Tychonius of Africa: His Exegesis & Ecclesiology

One of the most underappreciated Latin theologians and Church Fathers today is Tychonius of Africa, who lived during the late fourth century AD. This fact is surprising considering the that Tychonius’ two works, The Book of Rules (Liber regularum) and Exposition on the Apocalypse (Expositio Apocalypseos), which has recently been reconstructed from surviving fragments, wielded an enormous influence on Latin biblical commentary for the rest of the millennium, especially with regards to exegeses on Revelations. His importance cannot be underestimated, for it was due entirely to Tychonius that the Latin West accepted the Book of Revelation as canonical much sooner than the Greek East in the post-Nicene era (Gryson, 7). Although he himself was Donatist heretic, Tychonius was an oddball who disputed his fellow Donatists’ assertion that the Church was only located in Donatist Church of North Africa. For his maverick-like positions, Tychonius was excommunicated by his fellow Donatists. Yet it seems that Tychonius never left the Donatist Church. Despite his schismatic ties, Tychonius earned the praise and recommendation of Augustine of Hippo in Chapters 30-37 of his On Christian Doctrine. For a quick overview of Tychonius’ life and work, see the encyclopedic entry by Paula Fredricksen. My main focus here will not be on Tychonius’ commentary on Revelation, which was only recently reconstructed from various fragments, but mostly on his Book of Rules. In it, Tychonius lays out a set of seven rules that he believes will help readers of scripture gain a fuller and more mystical understanding of God’s word. He hopes that with a combination of both reason (ratio) and grace of God (Dei gratia) the inner mysteries of the scriptures will become clear, especially in places were a literalist interpretation yields an unacceptable result. His seven rules are the following:

1.) The Lord and His Body

2.) The Lord’s Bipartite Body

3.) The Promises and the Law

4.) The Particular (specie) and the General (genere)

5.) Times

6.) Recapitulation

7.) The Devil and His Body

I hope to give a brief overview of some of his rules here, mostly those pertaining to his ecclesiology. For those who are curious and would like to read more, I suggest the following translation of this work by William S. Babcock, which has the Latin on the left-hand and the English on the right-hand pages:

Tychonius, Tyconius: The Book of Rules, translated by William S. Babcock (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989).

I also make use of the following primary and secondary sources as well:

Tyconius, Expositio Apocalypseos: Accedvnt eivsdem expositionis a qvodam retractatae fragmenta tavrinensia, edited by Roger Gryson, CCSL 107A (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011). For a recent translation, which I did not use, click here.

Tyconius, The Book of Rules, edited by F. C. Burkitt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1894). Note: This is strictly the edited Latin text with some introductory notes.

Pamela Bright, The Book of Rules of Tyconius: Its Purpose and Inner Logic (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

Traugott Hahn, Tyconius-Studien: Ein Beitrag zur Kirchen- und Dogmengesichcte des vierten Jahrhunderts (Leipzig: 1900).

Joseph Ratzinger, “Beobachtungen zum Kirchenbegriff des Tyconius im ‘Liber regularum,'” Revue des Études Augustinniennes 2 (1956): 173-185.

Rule 1: The Lord and His Body

Tychonius’ first rule deals with various areas of scripture that concern seemingly confusing or contradictory passages and reconciling them. For example, Isaiah 53:4-6 reads as the following:

He bears our sins and knows sorrow on our behalf; he was wounded for our iniquities and God delivered him up for our sins…

Tychonius states that this is universally regarded as referencing Christ. But then he goes on to consider later portions of the passage, particularly Isaiah 53:10-11:

And God wishes to free him from affliction, and God wishes to take away his sorrow, to show him the light and to form him with prudence.

Tychonius has trouble believing that this verse could possible be referencing Christ, although it is still part of the same context and passage. He asks, “Does God ‘wish to show the light’ to the same one whom ‘he delivered up for our sins’ or wish ‘to form him with prudence,’ especially when that one is himself the very light and wisdom of God” (Babcock, 2-3; Burkitt, 2)? Tychonius declares the negative and argues that these latter verses must be referring to the Lord’s Body, that is the Church. It is from this that Tychonius categorizes scriptural speech concerning Christ in two ways: the speech concerning Christ alone (the Head) and the speech concerning his Church (the Body).

