[Reference Note: As this article relies primarily on First Three Centuries by Alvan Lamson, page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Lamson’s book. References to other works are enclosed in parentheses with the work’s title or the author’s name listed in “References” at the end of this article.]
Justin Martyr (100–165) was an itinerant preacher, a Christian apologist, and a philosopher. Before his conversion to Christianity, he had studied at various schools of Greek philosophy. Among his writings are the Dialogue with Trypho and the Apology.
Justin was the Church Father primarily responsible for developing the metaphysical notion of the Logos-doctrine of the Son, which became the foundation of the Trinity Doctrine. As discussed below, the Logos-doctrine did not come from the Old or New Testaments. It grew out of the Greek philosophy of Plato.
Justin and his Platonism along with the Alexandrian School that followed him led the way to introducing “darkness and error into the theology of the period, error which was transmitted to subsequent times, and from the overshadowing effects of which the Christian world has not yet fully recovered” (p. 28).
Justin developed the Logos-doctrine of Christ and applied it to his fanciful interpretation of the Old Testament. (For examples of these interpretations, see Lamson, pp. 52-53, 55-58.) He was a leader in combining Christianity with Platonic philosophy.
Moreover, he often used “the allegorical mode of interpretation adopted by Philo and his school. He is perpetually beating about for hidden meanings, and far-fetched and mystical constructions, and typical representations and fanciful resemblances” (p. 56).
(Philo [25 B.C. – 50 A.D.] was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher. He has been called the Jewish Plato.)
Justin appeared to have had a greater understanding of Greek poets and philosophers than he had of the Old Testament. He was neither exact nor profound in his writings.
He promoted the Logos-doctrine or the doctrine of the divine nature of Christ. His doctrine of the Logos is similar to that of Philo and the Alexandrian Platonists. (Lamson wrote that “the original and distinctive features of the doctrine of the Logos, as held by the learned Fathers of the second and third centuries, we must look, not to the Jewish Scriptures, nor to the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles, but to Philo and the Alexandrian Platonists. . . . the doctrine of the Trinity was of gradual and comparatively late formation; that it had its origin in a source entirely foreign from that of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures; that it grew up, and was ingrafted on Christianity, through the hands of the Platonizing Fathers; that in the time of Justin, and long after, the distinct nature and inferiority of the Son were universally taught; and that only the first shadowy outline of the Trinity had then become visible” [p. 62].)
Justin developed the Logos-doctrine in part to rebut Jewish and Heathen accusations about “the humble origin and ignominious death of Jesus as a reproach on Christianity” (p. 63). To overcome the reproach of the cross, Christians had, by Justin’s time, begun emphasizing Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth from which came the notion of the pre-existing Logos.
Justin describes the Son as “as ‘the Logos, that, before created things, was with God, and begotten, when, through him, he [God] in the beginning created and adorned all things’” (p. 63). Thus, he excluded the “doctrine of the ‘eternal generations’” (p. 64). Also, he considered “the Son as the ‘beginning’ of God’s ‘ways to his works’” (p. 64). Thus, the Son was not eternal. Further, “Christ is ‘the first-born of God’” (p. 65).
According to Justin, “Socrates knew Christ in part; for he is ‘that reason (logos) which is in all’ and whatever was well said or done by philosophers and legislators is to be attributed to the Logos in part shared by them. . . . This Logos was Christ, who afterwards became flesh” (p. 66). This Logos guided the patriarchs and the prophets and was implanted in every mind.
“Justin believed this divine principle of reason was converted into a real being. . . . Jesus Christ . . . was the Logos, the first progeny of God, born without commixtion’” (p. 67). The Son is “‘the Logos of God, born of Him in a peculiar manner, and out of the course of ordinary births’” (p. 68).
Justin used “Logos” in different senses. When he used it with reference to God, he usually meant “reason,” which was “considered as an attribute of the Father; and that, by the generation of the Son, he understood the conversion of this attribute into a real person. The Logos, which afterwards became flesh, originally existed in God as his reason, or perhaps his wisdom or energy. Having so existed from eternity, it was, a little before the creation of the world, voluntarily begotten, thrown out, or emitted, by the Father, or proceeded from him; for these terms are used indiscriminately to express the generation of the Son, or the process by which what before was a quality acquired a distinct personal subsistence” (p. 68). Thus, “the logos, or reason, which once constituted an attribute of the Father, was at length converted into a real being, and that this was done by a voluntary act of the Father” (p. 68). This process by which this conversion occurred was called “generation,” “emission,” and “creation.”
Justin and other Fathers used “Logos” to express the divine nature of the Son. This notion came from Greek philosophy and not from the Hebrew Scriptures. “Logos” is used in the Septuagint as the translation of the Hebrew word that is translated “word” in English Bibles. Moreover, it does not bear the meaning that Justin and Philo attached to it. Furthermore, the Bible does not hint at “the generation of the Son by the conversion of an attribute of the Father into a real person” (p. 70). Contrariwise, the Old Testament generally describes God anthropomorphically and concretely; it seldom describes Him spiritually (for examples of such descriptions, see Lamson, pp. 71-72).
In the Old Testament “word” or “Logos” is used in the sense of “speaking”; it is not used in the sense of “reason” as Justin and Philo used it. As such, in the Old Testament “word” or “Logos” is an anthropomorphic act of speaking; it is not used in a metaphysical sense as Justin and Philo used it.
In the Old Testament, God “wills, and the event corresponds to his will. Here is no allusion to any intermediate agent, to a Son, who receives and executes his commands; a rational power, emanating from his own substance, and forming a link between him and his creatures” (p. 72). This notion of the Son as an intermediate agent came much later.
