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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XII: December. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

December 6

St. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, Confessor

THE MEMORY of this illustrious bishop, and learned father of the second century, has always been dear to the Church, and his writings were highly valued by Eusebius and St. Jerom for elegance of style, variety of erudition, and a discreet and warm spirit of piety and religion. St. Theophilus was born of Gentile parents, who trained him up in idolatry, and gave him a liberal education. Whilst he was yet young, he was well versed in the works of the greatest masters of ancient philosophy, and by his judgment, and the acuteness of his wit, gained much esteem among the learned men of that age. By his impartial and free search into nature and the state of things, he found the religion in which he was engaged to be not only altogether unsatisfactory, but also absurd and ridiculous, and he had too honest a heart to take up with falsehood and impiety because it was fashionable. In the works of the creation and providence, he discerned plain notices of the divine Being and perfections. In his diligent inquiry after truth, he fell upon the books of the prophets and gospels, and was much delighted with the sublime verities which they contain, and the certain prediction of future events which he discovered in them. The doctrine of the resurrection was for some time a great stumbling-block to him. Indeed there was scarcely any article of faith which met with so much opposition as this from the heathen philosophers. So full were their heads of the axiom, that from a privation of form to the repossession of it there can be no return, that they understood it, not only of the order of things, in the ordinary course of nature, but as if it implied a contradiction. Though certainly in the supernatural order of things, it is equally easy to Omnipotence to restore our scattered parts, and combine them again into the same mass, as it was at first to create them out of nothing. Theophilus at length conquered this difficulty, by reading the sacred oracles of truth, and by frequent reflection upon the many shadows of a resurrection which God hath impressed upon many parts of the creation in the common course of nature. This is the account of the manner of his conversion, which he intimates to his friend Autolychus, 1 whom he directs to the same method of conviction. Theophilus greatly rejoiced that he had attained to the name of a Christian, a name which he styles, “Dear to God, however despised by ignorant and vicious men.” But knowing that the bare name would only serve to his greater condemnation, he strenuously endeavoured to reap the fruits of this religion by holiness of life. Eros, bishop of Antioch, dying in the year 168, the eighth of Marcus Aurelius, he was chosen the sixth bishop of Antioch, as Eusebius and St. Jerom reckon him, from Evodius, though the latter sometimes calls him the seventh, including St. Peter.  1
  Theophilus being fixed in his charge set himself zealously to promote virtue and true religion, and to draw men from the wanderings of heresy and idolatry into the true path of eternal life. Heresies and schisms he compared to dangerous rocks, upon which whoever is cast runs the dreadful hazard of losing his immortal soul. “As pirates,” says he, “by striking on rocks dash in pieces their laden vessels, so whoever is drawn aside from the truth, shall be miserably overwhelmed in his error.” 2 The vigilance and vigour with which this holy pastor opposed the first advances of heresy, have raised a lasting monument to his glory, which will endure till time shall be no more. He wrote a confutation of the heresy of Marcion, a treatise against the heresy of Hermogenes, and catechetic discourses, of which, through the injuries of time nothing has been transmitted down to us except some few quotations and the titles and reputation of those writings. His three books to Autolychus we have entire, which contain an apology for the Christian religion. They are filled with curious remarks on passages of ancient poets and philosophers concerning their systems of idolatry: the style is lofty, smooth, and elegant; the turn of his thoughts lively and agreeable, and his allegories and similes natural and beautiful. As these books were drawn up for the conviction of a pagan, and to obviate the calumnies and reproaches which were cast upon the Christian religion by its enemies; they must not be expected to contain nice disquisitions upon the truths of Christianity. It was our author’s part rather to make use of such arguments as would confirm the faith and convict an idolater than to explain its doctrine. Yet it evidently appears, from several passages, that he was well acquainted with the hidden mysteries of the gospel. Petavius and Scultet fancied they discovered some expressions favourable to Arianism; but are clearly confuted by Bull, 3 Dom Le Nourry, 4 Dom Maran, and others. St. Theophilus manifestly teaches that God the Son, or the Divine Wisdom, is coeval with the Father, and his generation eternal. 