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“[Y]ou call me a Christian, as if this were a damning name to bear, I, for my part, avow that I am a Christian, and bear this name beloved of God, hoping to be serviceable to God.”
Antioch was the first location in which followers of Jesus were given the label “Christians,” a term meaning “little Christs.” Theophilus made it clear in his surviving work, To Autolycus, this title was not something to be shunned, but rather to rejoice as if it were a badge of honor. It is through the valuable testimony of Theophilus we learn more about the culture and worldview of the Roman Empire in the second century. It is also through this testimony where we learn of the misunderstandings and rumors that circulated concerning early Christianity.
Theophilus was an apologist, a defender of the Christian faith, in a culture that was often hostile towards believers. However, Theophilus was not only a defender of the Christian worldview, he also attacked the immorality of the religions and mythology of the culture of his time. While he stood in the shadows of great apologists in this time, Theophilus of Antioch undertook the role in persuading others of the truth of Christianity.
Early Life and Ministry
Theophilus of Antioch was born in approximately 115. Very little is known of his early life, though he admits he was a skeptic and did not embrace Christianity initially. Theophilus related in his one surviving work, To Autolycus, that he came to Christianity after studying the writings of the Old Testament. Specifically, he wrote,
…I met with the sacred Scriptures of the holy prophets, who also by the Spirit of God foretold the things that have already happened, just as they came to pass, and the things now occurring as they are now happening, and things future in the order in which they shall be accomplished. Admitting, therefore, the proof which events happening as predicted afford, I do not disbelieve, but I believe, obedient to God…
Little is known about his ministry prior to his appointment as Bishop of Antioch. This appointment was made in 168, and he served in this position until dying sometime in the 180s. First century Antioch became a haven to Christians who fled Jerusalem under the persecution of the Jews in the 30s. Antioch was one of the five major Christian centers, the others being Alexandria, Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Rome. Peter is the only documented disciple to have visited Antioch, but we know the Apostle Paul visited there also, and embarked on his missionary journeys here. Growing up in this locale Theophilus would have learned of the martyrdom of the fourth Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, in 107. Theophilus became the sixth bishop of Antioch.
During the time Theophilus of Antioch was bishop, Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was the sixteenth Emperor of the Roman Empire. This emperor reigned between 161-180. During his reign, many Christians were martyred, notably Justin and Polycarp. Theophilus became the sixth bishop of Antioch, succeeding Eros in 168. There is some controversy over the date of Theophilus’ death, however, with some reports showing it as late as 188, with others a few years earlier. Theophilus wrote about the death of Marcus Aurelius, so it can be inferred to have occurred sometime after the death of that Roman Emperor in 180. The next recorded Bishop of Antioch was appointed in 188.
Theophilus was among other great Apostolic Fathers and apologists of the second century, though his reputation is not as distinguished as some of his contemporaries. Justin Martyr (b. 100) preceded Theophilus, dying in 165, and one of Justin’s famous disciples, Tatian (b. 110, died ca. 172) is famous for writing the Diatessaron, which was one of the first attempts to harmonize the four Gospels into one work.
Theophilus came into his bishopric soon after Marcion of Sinope’s death in 160. Marcion (b. 85) followed in the footsteps of his own father in becoming a bishop of Sinope; however, Marcion would be remembered for a more sinister belief system. Being unable to reconcile the God of love in the New Testament with the God of wrath in the Old Testament, Marcion espoused the belief that they were not the same God. Further, Marcion believed, because of the teachings and evidence of the life of Jesus, Jesus was truly the savior and represented the New Testament God as being the true God. Consequently, Marcion discounted most, if not all, of the Old Testament, and denied the authority of much of the New Testament as well. Only the Gospel of Luke was considered accurate (though absent any Old Testament references to Jesus), and ten epistles from the Apostle Paul were to be considered trustworthy.
Marcion’s teachings were a source of grave concern among the Christian church both prior to and during Theophilus’ time. Marcion gathered a large number of followers to his beliefs, and he had been excommunicated by Rome in 144. Other apologists of the second century, like Theophilus, would attack and condemn Marcion’s teachings, which outlived their teacher.
