Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) vs. Sola Scriptura

Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) vs. Sola Scriptura April 5, 2017


St. Justin Martyr (c. 1546), by Theophanes the Cretan (1490-1559) and his son Symeon [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




Justin Martyr wrote:

And now, if I say this to you, although I have repeated it many times, I know that it is not absurd so to do. For it is a ridiculous thing to see the sun, and the moon, and the other stars, continually keeping the same course, and bringing round the different seasons; and to see the computer who may be asked how many are twice two, because he has frequently said that they are four, not ceasing to say again that they are four; and equally so other things, which are confidently admitted, to be continually mentioned and admitted in like manner; yet that he who founds his discourse on the prophetic Scriptures should leave them and abstain from constantly referring to the same Scriptures, because it is thought he can bring forth something better than Scripture. The passage, then, by which I proved that God reveals that there are both angels and hosts in heaven is this: ‘Praise the Lord from the heavens: praise Him in the highest. Praise Him, all His angels: praise Him, all His hosts.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, 85)

I believe that Justin is here advocating for the material sufficiency of Scripture (which Catholics believe in), since Protestant historians Kelly, Schaff, and Pelikan have stated that this was basically true of the entire body of Church Fathers. Therefore, this is not only a “Catholic response” but also a response of serious Protestant historiography.

A person’s thought cannot be summarized on the basis of one statement. This is true of biblical interpretation and exegesis, and it is equally true in patristic studies. One must consider the writer’s other relevant remarks. Anti-Catholic use of this passage to supposedly “prove” Justin’s acceptance of sola Scriptura essentially begs the question:

1. Justin Martyr mentions only Scripture in this passage.

2. He doesn’t mention Church, Tradition, or apostolic succession.

3. Therefore, he must regard the Bible as not only materially, but also formally sufficient (the sola Scriptura principle and position).

The algebraic “x” factor here is how Justin Martyr views Church and Tradition in relationship to Holy Scripture. It doesn’t logically follow that he has no opinion on those things. We can’t know one way or the other what Justin believes about the Rule of Faith, based on only this information.

If it could be shown that he did not grant the Church and Tradition binding authority, and didn’t include them in the Rule of Faith, the anti-Catholics might have a valid point (as usual, the statement – strictly considered, for the sake of argument, in isolation –, would not be inconsistent with how Protestants think), but we can’t know this conclusively until such time as it is specifically demonstrated that Justin holds to the Protestant Rule of Faith over against the Catholic one.

The data in this instance is fairly scarce, since Justin’s three surviving works are primarily philosophical and apologetic in nature, rather than theological, and the theology that Justin does discuss is only rarely related to ecclesiology or the Rule of Faith as here discussed. It is highly unlikely, prima facie, that Justin would differ radically from the other Fathers we have been examining. Justin was a major source for Irenaeus, who speaks of apostolic succession and Tradition and Church authority all over the place, as we shall see below. Yet despite these difficulties, I believe there is enough information to be had, to pronounce definitely against a sola Scriptura interpretation, as will be demonstrated below.

If Justin refers to the Old Testament (which was the primary Scripture he was referring to, since the New Testament canon was at a very early stage of formulation during his lifetime) as authoritative, and it itself asserts the need and fact of a binding teaching authority among the ancient Jews, then sola Scriptura is not taught in it.

The same holds for the New Testament, even more so, as it often mentions apostolic tradition, both written and oral (Mk 6:34, Jn 20:30, 21:25, Acts 1:2-3, 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2, etc.) and an authoritative Church (1 Tim 3:15, the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, Matt 18:17, etc.). Protestants often assume that the Bible denies a crucial and binding role for Tradition and the Church, but such is clearly not the case. Thus, appeal to the Bible Alone for a supposed notion of Bible Alone and the formal sufficiency of Scripture is fallacious and self-defeating.

