Theophilus of Antioch

Theophilus of Antioch (Antakya, Turkey) is another second century church father. I did not see a year for his birth, but he is believed to have died in 181 or 188 CE. Theophilus was born a pagan, but he eventually believed in Yeshua after studying the Scriptures. He eventually became the sixth bishop of Antioch in what was then Syria during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

Theophilus wrote several works; however, all that exists now is a series of three books to Autolycus who was an idolater. He called Theophilus a Christian, “as if it were a damning name to bear.” Originally, the name Christian was a negative appellation that was possibly related to false accusations of sedition and crime. Theophilus avowed that he was a Christian as being a follower of Christ and bore this name while hoping to be serviceable to God.

In his first book, Theophilus explains to Autolycus that God is seen by those whose eyes of the soul have been opened. He reveals the nature of God through a series of many names that describe God’s attributes. Some of these include:

  • Word – His sovereignty (supreme power or authority)
  • Mind – His wisdom
  • Spirit – His breath
  • Wisdom – His offspring
  • Providence – His goodness
  • Lord – Him being judge and ruler
  • Father – Him being before all things

When addressing Autolycus, Theophilus made an interesting quote regarding man’s inability to behold God:  “As, therefore, the seed of the pomegranate, dwelling inside, cannot see what is outside the rind, itself being within; so neither can man, who along with the whole creation is enclosed by the hand of God, behold God.” Prior to this, Theophilus said, “For as the soul in man is not seen, being invisible to men, but is perceived through the motion of the body, so God cannot indeed be seen by human eyes, but is beheld and perceived through His providence and works.” It is God’s works, His creation, that Theophilus introduces Autolycus to. He goes on to encourage Autolycus to let faith and the fear of God rule his heart. He discusses the absurdity of idolatry – idols not being real gods, but being the works of men’s hands and unclean demons.

As I continued reading the first book, I was delighted to see how Theophilus used examples to prove the resurrection. For example:

  • The dying of the seasons
  • Day and nights
  • Seeds dying and rotting in the earth then bearing a plant such as a stalk of corn
  • Trees and fruit-trees
  • The monthly cycle of the moon
  • Illness, wasting away of the body, and finally healing

Theophilus explains the two options to Autolycus – life (immortality) by patient continuance in well-doing OR ever-lasting fire to those who live unrighteously.

In his second book, Theophilus explains that Autolycus had urged him to more accurately demonstrate “the vain labour and empty worship” in which Autolycus was held. Theophilus begins by noting that when idols are made, they have no value until they have been purchased. He also asks what became of the gods – they who were begotten should have produced many more offspring than men have done. He points out that Mount Olympus, which was formerly inhabited by the gods, is now deserted. Having said this, Theophilus tells Autolycus: “But this is the attribute of God, the Highest and Almighty, and the living God, not only to be everywhere present, but also to see all things and to hear all, and by no means to be confined in a place; for if He were, then the place containing Him would be greater than He; for that which contains is greater than that which is contained. For God is not contained, but is Himself the place of all.” So, Theophilus’ god is far superior to those of Autolycus. He goes on to explain that when man makes an image, that image has no ability to reason, breathe, or feel. Man can’t give those things to what he has created. On the other hand, when God creates a work, He endows it with reason, life, and sensation. Therefore, God is more powerful than man; God creates things out of nothing, and He creates what He wants as He desires.

Theophilus goes on to explain how the world was created by God through the Word: “… then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat Him, emitting Him along with His own wisdom before all things. He had this Word as a helper in the things that were created by Him, and by Him He made all things. He is called “governing principle” [ἀρχὴ], because He rules, and is Lord of all things fashioned by Him. He, then, being Spirit of God, and governing principle, and wisdom, and power of the highest, came down upon the prophets, and through them spoke of the creation of the world and of all other things.” Theophilus further refers to how the Word spoke through Solomon, in Proverbs 8:22-31, explaining that the Word existed at the beginning of YHVH’s work — before the beginning of the earth and the beginning of the depths.

