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Evil triumphs when good men do nothing - Edmund Burke

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

St. Hilary of Poitiers - 13th January 2010

HILARY, Bishop of Poitiers (Pictaviurn), the place of his birth, was b. early in the fourth century; d. 366. He shone like a clear star alongside of the great champions of the Nicene Creed, - Athanasius, Basil, and the two Gregories. Among the teachers of the West of his day lie was beyond dispute the first, and bore a strong resemblance to Tertullian, both in disposition and scientific method. He employed an elegant Latin style. His parents were Pagans, and of high social standing. Hilary enjoyed fine facilities for education. In the introduction to his treatise on the Trinity he describes the stages a Pagan passes through in reaching the knowledge of God, which heathen philosophy reveals dimly, Christianity clearly. This description evidently depicts his own experience. lIe had reached the years of manhood when he professed Christianity. A statement of uncertain value speaks of his wife and daughter as following him. About the year 350 the popular voice called him to the bishopric of Poitiers.

The times were times of conflict. The Emperor Constantius determined to make Arianism the prevailing creed of the West, as it had become of the East. This end he endeavored to secure by intimidating the bishops. Hilary placed himself in antagonism to the emperor, and devoted all his energies to resist the spread of Arianism. His persuasions induced a number of the Gallic bishops to refuse communion with the Arian bishop of Arles, - Saturninus; and in a letter to the emperor (355) he calls upon him to desist from his policy of coercion. At the Council of Beziers (356), presided over by Saturninus, the Arians were in the majority, and silenced Hilary by their tumult when he arose to defend the Nicene faith. A few months afterward he was banished to Phrygia, where his leisure was employed hi studies of the Greek language and literature, and in making himself acquainted with the parties and doctrines of the Eastern Church. In 359 he wrote his work on synods (De Synodis), - an historical survey of the confessions of the Eastern Church, with a definition of his own position. The best product of the exile (359 or 360) was a treatise on the Trinity (Lib. XII. de Trinitate). Aroused by the Arian decrees of the Council of Constantinople (360), he wrote a second letter to Constantius, offering to defend his faith publicly before him and a synod. The court did not grant his proposal, but, deeming that he was doing more mischief in the East than he could do in Gaul, ordered him back to Poitiers.

On his return, Hilary was regarded as the champion of the Nicene faith. The Council of Paris (361), under his lead, excommunicated Saturninus. He now sought to clear Italy of Arianism, and appeared suddenly at Milan, to prefer charges against its bishop, Auxentius. The latter, however, stood in high favor with the emperor, and Hilary was driven out of the city. he explained his course in this matter in a work against Auxentius (365). According to Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 45), he died the following year.

Hilary was one of the most conspicuous and original characters of early Christianity. His distinguishing characteristics were fidelity to the church creed, acuteness in argument, and resolution in action. He knew no fear. He wielded a keen sword when he defended apostolic truth against heretics, or vindicated the prerogatives of the Church against the encroachments of the civil power. Yet, when the differences concerned non-essentials, he displayed a conciliatory disposition. His power lay essentially in his thorough acquaintance with the Scriptures. His earliest literary labor was a Commentary on Matthew, and one of the latest an Exposition of the Psalms. His other exegetical works are lost. Much to be regretted is the loss of his collection of hymns which the Spanish churches used.

His work on the Trinity is a scriptural confirmation of the philosophic doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and is of permanent value. It was not a mere restatement of traditional orthodoxy, but a fresh and living utterance of his own experience and study. In the discussion of the co-essentiality of the Son, Hilary lays emphasis on the Scripture titles and affirmations, and especially on his birth from the Father, which he insists involves identity of essence. In the elaboration of the divine-human personality of Christ, he is more original and profound. The incarnation was a move went of the Logos towards humanity in order to lift humanity up to participation in the divine nature. It consisted in a self-emptying of himself, and the assumption of human nature. In this process lie lost none of his divine nature; and, even during the humiliation, he continued to reign everywhere in heaven and on earth. Christ assumed body, soul, and spirit, and passed through all stages of human growth, his body being really subject to pain and death. Redemption is the result of Christ’s voluntary substitution of himself, out of love, in our stead. Between the God-man and the believer there is a vital communion. As the Logos is in the Father, by reason of his divine birth, so we are in him, and become partakers of his nature, by regeneration and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The christology of Hilary is full of fresh and inspiring thoughts, which deserve to be better known than they are. He was created a doctor of the Catholic Church by Pius IX., at the synod of Bordeaux, 1851.

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