Justin Martyr and Early Christian Thought

Justin Martyr’s Unique Logos Spermatikos 

In the middle of the 2nd Century, we find at the forefront of the church a group of thought leaders that are now known as the Apologists. Rising from the culture, these philosophers and theologians bring a strength to the church that was desperately needed for this new found faith. Growing among the fertile soil of thought that had come down from centuries past, Plato, the Stoics, the Pythagoreans, and more systems of thought were becoming intertwined with the new thought of Christianity that was on the ascent. These Apologists, Irenaus of Lyons, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and our focus of study, Justin Martyr, were writing and speaking in a pivotal moment for the church. Justin stands out among these Apologists as a creative force. In a flurry of writing and defense, Justin produced some truly revolutionary thought that synthesized the core foundations that were accepted by the culture in which he lived, and joined with it inspired thinking that was uniquely his own. In particular, Justin took the accepted idea of the logos and added to it ideas of application that led to a specific view of humanity that included the seeds of reason, the logos spermatikos. This view, unique to Justin, gave him novel insight into humanity and history, and gave him a fullness of understanding ahead of his time that still has application to our culture today.

A quick overview of Justin’s existing writings will help set the foundation for his insight. We have extant three writings which are generally accepted as authentic from Justin. “Of the large corpus of writing preserved in Justin’s name, there is general agreement that only the two Apologies (addressed to Antonius Pius and the Roman Senate) and the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew are genuine.”  (Barnard 1967, 14) These writings are both communicative as a history of Justin given in his own words as well as a defense of Christianity against those that were hostile to the faith. The two Apologies were written to Roman leadership who were familiar with the many concepts of Philosophy, and the Dialogue was written as an apologetic against a Jew named Trypho in an attempt to show Christianity as the true philosophy over the torah, as revered by the Jews. Contained in these writings are a wealth of theological and philosophical insight. Of note is also the story of Justin’s conversion to Christianity found in The Dialogue. In Chapter two, we are given a history of Justin in his own words concerning his journey through several philosophical schools leading inexorably to Christianity. While the content is probably highly stylized and potentially allegory,[1] there is no doubt that Justin’s influence was found in each of the schools of thought he mentions in the Dialogue. From studying with the Stoics which ended in disappointment, to finding a Paripatetic teacher who only wanted financial support, to studying under a great Pythagorean teacher who informed Justin that he needed to wait years before he would be ready, to finally ending up spending the most time with a Platonist studying Plato’s philosophy. (Falls 1965, 149-151) These early experiences deeply impact Justin’s final step into Christianity, which came about through interaction with an elderly man who told him about the prophets of old and revealed Jesus to him. Justin says in Dialogue 8[2], “But my spirit was immediately set on fire, and an affection for the prophets, and for those who are friends of Christ, took hold of me; while pondering on his words, I discovered that his was the only sure and useful philosophy.” (Falls 1965, 160) Justin now turned his philosophical training to interpreting what he understood of Christianity in light of philosophy.

To understand Justin’s insight, we need to turn briefly to a basic explanation of what he was surrounded by when it came to the prevailing thought leaders of his time and culture and what those philosophies were saying about the big ideas that Justin would eventually commandeer for his own purposes. First and foremost, when it comes to the first part of the crossover points between the philosophies of the day was the idea of logos.  For Justin, his primary influence appears to be that of the Stoics. In their view, “Logos means the reason of the universe, the law by which things occur.” (Horowitz 1974, 12) While this is rather simplistic, it is easiest way to understand the leap that Justin makes later on in his unique ideas. This idea of the logos grows over time and comes to be understood by some in the philosophical community as God, in whatever way that definition found its way into different philosophies. Osborn writes of the God of the Stoic philosophers, “He has so welded into one all things good and bad that they all share in a single everlasting logos.” (Osborn 1993, 149) Logos was purely material to the Stoics and that limited their view of God and was insufficient for Justin’s purposes. After Justin became a Christian, one of his main influences appears to be shifted to that of Philo, a Jewish philosopher, who developed in his commentaries the idea of logos as “the word of God” in the Old Testament through the Greek Septuagint. (Price 1988, 20) This, more than the Platonists of his philosophical grounding, appears to have a deeper influence on his treatment of logos in his two Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho. While the idea of logos has roots that reach back centuries, it is the time immediately surrounding Justin that shapes his understanding the most. Justin’s view of logos, did not stray too far from the accepted definitions as had been revealed in the writings that influenced him, especially among those of the Christian faith.

