St Justin the Philosopher and Martyr

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

If there is a saint for our day, it is St Justin (c. 100 to c. 165), the patron saint of philosophers, apologists and lecturers, whom we remember annually on 13 April, the date of his martyrdom.

Justin is remarkable because he sought to reconcile divine revelation (what we know by faith) and human reason (what we know by thought). Justin was born to pagan parents in Samaria and spent much of his youth in pursuit of wisdom. He studied philosophy rigorously but was left unsatisfied. To be sure, he found much wisdom in philosophy; but without the light of divine revelation, he recognised that unaided human reason is unable to yield wisdom about ultimate realities such as unconditional love, redemption and eternal life. Whilst searching for God, Justin was impressed with the Christian apologists, many of whom were martyred and all of whom underwent tribulation in the second-century Roman empire. Justin was moved by the moral beauty of their lifestyles, including the courage of their convictions to suffer and die after the example of Jesus, as well as by the wisdom they espoused under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They embraced and embodied the truth, and as our Lord promises, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (Jn 8.32).

After his Baptism (c. 130), Justin himself became a Christian apologist, a missionary to his contemporaries to share the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ. He did not renounce what could be known by unaided human reason, but instead sought to show how sound thinking could not help but support divine revelation because both spring from the same font: God’s Word or Logos of which Jesus is the epitome. To share the Good News, Justin was a prolific lecturer and writer. He wrote an apology to the Roman emperor and a second apology to the Roman senate to expound the beauty of Christian thinking and behaviour as well as to refute the accusation of impiety and immorality often levelled against Christians in the second century. He and some of his disciples were denounced as subversives and executed. (Amazingly, the court report of his trial is extant.) Justin was beheaded for the truth. 

Why is Justin a saint for our day? Because we Christians are likely to undergo tribulation and suffering if we stand for the truth today. The twenty-first century is not so different from the second century in terms of dismissive and corrupt leaders and governments whose interests are not, sadly, in the truth but in advancing agendas that not only flounder in terms of human wisdom but are contemptuous of divine revelation. For example, the ‘exposure’ of infants was widespread in the second-century Roman empire, that is, unwanted babies (mostly female) were abandoned to the elements or to designated locations, often resulting in death or enslavement. In his First Apology (XXVII), Justin denounces this wickedness and its deleterious effects on society. The exposure of infants is, Justin rightly notes, sinful and senseless. The result of speaking that truth to the authorities of Justin’s day was his martyrdom. Although we rarely encounter martyrdom in the twenty-first century, the reaction from the authorities in our own day is comparable. To speak out in defence of children, and particularly of girls who are more likely to die by violence and to be abused than boys, is provoke the wrath of ideologues who would prefer to turn a blind eye rather than disturb the cultures of individualism and commercialism that treat human beings as means to ends instead of ends in themselves.

Being a Christian apologist in the twenty-first century is no less a tricky business than it was in the second century. On the one hand, we must continue to unpack the created order through the light of human reason whilst at the same time unpacking God’s Word, his Logos, his divine revelation in Jesus through the light of the Holy Scriptures. On the other hand, we must not keep human or divine wisdom to ourselves: Jesus tells us to ‘proclaim [it] from the rooftops’ (Matt. 10.27) and not to hide it under a bushel (Matt. 5.14–15; Mk 4.21–25; Lk. 8.16–18). Justin’s witness as an apologist, as well as a philosopher and martyr, though, should spur us on to a life—and perhaps to suffering and death—worthy of a disciple of Jesus.

Let us pray in the words of a mysterious man whom Justin encountered on his journey of faith, ‘Pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you, for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only the one to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom’ (Dialogue with Trypho, VII).

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also the Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.