Another exemplary instance of this rule is Daniel 2:34-35, which says:

Thus you saw while a stone was cut out of a mountain without hands, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and ground them to powder. Then at once the clay, the iron, the copper, the silver, and the gold were like dust from the summer threshing floor, and a great force of wind blew them away; and their place was not to be found. Then the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled all the earth.

Traditionally, many Church Fathers have understood this statue of iron, clay, copper, etc. as representing various kingdoms and empires of times past. Tychonius accepts this understanding and argues that the stone represents the Lord (Babcock, 4-5; Burkitt, 2).  And from this small stone, the Body of Christ grows by degrees to encompass the whole world, as if a small stone became a mountain.

Rule 2: The Bipartite Body of the Lord

In his second rule, Tychonius outlines what would be familiar to anyone who has read Augustine’s works – the idea of the mixed church. However, it should be stressed that Tychonius does not use the phrase “mixed church,” but simply uses the term “bipartite” (bipertito). This line of thought can roughly be summarized as thus: the Body of Christ here on Earth contains two parts – those who are truly committed to God and those who make up the Devil’s Body.

To support the idea of a bipartite church, Tychonius considers Isaiah 45:3-5, which says:

And I will give you hidden treasures, and the concealed riches of secret places so that you may know that I am the Lord who calls you by your name, the God of Israel. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my elect, I have even called thee by your name. I have made a likeness of you, and you have not known me. I am the Lord, and there is none else. There is no God besides me. I girded you and you have not known me.

Tychonius believes these verses must be speaking about two individuals or two peoples. For how else would someone who has hidden secrets revealed to them by God not know God? As a result of this seeming contradiction, Tychonius posits that the person who has the hidden treasures revealed to them is the elect part of Christ’s Body. Meanwhile, the one who remains in ignorance is part of the Devil’s Body (Babcock, 14-15; Burkitt, . It should be emphasized that Tychonius does not adhere to the idea of predestination, unlike Augustine, when he says:

This saying, “if you had obeyed me” (Isaiah 48:18-19), is a reminder of God’s justice and a configuration of the promises designed to keep anyone from thinking that it is by divine disposition, rather than by free will, that some are made for death, some for life.

Babcock, 46-49; Burkitt, 8

Another portion of Tychonius argument in favor of the bipartite Church is worth quoting in full:

Again, the bipartite character of Christ’s body is indicated in brief: “I am black and beautiful” (Song 1:5). By no means is the church – “which has no spot or wrinkle,” (Ephesians 5:27) which the Lord cleanses by his own blood – black in any part, except in the left-hand part through which “the name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles” (Romans 2:24). Otherwise it is wholly beautiful, as he says: “you are wholly beautiful, my love, and there is no fault in you” (Song 4:7). And indeed she says why it is that she is both black and beautiful: “like the tent of Kedar, like the tent-curtain of Solomon” (Song 1:5). She shows that there are two tents, one royal and one servile. Yet both spring from Abraham, for Kedar is Ishmael’s son. And furthermore, in another passage, the church groans that it has dwelt so long with this Kedar, i.e., with the servant descended from Abraham: “Who is to me that my sojourn has been so lengthy, that I have lived among the tents of Kedar. Too long has my soul been on sojourn. With those who hate peace, I was peaceful; when I spoke to them, they made war against me” (Psalms 119:5-7). Yet we cannot claim that the tent of Kedar is outside the church. She herself mentions the “tent of Kedar” and “of Solomon;” and that is why she says, “I am black and beautiful.” Those who are outside the church do not make it black. It is in virtue of this mystery that, in the Apocalypse, the Lord now calls the seven angels (i.e., the septiform church) holy and keepers of his precepts and now shows the same angels to be guilty of many crimes and in need of repentance (Revelation 2-3).

Babcock, 18-19; Burkitt, 10-11

In short, Tychonius believes that the Body of Christ or the Church consists of both sheep and wolves so-to-speak. This outlook fits quite nicely with Matthew 13:24-30, in which Christ articulates the idea that the Church consists of both wheat and weeds that will only be separated in the end of days.