Lastly, it is certainly true that Justin habitually refers to Scripture as clear and self-interpreting (as indeed it often is):

And as this was done by Him in the manner in which it was prophesied in precise terms that it would be done by the Christ, and as the fulfilment was recognised, it became a clear proof that He was the Christ. And though all this happened and is proved from Scripture, you are still hard-hearted. (Dialogue With Trypho, 53). . . we will now offer proof, not trusting mere assertions, but being of necessity persuaded by those who prophesied [of Him] before these things came to pass, for with our own eyes we behold things that have happened and are happening just as they were predicted; and this will, we think appear even to you the strongest and truest evidence. (First Apology, Chapter XXX)

Though we could bring forward many other prophecies, we forbear, judging these sufficient for the persuasion of those who have ears to hear and understand; and considering also that those persons are able to see that we do not make mere assertions without being able to produce proof, like those fables that are told of the so-called sons of Jupiter . . . many things therefore, as these, when they are seen with the eye, are enough to produce conviction and belief in those who embrace the truth, and are not bigoted in their opinions, nor are governed by their passions. (First Apology, Chapter LIII)

On the other hand, in Chapter 76 of the Dialogue With Trypho, entitled “From Other Passages the Same Majesty and Government of Christ are Proved,” Justin referred to “an obscure prediction,” and of prophecies “proclaimed in mystery” and “declared obscurely,” and which “could not be understood by any man” until Jesus Himself expounded upon them. So much for “perspicuity” and the entirely self-interpreting nature of Scripture in the main. Catholics readily agree that Scripture often interprets itself. We simply deny that it always does, or that there is no need for authoritative interpretation from outside itself. Here is the above chapter in its entirety:

“For when Daniel speaks of ‘one like unto the Son of man’ who received the everlasting kingdom, does he not hint at this very thing? For he declares that, in saying ‘like unto the Son of man,’ He appeared, and was man, but not of human seed. And the same thing he proclaimed in mystery when he speaks of this stone which was cut out without hands. For the expression ‘it was cut out without hands’ signified that it is not a work of man, but [a work] of the will of the Father and God of all things, who brought Him forth. And when Isaiah says, ‘Who shall declare His generation?’ he meant that His descent could not be declared. Now no one who is a man of men has a descent that cannot be declared. And when Moses says that He will wash His garments in the blood of the grape, does not this signify what I have now often told you is an obscure prediction, namely, that He had blood, but not from men; just as not man, but God, has begotten the blood of the vine? And when Isaiah calls Him the Angel of mighty l counsel, did he not foretell Him to be the Teacher of those truths which He did teach when He came[to earth]? For He alone taught openly those mighty counsels which the Father designed both for all those who have been and shall be well-pleasing to Him, and also for those who have rebelled against His will, whether men or angels, when He said: ‘They shall come from the east[and from the west], and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven: but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness.’ And, ‘ Many shall say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not eaten, and drunk, and prophesied, and cast out demons in Thy name? And I will say to them, Depart from Me.’ Again, in other words, by which He shall condemn those who are unworthy of salvation, He said, Depart into outer darkness, which the Father has prepared for Satan and his, angels.’ And again, in other words, He said, ‘I give unto you power to tread on serpents, and on scorpions, and on scolopendras, and on all the might of the enemy.’ And now we, who believe on our Lord Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, when we exorcise all demons and evil spirits, have them subjected to us. For if the prophets declared obscurely that Christ would suffer, and thereafter be Lord of all, yet that[declaration] could not be understood by any man until He Himself persuaded the apostles that such statements were expressly related in the Scriptures. For He exclaimed before His crucifixion: ‘The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the Scribes and Pharisees, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ And David predicted that He would be born from the womb before sun and moon, according to the Father’s will, and made Him known, being Christ, as God strong and to be worshipped.”

If no one could have understood these prophecies until Jesus fulfilled and explained them, of what use is Scripture Alone in that case? It would be of no use whatever, without the Teacher to give the proper sense of the prophecies. Compare Justin’s similar statements:

Up to the time of Jesus Christ, who taught us, and interpreted the prophecies which were not yet understood, . . . (First Apology, Chapter XXXII)But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically. (First Apology, Chapter LV)

This brings to mind Jesus’ conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Scripture states:

Luke 24:27 (RSV) And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

The two disciples later marveled at how Jesus “opened to us the Scriptures” (Lk 24:32). In other words, those prophecies were not understood until Jesus explained them, and in fact, most of the Jews did not see that they were fulfilled. Thus, Old Testament Scripture was insufficient for these messianic truths to be grasped simply by reading them. One could retort that the Jews were hard-hearted and thus could not understand since they had not the Holy Spirit and God’s grace to illumine their understanding. But that proves too much because it would also have to apply to these two disciples, and indeed all of the disciples, who did not understand what was happening, even after Jesus repeatedly told them that He was to suffer and to die, and that this was all foretold. They didn’t “get it” till after He was crucified. Justin Martyr noted himself that the disciples had not understood the very Psalms he was expounding:

