“Our doctrines are not shameful, according to sober judgment, but are indeed more lofty than all human philosophy.”

-Justin Martyr, Second Apology 15

NOTE: I have completed writing a short book for IVP Academic’s “Little Book” series: A Little Book for New Philosophers. This book will appear in the fall of 2016. It addresses the “why” and “how” of doing philosophy as Christians. (By the way, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga has said that philosophical reflection is “not much different from just thinking hard.”)

In my book, I attempt to remove caricatures and false representations about philosophy by Christians and non-Christians alike. I also offer suggestions for doing philosophy—with its joys and pitfalls, its benefits and challenges. I am grateful for J.P. Moreland’s kind endorsement of the book:

“Over the last decade or so, Professor Copan has risen in stature among Christians and non-Christians alike.  Many look to him for counsel, for intellectual help, and for spiritual wisdom.  All of this and much more are incorporated into his delightful little book A Little Book for New Philosophers.  Written with the warmth and wisdom of a pastor, yet exhibiting knowledge of an incredibly wide range of relevant philosophical literature, Copan has written the most important book to date as to what philosophy actually is (and should be) and why it is so important for all of us to study philosophy.  This should be read by seminarians, people in vocational ministry, and thoughtful lay folk, and it is required reading as a text in worldview or apologetics classes.  Today, the Kingdom is moving in philosophy, and Copan’s book will expand that movement considerably.  What a delightful read!” 

Below I elaborate on the example of Justin Martyr, whose life points the way for those wishing to engage in philosophy as Christians. Due to space limitations, I wasn’t able to include this portion in my forthcoming book; so I post it here.


Background and Conversion

The second-century thinker Justin (AD 100-167) was born to pagan parents in Flavia Neapolis—what was once the ancient Samaritan city of Shechem. Justin not only made physical treks to Alexandria and Ephesus for philosophical study, but he also embarked on intellectual migrations from Stoicism to Pythagoreanism and then to Platonism. According to church historian Eusebius, Justin’s trademark garb was the pallium—an inexpensive, coarse rectangular cloth that identified him as a scholar and philosopher, as it did the likes of Socrates, Antisthenes, and Diogenes Läertius.

While under the influence of Platonism, he came to hear accusations made against Christians. Christians were cannibals for eating the Lord’s body and drinking his blood. They were “atheists” for believing in just one God; in a polytheistic Mediterranean religious environment, monotheism was close enough to qualify as atheism! But he also observed that, when persecuted, these believers were “intrepid in the face of death.”[1] He couldn’t but conclude that “it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.”  

While at Ephesus, he encountered a mysterious old man while walking by the sea. This man exhibited “meek and venerable manners,” and he asked Justin how he could be a philosopher but “not a lover of deeds or truth.” This revolutionary conversation would expose the inadequacies of his dearly-loved Platonism. The old man informed him of courageous ancient prophets and other witnesses to divinely-wrought miracles, both of which pointed to a coming Messiah. The man also spoke of Jesus of Nazareth and many other things, pleading with Justin to attend to these matters. Although Justin would not see this elderly man again, he recounted that “straightway a flame was kindled in my soul”; Justin would come to have a love for the prophets and those friends of Christ—a love which “possessed me.” While turning about these matters in his mind, he said, “I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.” Through this conversation, Justin came to discover that the Christian faith is the “true philosophy.”

Not content simply to tell his story, Justin invited his readers to embrace it themselves: “If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may—since you are not indifferent to the matter—become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.”

Justin as a Christian Philosopher

Later on, Justin would engage in dialogues with the Jewish rabbi Trypho. Just as he had endeavored to persuade pagans that Christ is the completion and embodiment of the incomplete truths of Greek philosophy and its ideals, so he sought to persuade Trypho that Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the head of the new spiritual Israel. Their conversations were cordial and even affectionate. In his parting words, Trypho wrote to Justin on behalf of himself and his colleagues: “I confess that I have been particularly pleased with the interchange and I think that my friends are of quite the same opinion. For, indeed, we have found more than we expected, and more than we could have expected. If we could do this more frequently, we might be greatly helped in our search of the Scriptures themselves. “But since,” he said, “you are preparing to depart, and expect daily to set sail, please do not hesitate to remember us as friends when you are gone.”

In his final reply, Justin exhorted these Jewish friends “to give all diligence in the great struggle for your own salvation, and to be earnest in setting a higher value on the Christ of the Almighty God than on your own teachers.”

After this, Trypho and his associates would leave Justin, wishing him well on his voyage. Justin then prayed for their salvation saying, “I can wish no better thing for you all than this, that recognizing in this way that intelligence is given to every man, that you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God.”

Justin was the first Christian apologist to connect John’s doctrine of the Logos (the Word of John 1:1, 14) with Greek philosophy. He even claimed that Plato—in his Timaeus dialogue— borrowed teaching about creation from Genesis.

Justin took a great risk in founding a school in Rome, where he taught that Greek philosophy—particularly Platonism—is not altogether wrong. Indeed, it can—like the Mosaic Law to the Jews—often serve as “a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” Justin was the first post-apostolic trailblazer in philosophy, who presented a logical case for—and showed explanatory power of—the Christian faith to his contemporaries in a relevant and understandable way. However, one of his interlocutors, a man named Crescens, would eventually become the material cause of his arrest and decapitation for his faith in Christ. When offered the opportunity to recant by offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods, Justin replied with Christian conviction and philosophical clarity, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.” Justin Martyr would later be executed in AD 167 for his faith in Christ.

Lessons from Justin

For Christians desiring to study philosophy, Justin is a role model for a number of reasons. First, rather than just having a new intellectual grid by which to think and debate, Justin was truly transformed by the gospel, which revolutionized his philosophizing. Second, Justin was moved by the hope and courage persecuted Christians exhibited—a reminder that the Christian’s personal witness is also an apologetic for the faith (Jn. 13:35; 2 Cor. 3:2). Third, the tools of philosophy served him well as he thought through his own faith; they weren’t to be discarded but rather appropriated as part of God’s general revelation available to all people (Rom. 1:20). Fourth, these philosophical tools better equipped him to persuade others about the greater reasonableness of the Christian faith than competing philosophies and worldviews. Fifth, Justin emphasized that truth is no respecter of persons; even though Christ is the embodiment of truth, truth can be found in all manner of non-Christian places: “whatever things were rightly said among [the philosophers], are the property of us Christians.” That is, all truth is God’s truth. Sixth, Justin’s own philosophical articulation and defense of the Christian faith were winsome and gracious. Seventh, Christian philosophers must be full of joy and grace as well as courage as they carry forth their task in an often-unfriendly academic culture or social environment.

Though we could hold up any number of stellar examples from a host of Christian philosophers over the past two millennia, Justin serves as a marvelous pattern and inspiration for Christians as they engage in the task of philosophy.

[1] The quotations throughout this section are taken from Justin’s Second Apology.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    2 replies to "Doing Philosophy as a Christian: The Example of Justin Martyr"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.