Welcome to this series of posts giving a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents of the whole.
In today’s post we look at Justin Martyr (c.e. 103-165). He is quite well known as an early church father and is famous for defending the Christian faith to Caesar during times of great persecution. He wrote important statements concerning justification.
Justin Martyr was an early apologist and highly regarded by the early church. He wrote Dialogue with Trypho the Jew around c.e. 160. He probably had the actual dialogue it was based on some 20 years before in c.e. 140.
To put his dialogue in context. Paul authored Galatians around c.e. 50-60 and Romans around c.e. 55-57. With respect to Romans and Galatians, Justin Martyr’s dialogue occurred approximately 80 to 90 years after Paul authored these Romans and Galatians.
As one may guess from the title, Justin is having a dialogue with a Jew named Trypho. Trypho is not a Christian and does not consider the apostle’s scriptures as valid or authoritative. But he does accept the Old Testament scriptures. Hence all scriptural support Justin uses to support his positions come from the Old Testament.
Justin as we will see draws on Romans 3-4 and the same Old Testament passages Paul does.
Justin’s statements are better put in the wider context of his discussion with Trypho the Jew. The conversation is long winded so I will extract the more relevant statements.
I will begin with Trypho trying to convert Justin to Judaism;
If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God.
But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias [Elijah] come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”
(Justin Martyr. (1885). Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe, Ed.) (198–199). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)
“Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this, that we live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe sabbaths as you do? Are our lives and customs also slandered among you? (ibid, 199)
and just later, speaking about Christians;
“This is what we are amazed at,” said Trypho, “but those things about which the multitude speak are not worthy of belief; for they are most repugnant to human nature. Moreover, I am aware that your precepts in the so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no one can keep them; for I have carefully read them.
But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, yet you expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments.
Have you not read, that soul shall be cut off from his people who shall not have been circumcised on the eighth day? And this has been ordained for strangers and for slaves equally. But you, despising this COVENANT rashly, reject the consequent duties, and attempt to persuade yourselves that you know God, when, however, you perform none of those things which they do who fear God. If, therefore, you can defend yourself on these points, and make it manifest in what way you hope for anything whatsoever, even though you do not observe the law, this we would very gladly hear from you, and we shall make other similar investigations.” (ibid, 199)
Trypho has highlighted the differences in the way Gentile Christians live to Jews. The differences concern the covenant. Gentiles may still believe murder, stealing and adultery are wrong. What stands out is Gentile Christians do not observe circumcision, the sabbaths and festivals, the food laws or sacrifice.
They are thus sinning in the eyes of the Jews because they do not observe these commands in the law. This becomes a stumbling point for the Jews in accepting them as fellow believers in God. Many Jews questioned whether Christians believe in the same God because they did not live as they did.
How does Justin respond to this? Justin says Christians do not trust God through Moses or the Law, but through Christ;
“There will be no other God, O Trypho, nor was there from eternity any other existing but He who made and disposed all this universe. Nor do we think that there is one God for us, another for you, but that He alone is God who led your fathers out from Egypt with a strong hand and a high arm.
Nor have we trusted in any other (for there is no other), but in Him in whom you also have trusted, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.
But we do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves.
But now –(for I have read that there shall be a final law, and a COVENANT, the chiefest of all, which it is now incumbent on all men to observe, as many as are seeking after the inheritance of God. For the law promulgated on Horeb is now old, and belongs to yourselves alone; but this is for all universally.
Now, law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a COVENANT which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law–namely, Christ –has been given to us, and the COVENANT is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance. (ibid, 199)
Justin and other Christians do not trust God through Moses or the law. Justin believes the Jews trust in God through Moses and the law.
Justin describes Jewish trust in terms of law and covenant. The Jewish law and covenant was promulgated on Mount Horeb (cf. Dt 5.2-3). Justin contrasts this with Jesus as the new law and covenant. This new law and covenant does not have any laws, commands and ordinances.
Abraham approved and blessed on account of his faith
Justin now introduces into this discussion the concepts of justification and faith;
“Have you not read this which Isaiah says:
‘Hearken unto Me, hearken unto Me, my people; and, ye kings, give ear unto Me: for a law shall go forth from Me, and My judgment shall be for a light to the nations. My RIGHTEOUSNESS approaches swiftly, and My salvation shall go forth, and nations shall trust in Mine arm?’ (Is 51.4-5)
And by Jeremiah, concerning this same new COVENANT, He thus speaks:
‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new COVENANT with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the COVENANT which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt’ (Jer 31.31-32).
If, therefore, God proclaimed a new COVENANT which was to be instituted, and this for a light of the nations,
we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, through the name of Him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety.
