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St. Justin Martyr, Philosopher

by Fr. Gabriel Stack, O.Praem.


When the high school students begin their semester exams, and the seminarians begin their rigorosa, and the temple leaders seek to trap Jesus by starting an argument with a false premise—we briefly examine the role of reason and faith as modeled by the early Roman martyr St. Justin. As Pope Benedict explained in a 2007 Wednesday audience, St. Justin Martyr was both a philosopher and an apologist.

In fact, St. Justin was the most important of the second-century apologists of the Church. He set out to defend the “new religion” from the many accusations of both pagans and Jews. He also worked very hard to spread the faith in terms suited to the culture of his time.

Justin spent a long time seeking the truth, moving through the various schools of the Greek philosophical tradition. Finally, as he tells us in his Dialogue with Trypho, he meets an old man on the seashore who first shows him that it is impossible for a man to satisfy his hopes of knowing God exclusively by his own intellectual strength. The old man then pointed out to Justin that the Old Testament prophets are the people to turn to in order to find the way to God and “true philosophy.” So at the end of a long philosophical journey, his quest for the truth was completed, and Justin became a Christian.

Justin found that the Old Testament pointed towards Christ as savior and Greek philosophy pointed to Christ as truth. These were really two parts of one whole.

This is why Greek philosophy is not opposed to Gospel truth. Consequently, guided by their fine Norbertine teachers, today’s young Christian philosophers and aspiring saints can draw from the natural light of philosophy as confidently as from the supernatural lights of the Old and New Testaments.

Justin founded a school of philosophy in Rome where, free of charge, he introduced students into the “new religion.” Indeed, Justin freely gave what he had freely received: clear and unfaltering truth about man, the world, and God.

Several decades after Justin, the philosopher Tertullian reiterated Justin’s philosophical perspective succinctly with the phrase: Christ our Lord said that He is “the truth” not “a fashion.” Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit. Just in case Tertullian’s pithy quote is an extra credit question today or tomorrow on a teacher’s exam, I point out that the term consuetudo, used by Tertullian, is in reference to the pagan religion. It can be translated into everyday English as “cultural war general” or “passing fad.” The original phrase, again, is: Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem, cognominavit.

St. Justin, in his heroic adherence to the complementarity of reason and faith, will help us on more than just our examinations. Our entire life is really a pursuit for the truth, and the virtuous living out of this truth once we have found it. Human reason seeks the truth, yet the ultimate truth about the meaning of life cannot be found by reason alone. Truth is known through a combination of faith and reason. Then an individual has the ability to know himself, the world, and God.

We ask the intercession of the apologist and martyr St. Justin for a blessing upon our Fr. Justin, his spiritual son; good grades on exams; and a holy life every day hereafter. Amen.

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