The introduction of the Gospel of John comes the closest to supporting the metaphysical notions of Justin concerning the nature of the Son. However, nothing else in John or the other Gospels or Epistles gives any support to his notion. Although Paul’s writings suggest a pre-existing Son, he lacks the metaphysics of John. Mark has Jesus becoming the Son of God by adoption at his baptism. Luke and Matthew have him becoming the Son of God at his conception.
In developing his Logos-doctrine, Justin drew on sources other than the Scriptures or even the Apostolic Fathers. His notion of Logos corresponded in its essential features with that of the Alexandrian Platonists. (For Trinitarian acknowledgment of the works of the Platonists in developing the Trinity Doctrine, see Lamson, pp. 77-78.)
According to Philo in his interpretation of the Old Testament, “there is one Supreme God, but [Philo] supposes that there is a second God, inferior to him, and begotten of him, called his reason, Logos. . . .To this Logos, or intelligent nature, emanating from God, as he considers it, he attributes all the properties of a real being, and calls him God’s ‘first born Logos, the most ancient angel’” (pp. 79-80). (Plato used Logos to designate his second principle.) This omnipotent Father granted this archangel “‘the preeminent gift, to stand on the confines of both [the Deity and created], and separate the created from the Creator: he is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; . . . being neither unbegotten as God, nor begotten as man, but occupying a middle place between the extremes, being a hostage to both’” (p. 80). Philo applies the title of “God” to him, but not in the highest sense. According to him, God is “the fountain of the Logos, and the Logos [is] his instrument, or minister, in forming, preserving, and governing the world; his messenger, and interpreter of his will to man” (p. 80). Thus, Philo used Logos “in the sense of reason, having a proper subsistence, and distinct from God, though emanating from the fountain of his divinity” (p. 81). Whereas sacred writers used Logos simply as “a mode of action in the Deity,” (p. 81), Philo used Logos as “a real being, his agent and minister in executing his will” (p. 81).
The ante-Nicene Fathers thought that the Son was inferior to the Father. Therefore, because of his inferiority, the Son had to be distinct from the Father. Even Justin considered the Son distinct from and subordinate to the Father.
Justin contended that two Gods and two Lords existed. One was the Lord in heaven, who is the “‘Lord of that Lord who appeared on earth.’” (p. 85). God the Father is the Lord in heaven, who is also the Creator. The Lord who appeared on the earth, the Son, is an inferior God, who is the mediator between God and man. Moreover, the Son was the subordinate God, who had no will of his own; he only did what the Creator willed him to do. (For some Biblical citations that Justin used to support his argument of two Gods with one being subordinate to the other, see Lamson, pp. 85-86.)
According to Justin, the Son was the God who appeared to the patriarchs and was an agent in creation. All the theophanies, the visible appearance of God, in the Old Testament “belong to the Logos, or Christ, not to the Supreme God, whose visible personal appearance upon earth he [Justin] regarded as impossible and absurd” (p. 86).
Justin stated that Christ is God “‘because he is the first-born of every creature’” (p. 87). Moreover, he is “the ‘Lord of hosts, by the will of the Father giving him the dominion’”(p. 87). Furthermore, Justin declared, “‘Who, since he is the first-begotten Logos of God, is God’ that is, he is God by virtue of his birth: in other words, he derived a divine nature from God, just as we derive a human nature from human parents” (p. 87).
Nevertheless, the Son was not to be regarded “as an object of direct address in prayer” (p. 87). He was the one whom Christians were to pray through to the Father, God.
To Justin, the Son was distinct from God the Father, but not distinct “in the modern sense, as forming one of three hypostases, or persons, three ‘distinctions,’ or three ‘somewhats’ — but distinct in essence and nature; having a real, substantial, individual subsistence, separate from God, from whom he derived all his powers and titles; being constituted under him, and subject in all things to his will” (p. 88). Therefore, “[t]he Father is supreme; the Son is subordinate: the Father is the source of power; the Son the recipient: the Father originates; the Son, as his minister or instrument, executes” (pp. 88-89). Thus, the Father and the Son are two in number, but one in will.
In summary, Justin viewed “the Logos, or Son, as a rational power begotten of God, and his instrument in forming the world, distinct from him, and subordinate” (p. 89). His concept of the Son and Logos cannot be found in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Moreover, the Apostles, the writers of the New Testament, and their immediate successors never alluded to it. However, Philo and the Alexandrian Platonists expressed the same notion of the Logos as Justin. Therefore, Justin derived his concept of the Son and Logos from the Platonic philosophy instead of from the Scriptures. Through him, this Platonic notion of the Logos and the Son entered Christianity.
Because Justin declared that the Son is subordinate to the Father and that the Son is not eternal, his doctrine falls short of the Trinity Doctrine. According to the Trinity Doctrine, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal and one numerical essence or substance — the three in One, i.e., the Supreme Being. The ante-Nicene Fathers agreed with Justin that the Son was not equal to the Father, and, unlike the Father, he was not eternal. Moreover, the Son was independent of the Father; they were not the same being.
(For Justin’s views on the Holy Spirit, see Lamson, pp. 93-95.)
Strictly speaking, Justin and the other ante-Nicene Fathers were unitarians. They believed that the Son was really distinct from the Father and was inferior to him.
However, Justin did plant a seed that would eventually mature into the Trinity Doctrine. Thus, his Logos-doctrine eventually changed Christianity from a unitarian, monotheistic, religion to a trinitarian, tritheistic, religion.
Opinions about the nature of the Son varied. Justin and others believed in Christ’s pre-existence. Others believed in the simple humanity of Jesus. (“The question whether Jesus were the Messiah, the Christ of God, or not, did not involve the question of his nature. . . . [T]he question of Christ’s nature or of his pre-existence had nothing to do with the question of his sufficiency as a Saviour, but all depended on God’s appointment” [p. 100].)
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Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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