dianoigo blog

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Justin Martyr and the 'Man of Men' Christology (Part 1)

In my previous post, I offered some comments on a talk given by Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke on the subject of second century Gentile Christianity. On the positive side, it is encouraging that Dave implicitly recognizes the importance of second century Christian writings for correctly understanding the beliefs and practices of the early church. On the negative side, Dave tends to view the second century church through Christadelphian lenses which sometimes clouds his reading of the sources. Justin Martyr’s reference to those who held a ‘man of men’ Christology is a case in point.

Dave notes that (wrongly, in his view) Justin himself believed in the pre-existence and ontological divinity of Christ. He then describes Justin's views on others who do not share these doctrines with him:

"He says that he knows other Christians who do not believe that Jesus pre-existed as a divine being who believed that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being, and that he only became immortal when he was resurrected, and he acknowledges these other Christians, and he still accepts them as Christians, and crucially, he admits that theirs is the older belief, which is very interesting."1

Dave is obviously taking his cues here from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 48.4. However, his description of Justin’s views is unfortunately a combination of misrepresentation and partial disclosure. Over the next three posts my aim is to provide some commentary that will hopefully enable the reader to better understand this passage.

The relevant text reads as follows in the 19th century Roberts-Donaldson translation:

"Now assuredly, Trypho," I continued," [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. 3 But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father's will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. 4 For there are some, my friends," I said, "of our2 race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have [now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself." (Dialogue 48.2-4)

This text, together with Dave’s description of it, raises three important questions which I plan to address below and in two subsequent posts.

1)      What was the ‘man of men’ Christology Justin referred to in Dialogue 48.4?
2)      Did Justin accept those who held the ‘man of men’ Christology as Christians?
3)      How did Justin view the age and popularity of the ‘man of men’ Christology relative to his own Christology?

Let us begin with the first question, which is the easiest to answer. What was the Christology to which Justin referred and with which he disagreed? Justin says that there were some who admitted that Jesus was the Christ, while holding him to be a “man of men.” This stands in contrast to Justin’s own view, that Christ pre-existed and was born a man by the virgin. As the term ‘man of men’ implies, those who held this view denied the virgin birth, as well as the pre-existence. Now Dave neglects to mention that ‘man of men’ refers to a man born of human parentage, i.e. without a virgin birth. Instead, he takes ‘man of men’ to mean “that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being.”

This interpretation cannot be sustained. In the first place, Justin himself affirmed that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood mortal human being. This can be seen within the immediate context, in which Justin refers to Jesus as “a man of like passions with us, having a body.” Trypho too had just acknowledged that Justin believed that Christ “submitted to be born and become man, yet that He is not man of man” (Dialogue 48.1). In several other places in the Dialogue Justin affirms Jesus’ humanity in robust terms (Dialogue 57.3; 67.6; 70.4; 98.1; 99.2; 100.2-3; 103.8; 110.2). In another of his writings, Justin explicitly repudiates a Docetic view of Christ:

“And there are some who maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise.” (On the Resurrection 2)

Obviously ‘man of men’ cannot refer to a Christology with which Justin himself agrees; thus Dave’s interpretation of this term is clearly incorrect. In Dialogue 54.2 Justin makes it clear what he means by the term ‘man of men’: “But this prophecy, sirs, which I repeated, proves that Christ is not man of men, begotten in the ordinary course of humanity.” Again, in Dialogue 67.2 and 76.1-2, the phrase ‘man of men’ is contrasted specifically with the idea of virgin birth or supernatural origin.

We can thus state conclusively that the doctrine that Christ was a ‘man of men’ does not refer to his literal, flesh and blood, mortal humanity (something Justin himself affirmed). Instead, it refers specifically to the view that Jesus was conceived in the usual way by the sexual union of two human parents, in contrast to Justin’s belief in the virgin birth. Denial of Christ’s pre-existence is an obvious corollary, but the immediate sense of ‘man of men’ is a repudiation of the doctrine of the virgin birth.

The way Dave described this text in his talk, the listener gets the impression that Justin is drawing a contrast between his own Docetic pre-existence Christology and a Christology which would be acceptable to Christadelphians. In fact, the listener would be mistaken on both counts. Justin was not a Docetist, and the ‘man of men’ Christology is not compatible with that of Christadelphians. Article 3 of the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith states that Jesus was “begotten of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, without the intervention of man”3 while Article 28 of the Doctrines to be Rejected declares, “We reject the doctrine – that Joseph was the actual father of Jesus.”4

Hence, Dialogue 48.4 can only be construed as a contrast between two Christologies which are both regarded by Christadelphians as heretical.

There is no hint anywhere in the Dialogue of a Christology which (like Christadelphians) affirms the virgin birth but denies the pre-existence and incarnation. Indeed, throughout the Dialogue, it is virtually assumed that the pre-existence and virgin birth are inextricably linked. Trypho does not seem to find the virgin birth any easier to accept than the pre-existence. He regards the virgin birth as a “monstrous phenomenon” comparable to the foolish talk of the Greeks (Dialogue 67.2). He also appears to concede that the idea of pre-existent divinity links logically into the idea of virgin birth (Dialogue 50.1; 57.3; 63.1). For Justin's part, he repeatedly refers to the two ideas together in a way that shows they are inseparable in his mind (Dialogue 45.4; 48.2; 75.4; 84.1-2; 85.2; 87.2; 100.2-4; 105.1; 113.4; 127.4).

To summarize, Dave has unfortunately left his audience with an exaggerated sense of the significance of this text for Christadelphian apologetics. Justin’s extant writings do not in fact contain any evidence that a Christology compatible with that of Christadelphians existed in his day.

In the next post we will look at a trickier question: how Justin viewed those who held the 'man of men' Christology.

1 Burke, D. (Producer). (2014). Servants of the Lord NSW 2014, Session 8 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.milktomeat.org.
2 Or, ‘your race’ (see discussion in following post).
3 The Christadelphian Statement of Faith. Retrieved from http://christadelphia.org/basf.htm.
4 Doctrines to be Rejected. Retrieved from http://christadelphia.org/reject.htm.