Did Justin Martyr promote the worship of angels?

Worship of angels according to Justin Martyr: Response to Albrecht and Co. 

by Ibn Anwar

Much to the consternation of Christian apologists, Dr. Shabir Ally has successfully demonstrated that Saint Justin Martyr, whom Christians traditionally hold in high esteem, actually called for the worship of angels along with God. This is based on a particular text from Justine Martyr’s infamous First Apology, which reads as follows:

“So, then, we are called godless. We certainly confess that we are godless with reference to beings like these who are commonly thought of as gods, but not with reference to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is untouched by evil. Him and the Son who came from him, and taught us these things, and the army of the other good angels who follow him and are made like him, and the prophetic Spirit we worship and adore, giving honor in reason and truth, and to everyone who wishes to learn transmitting [the truth] ungrudgingly as we have been taught.” [1] (emphasis added)

The purpose of this article is to supplement and further bolster Dr. Shabir’s stance on Justin Martyr’s angelology that has irked many a Christian. What do we make of the above passage from Justin Martyr? A plain reading of the text would have any reasonable reader acknowledge that Justin Martyr is calling for the “worship and adoration” (σεβόμεθα καί προσκυνοϋμεν) of the Father, the Son, the good angels and the prophetic Spirit, which is presumably the Holy Spirit. In response to Dr. Shabir Ally, Christian apologists have claimed that that is a misreading of the text. Is that allegation true? How can that be when Dr. Shabir in his presentations* has correctly referred to the late Dr. Robert M. Grant, who was a respected theologian and ordained priest of the Episcopal Church, in his book ‘The Early Christian Doctrine of God’ which essentially concludes that the passage above does indicate the author’s call for believers to worship and adore the angels. Dr. Robert Grant and Dr. Shabir Ally are not alone in the understanding that they discern from the passage above. That is also the understanding of (Dr) Alfred Walter Frank Blunt, who was the Bishop of Bradford in the Anglican Church. In his ‘The Apologies of Justin Martyr,’ regarding the passage in question, under the heading ‘Angels and Demons,’ he writes:

“He [Justin Martyr] does not speak of prayers to or invocations of angels, but in i 6, 2 he states that the Christians reverence and worship (σεβόμεθα καί προσκυνοϋμεν) the Father, the Son, the angels, and the prophetic Spirit. The bearing of this passage upon the subject of Justin’s view of the Holy Spirit has been already considered. As regards the mention of the angels, it seems a natural, though not an inevitable interpretation, that Justin is giving to them a place in ordinary Christian worship; and the worship of angels was not unknown in certain districts of early Christendom.[2]

Arriving at the same understanding, American theologian and evangelist Dr. Wayne Grudem, together with co-author Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society, write as follows:

“Origen, Against Celsus, 5.4, in ANF, 4:544. That this refusal to worship angels was the common view of the early church is clear from almost all sources. However, several references may point to a practice on the part of some to worship angels. The apostle Paul, in fact, warned against this in one of his letters (Col. 2:18). Also, in a controversial passage from Justin Martyr, the worship of angels by Christians was proposed as evidence that believers in Christ are not atheists: “Both him [the Father] and the Son (who came forth from him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore.” Justin Martyr, First Apology, 6, in ANF, 1:164. This passage is controversial because, as it stands, it clearly contradicts other of Justin’s affirmations that Christians worship the Father, the Son, and the prophetic Spirit.[3] (emphasis added)

Whether or not Justin Martyr’s passage under scrutiny object against his other writings is another issue, but as the text stands, according to Grudem and Allison, it does, in fact, exhibit Justin Martyr’s belief in angel worship which he used as evidence to refute the allegation that Christians were godless or atheists.

But perhaps, Richardson’s rendering of the passage that Dr. Shabir Ally uses is inaccurate, hence the alleged misunderstanding? Let us consider an alternative rendering of the text by Reverend Dr. Marcus Dods, who was a minister of the Church of Scotland. The passage according to Reverend Dods translation is as follows:

“Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him, and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught.” [4]

Although the editors of the above work reject the understanding that Justin Martyr called for the worship of Saints, they do, however, plainly admit that a plain reading of the passage in question does show that that is precisely what Martyr meant. Commenting on the passage, the editors Reverend Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson write:

This is the literal and obvious translation of Justin’s words. But from c. 13, 16 and 61, it is evident that he did not desire to inculcate the worship of angels. We are therefore driven to adopt another translation of this passage, even though it be somewhat harsh. Two such translations have been proposed: the first connecting “us” and “the host of the other good angels” as the common object of the verb “taught;” the second connecting “these things” with “the host of,” etc., and making these two together the subject taught. In the first case the translation would stand, “taught these things to us and to the host,” etc.; in the second case the translation would be, “taught us about these things, and about the host of the others who follow Him, viz. the good angels.” [5] (emphasis added)