Moreover, by the works and by the attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that He is the new law, and the new COVENANT, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and
Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith (Gen 15.6), and called the father of many nations),
are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ, as shall be demonstrated while we proceed. (ibid, 199–200)
Justin alludes to Gen 15.6 by speaking about Abraham’s faith while he was uncircumcised. He ties it into his discussion about Gentile believers, the covenant and whether they should adopt the law of Moses as Trypho says they should. Justin implies Gentile believers are accepted by God, even though they do not observe the commands Trypho thinks they should.
Reason for the works of law
I have described circumcision, Sabbaths, feasts and sacrifices as ‘works of law’ because that is what they are. They are works and deeds required by the Jewish law and not the prohibitions in the Jewish law.
The dialogue then continues debating why Gentle Christians do not observe the works of the law Trypho insisted upon at the start.
Justin responds with a long list of reasons why circumcision (Ch 16,18,19), the food laws (Ch 20), the purity laws (Ch 14,19), festival (Ch 18), Sabbath observance (Ch 18,22) and temple worship (Ch 13,22) were given to the Jews.
He provides the following arguments why Gentiles like himself do not have to observe these commands. These commands were given to the Jews for the following reasons put in italics as necessary;
For we [Gentile Christians] too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you [Jews],—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. (ibid, 203)
“Moreover, you were commanded to abstain from certain kinds of food, in order that you might keep God before your eyes while you ate and drank, seeing that you were prone and very ready to depart from His knowledge, (ibid, 204)
“Moreover, that God enjoined you [Jews] to keep the Sabbath, and impose on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, and that of your fathers” (ibid, 204)
Regarding the sacrifices;
“And that you may learn that it was for the sins of your own nation, and for their idolatries and not because there was any necessity for such sacrifices, that they were likewise enjoined.”
“I have hated, I have despised your feast-days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies: wherefore, though ye offer Me your burnt-offerings and sacrifices, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your presence. Take thou away from Me the multitude of thy songs and psalms; I will not hear thine instruments.” (Amos 5.21-23) (ibid, 205)
“Accordingly He neither takes sacrifices from you nor commanded them at first to be offered because they are needful to Him, but because of your sins.” (ibid, 206)
“Therefore we must confess that He, who is ever the same, has commanded these and such like institutions on account of sinful men,” (ibid, 206)
Consequently Justin refuses to observe this list of commands knowing why they were given to the Jews in the first place.
Adam, Abel, Lot, Noah, Enoch and Melchizedek
Trypho will persist questioning why circumcision is unnecessary. Justin will pointhim to a commonly used group of people.
“It is this about which we are at a loss, and with reason, because, while you endure such things, you [Christians] do not observe all the other customs which we are now discussing.”
“This circumcision is not, however, necessary for all men, but for you alone, in order that, as I have already said, you may suffer these things which you now justly suffer. Nor do we [Christians] receive that useless baptism of cisterns, for it has nothing to do with this baptism of life.
Wherefore also God has announced that you have forsaken Him, the living fountain, and digged for yourselves broken cisterns which can hold no water. Even you, who are the circumcised according to the flesh, have need of our circumcision; but we, having the latter, do not require the former.
For if it were necessary, as you suppose,
God would not have made Adam uncircumcised;
would not have had respect to the gifts of Abel when, being uncircumcised, he offered sacrifice; and
would not have been pleased with the uncircumcision of Enoch, who was not found, because God had translated him.
Lot, being uncircumcised, was saved from Sodom, the angels themselves and the Lord sending him out.
Noah was the beginning of our race; yet, uncircumcised, along with his children he went into the ark.
Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High, was uncircumcised; to whom also Abraham, the first who received circumcision after the flesh, gave tithes, and he blessed him: after whose order God declared, by the mouth of David, that He would establish the everlasting priest.
Therefore to you alone this circumcision was necessary, in order that the people may be no people, and the nation no nation; as also Hosea, one of the twelve prophets, declares.
Moreover, all those RIGHTEOUS men already mentioned, though they kept no Sabbaths, were pleasing to God; and after them Abraham with all his descendants until Moses, under whom your nation appeared UNRIGHTEOUS and ungrateful to God, making a calf in the wilderness: wherefore God, accommodating Himself to that nation, enjoined them also to offer sacrifices, as if to His name, in order that you might not serve idols. Which precept, however, you have not observed; nay, you sacrificed your children to demons. And you were commanded to keep Sabbaths, that you might retain the memorial of God. For His word makes this announcement, saying, ‘That ye may know that I am God who redeemed you.’ (
Justin Martyr, 1885. Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, pp. 203–204.)
Justin looks back to before the law of Moses observing there were people righteous in God’s sight. They didn’t have to observe the law of Moses in order to appear righteous before God.