Moving from the concept of logos, the Stoics had insight concerning the concept of logos spermatikos. In their understanding, the process of knowledge is that human reason is only a part of an ‘Original Fire’, the logos spermatikos, and that fiery substance has ‘Spermatik ability.’ The seeds, according to the Stoics, are not identical with logos spermatikos, but are actually the results of that activity of the logos through the logos spermatikos. The Stoics insist that human reason is part of an Original Reason, and thus has the ability to spread through seeds of reason. (Holte 1958, 135, 144)  Not only with the Stoics, but Justin identified with the Platonists in their understanding of the relation between the logos and mankind. There were several areas that Justin agreed closely with these teachings. In particular we find that, according to Justin, “Plato was correct in teaching that God is transcendent, as well as immutable, impassible, incorporeal, and nameless.” (Droge 1987, 306) Furthermore, this common ground extends to the treatment of the human soul and the ability of this soul to extend freewill to life. Central to Platonism was the ideal of human reason, or logos, to be a force to set human kind free from forces of evil or moral wrong. Within these particular teaching frameworks, reason finds a home in the foundation of mankind and the ability of this reason to be expressed takes shape through the logos spermatikos, but limited to being a result of activity, not a thing in themselves.

This brings us to the unique departure of Justin Martyr in his understanding of logos spermatikos, or seeds of the logos. This term, logos spermatikos, was not unknown in the philosophical language of Justin’s experience as a student of philosophy. “[B]y Justin’s time the metaphor of the sown seed had become a standard way to refer to innate knowledge of divine truth, without expressing any particular philosophical loyalties.” (Price 1988, 20) There was a familiarity that allowed Justin to then experiment with and expand the boundaries of the logos spermatikos as a foundational aspect of his belief in the pervasive nature of God’s work as the logos. Justin speaks of this presence of seeds of the logos among all humans in both of his Apologies, focusing on two different nuances of the concept. In 2 Apology 8 and 13, he focuses on the idea that has been commonly translated as the seed being diffused throughout all humanity as an implanted substance. In 1 Apology 46, Justin reads the logos spermatikos as evident in some that lead them to Christianity, even before Christ was existent. As an example, he points to Socrates as one who had the seeds of God implanted in him, following the logos, and counted as a Christian by Justin. (Chandler 1991, 89) This assertion follows directly from his understanding of the presence of God as the logos within humanity, sown as the logos spermatikos. This can be difficult to understand from our perspective removed from the 2nd Century by 19 intervening ones. But it falls closely to Justin’s unique perspective of the work of God within the hearts and minds of men of philosophy who were seeking the truth. “[T]he logos is for [Justin] an active and divine potential, the sowing logos who sows in men, even before the coming of Christ in the flesh, a part of himself.” (Barnard 1971, 140)

The seeking by Justin of the truth through philosophy colored his understanding of how men and women come to the knowledge of Christ. As he sought the Lord, he began to recognize that there was much truth being espoused by the philosophers of old, those that had spoken truth from the earliest of times. Justin, in this, saw the work of God and the seeds of the logos at work, even among those that were far from a traditional view of Christianity or a Biblical foundation of belief. Speaking to Justin’s view, Holte remarks, “The glimpse of truth, perceived by the philosophers through their participation in Logos Spermatikos, are Christian property, because Christians are the only people who love and worship the incarnate Logos.” (Holte 1958, 111-112) Justin’s writings, in particular his Apologies, were given as defenses for Christians as valuable participants in the Roman culture of polytheism. He was defending the right of Christians to NOT be persecuted and singled out as harboring rebellions or engaging in activities that were opposed to the expressed faith in a poly-theistic system espoused by the Roman culture. In proclaiming the logos spermatikos as evident in even the great philosophers, he was creating an identity of Christians among the great thinkers of the history of Roman culture, proving that Christians should not be persecuted because they are integral with the logos which is available to all. It is a complicated approach that was used by Justin, but one that found resonance in his writings.

