In 165 A.D., a Judean named Justin was arrested, and brought before the Roman prefect Rusticus. It seems that this Justin, a Gentile born into a pagan family, had converted to the illegal religion of Christianity. The captured Christians were ordered to offer sacrifice to the Roman idols. Justin, speaking as head of the group, instead used his arrest as an opportunity to proclaim the Christian faith.
Justin’s bravery was hardly surprising: he hadn’t exactly kept a low pro-file. As Eusebius, a Church historian from the fourth century, would later describe, “Justin was especially prominent in those days. In the guise of a philosopher he preached the divine word, and contended for the faith in his writings.” Not only did Justin combat the popular Christian heresies of his day, he also “contended most successfully against the Greeks, and addressed discourses containing an apology for our faith to the Emperor Antoninus, called Pius, and to the Roman senate. For he lived at Rome.”
That’s right. While Christianity was outlawed, and he was living in the capital of the Empire, Justin wrote a defense of Christianity and addressed it to the Roman Emperor and the Senate. Now that’s how you do apologetics.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that Justin seized the courtroom as a final pulpit from which to proclaim Christ. From an eyewitness account of St. Justin’s trial:
Rusticus said: “What system of teaching do you profess?” Justin said: “I have tried to learn about every system, but I have accepted the true doctrines of the Christians, though these are not approved by those who are held fast by error.”
The prefect Rusticus said: “Are those doctrines approved by you, wretch that you are?” Justin said: “Yes, for I follow them with their correct teaching.”
The prefect Rusticus said: “What sort of teaching is that?” Justin said: “Worship the God of the Christians. We hold him to be from the beginning the one creator and maker of the whole creation, of things seen and things unseen. We worship also the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He was foretold by the prophets as the future herald of salvation for the human race and the teacher of distinguished disciples. For myself, since I am a human being, I consider that what I say is insignificant in comparison with his infinite godhead. I acknowledge the existence of a prophetic power, for the one I have just spoken of as the Son of God was the subject of prophecy. I know that the prophets were inspired from above when they spoke of his coming among men.”
Rusticus said: “You are a Christian, then?” Justin said: “Yes, I am a Christian.” The prefect said to Justin: “You are called a learned man and think that you know what is true teaching. Listen: if you were scourged and beheaded, are you convinced that you would go up to heaven?” Justin said: “I hope that I shall enter God’s house if I suffer that way. For I know that God’s favor is stored up until the end of the whole world for all who have lived good lives.”
The prefect Rusticus said: “Do you have an idea that you will go up to heaven to receive some suitable rewards?” Justin said: “It is not an idea that I have; it is something I know well and hold to be most certain.”
The prefect Rusticus said: “Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods.” Justin said: “No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship.”
The prefect Rusticus said: “If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy.” Justin said: “We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior.”
In the same way the other martyrs also said: “Do what you will. We are Christians; we do not offer sacrifice to idols.”
The prefect Rusticus pronounced sentence, saying: “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws.” Glorifying God, the holy martyrs went out to the accustomed place. They were beheaded, and so fulfilled their witness of martyrdom in confessing their faith in their Savior.
Actually, scratch what I said before. Justin’s final earthly pulpit wasn’t the courtroom in which he proclaimed Christ in words. His final pulpit was that spot in which, joyfully letting himself be martyred for the faith, he proclaimed Christ with his entire life. Fittingly, the early Church quickly gave him the title “St. Justin Martyr.”
It’s hard to read this and not be moved: Justin’s defense of the faith, and his willingness – no, eagerness – to die for Our Lord is genuinely inspiring. But while these were his final proclamations of the faith, they were hardly his first. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “Justin was a voluminous and important writer.” Over at Word On Fire, I’m taking a look at his First Apology, the defense of Christianity that he wrote to the emperor and the Senate. In it, Justin explains to them what the Christian Eucharistic Liturgy looks like. What follows is one of the clearest descriptions of the Mass and of the Real Presence that you could ask for…. and it was written between 153 and 155 A.D. From Chapter 66 of the First Apology:
This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us.
For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.
Reading that, we’re left with little question about St. Justin Martyr’s views on the Eucharist (or on baptismal regeneration, “the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth”). He even lays out the three requirements to licitly receive the Eucharist: (1) you must hold to the Catholic faith, (2) be baptized, and (3) be in a state of grace, rather than living in sin. All of this is exactly what we Catholics still believe today.