5 What he says of his second generation, when he made himself manifest in the creation of the world, 6 and of his third when he was born a man, cannot prejudice his divinity or consubstantiality with his Father. St. Theophilus gives the name of Trinity to the three Divine Persons in one nature, 7 and he is the first whose writings are extant in which that word is employed to express this mystery. This father says, that Adam’s disobedience entailed miseries on us; nevertheless, God took occasion from his fall to confer on us the greatest benefit, and the sin being expiated, has restored us to paradise. 8 He doubts not of Adam’s salvation, 9 which Tatian the heresiarch 10 set himself to deny about that time. 11  2
  Autolychus was a man of great learning and eloquence, who spent whole nights in conversing with libraries, but was excessively zealous for idolatry, and equally prejudiced against the Christian religion, which he counted mere madness, and loaded with the most odious calumnies which all the wit and malice of those times could invent, and he quarrelled with his friend Theophilus for defending it. Our saint boldly undertook to show him his errors. Treating him with the ingenuity of a philosopher, and the freedom of a friend, without flattery or disguise; and probing to the bottom of his sore, in order radically to cure him, he tells him, that it is in vain for him to make any inquiry after truth, unless he reform his heart, and proceed with views perfectly pure: for the passions raise clouds which blind reason. “All men have eyes,” says he, “yet the sun is veiled from the sight of some. It, however, ceases not to emit a flood of day, though those whose eyes are blinded, see not its radiant light. But this defect is to be laid to their charge, nor can the sun be complained of on account of their blindness. Thus, my friend, it is sin that darkens your mind, and blunts the edge of your understanding. As the glass represents not the image if it be soiled, so the mind receives not the impression of God, if it lies immersed in sin. This is a humour which greatly obstructs the sight, and prevents the eye from beholding the sun. Thus, my friend, your impiety diffuses a cloud over the faculties of your soul, and renders you incapable of receiving the glorious light.” In this manner he exhorted him to seek the truth with his whole heart, and purely with a view to discover it, looking upon this only as his happiness. He then proceeds in his first book to prove that God is infinite, and incomprehensible in all his perfections, and elegantly sets forth his sovereign wisdom, power, goodness, and other attributes; which he illustrates from the frame of the universe.  3
  A monstrous portraiture is then drawn by him of the pagan theology in their adoration of impious dead men, inanimate statues, beasts, birds, vermin, leeks, and onions. The Egyptian superstition he describes almost in the words of Juvenal. 12 He concludes this book by an elegant illustration of the resurrection of the dead from similes found in nature. 13 Autolychus received favourably this first discourse, and expressed his satisfaction to Theophilus, who thereupon, in his second book, laid down a confutation of the opinions that were maintained by the heathens concerning their gods. He showed the contradictions of their poets and philosophers upon this subject, and explained the creation and history of the world from Moses. It is a just and true remark, that all nations distinguished the seventh day, though only the Jews observed it in a religious manner, and knew the original. In contemplating the universe he expresses his astonishment as follows: “So adorably amazing is the greatness and goodness of God in the creation, that no one could be able to describe the order and disposition of it; though he were enriched with the flowing eloquence of a thousand tongues, and though a man’s life was to be extended to a thousand years.” The world he calls a sea impetuously raging with impiety and enormous wickedness; but says, the law and the prophets springing up, as a fountain of fresh water, have refreshed it with the salutary streams of mercy and justice, and the sacred commands of a gracious God. “And as in the sea there are islands which are fruitful and furnish good harbours for the shelter of mariners who fly to them, and are there secured from the tossings of the tempests; so hath God given to the world holy churches, into whose safe havens the lovers of truth fly, and all those who desire to be saved, and to escape the dreadful wrath of God. And as there are other islands which want water, and are filled with barren rocks, and, being uninhabitable, are destructive to sailors, and in which ships are dashed to pieces, or are unfortunately detained: so likewise are there erroneous doctrines and heresies which destroy those