Rule 7: The Devil and His Body

Just as with the Body of Christ, Tychonius applies the logic that the Devil too is composed of a head and a main body. He then concerns himself with the interaction between the elect and the Devil’s body (the reprobate). Referencing both Song 1:7 and Joel 2:20, he concludes metaphorically that the Lord resides in the south, while the Devil resides in the north. But then Tychonius makes a peculiar statement, saying:

And in Jeremiah we read that the sinners of Israel are assembled in the north, when the Lord says, “go and read out these words to the north and say: turn back to me, house of Israel, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:12). The southern part, certainly, is the Lord’s, as it is also written in Job: “from the southern part will your life sprout forth;” (Job 11:17) the north is the devil’s. And both parts appear in all the world.

Babcock, 122-125; Burkitt, 74-75

What exactly does Tychonius mean by this statement, “And both parts appear in all the world.” At first, one understands Tychonius’ framework as pertaining to the institutional and earthly Church, whereby both good and bad people are mixed within. But is he suggesting that the Body of the Devil exists solely within the Body of Christ, that is the Church? If this is so, then Tychonius’ ecclesiological framework lends itself to the idea of an invisible church, although even if it does, it does not necessarily exclude a visible institutional church. Joseph Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, argued nearly sixty years ago that Tychonius thought there was very little need for visible institutions for the Church (Ratzinger, 183). Pamela Bright posits that the question, so hotly debated between St. Optatus and Parmenian, was simply of little interest to Tychonius (Bright, 86; 189-190). Traugott Hahn echoes this sentiment, arguing that Tychonius believed that the evaluation of external institutions should not replace the importance of personal life and conduct (Hahn, 45). He probably had strong reservations for both parties, the Donatist because of their theological heresies and the Orthodox because of their willingness to use the imperial Roman army to persecute the Donatists (Bright, 82). Again, the visible Church was not particularly important for Tychonius. This worldview would certainly explain why Tychonius never joined the Orthodox after both rejecting key Donatist doctrines and being excommunicated by his fellow Donatists. But does Tychonius’ emphasis on the true nature of believers, that is the content of their hearts rather than their formal institutional affiliation, necessarily dismiss the idea of a visible institutional Church? It is at this juncture that it might be worth looking at Tychonius’ Exposition on the Apocalypse, which was recently reconstructed in the following:

In any case, a clear answer is easily found in Tychonius’ commentary on Revelations 6:7-8, in which he says:

“Et cum apervisset quartum sigillum, audiui quartum animal dicens: Veni et vide. Et ecce equus pallidus, et qui sedebat super eum, nomen ei erat mors, et infernus sequebatur eum, et data est ei potestas super quartam partem terrae interficere gladio et fame et morte et bestiis terrae.” Duae partes sunt in mundo, populus dei et populus diaboli. Nam et populus diaboli in duas diuisus est partes, quae contra unam pugnant. Propterea ecclesia uocata est “tertia pars” (Zachariah 13:8), et falsi fratres altera tertia, et gentilitas tertia. Antequam autem ubique homo peccati reuelatur et publice manifestetur filius perditionis, iam ex parte reuelatus est, et ubi tres partes uidebantur, iam quarta manifestata est. Non enim omnem malum uomet ecclesia, sed aliquos ad ostendendum orbi genus nouissimae persecutionis. Ceteros uero unanimiter tolerat; licet spiritaliter foris sint, tamen intus operari uidentur. In illis ergo locis in quibus duae partes uidentur, id est ecclesia et gentilitas, apud aliquos tres partes sunt, apud nos autem quattuor, id est ecclesia gentilitas schisma et falsi fratres. Non ideo hypocrisis pars diaboli non erit, quia ecclesiam non aperte deuastat, cum apostolus dicat totam uim diaboli contra sanctos in spiritali nequitia consistere (Ephesians 6:12), et dominus de eadem: “Exsurgent,” inquit, “pseudochristi et pseudoprophetae, et dabunt signa magna et prodigia, ita ut errant, si fieri potest, etiam electi; uos autem cauete, ecce praedixi uobis” (Matthew 24:24-25; Mark 13:23).

