Continuing my series on Theophilus of Antioch and his work To Autolycus (Ad Autolycum), I am addressing theosis or deification in his work. (Previous posts address Christianity in antiquitythe parting of the ways, and Trinity without Christology.) If you are lost by my terminology of theosis, see my primer on theosis and theosis for dummies.

In his defense of Christianity, Theophilus begins his work by establishing the identity of God (1.1-7). He is immortal, invisible, uncreated, and immutable. He is the maker of the universe, which was created ex nihilo. Even though we cannot see him because he is beyond the created order, we can know him through creation if we have a pure heart for these pure at heart can know God. Thus he concludes: “If you know these things, O man, and live in purity, holiness, and righteousness, you can see God” (1.7).  He later continues: “When you put off what is mortal and put on impershability, then you will rightly see God. For God raises up your flesh immortal with your soul; after becoming immortal you will then see the Immortal, if you believe in him now” (1.7). This draws from the ancient conception that you had to become like something to know it (“like is the friend of like” as described in Plato’s works). As we become like God in holiness and moral incorruption, then we can know God. Importantly, Theophilus then turns immediately to somatic incorruption as the hope for those who believe and know God (1.8). The basic idea is that even though humanity is fundamentally distinct from God because of creation ex nihilo, humanity can truly be in relationship with God and share in God’s attributes, namely incorruptability.

Note: We see this exact interchange between knowing God and overcoming death through immortality in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Note there how the first 10 chapters or so are about experiencing immortality and overcoming mortality through Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. Then, the next 10 chapter or so are about knowing God, but without a hint of any transition. Athanasius like many ancients saw a fundamental coherence between knowing God and being like him.

Theophilus’ discussion of resurrection early in the treatise points to the importance of immortality within his basic anthropology and soteriology. We see this played out in much more detail in his discussion of creation, and this is where his discussion of deification comes into play. One of his fundamental arguments about anthropology is that humanity was not created naturally immortal, but God had the intention that humanity would be immortal (2.19, 24, 27). We might call this conditional immortality, and Irenaeus also reflects a similar perspective (AH 38-39).

It is in these contexts that Theophilus uses deification language, describing humans as “gods” (2.24, 27). For example:

For if God had made him immortal from the beginning, he would have made him God. … God therefore made him neither immortal nor mortal but, as we have said before [2.24], capable of both. If he were to turn to the life of immortality by keeping the commandment of God, he would win immortality as a reward from him and would become a god…” (2.27).

While humans chose disobedience, Theophilus makes clear that humans can attain resurrection and imperishability, which in the flow of the argument would make them implicitly gods.

Of course, this is a metaphorical ascription. Given the Creator-creature distinction that undergirds this discussion (from Book 1), I would describe this as example of “attributive deification” using the taxonomy that I developed in my book ChristosisHumans share through participation in the attributes of divinity, and so they become like God while remaining distinct in their essence or nature. Though it is a metaphor to be called “gods,” it entails an ontological transformation, not in terms of the change their nature to a new nature (or species), but their mode of being changes. Here the primary emphasis is on participation in divine immortality, but as we saw above their is a distinct interconnection between these different forms of incorruption–noetic, moral, and somatic.

Theophilus gives us an early witness on deification and theosis and he grounds this doctrine of theosis in the Bible. This basis framework is not too unique, given that Irenaeus, follows a similar pattern. However, part of the contextualization is different, and so I’ll continue with a separate post on that.

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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.