A Christ-and-culture case study: Why did the early Christians use the Greek word “Logos” for Christ?

Justin The Philosopher

Justin Martyr in his philosophers' robes

Roger Olson‘s The Story of Christian Theology is a big, rambling narrative compendium of juicy information about the development of Christian theology through history. Unlike almost any other book I can think of on historical theology, this one is accessible to a lay, non-specialist audience. Though it needed a good edit (it could have been trimmed to about half its size), it is still a compelling read.

One of the places where Olson shines is in describing the original and development of key theological concepts in the early church. And of these, one of the most fascinating is the use of the term Logos by the mid-second-century apologist Justin Martyr. Here we find a pagan philosopher converted to Christianity who still (of course!) uses the equipment of the Greek thought-world, in particular the term Logos–also used in the Hebrew tradition, to describe Christ to other pagans.

Here is my reworking of Olson’s account. As this is from lecture notes, I have not always used quotation marks when I am quoting Olson verbatim. Best assumption: much of this is in his own words. As always when I present notes from a book, my abbreviations are in play: X for Christ, xn for Christian, xnty for Christianity, etc.:

Without doubt Justin Martyr deserves his reputation as “the most important 2nd-c. apologist” because of his creative ideas about Christ as cosmic Logos and about Christianity as true philosophy. Many later xn thinkers simply assumed the truth of Justin’s suggestions and arguments in these areas and built on them in developing their own theologies.

Justin was born into a Greek family in Palestine sometime in the first half of the 2nd c. Very little is known of his pre-Christian life except that he became a philosopher of the Platonic school and then left that in favor of Christianity after a conversation with a mysterious old man. Tradition (from Eusebius) has it that Justin continued to wear his philosophical robe or tunic after converting to xnty—no doubt a matter of some gossip and controversy among xns in Rome when Justin arrived there to begin teaching xnty around 150. It is clear from Justin’s writings that he considered himself a xn philosopher—a philosopher of x—just as he had been a philosopher of Plato. Also clear is that he considered the two compatible at many points. He referred to Plato’s teacher Socrates as a “Christian before Christ.” It may have been against Justin that Tertullian coined his famous rhetorical question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Some of Justin’s writings have been lost, but extant are three fairly brief but profound apologetic works. The First Apology of Justin was probably written—it is believed—in 155 on the occasion of Polycarp’s martyrdom [Last week I said 150 AD—I was 5 years off.] It is a strongly worded and bold address to Emperor Antoninus Pius calling for a more just treatment of xns.

In his First Apology, Justin exposed the evil practice of persecuting xns merely because of their religious affiliation apart from any examination of behavior. He contradicted the prevalent rumors about xns and argued that xns are good citizens—although they may find it necessary to practice civil disobedience now and then—who worship God Reasonably. Justin called on the emperor to reverse his decrees of persecution against xns even though, he wrote, “we reckon that no evil can be done us, unless we be convicted as evil-doers, or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us.”

Folded within his pleas for justice were expositions of xn beliefs and defenses of them. He argued that Plato—almost certainly the emperor’s favorite philosopher—was indebted to Moses! He explained Christian worship and sacraments and explained why xns reject idols.

At the end of his First Apology Justin addressed the emperor courageously: “If these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honor them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies. For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God, if you continue in your injustice; and we ourselves will invite you to do that which is pleasing to God.”

For reasons unknown, Justin was himself executed in Rome by Roman authorities in 162. His Apologies reveal more than a few hints that he foresaw such a fate—at least as a very real possibility. Whether or not emperors actually read his open letters is debatable, but almost without doubt they were read by some Roman officials. While their bold assertiveness may have contributed to Justin’s own death, the Apologies almost certainly gave xns greater courage to keep pressing for justice from Roman authorities who claimed to be reasonable and fair.

Justin’s Second Apology was addressed to the Roman senate around 160. Its tone has a certain desperation as Justin recounts examples of unjust and irrational treatment of Christians by the emperor and other Roman officials. Here the apologist pulled out every stop and argued that Roman treatment of xns arose out of ignorance and prejudice and that it was only for xns’ sakes that God hesitated to wreak ruin upon the world. He compared x favorably with Socrates (a great hero of most Roman senators and other educated, upper-class Romans) and concluded by stating of xns that “our doctrines are not shameful, according to sober judgment, but are indeed more lofty than all human philosophy,” and asking his Roman readers to judge quickly in a manner becoming piety and philosophy “for your own sakes.” Justin probably meant that God’s judgment was imminent due to their persecution of xns.

Justin’s third and final extant work is the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. It contains Justin’s autobiographical reflections about his philosophical journey and conversion to Platonism and then to xnty and his theological explanations of how xn belief in the incarnation—which the Jewish philosopher Trypho considered absurd—is consistent with monotheism. [A major question indeed! And a good one!]

Through his writings J explored and explained the concept of Christ as the Logos of God in order to explicate xn beliefs. For him, this idea—rooted in both Greek and Hebrew thought—was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the xn gospel. In his account of doctrine, the Logos is God’s preexistent Spirit—a second God—who became incarnate in JC. Justin was one of the first xns to explain the Logos and Spirit concept in relation to the Father using the analogy of fire. He told Trypho that the Son’s (Logos’s) generation from the Father in no way diminishes the Father because, like fire kindled from fire, “that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” Although J did not clearly or completely work out the distinction between the Logos and Spirit as two persons of the Trinity—a task yet to be fulfilled by later Christian theologians—he was beginning the process of Trinitarian reflection in response to Trypho’s accusation “You endeavor to prove an incredible and well-nigh impossible thing: that God endured to be born and become man.”

Justin identified JC with the “cosmic Logos,” who is God’s offshoot and agent in creation. Clearly he was interpreting the opening verses of John’s Gospel as well as borrowing from Hellenistic ideas about the Logos. Almost every Greek philosophy—as well as Philo’s Hellenistic Jewish theology—had a role for a being known as the Logos. In every case the Logos was thought of as a mediating being between the one God and creation. Justin was saying, “That is who we mean when we Christians speak of Christ—he is the cosmic Logos known to Greeks.”

This Logos (Christ) was in the world before Jesus Christ. He spoke through both Jewish prophets and Greek philosophers. Justin called him the Logos spermatikos—the “seed of the Logos”—in every human being and the source of all truth whenever it is understood and uttered. One of the most famous passages in early Christian literature appears in Justin’s Apology II and expresses his view of the universal, cosmic Logos who is Christ:

“I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of x, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had in the spermatic word [logos spermatikos] seeing what was related to it. . . . Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also he became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing.”

Thus Justin used the cosmic Logos concept to explain why Christians may embrace all truth as God’s truth—whatever its human source may be—and why xns can believe in and worship JC as God (a “second God”) without rejecting monotheism. Christ as the universal Logos preexisted Jesus as God’s Son as fire taken from fire—somewhat less than God himself but of God’s own nature and substance. The same Christ as universal Logos is the source of all truth, beauty and goodness. But Justin argued that only xns know the Logos fully because he became flesh in JC. IN this way Justin established a xn tradition of Logos Christology that reached toward the doctrine of the Trinity. And that Christology contained within it an appreciation of philosophy and culture. It said that the good things in Greek thought were rooted in the activity of the Logos before he became incarnate as JC.

One response to “A Christ-and-culture case study: Why did the early Christians use the Greek word “Logos” for Christ?

  1. Thank you for this. Very interesting. It seems like I’m always readjusting my understanding of Greek thinking and it relationship to the church.

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