Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Was Justin Martyr a Proto-Inclusivist?

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Was Justin Martyr a Proto-Inclusivist?

Article excerpt

Proponents of inclusivism (1) suggest that the early church had a much more open-minded view of non-Christian religions than has been the dominant view. Indeed, exclusivism (2) is a development that does not reflect either the scriptures or early-church thought, according to inclusivist Paul Knitter. (3) In Toward a New Age in Christian Theology, Richard Drummond presents this argument, suggesting that Augustine (354-430 C.E.) and Fulgentius (468-533) are to blame for the introduction of a more exclusive view, which he calls "barbarism." (4) Jacques Dupuis suggests that, "In the view of the Church Fathers, salvation history ... extends beyond the Judeo-Christian dispensation to the surrounding cultures which they encountered--indeed, in some cases, to the ancient wisdom of the East of which they had but a scanty knowledge." (5) He refers to the early tradition's "remarkable opening toward other aspects of surrounding culture and religion." (6) This open-mindedness is attributed in part to the suggestion that the church Fathers advocated an early form of inclusivism. (7) However, interpretations of the Fathers on this issue vary considerably, and the assertion that they represent forerunners of the inclusivist model or had a more inclusive understanding of the relationship between Christianity and other religions will be disputed here.

The focus of the following discussion will be on the work of Justin Martyr, for he is most often cited in relation to the inclusivist model and is arguably the most misunderstood or misused in this context.

The early church developed in the context of two dominant ideologies--the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman worldviews. In this context, Christians had to defend both the novelty and the exclusivity of their religion. This defense was no mere academic exercise but often became a matter of survival. (8) The early apologists were gentiles who were writing primarily to fellow gentiles (particularly the intelligentsia and officialdom) with the aim of persuading them of the reasonableness of Christianity. (9) While evidence of any success is scant, their success was more in the provision for the church of "an intellectually respectable apologetic in the face of a still-dominant paganism." (10) This apologetic aim greatly influenced their method and should be borne in mind when drawing conclusions from their writings and applying them to the subject of a contemporary theology of religions. (11)

The challenges that faced the early Christians are not identical to the challenges facing Christians today who are seeking to understand the relationship of Christianity to other religions. The church Fathers did not write early "theologies of religions"--their writings are primarily "the writings of 'pastors' and preachers, and addressed to the questions of their own day." (12) An important difference between their theological context and that of the contemporary theological milieu concerns the vexed question of the "fate of the unevangelized." While it is clearly apparent today that a significant section of the world population (arguably the majority, if the entire history of humankind is under consideration) can be classed as "unevangelized," this was not apparent to the early Christians, who believed that the gospel had been propagated successfully to the entire known world. (13) With this qualification in mind, I will proceed to examine the contribution of Justin Martyr and some of the other early apologists to the topic.

Contemporary scholars who wish to present Justin as an early proponent of inclusivism typically highlight his description of some people who did not know Christ but who were nevertheless described by him as "Christians." They also refer to his grouping of some Hebrew Bible saints along with pagans, who, Justin said, "lived according to the logos." The text most often cited in this regard reads:

   We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we
   have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men
   were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even
   though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks,
   Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the
   barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and
   Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to
   recount, because we know it would be tedious. … 
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