Review: Theophilus, Ad Autolycus (c.160 AD)

This Early Christian text is a bit of a curveball, and my suggestion to get stuck into Theophilus might be a little controversial. Theophilus has long had a bit of a reputation for simply going on too long. His three book Apology, addressed to his friend Autolycus, makes a long and passionate plea for faith. But the emphasis is on the long. The three books combined offer a lengthy work, and much of his writing is both the inclusion and comment on long passages of both Scripture (particuarly the Old Testament) and ancient Greco-Roman texts.

But I’m not going to recommend you slog through all three of these books. Rather, I want to commend reading just the first book, which in itself isn’t particularly long.

Theophilus’ Apology

Theophilus’ work starts with an aggressive tone. Accusing his interlocutor of being so shrouded in sin that he cannot describe God, the Christian author offers to describe Him instead. Creation becomes the starting point of a chronological argument that focuses largely on the Old Testament. His argument for God’s divine goodness is held in repeated contrast with the evils and inconsistencies of the Greek gods. More than this, Theophilus considers the pagan philosophers who wrote of these gods to have been inconsistent, propagating falsehood, and confused of their own beliefs.

The three books present his argument at length, and the reader often has to endure long passages where his purpose is far from clear. Nonetheless, it is a largely faithful plea to embrace the truth of who God is, and a defence of those who put their trust in this God. As Theophilus argues, though his opponents laugh and ridicule him for being called a Christian, they do not know what they are saying, (1.12) “for we are called Christians on this account: we have been anointed with the oil of God.” Indeed, while the believer is in a blessed state of security, it is Autolycus who has been led astray by fools. (3.4) “For though yourself prudent, you endure fools gladly… you yield yourself to empty words.” Though Autolycus is wise enough, he has been taken in by the thinking and teaching of these false philosophers and teachers. The response is given later in the third book; repent of your sins and embrace righteousness (3.11-12).

Whilst the three books make helpful points, lengthy sections such as a chronology from Adam through to the end of the captivity under the Persian King Darius (3.24-25), and a corresponding chronology of the Roman world up until the death of Marcus Aurelius (3.27) illustrate how Theophilus’ long tangents hinder the appeal of his work. It would be better, in approaching Theophilus, to focus your efforts a little more.

Why read the first book?

Why not read instead simply the first book of this work? With good translations readily available for free online it is an easy work to find, and Book One doesn’t take too long to read, being only 14 chapters long (compared to the 38 of Book Two and the 30 of Book Three). Whilst Theophilus does make a short attack on the folly of idolatry (1.9-10), the first book is primarily concerned with describing the various attributes of God, and defending (and appealing for) faith in Him.

God is described as Lord, Creator, King. The right response to this God is encouraged. (1.5) “Entrust yourself to this Physician! He will give rest to the eyes of your soul and your heart. Who is the Physician? God, who heals and makes alive through His word and His wisdom.” This point is driven home. (1.7) “Let faith and the fear of God have rule in your heart, and then you shall understand all this.”

Book One ends with an account of the author’s own conversion. (1.14.) Theophilus recounts how he studied Scripture and met God in these holy pages. He implores his reader to do the same.

Book One is a great read, and not a particularly time-consuming one. I have written before about Theophilus’ description of God in this opening book, but his creative and descriptive language when talking about God is deeply stirring. Though he can be a writer who at times lacks concision, and whose latter two books become slightly obscure, this first book is a warm encouragement to meet with God, as the greatness of this God is described by the author.

Conclusion

Reading all of Theophilus is not for the faint hearted. Reading Book One is, however, a different kettle of fish. There is much in the opening book of this apology that would warm your heart and feed your soul, and the testimony of Scripture transforming Theophilus’ life nearly 1900 years ago is in itself a remarkable thing to read and dwell on. It is wonderful that we hope in a timeless God whose Word is ever living and active. Reading Ad Autolycus, Book One, will both remind you of who this God is, and encourage you with the transforming power of His Word.

The most easily accessible online version is available here.

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