The outcome of Justin’s view was quite unique and showed a creative flair on his part. Justin was firmly ensconced in a Christian worldview as his foundation once he became a follower of Christ. This foundation was influenced, however, by his earlier synthesis of various philosophies which then led to this novel acceptance of philosophy into a more rigorous Biblical background. Because logos was already accepted in the early church thought, as seen in John’s writings in his Gospel and other early thought leaders, Justin’s view stood out from even that as distinct in approach and application. In his 2 Apology 8, Justin asserts that the logos, “the whole Word, which is Christ,” is in opposition to less full expressions of the logos. “This logos was essentially a unity with God the Father, although distinct in personality. This equation of the logos with Jesus differentiates Justin’s thought at once from the speculations of Philo, Stoicism and Middle Platonism.” (Barnard 1967, 99) With Jesus now firmly established as the logos, this then allows the leap that Justin makes philosophically to then includes the seeds of reason, or the logos spermatikos to be so powerfully at work within those who are seeking the truth through reason. He sees in each of these the seeds of the true logos, Christ, deeply embedded in human nature for those that are truly observant of the active logos in the world. “This human logos is ‘engrafted’ (emphytos) in all mankind. It is ‘seminal’ (spermatikos), a seed. But it is a seed of the true and real Logos, Christ.” (Neuhauser 1974, 193) Thus, the great philosophers are counted as followers of Christ because of the activity of the logos spermatikos in their lives. “For Justin each thinker, inasmuch as he conformed to the truth and spoke well, partook of a portion of this Seminal or Spermatik logos which in its entirety was Jesus Christ.” (Barnard 1967, 96) This was the revolutionary part of Justin’s philosophy, met with some controversy among Christians, but nonetheless extremely powerful in his time.

In looking at Justin from our perspective, we can find many ways that the application of the logos spermatikos is inadequate and potentially problematic. But Justin was the first Christian to actively seek ways to incorporate philosophy with a well-founded Christian base that began with the Bible. Justin was first and foremost a follower of Christ and this made his assertions carry the weight of Scripture, which he used extensively in his thought development. As mentioned previously, Justin was certainly familiar with and included in his Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho many allusions to the Gospel of John. But not only from John, Justin is comfortable with the overall story and trajectory of the entire Bible, seeking to synthesize truth from the Bible into what he had experienced as a philosopher. In particular, in the Dialogue, Justin appeals broadly to many passages of Scripture. Taking cues from Psalm 110:1, Psalm 45:8, Genesis 19:24, Justin uses these as the launch point for the reality of the distinction that allows for God to be described as more than a singularity, giving room for a logos theology. Thyssen[3], in quoting Justin, shows this thought quite clearly in the Dialogue, “The god that is said to appear is another than the god that has created the universe, according to number, I mean, not according to will.” (Thyssen 2006, 140) Here we see the early recognition of the larger discussion of the reality of the Trinity within the Old Testament. Although this understanding is in its infancy, Justin’s understanding of logos  and logos spermatikos lead him to the application of this insight to begin the conversation about God as one, but more than one. The importance of the Scripture can be seen throughout his debate with Trypho, appealing to the Sabbath (Dialogue 21), types of Christ in Mosaic Law (Dialogue 40), Proof of the Incarnation of God (Dialogue 63), and many more foundational beliefs revealed in the Bible. In his first Apology, Justin invests significant time showing how Christ is the fulfillment of many prophecies about the coming Messiah. This shows a studied depth of knowledge of Scriptures, not simply a peripheral belief but a deep conviction on his part of the truth of the Bible as handed down to believers. Knowing this gives Justin a tremendous amount of authority for the early Christian communities and sets himself apart as a creative interpreter of philosophy and the Christian faith.

As we conclude, a few observations about Justin’s philosophical insights are proper. There is no doubt that he was ahead of his time when it came to synthesizing the truths found in philosophy that was not overtly Christian. His application of Christian themes revealed in non-Christian sources is quite novel, yet highly useful for our context today. His inspirational approach can be applied to truth that is found even in today’s cultural contexts. To find truth in various mediums is, I believe, a charge that we as followers of Christ must engage. As Justin himself writes at the outset of his first Apology,

Reason directs those who are truly pious and all true philosophers to honour and love only what is true, to decline to follow traditional opinions if these be worthless. Not only does sound reason direct us to refute the guidance of those who taught anything wrong; but it is incumbent upon the lover of the truth, by all means and even if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to say and do what is right. (Osborn 1993, 150)

We can find, in the midst of deafening culture, right and wrong. We are the ones that are charged with determining truth at all costs. And when we find it, to celebrate that truth and proclaim that truth. Justin’s insight in this matter led him to declare in 1 Apology 20, “On some points we teach the same things as the poets and philosophers whom you [Roman leaders] honour.” (Neuhauser 1974, 191) This declaration is familiar to us and can be applied quite easily to the things we encounter.

