CHURCH FATHERS (14) – Saint Theophilus Of Antioch


In the society we live, it is not rare to be among people who don’t believe in the Gospel. This is true not only in Asian societies, where for the most part Christianity is the faith of a minority, but even in the West, where societies are becoming more and more secularized. This was not uncommon, but for different reasons, also in early centuries of Christian era. Indeed, also Theophilus, the subject of what we are writing here, was educated as pagan, not as Christian. He convert at a mature age. He was born in present-day Iraq, and educated in the Greek tradition. After a process of conversion he became a Christian and in 170 was even elected Bishop of Antioch. He died as bishop in 180.

His story is interesting for us especially if we consider his work as apologist. We don’t have much from him but the three books called To Autolycus, which are nonetheless worthy of our careful attention.

Who was Autolycus? He was a friend of Theophilus, “the friend of God” (the meaning of his name). But Autolycus was a pagan, he did not convert to Christianity and not only that: he was also hostile and derisive of Christianity. So Theophilus wanted to set the record straight and decided to write as an apologist a work that may rebuff the accusations of his friend and then, hopefully, bring him over to God’s side.

As was custom at that time, the style was very direct, even among friends. This is indeed the beginning of the book I: “A fluent tongue and an elegant style afford pleasure and such praise as vainglory delights in, to wretched men who have been corrupted in mind; the lover of truth does not give heed to ornamented speeches, but examines the real matter of the speech, what it is, and what kind it is. Since, then, my friend, you have assailed me with empty words, boasting of your gods of wood and stone, hammered and cast, carved and graven, which neither see nor hear, for they are idols, and the works of men’s hands; and since, besides, you 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. For it is not the case, as you suppose, that the name of God is hard to bear; but possibly you entertain this opinion of God, because you are yourself yet unserviceable to Him.”

Then Theophilus would continue to show to his friend the reliability of Christian pretense, with a style that does not refuse confrontation with the pretenses of pagans. As an example let us see how he tried to demonstrate that the invisible God can be demonstrated through his works: “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. For, in like manner, as any person, when he sees a ship on the sea rigged and in sail, and making for the harbour, will no doubt infer that there is a pilot in her who is steering her; so we must perceive that God is the governor [pilot] of the whole universe, though He be not visible to the eyes of the flesh, since He is incomprehensible. For if a man cannot look upon the sun, though it be a very small heavenly body, on account of its exceeding heat and power, how shall not a mortal man be much more unable to face the glory of God, which is unutterable? For as the pomegranate, with the rind containing it, has within it many cells and compartments which are separated by tissues, and has also many seeds dwelling in it, so the whole creation is contained by the spirit of God, and the containing spirit is along with the creation contained by the hand of 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. Then again, an earthly king is believed to exist, even though he be not seen by all; for he is recognised by his laws and ordinances, and authorities, and forces, and statues; and are you unwilling that God should be recognised by His works and mighty deeds?.”  And in his explicatory style the saint Bishop continue to show to his friend that it would be wise to think again about his refusal of Christianity.

As was said before, Saint Theophilus, as Saint Justin before him, really is an example for us of the great need we have of apologists in our time where Christianity is facing unprecedented challenges and denials.

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