This great twentieth-century scholar loved Plato, wrote Christian apologetics, and was a first-rate scholar with secular publications still in print. Sadly, A. E. Taylor was not C. S. Lewis, lived about the same time, and is little read by anyone but specialists while Lewis continues to drive whole industries.
A. E. Taylor did great work on Plato’s Timaeus, argued for the existence of God, took shots at scientism, and defended more traditional ethics against modernity. He is worth reading, but he is no C. S. Lewis. At his best C. S. Lewis can write as well as any of the greats, though unlike the greats he cannot always sustain it for an entire work. Comparatively Taylor writes workmanlike prose with too much Edwardian bombast.
As someone frequently guilty of the same errors, I have a great deal of tolerance for Taylor. Still it is just a touch frustrating that Lewis overshadows Taylor to the extent that he does. If the twentieth century A. D. for many of us has been C. S. Era, it is a shame that there was not even an A. E. moment.
Timing is, perhaps, everything and Taylor had bad timing. He did his duty in the intellectual flowering in early twentieth-century Britain, but was overshadowed by better writers with a more populist touch.
C. S. Lewis has sold more action figures than Taylor has sold books.
Perhaps I should not tempt anyone to Taylor, because it is hard to justify reading his Does God Exist? if the time could have been spent rereading Abolition of Man. Does any man have time for Taylor?
I think so, because sometimes Lewis’ very style will betray him. Like Chesterton, Lewis will sometimes say something beautifully at the cost of saying something carefully. Taylor doggedly attacks some of the same targets as Lewis, but since he cannot say anything well he does so exhaustively.
Taylor does not just quote a source. He quotes every source. Taylor does not just make an argument, but replies to objections, including those nobody is likely to make. Lewis is a fencer careful to leave a lovely corpse to his foe, while Taylor is a “Big Bertha” gun blowing his opponent up and then powdering the remains with several follow up shells.
Read Taylor, because he is cruder than Lewis, but different. The Gospel of Mark is not, perhaps, as lovely as the Gospel of John, but sometimes it is good to see Jesus suddenly doing things in black-and-white instead of simply filling page after page with lovely red ink.
Taylor writes about Plato in a ponderous style that must have made him a good student in long ago vanished British school system. However, by the time he has commented on the Timaeus, you are pretty sure you should go read Moses.
If Lewis will baptize your imagination, reading through Taylor will winnow it, burning every bit of chaff away.
The same might be said of the early Christian apologist Justin. He is most famous for being martyred and is usually known as “Justin Martyr.” Generations of students have embarrassed themselves by referring to him in papers as “Mr. Martyr” or the infamous “as Martyr notes on page...”
He was a forerunner to Saint Augustine and with the compression that comes with the passage of centuries feels like a contemporary to the greater writer to many of my students. In my Bible College, we hustled past him, noting him as the first great Christian apologist, only move on to the greater writer. Does anyone have time to read Justin when they could be reading Augustine?
I hope so, because Justin reminds me of three things every time I read him.
First, Justin is very, very early in the history of the church. There are one hundred years and the space of time from Washington to Barack Obama between Justin Martyr and Saint Augustine. Both Obama and Washington served under the Constitution of 1789, but there have been some important changes since in our nation over that period of time. In the same way, the Roman Empire of Justin must have seemed eternal, while in Augustine’s time it was dying.
All Romans are not the same. Put it this way: Augustine was in many ways in a “between time.” He had Emperor Augustus in his distant rear view mirror and the Medieval Roman Emperor Charlemagne on the horizon. Justin was much more firmly in the true Roman world.
Linguistically and culturally, it would be hard to get much closer to the time of the Apostles than Justin’s writing. We are seeing what the first generations after the Apostles took to be true.
Look for his use of Plato. See his confidence in Biblical revelation. Feel the force of his use of the Biblical term “logos.”
Justin understands that the term “logos” in John’s Gospel is not the “logos” of Heraclitus, but knows there is an evolutionary relationship in the language. Heraclitus and Plato made placeholders for Jewish ideas that needed a philosophical language for those Gentiles unshaped by Jewish liturgy. Even if we might disagree with the conclusions Justin reaches, he provides a model of integrative and faithful scholarship.
Justin takes philosophy seriously, but the Bible foundationally.
The confidence of the writers in Justin’s era is not the product of political power. Justin and his people had little or no power. More than Justin would die for their faith. Those who think that confident engagement with political power was a product of some disease Christians attracted from Constantine should study Justin. He was proud to be a Roman, but wanted a better Rome than the one he had.
He would appeal to an Emperor, because he liked the benefits of Greek and Roman civilization, but he also wanted to change bad things in the culture. He could imagine Roman law without the Roman arena. Justin was an optimist.
Second, Justin lacks Augustine’s rhetorical skill, but this can be a benefit. Augustine has left us countless memorable passages, but Justin provided the framework for arguments that Augustine will flesh out. Augustine’s rhetoric is from a very particular period of time, while Justin writes with a spare style that is never beautiful, but is always clear. Oddly, he is sometimes less dated than Augustine.
Justin’s Apology is a model of brevity combined with wit.
Finally, Justin demonstrates how Christianity developed. There were more possibilities at the start, because Christians did not understand Divine Revelation as well as they would later.
However, Justin also shows, if anyone needs showing, that Dan Brown types are just as crazy as we always suspected. Christian orthodoxy did not prevail because they oppressed or ignored the opposition. To the contrary, Justin would be martyred for his faith, not martyr Brown’s favorite sects.
The Gnostics had their day, made their arguments, but they were intellectually inferior to the apologists for orthodoxy. Justin makes arguments, in the ancient style, while the Gnostics tell mystical stories. Justin argues from history and tradition, while the Gnostics claim to have secret knowledge. Justin has fairly modest exegetical techniques, while Gnostics can see almost any idea in any book.
Justin reads as if he would be content with a job in any decent university, while the Gnostics read as if they would be happiest going to lodge meetings and wearing funny hats while driving tiny vehicles in local parades.
Justin defended his faith to death. Read him and you read a man who was unafraid to take his body where his ideas said to go. All Christian academics should follow that model.
Justin was unafraid of pagan ideas. Read him and you read a man who did not fear to take his mind where the argument said to go. All Christian leaders should follow that model.
Justin loved a good intellectual fight and helped build Christendom, a Christian civilization. Read him and you read a man who had the courage to build an alternative society when his heart said he must. All Christians should become subjects of that Kingdom.
Augustine is a greater philosopher, writer, apologist, and theologian than Justin. If you can only read one Roman Christian writer, I would recommend the Bishop of Hippo. But just as A.E. Taylor can be a good mental break for more reading of Lewis, so the lesser Justin can be a good palate cleanser for the greater Augustine.
Just read Justin.
John Mark Reynolds is a philosopher, administrator, and Platonist. He is the President of The Saint Constantine School.