Theophilus recounts the creation as described in the Scriptures. Because I enjoy typology, I will share the types Theophilus explained to Autolycus:

  • The sun is a type of God, and the moon is a type of man; the former surpasses the latter in power and glory. “And as the sun far surpasses the moon in power and glory, so far does God surpass man. And as the sun remain ever full, never becoming less, so does God always abide perfect, begin full of all power, and understanding, and wisdom, and immortality, and all good. But the moon wanes monthly, and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again, and is crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection.”  Reading this was delightful to me, as this is what I said in the Significance of the New Moon in the New Moon Series. If the sun is a type of God, we can think about how solar activity, such as emanation of solar flares, compare with the activity of God, including the Spirit.
  • “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, wisdom, man.” This is the earliest mention of the term Trinity in the early church fathers that I have seen. Notice that Theophilus describes the Trinity as God, His Word, and His wisdom – wisdom referring to the Spirit. He makes no other description as to the nature of the Trinity. The formal doctrine of the Trinity as being three divine persons in one was not in its current form until the end of the fourth century.
  • The stars reveal two types of righteous people who keep the law and commandments of God:
    • Brilliant/bright stars – imitation of the prophets
    • Second place in brilliance – righteous people
  • The planets, which change their positions, are a type of the men who have wandered from God by abandoning His law and commandments.
  • The creatures in the water, on the earth, and in the sky represent:
    • Those men who do not harm others and keep the law of God. These are like birds that fly upward and mind the things that are above; they are well-pleasing to God.
    • Those men who do harm others and do not keep the law of God (monsters of the deep, wild beasts, and birds of prey). These are like birds that can’t fly or soar to the high things of God.

When I discussed Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr, I raised the possibility that God, who walked in the garden, was really the Word – Yeshua. Afterall, no one has seen God, but Yeshua has been seen. Theophilus confirms this idea when he described the time when God conversed with Adam in the garden. Theophilus said, “But what else is this voice but the Word of God, who is also His Son?” Further, he states: “… the Word, that always exists, residing within the heart of God. For before anything came into being He had Him as a counsellor, being His own mind and thought. But when God wished to make all that He determined on, He begot this Word, uttered, the first-born of all creation, not Himself being emptied of the Word [Reason], but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with His Reason. And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” (John 1:1) showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him. Then he says, “The Word was God; all things came into existence through Him; and apart from Him not one thing came into existence.” The Word, then, being God, and being naturally produced from God, whenever the Father of the universe wills, He sends Him to any place; and He, coming, is both heard and seen, being sent by Him, and is found in a place.”

Later, Theophilus offers an interesting idea. He suggests that the tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruits were good. Theophilus said that the problem was Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Who is to say that God simply wanted to delay the consumption of the fruit until a time in which Adam and Eve were more mature? Parents often make their children wait to engage in certain activities until they are considered old enough. I thought this was an interesting concept because God only seems to give knowledge and wisdom to those who have been obedient and who seek it with their whole hearts. YHVH is very selective when it comes to who He reveals His secrets to. He does not to reveal His secrets (pearls) to people who are like swine – those who will abuse it or not appreciate it, or who think that you must be able to do something with that knowledge. Sometimes knowledge does not require application; it often simply gives us a heightened level or depth of understanding of God — His nature, ways, and plans.

By Theophilus’ third book, Autolycus is still convinced that the word of truth is an idle tale and that the Scriptures are recent and modern. Theophilus feels that Autolycus has been deceived by the false accusations and rumors made against the Christians. Theophilus’ response includes an explanation of God, His law, and the history of His people as outlined in Scripture. He explained the need for repentance when the law was transgressed, as well as righteous living. He told Autolycus how prophets — such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Zechariah — called people to repent and instructed them regarding how to behave and think.

Theophilus corrected the errors of the Greeks regarding the flood and the history of Moses. He corrected the idea of Manetho who said the forefathers of Israel were lepers, and for that reason, they were expelled from Egypt. Theophilus made the claim that the priests healed every disease, so that they cured lepers and every unsoundness – this, of course, is not something I’ve ever seen in Scripture.

Theophilus recounts history and sets forth a historical time line. According to Theophilus, all the years from creation to the time of the death of the Emperor Aurelius Verus is approximately 5698 years, which he has broken down into various time periods – with Moses having lived somewhere about 900. He does say that there could be an error in his numbers, but that it would be small. By recounting the periods of Israel’s history, Theophilus demonstrated that the Scriptures are not recent or modern but are truly ancient and set forth from creation itself.