The rest of the Psalm shows that He knew that His Father would grant all His requests, and would raise Him from the dead. It also shows that He encouraged all who fear God to praise Him, because through the mystery of the Crucified One He had mercy on the faithful of every race; and that He stood in the midst of His brethren, the Apostles (who, after He arose from the dead and convinced them that He had warned them before the Passion that He had to suffer, and that this was foretold by the Prophets, were most sorry that they had abandoned Him at the crucifixion). (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 106)

The Phillips Modern English translation renders Luke 24:32 as, “he made the scriptures plain to us.” The Greek word for “opened” is dianoigo (Strong’s word #1272). According to Joseph Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977 reprint of 1901 edition, p. 140), it means “to open by dividing or drawing asunder, to open thoroughly (what had been closed).”

This meaning can be seen in other passages where dianoigo appears: Mk 7:34-35, Lk 2:23, 24:31,45, Acts 16:14, 17:3). Obviously, then, Holy Scripture is informing us that some parts of it were “closed” and “not plain” until the “infallible” teaching authority and interpretation of our Lord Jesus opened it up and made it plain. This runs utterly contrary to the Protestant notion of perspicuity of Scripture and its more or less ubiquitous self-interpreting nature; also to biblical passages such as 1 Peter 1:20: “. . . no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own private interpretation” (cf. Peter’s description of Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”: 2 Peter 3:16). The need for an interpreter was also illustrated in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch:

Acts 8:28, 30-31 . . . he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

It turns out that he was reading Isaiah 53:7-8, as we are informed in Acts 8:32-33. Philip then interprets the passage as referring to Jesus, and preaches the gospel to the eunuch (Acts 8:35). An authoritative interpreter was needed. And no one can say that the eunuch didn’t understand because of “hardness of heart” because subsequent events show that he was willing to accept the truth (as he got baptized in Acts 8:38). He simply didn’t have enough information. He needed the authoritative (“infallible,” if you will) teacher. Old Testament Scripture (which was Justin’s primary Scripture) was not sufficient enough for him to come to the knowledge of the truth.

One might also note that Justin Martyr’s routine casual assumption that his own interpretations of a host of biblical passages are self-evident, clear, etc., is itself highly questionable. Protestant Bible scholar F. F. Bruce commented upon this, in his analysis of Justin’s Dialogue With Trypho:

Both appeal to the Old Testament, but they cannot agree on its meaning, because they argue from incompatible principles of interpretation. Quite often, indeed, the modern Christian reader is vound to agree with Trypho’s interpretation against Justin’s.For example, they discuss the incident of the burning bush . . . Trypho says, ‘This is not what we understand from the words quoted: we understand that, while it was an angel that appeared in a flame of fire, it was God who spoke to Moses.’ [Dialogue, 60.1] Here Trypho’s understanding is sounder than Justin’s.

. . . Justin’s Greek text of Psalm 96:10) (LXX 95:10) read ‘the Lord reigned from the tree‘ – to him a clear prediction of the crucifixion. Trypho’s Bible did not contain these additional words (and neither does ours). ‘Whether the rulers of our people’, said Trypho, ‘have erased any portion of the scriptures, as you allege, God knows; but it seems incredible.’ [Dialogue, 73] Again, Trypho was right.

. . . Justin Martyr . . . evidently regards the Septuagint version as the only reliable text of the Old Testament. Where it differs from the Hebrew text, as read and interpreted by the Jews, the Jews (he says) have corrupted the text so as to obscure the scriptures’ plain prophetic testimony to Jesus as the Christ.

