January 2019


I’m doing a short my series on Theophilus of Antioch and his work To Autolycus (Ad Autolycum). The previous post addresses Christianity in antiquity. I’m now addressing his Christology and Trinitarianism. I will address here his voice related to the parting of the ways.

Given his emphasis on the antiquity of Christianity (via Judaism), he stands in distinct contrast to many other second century Christians who show clear evidence of the parting of the ways. Take for example, Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 107), Letter to the Magnesians 10.3:

It is utterly absurd to profess Jesus Christ and to practice ‘Judaism’ (ἰουδαΐζειν). For ‘Christianity’ (Χριστιανισμός) did not believe in ‘Judaism’ (Ἰουδαϊσμός), but ‘Judaism’ in ‘Christianity’, in which every tongue believed and was brought together with God.

This construction of a distinct identity in this passage (see ch 8-10) and others is built upon the full revelation of God in Christ, the old versus the new, and grace in opposition to Torah practice. These types of arguments are found throughout Christian texts of the second century. Clear examples include Melito of Sardis in his On Pascha (e.g., 72–82), the Epistle of Barnabas, and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

In contrast to the effort to establish and defend a distinct identity, Theophilus appears much more concerned with the charge that Christianity is a new religion and therefore suspect. This reflects the wider value in the pre-modern world that what is older is better and more trustworthy. In light of his second century context, Theophilus is unique for almost never playing up distinctions with Judaism. His main argument, rather, is that Christianity is grounded in the most ancient of Jewish texts, and thus he spends the majority of Book 2 expositing the creation account in Genesis.

He also plays up God’s continued offer for restoration in the NT as the OT. In this you hardly get a feel that the NT is distinct from the prophets (3.10-15). Earlier he wrote that “Christians,” in distinction to the Greek writers, “have held the truth–we who are instructed by the Holy Spirit who spoke in the holy prophets and foretold everything” (2.33). The following chapters explore the challenge of the prophets (2.34-35), and NT and OT are mixed directly together without distinction. There are a number of other places where he does not play up differences when others do.

Where does Christology fit in this? A unique aspect of Theophilus’ work is that he does not mention the crucifixion, which can often be used as a way to flag up inadequate Jewish behavior and therefore the inadequacies of Judaism. For example, Paul speaks of dying to the Law with Christ (Gal 2; Rom 7). His Christology is therefore unique, but I wonder if he ignores that piece because of his very strong interest in continuity over discontinuity with Judaism in order to defend Christianity’s antiquity?

Theophilus shows that the parting of the ways is not a linear progression or division, and his reading of the Bible to ground a wider biblical theology is interesting. A comparison contemporary with Theophilus would be Irenaeus. In his Against Heresies Book 4, he especially addresses the continuity and discontinuity with Judaism, and he grounds it in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, not unlike Paul. I’ve got an essay in an upcoming volume that explores this: “The Covenant of Promise: Abraham in Irenaeus” in Irenaeus and Paul. Pauline and Patristic Scholars in Debate. Todd D. Still and David E. Wilhite, eds. (London: T&T Clark, forthcoming 2019). I came across this initially when working on this essay: “Partakers of Adoption: Irenaeus and His Use of Paul,” Letter and Spirit 11 (2016): 35–64.

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A student of mine recently did a masters thesis related to deification (or theosis) in Theophilus of Antioch in his Ad Autolycum (c. 180 AD). It’s been a while since I read him, so I thought I’d do a few posts about him.  It’s not a long read. Unfortunately Grant’s translation with facing English and Greek pages is out of print, so the ANF version is likely your best bet for an accessible translation.

As an apology this work to Autolycus contains both a critique of contemporary views and a portrayal and defense of his perspective. His critique is directed at the cult and the myths related to Greco-Roman gods. In that, he follows similar Jewish apologetics that critique the immoral, inconsistent, and contradictory perspectives of Greco-Roman literature, as found, for instance, in Hesiod and Homer in distinction to the philosophers. (A great  exposition of this is found in Barclay’s Pauline Churches in his essay: “Snarling Sweetly: A Study of Josephus on Idolatry”). He also addresses specific charges against Christianity, like cannibalism (3.15) by denouncing it but also by throwing the charge back against the stories of the gods (3.5, 15).

As he portrays and defends his perspective,  Theophilus argues for the unity and consistency of the biblical God, and Book 1 is explores a variety of topics around God’s attributes in contrast to other portrayals of the gods. He also especially notes the hope of resurrection (1.8, 13). A central point that he returns to regularly is that his faith is not a recent invention (reflecting the idea that older/ancient things are the more true and reliable), and thus he grounds his Christian faith in the antiquity of creation (Book 2, where he exposits the early chapters of Genesis) and world history (Book 3).

He presents an early and interesting Christian engagement with the Bible and apologetics in the ancient Mediterranean world. For an accessible and informative introduction to Theophilus, I commend this essay: Rick Rogers, “Theophilus of Antioch,” Expository Times 120.5 (2009): 214–224.

For all the posts in the series, see Christianity in antiquity, the parting of the ways, Christology and Trinitarianism.