Overall, I see no major errors in doctrinal interpretation, in regard to Theophilus’ apologetic books to Autolycus.

3 Comments

  1. Beth, once again I enjoyed reading about another Early Church Father. But I was wondering if you would be able to explain what you think Theophilus meant when he wrote, “having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat Him, emitting Him along with His own wisdom before all things.” Theophilus’ wording seems to indicate he believed the Word somehow was “within” God and then came forth from within Him. If this is so, wouldn’t that mean that the Word was somehow created? Hopefully you can shed some insight into what I may be misunderstanding and what you think Theophilus’ was saying. Thank you.

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    1. I’m quite fascinated by the variety in which the church fathers approach the nature of the Father and the Son. As I’ve said in the past, many people in Hebrew Roots movement do not agree on that. Someone recently suggested that the light which was “created” in Genesis 1:3 was the creation of the Logos/Word; however, the nature of this light became day. This kind of stuff sounds possible at first until we look further at Scripture.

      If you continue to read future posts, you WILL see quite a variety as we move forward. There were extremely heated debates over the nature of the Father and the Son during the 4-6th centuries. This led to the councils, creeds, splits, and even murder.

      Before I more directly answer your question in terms of what I think, let me present some Scripture verses.

      Isaiah 44:6 says, “Thus says YHVH, the King of Israel, And his Redeemer, YHVH of Hosts: I am the First and the Last; Besides Me there is no God.”
      Revelation 2:8 says, “… These things say the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life…” The Logos/Word — the First and the Last — manifested Himself in human form as Yeshua.
      The Logos, Wisdom, and God are One, although they can exist separately. They are not separate “persons” or “gods.” They have existed from the very beginning. Hang on to that.

      As far as the term “firstborn” goes — bechor in Hebrew or prototokon in Greek — such as in Psalm 89:27 (referring to David), Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, or Hebrews 1:6, which refer to Yeshua — think of those as referring to something that is “first in rank” in these particular verses. Yeshua is the highest ranking entity over all creation. Colossians 1:18 uses prototokon for firstborn from the dead; the word for preeminence in this verse is proteuon. Both proteuon and prototokon are from protos. The Logos/Word was not “born” at the beginning of creation; however, prototokon can apply to Yeshua when He physically became Mary’s firstborn son. Bechor and prototokon do apply to firstborn in the sense of birth at other times; context is key in determining the right definition.

      Colossians 1:18 also says He was the beginning. Genesis 1:1 can be translated With/Through/By the Beginning, God created… In John 1:1 the preposition “with” is used. I think Colossians 1:15-19 sums up what was happening in Genesis 1 quite well.

      Have you ever taken Organic Chemistry? Certain substances exist in 3 phases at a certain temperature and pressure.; this is known as the triple point. These 3 phases (manifestations) exist all at the same time under the right laboratory circumstances. It is under these circumstances these phases can be separated out from each other. This separation process is the kind of creation process we see repeatedly in Genesis chapter 1.

      God is Spirit (think gas); that is one of His many natures.
      Wisdom, according to Theophilus, is God’s Spirit; it is another aspect of God’s nature (think of it as flowing like liquid). Anthenagoras calls it an effluence.
      The nature of the Word (Logos) in heaven is likely Spirit of some kind as well, but it can take on human form, such as the Angel of YHVH, Yeshua, or YHVH of Hosts/Faithful and True, which have been and will be seen (think of it as solid like crystals). He is also referred to as the arm of YHVH; therefore, He is an extension of God.
      These phases can manifest and exist as needed.

      Also, consider the sun, which Theophilus says is typological of God. Have you ever seen video of the sun emitting solar flares or some kind of solar energy? It’s just so hot that it moves and spews from the sun. I don’t know the exact nature of that process — I don’t know if it comes from the center of the sun or from the surface — It’s just emitted somehow. I don’t know how much of it could be considered to be some form of solid, liquid, or gas. I think the sun’s behavior is also similar to what Theophilus is attempting to describe.

      To me, Theophilus just seems to be describing something that is beyond human comprehension in a way that man can possibly understand it. This is my take on it. I hope that helps.

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      1. Beth, thank you for your response. I will read your future posts on the Early Church Fathers.

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