into post-Christian darkness, it may be tempting to throw up one’s hands and say, “Why defend ourselves to the pagans? Let us just defeat them instead.” Call this the Crusade Option. Because Christendom is a part of our past—and in America our very recent past—the Crusade Option seems plausible. This plausibility helps to fuel the desire to rebuild Christendom in the USA (i.e., Christian Nationalism) and to attempt to institute Christianity as the state religion.

One assumption that may help give rise to the fear and despair that fuels the Crusade Option is that non-Christians are not only hostile to and ignorant of Christianity (which is often true these days), but that they are also unreasonable. There is evidence to the contrary, however. First, all humans are made in the image of God. It is not as if pagans are not image bearers. The image is defaced in unbelievers, but it is not utterly erased. Part of that image is the rational faculty. In the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451), the ancient church confessed that Christ, in his humanity, has a “rational soul.”1 It is of the essence of the universal (ecumenical or catholic) faith that Christ is true God and true man. Rationality is essential to human nature.

Appended to Justin’s First Apology is what is known to Patristics scholars as a rescript, here a response by Hadrian, who was Caesar from AD 117–38. In it, Caesar expresses his disgust at the anonymous informers (delatori; there is nothing new about anonymous trolls) on Christians to the government. He wrote,

I have received the letter addressed to me by your predecessor Serenius Granianus, a most honorable man; and I am unwilling to pass over this report in silence, lest innocent persons be disturbed and occasions be given to the informers to practice villainy. Accordingly, if the provincials will so far support this petition of theirs as to accuse the Christians in some court of law, I do not forbid them from doing so. But I will not allow them to make use of mere requests and outcries. For it is far more just, if anyone desires to bring an accusation, that you give judgment upon it. If therefore, anyone brings an accusation, and gives proof that the said persons do anything contrary to the laws, you will punish them in proportion to the offenses. And this, by Hercules, you must give special heed to, that if anyone through mere calumny bring an accusation against any of these persons, you will punish him with more severe penalties in proportion to his offense.2

Hadrian described the act of informing by pagans on Christians (i.e., reporting to the government that such and such a person was a Christian) as “villainy.” Under Roman law and custom, in order to bring an accusation against another that he was a Christian (which was a crime), one had to sign one’s name, take responsibility for the charge, and bring evidence.

To be sure, it is wholly wrong and even unreasonable that Christianity should be illegal. Justin made that argument to Caesar in his First Apology. But given that it was illegal (paganism was the state religion), the law still offered some protections to Christians, and Hadrian expected the authorities to adhere to the law. Justin appended this rescript to his First Apology in order to notify Antoninus of Hadrian’s policy, and also because he expected Antoninus to be reasonable too.

This was not a theoretical exercise. As Barnard explains, Justin wrote the Second Apology as a sort of appendix to the First (according to Barnard, Eusebius regarded the two apologies as one document) because of

an outrage that had recently occurred—typical of the indignities to which Christians were subjected. (1) A dissolute man, angry with his Christian wife for having rebuked his vices, had charged her teacher Ptolemaeus with being a Christian (2). As a result, the prefect Urbicus had sentenced Ptolemaeus and two others to death simply because they were Christians. Justin then divulges (3) that he himself expects to fall a victim to the malice of Crescens, “that lover of bravado and boasting” whom he had publicly shown to be an ignorant demagogue.3

In his defense of the Christians and Christianity, Justin replies to two questions or objections: If the Christians are so willing to face martyrdom, why do they not simply commit suicide and be done with it? This objection made perfect sense to the very practical and efficient Romans. They had a certain respect, not to say enthusiasm, for suicide.4 The second question/objection will be familiar to readers of Augustine’s City of God: why did not the Christian God protect them from death?

The immediate occasion of the Second Apology, as mentioned, was the crisis caused by the conversion of a woman to Christianity. As Justin explained,

A certain woman lived with an intemperate husband, she herself also having once been intemperate. But when she came to the knowledge of the teachings of Christ she became sober-minded and tried to persuade her husband in like manner to be temperate, bringing forward the teachings, and assuring him that there will be punishment in eternal fire inflicted on those who do not live temperately and in conformity to right reason. But he, continuing in the same extravagances, alienated his wife from him by his deeds. For she, considering it wicked to live any longer as a wife with a husband who sought in every way means of pleasure contrary to the law of nature and in violation of what is right, wished to be divorced from him.5

Her friends persuaded her to remain with him (perhaps in light of 1 Cor 7:13–14), which she did for a time. His behavior (e.g., adultery) became intolerable and so “she gave him what is called a bill of divorce.”6 He retaliated by charging her to the authorities with being a Christian.7 She responded by presenting to the emperor a written defense of her actions.8 Her husband then switched his attack to her Christian catechist, Ptolemaeus. He used his connections to a centurion (a commander of one hundred soldiers in the Roman army, roughly the equivalent of a U.S. Army captain, who commands a company of soldiers) to have the centurion arrest Ptolemaeus and “interrogate him in private.”9 When asked the fatal question, Christianus es? (Are you a Christian), Ptolemaeus was faced with a choice. He could lie and lapse (fall) or he could tell the truth and become a witness for Christ—a martyr. Justin wrote,

And again, conscious of the good which he owed to the teaching which proceeded from Christ, he confessed the doctrine of divine virtue. For he who denies anything, either denies it because he has condemned it, or shrinks from confessing it, because he knows himself to be unworthy of and alien to it; neither of which is that of the true Christian.10

