Justin Martyr – Christus Victor

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I’ve recently become interested in the powers which Christ defeated in the mythic Christus Victor. No one seems to name them. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the usual suspects, i.e., sin, death, etc…, are principalities where the powers rule. In reading modern theologians who espouse the Christus Victor model, even without calling it as such – I’m looking at you Bishop Willimon – no one actually names the powers.

I remembered reading somewhere, some time ago, that Justin Martyr referred to the other gods of the age as demons. Now, I generally have no use for Justin until I need him. He is either a heretic or a reference point, but nothing in between. Well, at least in my usage of him. Here, he serves as a valuable reference point.

His starting point is Psalm 95.5, in the LXX (if we would have needed the Hebrew, God wouldn’t have given us the Septuagint and St. Augustine), which reads,

Declare his glory among the nations (v3a) … because great is the Lord and very much praiseworthy; he is terrible to all the gods (v4), because all the gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord made the heavens. (v5) – New English Translation of the Septuagint.

Justin connects these demons to the story in Genesis 6.1-4 when the sons of God and the daughters of men produced heirs which were for Justin, demons. These demons tricked humanity into worshiping them as gods. Bauckham notes that Justin was able to use to denounce pagan culture as demonic, something altogether different than wicked and/or sinful. In Justin’s 2nd Apology, chapter 5, we read,

But if this idea take possession of some one, that if we acknowledge God as our helper, we should not, as we say, be oppressed and persecuted by the wicked; this, too, I will solve. God, when He had made the whole world, and subjected things earthly to man, and arranged the heavenly elements for the increase of fruits and rotation of the seasons, and appointed this divine law–for these things also He evidently made for man–committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations, which they related, ascribed them to god himself, and to those who were accounted to be his very offspring, and to the offspring of those who were called his brothers, Neptune and Pluto, and to the children again of these their offspring. For whatever name each of the angels had given to himself and his children, by that name they called them.

Well, he names the powers, or at least the demons which suffered defeat. For him, the demons were the pagan gods. They were real, not just non-corporeal regimes. The demons were Zeus, Isis, Fudo and others who had long since tricked humanity into following them instead of the One True God. Justin goes on to set Christ against these powers:

…..for the sake of believing men, and for the destruction of the demons. And now you can learn this from what is under your own observation. For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs. (2nd Apology, 6)

Greg Boyd notes that others among these early writers saw demons as the corrupting forces of this world:

Along the same lines, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.

I haven’t read all of Justin, because I noted before, he is only present when I need him to bolster my arguments either against him or against someone else, which almost inevitably is still against him. It may be, however, that he has something to offer me in looking for the ‘biblical’ model of atonement. Other authors, more learned than I, note that he contains traces of the penal substitution theory, and that’s fine, so does the New Testament. But, there is an over-arching victory in the whole of the Canon, and one in which we are made partakers (we the Church) and indeed, more than conquerors which we cannot ignore. In this victory, Christ has defeated the powers and their principalities.

For some fuller treatments, see here and here. (Warning, .pdfs)

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Post By Joel Watts (9,928 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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4 thoughts on Justin Martyr – Christus Victor

  1. Joel, you seem thoroughly confused about the Septuagint. First you give the reference Isaiah 95:5, but Isaiah has only 66 chapters, I think in LXX as well as Hebrew. I think you meant Psalm 95:5. Then you don’t realise that LXX psalm numbers and verses are different from Hebrew, and from English. The verse you are looking for is Psalm 96:5, which in NIV 2011 reads:

    For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.

    Idols are not the same as demons, but the LXX translators didn’t make the whole verse up.

    Then if you someone modern to name the powers, try Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers. But I’m not sure that I entirely buy into his theory – I would be more likely to agree with Justin and LXX that the are demonic beings.

    • No, Peter, I’m not confused, I meant Psalm 95 – but, as I am apt to do, was thinking about something else and Isaiah came out (In fact, I was thinking about the passage in LXX Isaiah were demons are said not to be real).

      Further, I was using the NET and the NETS, in the ipad 2. Yes, I do know about the various things of the Septuagint, but usually, in the NETS, the English numbering is bracketed. But, also, I missed that by failing to scroll up just a wee bit. There is something to be said about writing after the weekend which I have had.

      I will amend the changes however, but the point still stands.

      No, you are correct – idols aren’t the same as demons, but I’m not examining the Hebrew. Justin used the blessed and inspired and more beautiful Greek ;) (btw, much of the Septuagint language which I use is directed to Jeremy, a Hebrew Scholar. Poor guy). That book keeps coming up and I will have to read it.

  2. Pope St. Leo the Great says explicitly that Christ defeated the Devil through his death on the Cross, ransoming the human souls taken captive by the Devil and thereby defeating death. This is in the Tome but also scattered through his Nativity sermons.

    Unmasking the powers as pagan gods who are demons is common; such is what Augustine does in City of God, if I recall aright. Tertullian argues that they are either demons or glorified humans.

    David Brakke, in Demons and the Making of the Monk, points out the similarity between the demonic images found in the Desert Fathers and the images of some Egyptian gods — the demons that the monks went to the desert to fight were, in fact, the gods of the old religions. That these demons are exactly whom Christ defeated through his redemptive death and resurrection tends to be less clear, tho.

  3. MJ, Pope Leo was only making a little more explicit what the apostles taught. See Colossians 2:15 and 1 John 3:8. After reading this it should be clear that Christus Victor is in the Bible, not as the only model of the atonement but certainly as a valid one.

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