Abraham justified by faith
“But if we do not admit this, we shall be liable to fall into foolish opinions, as if it were not the same God who existed in the times of Enoch and all the rest, who neither were circumcised after the flesh, nor observed Sabbaths, nor any other rites, seeing that Moses enjoined such observances; or that God has not wished each race of mankind continually to perform the same RIGHTEOUS actions: to admit which, seems to be ridiculous and absurd.” (ibid, 206)
Justin continually refers to God’s people before the law of Moses was institutes to legitimise the standing of Gentile Christians who do not observe the works of law.
“Therefore we must confess that He, who is ever the same, has commanded these and such like institutions on account of sinful men, and we must declare Him to be benevolent, foreknowing, needing nothing, RIGHTEOUS and good. But if this be not so, tell me, sir, what you think of those matters which we are investigating.”
And when no one responded:
“Wherefore, Trypho, I will proclaim to you, and to those who wish to become proselytes, the divine message which I heard from that man.
Do you see that the elements [cf. Gal 4.8-11; Col 2.20-22] are not idle, and keep no Sabbaths? Remain as you were born [cf. 1 Cor 7].
For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths, of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now, (ibid, 206)
Justin echoes a few passages of Paul where the works of the law are referred to as ‘elements’ (Gal 4.8-11; Col 2.20-22). He also echoes a similar argument Paul makes in 1 Cor 7.17-24. His basic argument is Gentile believers don’t have to observe the works of law, they can remain as they are called.
“after that, according to the will of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God has been born without sin, of a virgin sprung from the stock of Abraham [the gospel].
Three Periods in Time
Justin has distinguished three periods in time. ‘Before Abraham and Moses’, the period where Sabbaths, feasts, and sacrifices were instituted, and ‘after that’ – the time of the gospel.
- The Primeval period – ‘Before Abraham and Moses’.
- The Jewish Law period – the period where Sabbaths, feasts, and sacrifices were instituted.
- The Apostolic period ‘after that’, ‘now’ – during the time of the Gospel and the Apostles afterwards.
For when Abraham himself was in uncircumcision, he was JUSTIFIED and blessed by reason of the faith [cf. Gen 15.6; Rom 4.3; Gal 3.8-9] which he reposed in God, as the Scripture tells.
Moreover, the Scriptures and the facts themselves compel us to admit that He received circumcision for a sign [cf. Gen 17.11; Rom 4.11], and not for RIGHTEOUSNESS.
So that it was justly recorded concerning the people, that the soul which shall not be circumcised on the eighth day shall be cut off from his family.
And, furthermore, the inability of the female sex to receive fleshly circumcision, proves that this circumcision has been given for a sign, and not for a work of RIGHTEOUSNESS.
For God has given likewise to women the ability to observe all things which are RIGHTEOUS and virtuous; but we see that the bodily form of the male has been made different from the bodily form of the female; yet we know that neither of them is RIGHTEOUS or UNRIGHTEOUS merely for this cause, but [is considered righteous] by reason of piety and RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (ibid, 206)
Justin denies the need for Gentile believers like himself to be circumcised, observe the sabbaths, feasts and sacrifices. He has linked this denial to a justification argument. Saying instead justification and blessing are by reason of faith. The logic and the passages he uses in his argument are very similar to Paul’s in Romans 4.
Justin is basically saying Abraham was identified as righteous by faith and not by the works of law (circumcision, Sabbaths, feasts and sacrifices) and uses this to legitimize the standing of Gentile believers like himself.
A little later in Chapter 27 Justin paraphrases Rom 3.19-20 (also noted by Dunn in his Romans Commentary). I have set up the table below to compare his statements with the text of Romans 3.10-20.
|Justin – Dialogue with Trypho the Jew; Ch 27||Paul – Rom 3.10-20|
| as it is written:“None is righteous, no, not one;|
|For ‘they are all gone aside,’ He exclaims,‘they are all become useless.
There is none that understands,
there is not so much as one. (Ps 14.1-3; 53.1-3)
| no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” (Ps 14.1-3; 53.1-3)
|With their tongues they have practised deceit,their throat is an open sepulchre, (Ps 5.9)|| “Their throat is an open grave;they use their tongues to deceive.” (Ps 5.9)|
|the poison of asps is under their lips, (Ps 140.3)||“The venom of asps is under their lips.” (Ps 140.3)|
| “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (Ps 10.7)|
|destruction and misery are in their paths, (isa 59.7-8)and the way of peace they have not known.’ (isa 59.7-8)|| “Their feet are swift to shed blood; (Prov 1.16; Isa 59.7-8) in their paths are ruin and misery, (Isa 59.7-8)
 and the way of peace they have not known.” (Isa 59.7-8)
| “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Ps 36.1)|
|So that, as in the beginning, these things [the statements above] were enjoined you [Trypho and the Jews] because of your wickedness, in like manner because of your steadfastness in it, or rather your increased proneness to it,|| Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.|
|by means of the same precepts [the Jewish works of law he has been rejecting] He calls you to a remembrance or knowledge of it [knowledge of their wickedness / sin].|| For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.|
No doubt the ‘he’ Justin refers to is Paul the apostle.