Roberts and Donaldson candidly concur that the literal and obvious translation of Justin Martyr’s words in the passage in question does, indeed, show that Justin was calling for the worship of angels and that the only way to avoid that plain meaning given by the text is to retranslate the text in a harsh way, which is a classic way of saying that the text would have to be bludgeoned and stretched in so awkward and radical a way so as to impel the text to produce a meaning that would conform to a more palatable theological articulation by those that would not stand the sight of angel-worship at the hands of Justin Martyr. Whether or not the text at hand contradicts other texts by Justin Martyr that may suggest that angel worship is to be negated, as opined by Roberts and Donaldson above, that is based only on an apriori assumption that Justin Martyr would not countenance the worship of angels, because none of the other texts, in fact, explicitly negate angel worship. What those other texts do, however, is indicate the worship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as mentioned earlier by Grudem and Allison, and such instances where angels are left out do not necessarily mean that Justin withheld worship of angels. What is clear from Roberts and Dolandson is that in order to shift away from impugning Justin Martyr with angel worship, which is the obvious meaning discernible from the text, is to radically retranslate the text through several awkward grammatical gymnastics.

And such clumsy gymnastics begin to crumble once we carefully analyse the text even further. The first point that weakens attempts to retranslate and/or reinterpret the text away from what is plainly obvious is the fact that the angels are mentioned prior to the Holy Spirit, so that the formula begins with the Father, followed by the Son, then by the angels and finally by the Holy Spirit. And this is significant because by naming them first, it would seem that in this particular instance, Justin has actually afforded the angels a position greater than the Holy Spirit. Noting this oddity, German theologian Bernhard Lohse writes:

“A saying of Justin Martyr indicates what lack of clarity there was with regard to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as late as the middle of the second century. In his Apology Justin seeks to weaken the pagan reproach that Christians are atheists. He admits that Christians indeed reject the false pagan gods, but, he goes on to say, they do not deny the true God. who is the Father of justice and chastity and of all the other virtues, and who will have nothing to do with that which is evil. He then says, “Both him and the son who came forth from him and taught us these things, and the host of other good angels who follow and are made like to Him, and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, because we honor [him] in reason and truth.” As if it were not enough that in this enumeration angels are mentioned as beings which are honored and worshiped by Christians, Justin does not hesitate to mention angels before naming the Holy Spirit. The sequence in which the beings that are worshiped are mentioned (God the Father, Christ, the angels, the Spirit) is noteworthy.” [6] (emphasis added)

Apart from identifying the fact that the angels are mentioned before the Holy Spirit, Lohse also affirms that the text as it stands does indicate that the angels are to be worshipped and adored alongside the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In order to avoid that meaning, in the footnote to the above, like Roberts and Donaldson, Lohse suggests that a different translation be considered. But as we have discussed, the plain and obvious meaning given by the original text does support the conclusion that Justin did call for angel worship. That together with the fact that he placed the angels above the Holy Spirit should be understood that Justin truly did have an exceptionally high regard for angels. The second point that one may elicit from the text that would weaken any attempt to exonerate Justin from angel worship is the fact that he actually postulated that “angels are made like Christ,” and this likeness is no simple similitude but one that is ontological. This important point is noted by Dr. Charles A. Gieschen, who is Professor of Exegetical Theology and Dean of Academics at Concordia Theological Seminary. Commenting on it, he writes:

“What is striking about this text is both Justin’s acknowledgment that angels are made like Christ (i.e., of the same nature)…” [7]

Placing the angels above the Holy Spirit, identifying the nature of the angels as being the same as that of Christ and according to the plain reading of the passage in question, calling for the worship and adoration of angels, one must conclude that Dr. Shabir Ally was absolutely correct in what he stated concerning Justin Martyr. Justin Martyr, in short, did, in fact, worship angels and called others to that practice.

For further reading, you may proceed to my article on Justin Martyr and his Angelic Jesus which was written in response to the first debate Dr. Shabir Ally had with William Albrecht some years ago.

 

Notes:

[1] From Cyril C. Richardson as cited by Dr. Shabir Ally in his article Did Justine Martyr Worship Angels?

* Dr. Shabir Ally cites Robert M. Grant in his recent debate with William Albrecht on the topic Is the Trinity Biblical and Ancient?

Dr. Shabir mentions Robert Grant as his source also in his recent review of said debate that can be viewed here.

[2] Blunt, A. W. F. (2006). The Apologies of Justin Martyr. Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers. p. 29-30

[3] Grudem, W. A. & Allison, G. (2015). Systematic Theology & Historical Theology Bundle. Zondervan Academic. fn. 18

[4] Dods, M. (1870). The First Apology of Justin. In Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark. p. 11

[5] Ibid. fn. 2

[6] Lohse, B. (1978). A Short History of Christian Doctrine: From the First Century to the Present (F. Ernest Stoefler, trans.). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 43-44

[7] Gieschen, C. A. (1998). Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Leiden, The Netherlands: Kninklijke Brill NV. p. 193

 

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2 Responses to “Did Justin Martyr promote the worship of angels?”

  1. SHABIR ALLY says:

    Bravo. May Allah reward you.

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Assalamu’alaikum, Sheikh :). Thanks for dropping the comment. May Allah’s Blessings accompany every one of your wonderful works.

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