Another heretic of the second century of which Theophilus would be forced to engage was Hermogenes who lived in the area of Carthage near the end of the second century into the first part of the third. Hermogenes believed and taught that the world was created from pre-existent matter. Specifically, his argument consisted of three possible mechanisms for creation. Hermogenes reasoned that either 1) God made creation by dividing His substance, 2) God made creation out of nothing, or 3) God created from pre-existent matter. Hermogenes argued that God was immutable (unchangeable) and indivisible, and therefore rejected the first possibility. He also argued that the presence of evil was evidence to reject the second possibility, that God made creation out of nothing. If God is good, and made everything perfectly, then evil would not exist, as it would imply a defect in God’s creative ability. With the rejection of these two possibilities, Hermogenes thereby embraced the remaining option of God creating, like an architect or builder, from preexistent materials. The evil, or any imperfections, would therefore not be attributable to God, but be a result of the imperfections already present within the pre-existing matter.
Theophilus is credited with writing numerous books, though only three have survived. The missing books are mentioned by Jerome and Eusebius. Jerome credits Theophilus with writing the apology Against Marcion, as well as commentaries on the Book of Proverbs and a harmony of the Gospels. Another book defending Christianity Theophilus was credited with authoring was Against the Heresy of Hermogenes, a book referred to by both Eusebius and Jerome. Theophilus refuted Hermogenes and contended for the position that God created out of nothing (referred to in theological terms as creation ex nihilo). Tertullian later joined Theophilus in rebutting Hermogenes, and there are accounts that Origen joined them within the first half of the third century.
The surviving books of Theophilus are part of the set To Autolycus. This three-volume work was a written, persuasive work apparently directed toward the salvation of Autolycus. Theophilus confessed in the beginning of his second book he was not gifted as a great orator: “…I am desirous, though not educated to the art of speaking, of more accurately demonstrating, by means of this tractate, the vain labour and empty worship in which you are held…” This writing style may also be categorized as protreptic literature. Protrepsis, according to Rick Rogers, “was practiced by orators in the political arena and used by Aristotle and the Sophists, [and] was designed to recruit students to join a school or to accept a set of teachings as normative for their lives.” The three volumes were amidst gaps in time, and depicted a growing relationship between Theophilus and Autolycus in the series.
In the first book, Theophilus and Autolycus appeared to be more adversarial. Autolycus had apparently referred to Theophilus derogatively as a “Christian,” a title that Theophilus happily accepted and provided reasons why he considered it a symbol of pride. Theophilus wrote, “…you call me a Christian, as if this were a damning name to bear…” Theophilus, on the contrary, saw this title as a commissioning, because Christians were people anointed by the oil of God. Anointing was a common practice in this time. Theophilus wrote, “…that which is anointed is sweet and serviceable, and far from contemptible.” For example, a house was anointed before it was made into a home. A ship was anointed prior to its first voyage. In like manner, a person becomes of service to God when he/she becomes anointed. A Christian, then, is one who has been anointed of the oil of God, and is therefore not contemptible, but rather is “sweet and serviceable.” The role of a Christian was a noble calling, or as Paul referred to it in his second letter to the Corinthians, the anointed of God was that of an ambassador of Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:20).
In addition, the first book described the attributes and nature of God to Autolycus. Theophilus went further by illustrating the folly of idol worship, and the practice of worshiping the immoral gods that composed the Roman pantheon of gods. Theophilus was carefully laying out an argument why it was more reasonable to worship the uncreated creator, rather than gods whittled out of a piece of wood, marble, or stone. Theophilus was not only providing positive reasons for his beliefs, but also denigrating the pagan beliefs simultaneously.