But what about Protestants? No Protestant denomination holds to transubstantiation. There are various views on the Lord’s Supper, from purely memorial to spiritual presence to Christ being “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, but no denomination holds to what St. Justin Martyr proclaimed. No denomination teaches that the bread and wine actually become Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood, and cease to be common bread and wine.
Given this, it’s easy to see how Protestants like Mike Grendon can think that worshipping the Eucharist is idolatry:
Worshipping the Eucharist is a violation of the 2nd commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Exod. 20:1-5). Catholics who worship the Eucharist can be closely compared to the Israelites who worshiped the golden calf as their true God (Exod. 32:4). Their punishment imposed by God for this most serious sin was death (Exod. 32:27-28).
Even Peter Leithart isn’t immune to such claims. If you’re not familiar with Leithart, he’s the Presbyterian theologian who recently came under fire for believing in baptismal regeneration. This view — the one taught by St. Justin Martyr, by the Catholic Church, and by the plain words of Scripture (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21; Galatians 3:28-29, Ezekiel 36:25-27, etc.) — was enough to get him tried for heresy by the PCA. Ultimately, he was found not guilty, but his worries weren’t over. After the chief prosecutor in the Leithart converted to Catholicism (!), Leithart’s critics seized the opportunity to call for a re-trial.
All of this is to say that it’s particularly saddening to hear Leithart explain that he agrees “with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy” including that “venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry.”
Don’t get me wrong: I completely follow the train of thought. Protestantism abolished the ordained, sacramental priesthood, and without it, you can’t have the Eucharist. There’s no one to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass, and eventually the whole idea of Masses and sacrifices and the Eucharist starts to look alien, even evil.
So if Protestantism is right about the priesthood and the Eucharist, I can certainly see how Catholics are idolaters. But there’s a problem with holding to that conclusion. You can’t just say that we Catholics today are idolaters. You would also need to hold that St. Justin Martyr is actually Justin Idolater. An you’d have to say this of all of those with him, who held to his same views, were idolaters, too. After all, in the First Apology, Justin’s not presenting some quirky view of his own. He’s explaining Christianity to the pagans: he’s giving the view of the Christian Church in the mid-100s. So you can’t just discount his martyrdom. You have to discount all of their martyrdoms. You have to call idolaters all of those people who said, “Do what you will. We are Christians; we do not offer sacrifice to idols,” even when it cost them their lives.
And you’d have to do this for the entire early Church. As I’ve shown before, Justin Martyr is joined by a whole litany of Church Fathers from the first, second, third, and fourth century defending transubstantiation. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone remotely orthodox (by either Protestant or Catholic standards) either affirming a contrary view of the Real Presence, or denying the view of the Real Presence put forward by Justin and the other Church Fathers. In other words, there’s an unbroken line of believers in transubstantiation from the earliest days of the Church until the present day, and there’s nothing of the sort for any of the Protestant views of the Eucharist (much less for the view that transubstantiation is idolatry). That fact alone would seem to suggest that the Catholic view is the true one, the historical one, the one taught by Christ and the Apostles.
But let’s say you’re willing to do this: to affirm that all of these martyrs were actually idolaters, that they resisted Roman idolatry just to practice Roman Catholic idolatry. Fine. But if that’s the case, don’t think that you can then rely on the Bible, a Bible which you have only because it was secured for you by the blood of these martyrs, a Bible that you have only because these same Church Fathers testified that these Books were the real ones, and that these Books were consistent with the Gospel message. No, if you reject these Christians as idolaters, you can’t take their Scriptures with you. As St. Augustine explained to the Manicheans:
Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason? It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner. To convince me, then, you must put aside the gospel.
If the Church Fathers were idolaters, they can’t be trusted to get even the basics of Christianity right. After all, the prohibition against idolatry is Monotheism 101, and this lesson is hammered into the Israelites: idolatry is evil. So if the Fathers got this wrong, why in the world would you trust them about the authenticity of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? It would be as absurd as saying that Mormons aren’t Christians, but that the Book of Mormon is a holy book because they said so.
So that’s where we are. If Grendon and Leithart are right, Justin Martyr’s sacrifice was in vain, as was the sacrifice of all of the early Christians, and we can no longer trust the Bible. On the other hand, if Grendon and Leithart are wrong, if the Eucharist really is Jesus Christ, then our Eucharistic worship isn’t idolatry at all. Instead, it’s a matter of justice, of rendering Divine praise to the Divine Himself. This is the faith that Justin and countless others died for, and it’s the faith that we continue to believe to this day.