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Exploring the Christian Way of Life - The Identity of Jesus - Church History (Pre-Reformation) - Justin Martyr

Justin expounded his Messianic Christology most extensively in his Dialogue with Trypho, so that is the natural place for us to focus our discussion. In the middle of the second century there apparently was still Jewish-Christian dialogue[1] concerning the beliefs of Christians, though they clearly are two separate groups appearing to have separate identities. Much of the discussion continued to focus on Jesus, and who exactly he was.

For Justin, the divinity of the Messiah and his identity as Jesus was something that one should be able to gather from a straight forward reading of the Old Testament. The Old Testament theophanies require the existence of another divine being other than God the Father. The Father was transcendent and did not appear in space and time (e.g, Dialogue 60.2).[2] He acted through divine agents on earth, chiefly his Son, whom he had begotten before as a rational, revelatory power, though clearly lacking transcendence. His role was to reveal the Father’s will.[3] For a transcendent God to be known he required a divine mediator. The pre-existent Son was the God who acts in both the Old Testament and the New, tying the two together. In the Old Testament, “He acts in a way which is considered as an anticipation of his incarnation.”[4] Any distinction between Father and Son did not extend to difference in will.[5]

The scope of the Son’s revelatory activity extends beyond his mission to the Jewish people. Justin applies a variety of philosophical understandings of the logos to the Son.[6] All who lived rationally, that is to say morally, knew the Son to some extent.[7] However, their knowledge was incomplete.[8]

He also argues extensively for the Messianic status of Jesus and the divinity of the Messiah. When this is all put together you get a divine, pre-existent Jesus. While affirming the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus, Justin never approaches later Trinitarian thought that fuses Father and Son into such a close relationship as to be nearly indistinct. Dialogue 128-129 is one of two particularly clear passages on that point. For example, his statement in 128.4 that “…this power which the prophetic Word also calls God and Angel not only is numbered as different by its name (as is the light of the sun), but is something distinct in real number.”[9] In fact one could even claim that Justin understands Jesus as, “…another God next to the Father of all, begotten by him as a distinct person.”[10] This seems to be a very natural conclusion from the basis of both the Old Testament theophanies which Justin discussed at length as well as some of the New Testament texts that we examined in our last paper. In 2 Apology 13 we get a statement of similar effect, “For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God…”.[11] Again we have a clear statement of distinction, and even subordination but also an emphasis on unity based on God being the source of the Son.[12]

For Justin, then, the gospel centered on the Son’s saving begun in the Old Testament and brought to a head in the Messiah Jesus. This is the overarching argument in the Dialogue with Trypho.[13] Jesus’s death put himself in a place of authority over evil powers; a subduing that will be completed when he returns in a great act of judgment.[14] Jesus return was something that was looked forward to by the church.[15] It was through him that they would become the people of God awaiting the return of their heavenly king.[16]

[1] Otherwise why write the Dialogue?
[2] This is a key point for Justin. Any other view is ridiculous to him. See Bucur 2014 p.37, and the rest of the article for a discussion as to the degree to which Justin is innovative.
[3] See especially Dialogue 60.5 and 61.1 and Trakatellis 1976 pp. 86-88, to whom I am greatly indebted in my entire reading of Justin’s Christology, even if I have slightly different concerns at times. See also Barnard 1967, pp. 89-91.
[4] Ibid., p. 91.
[5] Osborn 1973 p. 32.
[6] Hurtado 2003 pp. 643-48.
[7] First Apology 46, Second Apology 13. Bucur 2014 p. 36.
[8] Precisely how incomplete is unclear. See Kelly 1978 p. 146.
[9]All translations of the Dialogue come from Falls 2003
[10] Trakatellis 1976 p. 180. See also Barnard 1967 p. 89-90.
[11] Translation from Ante-Nicean Fathers Vol. 1.
[12] Osborn 1973 p. 29.
[13] See ibid. p. 100-105.
[14] Dialogue with Trypho 121.3 as pointed out by Osborn 1973, p. 63.
[15] Dialogue with Trypho 52.1,2 again ibid. p. 192. Bates 2009 passim drives home that Justin has inverted the expectation of Isaiah with the church in the role and dominant status of Israel and Israel in the role of the nations and Jewish individuals incorporated into the church if they believe in Jesus.
[16] First Apology 11. Justin sees the battle as being on the spiritual plane, though his willingness to be martyred shows that he does not see the battle as only spiritual, but at the intersection of spiritual and physical (whether the duality is appropriate or not is irrelevant as that is how Justin saw things).


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