Theophilus: Second Century Creation Apologist

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In the second century, after the original disciples of Jesus had died, the fledlging Christian church was beginning to grow and expand into a hostile Greco-Roman world, and accusations were brought against them by unbelievers. These accusations came from a number of people, one of whom was Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia. Pliny wrote a letter (AD 111–113) to the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 98–117) to give a multidimensional complaint about Christians.1 One of Pliny’s concerns was that Christians had become a social threat by their failure to worship the Roman gods. Because of this, Christians were accused of atheism, since they practiced a religion not approved by the state. The Romans took this as a way of saying that Christians didn’t care about the Roman Empire and saw them as undermining and seditious because they refused to worship the cultural deities.2 Second-century Christians were also seen as an oddity because of their commitment to Scripture; Greco-Roman religions were more interested in rituals than books. Second-century Christians became outcasts, both politically and intellectually, and were marginalized and ostracized in Greco-Roman society (a lesson for Christians today).

Into this hostile environment, a number of Christian apologists rose up to answer the many accusations against the Christian faith (i.e., Justin Martyr, 100–165 AD; Tertullian, 155–220 AD). However, someone who is often overlooked for his apologetic response to the accusations from unbelievers is Theophilus.

Into this hostile environment, a number of Christian apologists rose up to answer the many accusations against the Christian faith (i.e., Justin Martyr, 100–165 AD; Tertullian, 155–220 AD). However, someone who is often overlooked for his apologetic response to the accusations from unbelievers is Theophilus (Θεόφιλος, friend of God), bishop of Antioch (died 181 AD). Theophilus was born into a pagan family in Syria and became a Christian as an adult by studying the Scriptures. Towards the end of the second century, he wrote a three-volume apologetic work, Ad Autolychum (To Autolycus), to an intelligent pagan friend named Autolycus, “an idolater and scorner of Christians.”3 In this, his sole surviving work, Theophilus tries to convince Autolycus of the falseness and absurdity of paganism (idolatry) and the truthfulness of Christianity by contrasting the gods of the Greco-Roman religions with the God of Christianity. In Ad Autolycus, Theophilus “draws upon his impressive learning as he makes his case, quoting philosophers, poets and historians that would be familiar to his audience.”4 Not only does Theophilus work on an extensive philosophical level, but his apologetic methodology “focuses on the creation story [account] in particular, offering a lengthy exposition of Genesis and the creation week.”5 Theophilus is an important apologist to learn from as he sees the importance of the authority of Scripture, especially in Genesis, in his apologetic work against pagan philosophies.

Ad Autolychum

Theophilus rejects the pagan myths about creation and argues for Scriptural authority from the full inspiration of the Old Testament.

In book two of Ad Autolychum, Theophilus contrasts pagan teaching with what Scripture says about the origin of the world. Theophilus rejects the pagan myths about creation and argues for Scriptural authority from the full inspiration of the Old Testament (Ad Auto. 2.9). In contrast to the Greek philosophers (particularly of the Epicurean school, cf. Acts 17:18) who believed that matter was uncreated and eternal (Ad Auto. 2.4), Theophilus argued that God created the world out of nothing and through his Word (cf. Genesis 1:3; Psalm 33:6; John 1:1–3):

[B]y His Word God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is therein, he said, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then having spoken of their creation, he explains to us: “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the water.” This, sacred Scripture teaches at the outset, to show that matter, from which God made and fashioned the world, was in some manner created, being produced by God. (Ad Auto. 2.10)

Theophilus not only sees creation as a supernatural work of God, but he even argues that the order of the creation account in Genesis 1 is correct: “the plants and seeds were produced prior to the heavenly bodies . . . ” (Ad Auto. 2.15). Theophilus also recognized the impact of the fall on creation, as he argued that animal suffering in the world resulted from Adam’s sin:

And the animals are named wild beasts, from their being hunted, not as if they had been made evil or venomous from the first--for nothing was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good,--but the sin in which man was concerned brought evil upon them. . . . When, therefore, man again shall have made his way back to his natural condition, and no longer does evil, those also shall be restored to their original gentleness. (Ad Autolyc. 2.17)

Theophilus believed that, with the full redemption of man, the world will also be restored to its original condition (cf. Colossians 1:20). Theophilus accepted the fact that God created the world in six twenty-four hour days (cf. Exodus 20:11) and that Adam was created from the dust of the ground (cf. Genesis 2:7) on the sixth day (Ad Autolyc. 2:19, 23).