Justin has argued against circumcision (Ch 11,16,18,19), food laws (Ch 20), purity laws (Ch 14,19), festivals (Ch 18), Sabbath observance (Ch 18,22) and temple worship (Ch 13,22) because he believes they were given to the Jews ‘on account of their sins, transgressions and the hardness of their hearts’ (Ch 18,21).
What Justin is saying in the last two sections is that these works of law (circumcision, food laws, purity laws, festivals, Sabbath observance and temple worship) were given to the Jews as a reminder of their sin and hard heartedness.
He is combining the early church understanding of works of law with knowledge of Jewish sin. In doing so he provides an interpretation of Rom 3.20 (‘works of law’, justification, and knowledge of sin) about eighty years after Paul dictated the letter.
Abraham believed and was counted righteous
Much later in the dialogue Justin makes a similar kind of argument to the first involving justification;
“God demanded by other leaders, and by the giving of the law after the lapse of so many generations,
that those who lived between the times of Abraham and of Moses be JUSTIFIED by circumcision, and
that those who lived after Moses be JUSTIFIED by circumcision and the other ordinances – to wit, the Sabbath, and sacrifices, and libations, and offerings;… (For you are not distinguished in any other way than by the fleshly circumcision, as I remarked previously.
For Abraham was declared by God to be RIGHTEOUS, not on account of circumcision, but on account of faith. For before he was circumcised the following statement was made regarding him:
‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ [Gen 15.6]
And we, therefore, in the uncircumcision of our flesh, believing God through Christ, and having that circumcision which is of advantage to us who have acquired it – namely, that of the heart – we hope to appear RIGHTEOUS before and well-pleasing to God:” (ibid, 245)
This is the same quotation and context Paul refers to in Rom 4.2-3, 9-12.
Justin is contrasting different types of justification (J3 vs C3). Jew believed the righteous were identified by works of law (circumcision, Sabbath observance, sacrifices, libations and offerings). Justin argues using Gen 15.6 and echoing Paul’s argument in Romans 4 that Christians are identified as righteous by their faith.
Justin will quote from Gen 15.6 again to make similar points.
The Gentile nations promised to Abraham
CHAP. CXIX.—CHRISTIANS ARE THE HOLY PEOPLE PROMISED TO ABRAHAM. THEY HAVE BEEN CALLED LIKE ABRAHAM.
But we [Gentile Christians] are not only a people, but also a holy people, as we have shown already.
‘And they shall call them the holy people, redeemed by the Lord.’ (Is 62.12)
Therefore we are not a people to be despised, nor a barbarous race, nor such as the Carian and Phrygian nations; but God has even chosen us, and He has become manifest to those who asked not after Him.
‘Behold, I am God,’ He says, ‘to the nation which called not on My name.’ (Is 65.1)
For this is that nation which God of old promised to Abraham, when He declared that He would make him a father of many nations (cf. Gen 17.4-5; Rom 4.17);
not meaning, however, the Arabians, or Egyptians, or Idumæans, since Ishmael became the father of a mighty nation, and so did Esau; and there is now a great multitude of Ammonites. Noah, moreover, was the father of Abraham, and in fact of all men; and others were the progenitors of others.
What larger measure of grace, then, did Christ bestow on Abraham? This, namely, that He called him with His voice by the like calling, telling him to quit the land wherein he dwelt.
And He has called all of us by that voice, and we have left already the way of living in which we used to spend our days, passing our time in evil after the fashions of the other inhabitants of the earth;
and along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land, when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children of Abraham through the like faith.
For as he believed the voice of God, and it was imputed to him for RIGHTEOUSNESS (Gen 15.6; Rom 4.3),
in like manner we, having believed (cf. Rom 4.24) God’s voice spoken by the apostles of Christ, and promulgated to us by the prophets, have renounced even to death all the things of the world.
Accordingly, He promises to him a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, RIGHTEOUS, and delighting the Father; but it is not you, ‘in whom is no faith.’ (ibid, 258–259)
Justin alludes to Gen 15.6 and several verses in Romans 4. in the context of discussing whether Jews or Gentiles are the people of God and are saved.
He whole dialogue between Justin and Trypho the Jew began when Trypho questioned why Gentile believers do not obey God and observe the works of law. Justin alludes to a reasonable number of Pauline texts and Old Testament references in those texts by way of defense. His interpretation follows the New Perspective on Paul regarding the recognition of Gentile believers having a righteous standing before God by faith apart from the works of law.
In the next post we look at Ireneaus of Lyons (c.e. 125-202). Ireneaus is famous for writing Against Heresies which comes in four parts. Part three has some good stuff on the gospel. He wrote a few statements concerning justification and they require an outline of the context to see how they relate.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.