In his second work, Theophilus’ writing took on a tone that was directed toward a more receptive reader. Theophilus referred to a former conversation with Autolycus concerning the latter’s inquiries into Christianity, and, at the conclusion of that conversation the atmosphere was friendly. Theophilus wrote, “…having bid one another adieu, we went with much mutual friendliness each to his own house, although at first you had borne somewhat hard upon me.” This second book then resumed from where the first ended, and Theophilus’ goal was cited at the end of the first chapter: “I wish also, from a few of your own histories which you read, and perhaps do not yet quite understand, to make the truth plain to you.” This friendship would continue further into the third book described below.
The second book was focused toward one who was no longer hostile to the ideas of Christianity. It was written toward a person who was searching for the foundational issues of this belief system. Theophilus included in this book both a critique of the Grecian model for creation and provided a discourse from the first chapters of Genesis as a better, more reasonable explanation. Like in the first book, Theophilus was both demolishing the false ideologies and philosophies of the world, while at the same time providing a positive Biblical account as a more reasonable alternative. Of particular interest were the terms Theophilus used to describe the agents that created the world. He referred to God, His word (logos), and His wisdom (sophia). Theophilus never referred to the second person of the Trinity as Jesus, the “Son of God,” or Christ. Despite this absence of a direct reference to Jesus, Theophilus does quote from the Gospel of John, who referred to Jesus in the opening verse as “The Word” (logos). In addition, since Jesus referred to the Father as “God,” it is evident Theophilus was substituting logos for Jesus and sophia as the Holy Spirit.
In his third installment of this series written to Autolycus, Theophilus adopted a tone of a mentor tutoring a pupil. This book was a more intensive study into ethics and comparison with the pagan Greek/Roman morality. In this book Theophilus condemned the immorality of the Greek authors, but did so in a manner in which it was not directed specifically towards the reader (presumably Autolycus), but rather at the worldview in general. This further supports the idea that Autolycus was a person who was more prepared to learn the deeper concepts concerning Christianity, although at the time of the writing he remained unconverted.
Theophilus also addressed anti-Christian rumors that Autolycus apparently brought forth. By addressing these issues, Theophilus provided future readers a glimpse of the contemporary attitudes that non-believers held towards Christians. Rumors of the sharing of wives, incest (all Christians are “brothers and sisters in Christ”), and cannibalism (“unless you eat of the body of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will die in your sins”) were addressed in this book. Theophilus even rebuked Autolycus for not being as skeptical of such slander as he was of the evidences Theophilus had brought forth concerning the truth of Christianity. Further, Theophilus provided numerous examples of these immoral accusations contained within the very worldview of Autolycus. He listed 1) Plato’s ideal society in which all wives are common, 2) Epicurus’ encouragement of incest with mothers and sisters, as well as 3) the precepts written by Zeno, Diogenes, and Cleanthes who commanded that fathers should be cooked and eaten by their own children. Theophilus denounced such practices and demonstrated, though the suggestion of these immoral acts were leveled at Christians, these accusations were actually the practice of the accuser’s culture as depicted in the writings of the day.
This book focused upon the law of God as the rules that guide every person to salvation. Theophilus viewed the law as composed of four components, which were revealed through the Old Testament Prophets, Solomon’s wisdom, the Gospels, and the letters of the Apostle Paul. The first component was repentance for transgressing the law given by God. Second was the need for righteousness, or justice in living. Jesus’ golden rule provided in Matthew 7:12 epitomized this concept. The third component concerned chastity, including the topics of lust and divorce. And the fourth component, loving one’s enemies, carried the second part a little farther. Again, Theophilus quoted from the Sermon on the Mount when he wrote “Love your enemies, and pray for them that despitefully use you. For if ye love them who love you, what reward have ye?”
While Theophilus made no direct reference to Jesus, he did acknowledge the Gospel accounts when he wrote about Jesus’ exposition of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. He wrote, “And the voice of the Gospel teaches still more urgently concerning chastity, saying: ‘Whosoever looks on a woman who is not his own wife, to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart.’”
Part of Theophilus’ writing in To Autolycus, suggested a more legalistic approach to salvation. In his second book, Theophilus wrote,
For as man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting. For God has given us a law and holy commandments; and every one who keeps these can be saved, and, obtaining the resurrection, can inherit incorruption.
