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What Justin Martyr Could Teach Us About the Great Commission

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Mooreis president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant…

  • Updated Dec 22, 2008

Given the controversies of recent years, it is tempting for some to believe that Jewish evangelism is an innovative concept, pioneered by Southern Baptists. Justin Martyr was no Southern Baptist. He was a first-generation Christian in the second-century Roman Empire, who sought to engage paganism, Hellenic philosophy, and Judaism with the truth claims of Christian theology. But he has much to teach contemporary evangelicals about the necessity of knowing and interpreting the Bible for the task of apologetics. 

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho serves to remind Christians of the ancient Great Commission mandate of a robust, clear, and Christocentric defense of the gospel before all people.

In the Dialogue, Justin seeks to persuade a prominent Jewish thinker of the reality of Christian truth claims. Reading the Dialogue is much like listening to a one-sided telephone conversation. All that we have are Justin’s arguments. But he so thoroughly deconstructs Trypho’s objections, that it is not difficult at all to see both sides of the debate shaping up throughout the work. What contemporary evangelicals may be surprised to see is how little the debates over Christian theology have changed in the past two thousand years.

Justin Martyr is well known for his attempts to integrate Christian theology with Greek philosophy, sometimes in unhelpful ways. This volume demonstrates, however, how anchored to the text of Scripture Justin could be. Justin appeals to Trypho on the basis of the Old Testament Scriptures, noting that Jesus Himself is the fulfillment of the new covenant promises of the fathers and the prophets.

Noteworthy is Justin’s hermeneutic, which is typological and Christocentric. Thus, Justin does not simply point Trypho to a few isolated messianic prophecies. Instead, he shows him how Jesus of Nazareth makes sense of all of the Old Testament. In so doing, he treats the Bible as an organic unity, and takes seriously the implications of divine authorship and the historical unfolding of the mystery of the gospel.

It is all too easy for contemporary evangelicals to dismiss fathers such as Justin for being “allegorical” and “fanciful.” A reading of Justin himself, however, will show that Justin’s hermeneutic may be quite different from that of some evangelical study Bibles and commentaries, but it is remarkably similar to that of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Some of Trypho’s objections read like those of twentieth-century Protestant liberals. Justin responds, for instance, to Trypho’s assertion that the prophet Isaiah does not foresee a “virgin birth” but a “young woman” giving birth as a sign. Clearly, this discussion did not originate with the translation of the Revised Standard Version in the mid-twentieth century. Justin expertly answers this objection, not simply with a word study of the Hebrew, but with a thoroughly theological investigation of the nature of the prophecy in redemptive history.

Other objections by Trypho read like those of contemporary Jungian scholars such as Joseph Campbell. Trypho, for instance, points out common features between the Christian story and pagan mythologies-such as virginal conceptions. Centuries before C.S. Lewis, Justin claims these archetypal counterfeits actually confirm, rather than unravel, the Christian truth claims.

At other times, Trypho seems to argue like a classical dispensationalist evangelical — arguing for the restoration of a political Israelite theocracy as the touchstone of the messianic kingdom. Centuries before George Eldon Ladd, Justin employs an “already/not yet” schema of kingdom fulfillment. Indeed, Justin points to the Old Testament prophecies as themselves teaching a tension between the inauguration and consummation of Davidic promise at the end of the age. Justin carefully explores the meaning of “Israel,” a meaning that is found in union with the Jewish Messiah, not in genetic bloodlines considered apart from Him.

This does not mean, however, that Justin “spiritualizes” the Old Testament promises. Indeed, he argues cogently and forcefully for the cosmic, material, and political aspects of the redemption of the world. Thus, he considers the idea that salvation means a heavenly, disembodied existence to be “blasphemy” against the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Justin presents the implications of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection, and argues for a premillennial understanding of the apostle John’s vision of the thousand-year reign of Christ.

Contemporary evangelicals have been plagued with a reputation for chasing after novelty. The theological fads that blow through our circles point to the shameful truth of at least part of this reputation. If evangelicals seek to engage secularism, paganism, and the objections of world religions with a wisdom that predates the Evangelical Theological Society, a new reading of Justin’s Dialogue is a good place to start.