who are seduced and drawn aside by them.” Theophilus, in his third book, proves, that the writings of the wisest heathens are full of many principles contrary to humanity, right reason, and sound morality; and he sets off the holiness of the doctrine and lives of the Christians, especially their meekness and love of their enemies; for even whilst they are ready to sink under the weight of oppression, they earnestly wish well to their persecutors, who rage against them in all the variety of cruelty. We have no certain account of the issue of this conference: but Dr. Cave observes, that if strength of reason, eloquence, and the prudent management of the cause of truth could prevail, we must conclude, that Autolychus was reclaimed from his error: especially as we find him after the first discourse desirous of further instruction. St. Theophilus wrote many other works for the edification of the church, which have not reached us. The short commentary on the gospels, which bears his name in the second tome of the Library of the Fathers, is certainly the production of a Latin writer, and of a later age, as appears by quotations from St. Jerom, St. Ambrose, &c. and the mention of monks. St. Theophilus sat twenty-two years in his bishopric, and died about the year 190, the tenth of Commodus. His name occurs in the Roman Martyrology on the 13th of October. The most correct editions of his books to Autolychus are, that published by bishop Fell at Oxford, in 1684; that given by John Christopher Wolf at Hamburg, in 1724; and lastly, that of the Benedictins, with St. Justin’s works. See the testimonies of Lactantius, Eusebius, St. Jerom, &c. on St. Theophilus, collected by Bishop Fell, in his preface, Grabe, Spicil. Patr. Sæc. 2. p. 118. Cave, Tillemont, t. 3. p. 88. Ceillier, t. 2. p. 103.  4
Note 1. S. Theoph. l. 2, ad Autolyc. p. 78, &c. [back]
Note 2. L. 2, ad Autolyc. p. 183. [back]
Note 3. Defens. fidei Nicænæ, sect. 2, c. 4, p. 122. [back]
Note 4. Nourry, in Apparatu ad Bibliothecam Patrum, t. 2, Diss. 4, c. 3, p. 491. [back]
Note 5. S. Theoph. l. 2, p. 88. [back]
Note 6. Ib. p. 100. [back]
Note 7. L. 2, p. 94. [back]
Note 8. L. 2, pp. 102, 103. [back]
Note 9. Ib. et. p. 104. [back]
Note 10. Tatian, an Assyrian by birth, a Christian, and an able orator, went to Rome, and there became a disciple of St. Justin; but, after his martyrdom, being puffed up with pride, which often attends an opinion of a man’s own knowledge, he became the head and author of the heresy of the Encratites or Continent, so called because they condemned marriage, and the use of certain meats and wine, leading in appearance sober and austere lives. Tatian also adopted Marcion’s distinction of two Gods, of which the second was the Creator, and to him he ascribed the Old Testament, the New to the other. With the Docetæ he pretended that Christ suffered only in appearance. (See St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Epiphanius, St. Jerom, &c.) Tatian’s Discourse against the Gentiles was certainly written by him before his fall; for in it he approves marriage. This work is extremely full of profane learning, and the style is elegant enough, but exuberant, and the book wants method. In it he proves that the Greeks were not the inventors of the sciences, which they learned from the Hebrews, and had abused them. He intermixeth many satirical reflections upon the ridiculous theology of the heathens, and the corrupt manners of their gods and philosophers. The best edition of this work is given at the end of St. Justin’s works, published at Oxford in 1700, by Mr. Worth, archdeacon of Worcester; and that of the Maurist Benedictins. Tatian’s Harmony of the Gospels, which reduced all the four into one, was anciently famous, even amongst Catholics, but dangerous by the affected omission of passages which proved the descent of Christ from David. (See Theodoret, Hæret. Fabul. l. 1, c. 20.) It was called Diatesseron, or Four in One; but is not now extant. [back]
Note 11. S. Epiph. hær. 46. [back]
Note 12.
“The mortal sin an onion to devour,
Each clove of garlic is a sacred pow’r.
Religious nations sure, and blest abodes,
Where ev’ry orchard is o’er-run with gods.”
Juv. Sat. 15, v. 12, by Tate.
Note 13. Athenagoras, an Athenian Christian philosopher, in the same age wrote a book “On the Resurrection of the Dead,” in which this article is confirmed. The same author presented his Apology or Legation for the Christians to Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus, about the year 177. Neither of these works was known to Eusebius or St. Jerom; but the Legation is quoted by St. Methodius, bishop of Olympus, and martyr in the persecution of Dioclesian, (ap. S. Epiph. hær. 64, n. 21,) and by Photius, (cod. 224.) Both these pieces, especially the apology, are methodical, solid, and elegant, though the style is too diffusive. They are translated into English by Mr. Humphreys, and printed at London, in 1714, with a dissertation on Athenagoras, and another on the resurrection of the dead. [back]