This approach suggested, given Theophilus’ writing, that salvation was attainable through the keeping of the commandments. In the period directly following his work, both Jerome and Eusebius applauded this writing. Jerome (347-420) commended Theophilus’ writings as “…well fitted for the edification of the church.” Apparently, this later church father did not think Theophilus’ books were heretical or too legalistic. Eusebius (ca. 260 – 340), likewise did not condemn Theophilus’ writings, though he critiqued them as “elementary treatises” in his Ecclesiastical History, suggesting the work was accurate, yet more appropriate for a beginning Christian. Given the apparent purpose behind the writing of these books, a basic approach to the tenets of Christianity was appropriate for Autolycus to gain an understanding. The books appear to have served this purpose.
Theophilus’ teachings are not well-known, save through his writings. It is reasonable, however, to believe he taught his congregation these same concepts in his role of Bishop of Antioch. Some scholars have accused Theophilus of being a “Jewish-Christian” because of the stress he appeared to have placed upon obedience to the law as a means of salvation. Evidence of such a position is contained within To Autolycus as described above.
However, with the admiration of Jerome and the affirmation of Eusebius, there are good reasons for not categorizing Theophilus as nomistic, a “works-based” theology from the Greek word nomos (law). Critics point to the absence of both the passion of Jesus and the concept of the substitutionary atonement within Theophilus’ surviving books. Perhaps contained within his missing works were these foundational tenets of Christianity that were the cornerstone of the first century apostles. Perhaps Eusebius and Jerome, who were privy to Theophilus’ lost writings, had evidence unavailable to today’s scholars.
While Hermogenes was teaching God created from pre-existing matter, we see from Theophilus’ writings that he taught a contrary view. In his first book, Theophilus wrote, “…all things God has made out of things that were not into things that are, in order that through His works His greatness may be known and understood.” This teaching was consistent with the other noteworthy theologians who regarded all of creation to have been created out of nothing.
Notably, Theophilus was credited with being the first to refer to the Godhead as the trias (triad or threesome), and he referred to the three persons as “God and his logos and his sophia.” This concept was later developed and put forth as the Trinity by Tertullian, who articulated them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Theophilus provides us a glimpse into the rumors and allegations against Christianity in the early days of the church. While claiming to not be well-trained as an orator in a culture that favored such skill, Theophilus provides us with valuable testimony in his defense of the followers of Christ. He prided himself as a Christian, defining it as one who is “anointed by God.” Only when a person or item is anointed, is it fully commissioned to perform its duty. Being anointed as a Christian charged the believer with performing the duties assigned by God.
Much of Theophilus’ surviving work, To Autolycus, appears to provide a recipe for salvation through the adherence of the fourfold law: repentance of crimes, righteous living, acting chastely, and loving one’s enemies. This adherence might be more akin to the theology taught by James, who believed a true Christian would manifest works as fruits of their salvation.
Theophilus also shed light on the cultural flaws of society and the Roman and Greek mythos. It was through this persuasive collection of writings to which Theophilus sought to persuade Autolycus to become a Christian. While Autolycus’ conversion remains a mystery, we can see the evolution of the relationship between him and the writer through the series. In the first book, Autolycus was addressed as an antagonist. The second writing engaged him as a skeptic who was receptive to a hearing of the evidence. And the third treatise treated Autolycus as a seeker who was on the verge of becoming a Christian. Theophilus’ works remain a valuable testimony as an example of the work of the early church fathers.
Kyle J. Clark
Jerome. “Lives of Illustrious Men.” In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series Volume III, by Philip and Henry Wace Schaff, 349-385. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892.
Rogers, Rick. “Theophilus of Antioch.” Expository Times, Feburary 2009: 214-224.
Theophilus, of Antioch. “Theophilus to Autolycus.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol II: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, by Marcus Dods, 85-122. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.
Wace, Henry. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the end of the sixth century. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999.
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