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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 2 – Theophilus to Autolycus

So I have this 10 volume collection of writings by the Ante-Nicene Fathers (the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325) that I’ve been carrying around with me for several years.  I bought them from a library that was about to discard them and over the years I have used them occasionally as I’ve studied and prepared for sermons.  A couple of years ago I finally challenged myself to actually read through them all.  I got through the first volume before we moved again, and so they went into boxes, were moved, were unpacked, and then placed on new shelves – and my challenge was, not quite forgotten, but put on hold. I’d lost my inertia.  But now I’m back to it, and I’ve made a good start into volume 2.  I’ve just finished reading Theophilus’ apologetic letter to Autolycus [1]

Theophilus of Antioch apparently wrote a number of works – but all of them, save this letter, have been lost.  This is unfortunate.  Unfortunate, in my opinion, because this one that has survived to us isn’t very interesting.  It's a bit tedious. But that’s my opinion.  Eusebius (often described as the Church Historian) seemed really taken with Theophilus’ work – perhaps that is because, like Eusebius, Theophius seems very interested in setting down a chronological history. 

A large portion of this letter is devoted to demonstrating that the Hebrew Scriptures (on which the Christian faith was founded) are more ancient - and therefore more reliable – than the Greek philosophies and histories with which Autolycus was familiar.  “And that we may give a more accurate exhibition of eras and dates, we will, God helping us, now give an account not only of the dates after the deluge, but also those before it, so as to reckon the whole number of all the years, as far as possible; tracing up to the very beginning of the creation of the world, which Moses the servant of God recorded through the Holy Spirit [2].” (118)

It doesn’t surprise me that Young Earth Creationists like Answers in Genesis have embraced Theophilus since he determines in his work that the creation of the world occurred in the year 5529 B.C. (120)[3].  

Most of Theophilus’ defense of Christianity is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) – mostly from Genesis and from the prophets, with only a few scattered references to the gospels and epistles of the New Testament.

He is severe in his criticisms of Greek philosophies and Greek gods and goddesses, deriding them as immoral and meritless.  He even castigates Socrates and Plato, “who seems to have been the most respectable philosopher among them…”[4]  (112) Later Christian writers were much less hostile towards Plato – were, in fact, quite open to embracing his philosophies.  St. Augustine wrote of him ““The utterance of Plato, the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error . . .” 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Theophilus’ letter to Autolycus (at least to me) is that it appears to be the earliest use of the word “Trinity” in relation to the Godhead of the Christian faith – at least the earliest use of the word that has survived down to us.  Because he does not introduce it as a new idea that would need explanation or elucidation, it seems probable that the word (and the idea) were already circulating and relatively well understood (or at least, as well understood as the concept can be understood…).

In his commentary on the days of creation – specifically on the fourth day – Theophilus writes, “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries are types of the Trinity of God and his Word (Logos) and His Wisdom (Sophia).” [5] (100)

Theophilus became the sixth bishop of Antioch, Syria in A.D. 168 – so the idea of the trinity-ness of God was in circulation pretty early on, though the doctrine wasn’t formalized until the fourth century.

[1] Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume II, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1962.
[2] book iii chapter xxiii
[3] Book iii chapter xxviii
[4] book iii chapter vi
[5] Book ii chapter xv

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