Justin adds that, when another Christian, Lucius, saw Ptolemaeus being led away, he questioned “the unreasonable judgment which had thus been given” and said to the one who ordered him to be taken away, “Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer, nor fornicator, nor murderer, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted of any crime at all, but as one who has only confessed that he is called by the name of Christian? This judgment of yours, O Urbicus, does not become the Emperor Pius, nor the philosopher-son of Caesar nor the Sacred Senate.”11 Urbicus replied that it seemed that Lucius was also a Christian, to which Lucius said, “Most certainly I am,” thereby signing his own death warrant. After that, a third Christian “came forward to be punished.”12

Justin wrote the Second Apology to complain to all the Romans.13 He blamed Urbicus, effectively the mayor of Rome.14 Indeed, this sort of thing was happening across the Roman empire. Justin called it unreasonable and said he was compelled to defend the Christians by correcting the Roman ignorance of Christian faith. Nevertheless, he also called them “brothers.” He characterized those who were accusing the Christians as “wicked demons who hate us” and are “moved by evil spirits.”15

As Barnard mentioned in passing (above), Justin himself expected to by martyred by the machinations of a Cynic philosopher, Crescens, who attacked Christianity as “godless” and “impious.”16 Crescens had not read “the teachings of Christ” but he was willing to use lies and slander to manipulate the mob against the Christians.17 Justin was prepared to debate Crescens publicly and demonstrate his (Crescens’) ignorance of Christianity. Unlike Socrates, who was interested in the truth, as a Cynic, Crescens was only interested in indifference.18

For the rest of the Second Apology, Justin proceeded to explain to the pagans what Christianity is, what the Christians do and do not believe. He appealed to familiar categories (e.g., the Λογος/Logos),19 he explained the Christian doctrine of creation (not the length of the days but that the God of the Bible is the Creator of the heavens and the earth),20 the existence of spiritual powers in the world (e.g., angels and demons),21 common grace,22 the persecution of those, including the Christians, who follow reason,23 the coming judgment,24 moral discipline,25 and the way Christians regard death.26

He closed his Second Apology with a request that the petition might be published and, by implication, presented to the Emperor. Whether it was has been a matter of debate. He denied the pagan charge that the Christian teaching is harmful to the Roman republic (unlike the teaching of the Epicureans, Sotadists, Philaenidians, and Dancers).27 He hoped that people might read his Apology and be converted to Christianity. He hoped, “that you also, in a manner becoming piety and philosophy, would for your own sakes judge justly!”28

There are things about his Second Apology from which we should dissent, such as his doctrine that Christ is the embodiment of the universal principle of reason, which is how he understood the Logos. It was an attractive apologetic and philosophical move, but it was also a kind of universalism (whoever knows the Logos by reason is a Christian) that is incompatible with the Apostle John’s doctrine of the Logos. Nevertheless, his argument and his life have a power that ours may not in 2024.

Justin loved the truth more than he loved this life. He feared God and hated falsehood and lies more than he feared death. He knew that death meant entrance into eternal life. No soldier is more effective than the soldier who is willing to die to get the job done. No witness is more powerful than the witness (the martyr) who is willing to suffer and even, if necessary, to die for the truth. History is replete with examples. American Christians, because of their long proximity to power, however, have too often come to love power. Evangelical leaders had ready access to the most powerful corridors in America for a long time. The Christian Nationalists are strategizing how to regain that power and influence. As attractive as all that was and is, access to secular power comes with a cost. There are things that may not be said by those who want access to it. Justin did not play that game. Had he done, we would probably not still be reading his apologies.

Notes

  1. ἐκ ψυχῆς λογικῆς. Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 63.
  2. Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies, ed. Walter J. Burghardt et al., trans. Leslie William Barnard, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), 56:72.
  3. Leslie William Barnard, “Introduction,” in Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, 9; Second Apology, cap. 2, p. 73.
  4. Dorota Dutsch, “Genre, Gender, and Suicide Threats in Roman Comedy.” The Classical World 105, no. 2 (2012): 195.
  5. Justin Martyr, First and Second Apologies, Second Apology, cap. 2, pp.73–74.
  6. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 74.
  7. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 74.
  8. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 74.
  9. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 74.
  10. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, pp.74–75.
  11. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 75.
  12. Justin Martyr, cap. 2, p. 75.
  13. “O Romans, what has recently happened in your city under Urbicus . . .” Justin Martyr, cap. 1, p. 73.
  14. His title was Praefectus Urbi. Justin Martyr, cap. 1, p. 73, fn. 2.
  15. Justin Martyr, cap. 1, p. 73.
  16. Justin Martyr, cap. 3, p. 75.
  17. Justin Martyr, cap. 3, p. 75.
  18. Justin Martyr, cap.3, p.75.
  19. Justin Martyr, cap. 6, 10, 13.
  20. Justin Martyr, cap. 4.
  21. Justin Martyr, cap. 5.
  22. Justin Martyr, cap. 7.
  23. Justin Martyr, cap. 8.
  24. Justin Martyr, cap. 9.
  25. Justin Martyr, cap. 11.
  26. Justin Martyr, cap. 12.
  27. Justin Martyr, cap. 15, p. 84.
  28. Justin Martyr, cap. 15, p. 85.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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2 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for presenting these letters and reliable translations in the three volumes of these letters. Could these be a useful contribution to a country Reformed Church (OPC) Library?

    Is the Kindle Greek/English Translation of Michael W. Holmes’ The Apostolic Fathers reliable?

    I regret that I do not read Greek or Latin.

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