In book three, Theophilus argued that the prophetic writings in the Old Testament are older and more accurate than the authors of the Greeks (Ad Autolyc. 3:23) and gave a detailed “Chronology from Adam” to “Roman Chronology to the Death of Marcus Aurelius” (Ad Autolyc. 3:24–27). Theophilus used this chronological discussion of the history of the Old Testament to defend the extent of the flood. Just as today, the leading philosophies of Theophilus’ day were in error over the extent of the flood (cf. Genesis 7:19-20):

For Plato . . . when he had demonstrated that a deluge had happened, said that it extended not over the whole earth, but only over the plains, and that those who fled to the highest hills saved themselves. (Ad Autolyc. 3:18)

In order to correct the errors made by the Greek philosophers (e.g., Plato) over the extent of the flood, Theophilus appealed to Scripture:

But Moses, our prophet and the servant of God, in giving an account of the genesis of the world, related in what manner the flood came upon the earth, telling us, besides, how the details of the flood came about, and relating no fable . . . And he says that eight human beings were preserved in the ark, in that which had been prepared by God's direction . . . All the eight persons, therefore, who were found in the ark were preserved. And Moses showed that the flood lasted forty days and forty nights, torrents pouring from heaven, and from the fountains of the deep breaking up, so that the water overtopped every high hill 15 cubits. And thus the race of all the men that then were was destroyed, and those only who were protected in the ark were saved; and these, we have already said, were eight. And of the ark, the remains are to this day to be seen in the Arabian mountains. This, then, is in sum the history of the deluge. (Ad Autolyc. 3:18, 19)

After arguing that the flood was historical and global in its extent, Theophilus went on to discuss the history of Old Testament from the beginning of the world to his own day, specifically focusing on the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. In particular, he argues, “All the years from the creation of the world [to Theophilus’s day] amount to a total of 5,698 years” (Ad Autolyc. 3:28).6 Interestingly, Theophilus goes on to write about the chronology of the world set forth by the philosophers Apollonius (Egyptian) and Plato (Greek):

For some, maintaining that the world was uncreated, went into infinity; and others, asserting that it was created, said that already 153,075 years had passed . . . For if even a chronological error has been committed by us, of, e.g., 50 or 100, or even 200 years, yet not of thousands and tens of thousands, as Plato and Apollonius and other mendacious authors have hitherto written. (Ad Autolyc. 3:16, 29)
Theophilus rejected the long ages for the world that the Egyptians and the Greeks proposed, clearly regarding the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 as accurate and authoritative.

Theophilus rejected the long ages for the world that the Egyptians and the Greeks proposed, clearly regarding the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 as accurate and authoritative when it came to the age of the world.

Theophilus, Creation, and Biblical Authority

Interestingly, using the chronological information in Genesis to combat false teaching is not original to our generation. The conflict over the age of the earth is not new: it has always been a debate between pagans and Christians (that is, until Christians in the early 19th century began accepting what non-Christian geologists said about the age of the creation rather than believing God’s Word). Theophilus’ belief that the days of Genesis 1 were 24 hours and that the earth was only a few thousand years old has been the dominant position throughout church history.7 Unlike other church fathers who allegorized the creation account (e.g., Origen, 184–253 AD) because they were influenced by the Greek neo-Platonic philosophy of the day, Theophilus stood firm on the authority of Scripture and defended Genesis as an accurate account of history.

Footnotes

  1. For example, Pliny accused Christians of being superstitious and exclusive (worshiping only Christ). Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017), 41–45.
  2. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, 167–168.
  3. See, Theophilus To Autolycus Book I. Retrieved from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/theophilus-book1.html.
  4. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, 70.
  5. Kruger, 70.
  6. Theophilus came to this date for creation because he was using the chronology of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX).
  7. See James Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” in Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth, ed., Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing, 2008), 23–51.

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