“And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard a fourth animal saying, ‘Come and see.’ And behold I saw a white horse and he who sat upon him was named Death. And Hell was following him. And given unto him was the power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword, with famine, with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). There are two parts in the world, the people of God and the people of the Devil. For the people of the Devil were divided into two parts, who fought against the one [people of God]. Therefore, the Church was called the “third part” (Zechariah 13:8), the false brethren another third, and the pagans another third. But before the man of sin is revealed and the son of perdition is publicly shown everywhere, hitherto [the man] was revealed from a part, and where the three parts were being seen, then after a fourth part was shown. Indeed, the Church will not vomit up all the evil, but only some for the purpose of showing to the world a type (genus) of final persecution. But [the Church] tolerates the rest unanimously. Spiritually, they are outside [the Church], but they are seen to work within. Therefore, in these places in which two parts are seen, that is the Church and the [spiritual] pagans, among some there are three parts, but among us there are four, which are the church, pagans, schismatics, and false brothers. On account of hypocrisy, there will part of the Devil, because [the Devil] does not devastate the Church from without, since as the apostle says all the power of the Devil consists of the wickedness of spirit against the saints (Ephesians 6:12), and the Lord says much the same: “Pseudo-christs and pseudo-prophets will arise, and they will give great signs and wonders, so that even the elect may err, if it is possible. But you have taken heed, for behold I have forewarned you” (Matthew 24:24-25; Mark 13:23).

Tyconius, Expositio Apocalypseos: Accedvnt eivsdem expositionis a qvodam retractatae fragmenta tavrinensia, edited by Roger Gryson, CCSL 107A (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011), 139-140.1-25

In this passage, Tychonius presents the world as divided into two parts – the people of God and the people of the Devil. The people of the Devil are further divided into two parts: those who call themselves Christians but are not and those who are outright unbelievers (i.e. the pagans). The Church is identified as the people of God thereby making a total of three parts. But Tychonius affirms the belief that this bipartite nature is not to last. In the end-times, he believes that Christ will separate the wheat from the weeds. He terms this eventuality as the Church “leaving from the midst.” Thus the institutional Church will vomit up some of those who are not part of the Church in spirit. Therefore, they will no longer be seen to have been part of the Church, but will be outside it formally, although many of those who are bad will still remain in the Church. But Tychonius calls this interpretation a type or genus. In this respect, he is referencing his fourth rule of scriptural interpretation on the species and genus prophecies. The genus prophecies serve a double function of describing the end-times but also the continuous process unto which the Church is subjected (Bright, 73-76). In short, the vomiting of the Church has a eschatological case in the future, but also a real and present process in the here and now.

The next question that can be asked is how does Tychonius arrive at the conclusion that there are four parts? It is clear that he adds a fourth part known as schismatics. But where do the schismatics come from? Tychonius never specifies and thus there is a serious ambiguity regarding his own institutional affiliation that he never resolves, possibly for two reasons: 1.) he was more concerned with spiritual rather than formal institutional matters; or 2.) perhaps he never arrived at a conclusion for whom he should (re)join (Donatist or Orthodox) no matter how hard he thought about it.


About Alura

I just do my thing.
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8 Responses to Tychonius of Africa: His Exegesis & Ecclesiology

  1. gratias tibi! hoc mihi valde placet.


  2. Dr. Tim says:

    There is much to think about in this, especially in light of current RC crisis issues. Thoughts?


    • Alura says:

      I must confess that I am not well-versed in the recent crises within the Catholic Church at the moment. Therefore, I don’t have many thoughts on the matter in light of Tychonius’ writings. Did you have something specific in mind?


  3. Reblogged this on Orthodox Christian Theology and commented:
    Tychonius is an interestng character I was introduced to when I read Frend’s “The Donatist Church” (https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2015/12/11/reflections-on-the-donatist-church-by-william-hugh-clifford-frend/). Shameless Orthodoxy has published a more in depth article on his allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, which though he was a heretic was employed by western Christians throughout the Middle Ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tychonius is an interesting character. “The Donatist Church” by William Hugh Clifford Frend posits he was excommunicated when he was censured. In light of what Augustine wrote, it would seem this is not so.

    It is interesting that they have collected his fragments on revelation and re-constructed his work. Gennadius wrote, “[h]e showed the distinction of the resurrection really to be that we must believe that there is a revelation of the righteous now in this world, when those justified by faith rise by baptism from the death of sin to the reward of the eternal life, and the second [resurrection] to be the general one of all flesh .” Salvation by faith, apart from a church, implicitly was the doctrine of the invisible church, which both Catholics and Donatists rejected. However, I wonder how specific his commentary really was about the notion. Perhaps, people at the time were able to read in between the lines and know what he was getting at.


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