(The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 65-66)

As we would expect at that early stage in the development of the canon of Scripture, Justin Martyr did not have a clear understanding of which books belong in the New Testament. F. F. Bruce contends that he “appears to quote” the Gospel of Peter. He elaborates, in a footnote:

In First Apology 36.6, speaking of the passion of Christ, Justin says, ‘And indeed, as the prophet had said, they dragged him and made him sit on the judgment-seat, saying “Judge us”.’ Compare Gospel of Peter 3:6 f. where Jesus enemies ‘made him sit on a judgment-seat, saying “Judge righteously, O kking of Israel!”‘ The prophet referred to by Justin is Isaiah (cf Is. 58:2). The idea that Jesus was made to sit on the judgment-seat could have arisen from a mistranslation of John 19:13 (as though it meant not ‘Pilate sat’ but ‘Pilate made him sit’). (Ibid., 200-201)

Here is the passage from Justin:

And as the prophet spoke, they tormented Him, and set Him on the judgment-seat, and said, Judge us. And the expression, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate. (First Apology, 35 – Bruce appears to have mistakenly cited chapter 36)

Finally, according to the eminent 19th-century Protestant patristics scholar Brooke Foss Westcott, there is some indication in Justin of acceptance of an apostolic Tradition, including an oral component. After an exhaustive, remarkable 75-page exposition of Justin’s understanding of the canon of the New Testament. Westcott concludes:

There are indeed traces of the recognition of an authoritative Apostolic doctrine in Justin, but it cannot be affirmed from the form of his language that he looked upon this as contained in a written New Testament. ‘We have been commanded,’ he says, ‘by Christ Himself to obey not the teaching of men but those precepts which were proclaimed by the blessed Prophets and taught by Himself.’ [Dialogue 48] But this teaching of Christ was not strictly limited to His own words, as Justin explains in another passage:

As [Abraham] believed on the voice of God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness, in the same way we also when we believed the voice of God which was spoken again by the Apostles of Christ, and the voice which was proclaimed to us by the Prophets, even to dying [for our belief], renounced all that is in the world. [Dialogue, 119]

Thus the words of the Apostles were in his view in some sense the words of Christ, and we are therefore justified in interpreting his language generally, so as to accord with the certain judgment of his immediate successors. His writings mark the era of transition from the oral to the written Rule. His recognition of a New Testament was practical and not formal. As yet the circumstances of the Christian Church had not led to the final separation of the Canonical writings of the Apostles from others which claimed more or less directly to be stamped with their authority.(A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, from the 1889 sixth edition, 172-173)

Following are the two passages cited by Westcott, along with similar thoughts in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho:

For we have been told by Christ Himself not to follow the teachings of men, but only those which have been announced by the holy Prophets and taught by Himself. (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 48)What greater favor, then, did Christ bestow on Abraham? This: that He likewise called with His voice, and commanded him to leave the land wherein he dwelt. And with that same voice He has also called of us, and we have abandoned our former way of life in which we used to practice evils common to the rest of the world. And we will inherit the Holy Land together with Abraham, receiving our inheritance for all eternity, because by our similar faith we have become children of Abraham. For, just as he believed the voice of God, and was justified thereby, so have we believed the voice of God (which was spoken again to us by the Prophets and the Apostles of Christ), and have renounced even to death all worldly things. (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 119)

“The twelve bells which had to be attached to the long robe of the high priest, were representative of the twelve Apostles, who relied upon the power of Christ, the Eternal Priest. Through their voices the whole world is filled with the glory and grace of God and His Christ. David testified to this truth when he said: ‘Their sound has gone forth into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world‘ [Ps 18.5]. [2] And Isaiah speaks as though in the person of the Apostles (when they relate to Christ that the people were convinced, not by their words, but by the power of Him who sent them), and says: ‘Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? We have preached before Him as a little child, as if a root in a thirsty ground‘ [Isa 53.1-2]. (And the rest of the prophecy as quoted above.) [3] When the passage, spoken in the name of many, states: ‘We have preached before Him,’ and adds, ‘as a little child,’ it proves that sinners will obey Him as servants, and will all become as one child in His sight. An example of this is had in a human body: although it is made up of many members, it is called, and is, one body. So also in the case of the people and the Church: although they are many individuals, they form one body and are called by one common name. (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 42)

From Isaiah we know that the Prophets who were sent to carry His messages to man are called angels and apostles of God, for Isaiah uses the expression, ‘Send me’ [Isa 6.8]. (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 75)

. . . we Christians, who have gained a knowledge of the true worship of God from the Law and from the word which went forth from Jerusalem by way of the Apostles of Jesus, . . . (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 110)

All of this shows with reasonable certitude that Justin Martyr did not hold to sola Scriptura, as Protestants conceive it. Nothing seen in Justin is inconsistent with the perennial Catholic understanding of authority. His thought is simply at an early stage of Christian development, as we would fully expect in the 2nd century.

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