The logos spermatikos of Justin had a unique impact on Christian thought that stretched even to the implementation of Vatican II in 1965[4]. (Neuhauser 1974, 190) This far-reaching influence over nearly two millennia speaks to the depth of Justin’s understanding and his ability to bring complex ideas to simple conclusions that are easily accessible to the people of God. He transformed the church through his insights. His willingness to forego standard understanding and attempt novel and creative uses for then accepted philosophies proved ground breaking for the early church. His unwillingness to bend to the Roman world eventually led to his martyrdom around A.D. 165 under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. His engagement with the culture of his day, setting Christ at the forefront and not blind acceptance of un-truths proved his willingness to put truth above his life. The logos spermatikos burned brightly in his life, revealing Christ loudly to a culture that deeply needed truth to be proclaimed. Justin will have a continued impact on our churches through his valuable addition to our understanding of how God moves his people toward the truth.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnard, Leslie W. “Logos Theology of St Justin Martyr.” Downside Review 89, no. 295 (-04-01, 1971): 132; 132-141; 141.

Barnard, Leslie W. Justin Martyr His Life and Thought. Cambridge, UK: University Printing House, 1967.

Chandler, William James. “A Comparison of the Concept of Logos in the Teaching of Justin Martyr and the Gnostics.” Doctor of Philosophy, 1991.

Droge, Arthur J. “Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy.” Church History 56, no. 3 (09/01, 1987): 303-319.

Falls, Thomas B. St. Justin Martyr: The First Apology, the Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, the Monarchy Or the Rule of God. The Fathers of the Church., edited by Schopp, Ludwig. Vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965.

Holte, Ragnar. “Logos Spermatikos : Christianity and Ancient Philosophy According to St Justin’s Apologies.” Studia Theologica 12, no. 2 (1958): 109; 109-168; 168.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. “The Stoic Synthesis of the Idea of Natural Law in Man: Four Themes.” Journal of the History of Ideas 35, no. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1974): 3-16.

Neuhauser, Friedrich. “The Doctrine of the “Seeds of the Word” in the Apologies of St Justin, Martyr.” Research Seminar on Non-Biblical Scriptures (-01-01, 1974): 190; 190-209; 209.

Osborn, Eric F. “Justin Martyr and the Logos Spermatikos.” Studia Missionalia 42, (1993): 143; 143-159; 159.

Price, R. M. “”Hellenization” and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (Mar., 1988): 18-23.

Thyssen, Henrik Pontoppidan. “Philosophical Christology in the New Testament.” Numen 53, no. 2 (2006): 133-176.

ENDNOTES

[1] There are quite a few opposing views that both cast doubt on and support Justin’s review of his conversion to Christianity. There appears to be no real consensus among scholars to settle the matter of Justin’s earliest experiences.

[2] For clarification in this paper, in referring to Justin Martyr’s writings, the standard way to note the source is based on the structure, which is by chapters. Thus, Dialogue 8 would refer to The Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 8, 1 Apology 62 would refer to his First Apology, the 62nd chapter, and 2 Apology would refer to his second Apology.

[3]  Thyssen is actually quite opposed to Justin’s line of thought here, asserting in his article that Justin, along with the other Apologists, is incorrectly interpreting the allusions in the Bible that seem to lend support for a God that is not monotheistic. He feels that Justin engages in too much synthesis of non-Christian philosophy here and elsewhere concerning a Logos Christology. I feel that Thyssen is reaching a conclusion that is not accurate, using anachronistic arguments to put Justin in another context of philosophical understanding.

[4] “Let Christians be familiar with the national and regional traditions (of a group of men among whom they live), gladly and reverently laying bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden in them.” Ad Gentes 11, Vatican II

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