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Hilary of Poitiers, St.


Bishop and Church Father; b. Poitiers, France, c. 315; d. Poitiers, c. 367 (feast, Jan. 14). Hilary came of a distinguished family and received a sound training in the classics and philosophy. He was married and the father of a daughter named Abra; he was converted to Christianity in early manhood by reading in the Bible the sublime descriptions of God, which contrasted so strongly with the gross materialism of pagan mythology. His selection as the bishop of Poitiers probably took place in 353. At the council of Béziers (356) he refused to condemn athanasius, the touchstone of orthodoxy in the Arian controversy (see arianism), and was deported to Phrygia by order of the Emperor constantius ii. In exile he studied Greek theology, composed two of his most important works, corresponded with the Western bishops, and wrote vigorously to uphold the divinity of Christ. In 360 the emperor refused him permission to debate with the Arian-minded prelates, and in 361 he was released from exile because his enemies regarded him as "the sower of discord and the troublemaker of the Orient." After his return from exile, he allowed martin of tours, the soldier-convert, to inaugurate the monastic movement in Gaul by establishing a hermitage at Ligugé (see monasticism). Hilary spent his last years in repairing the damage that Arianism had done in Gaul and Italy.

Works. According to augustine, Hilary was a master of Latin eloquence who modeled his style on Quintilian and had begged God to grant him "beauty of diction" when writing about the sublime doctrine of the trinity. As jerome pointed out, long and involved sentences obscure his meaning at times, although usually he is more restrained than his contemporaries in employing ornaments of speech. His writings fall into four categories: theology, Scripture, controversial works, and hymns.

Hilary's De Trinitate is the first extensive study of this doctrine in Latin; he had to coin new words and expressions to convey his meaning clearly and adequately. Internal evidence indicates that he wrote the first three of the 12 books before 356 and the remaining nine during his exile.

His De synodis dates from this same period and explains why the prelates of the East were not satisfied with the term homoousios, "consubstantial," which had been approved at the Council of nicaea (325); it also cites the Oriental professions of faith and tells how they are to be interpreted. He wrote it to give his fellow bishops in Western Europe a more accurate understanding of the religious situation in the East. A Fragmenta ex opere historico is also attributed to Hilary. It contains some important documents relating to the Arian heresy that are not found elsewhere.

His Tractatus super Matthaeum was written before his exile, and the Tractatus super Psalmos after his return. In all probability both were originally sermons. Another scriptural work, Liber mysteriorum, is only partially preserved. His principal controversial works are directed against Constantius II, whose religious policy was dividing the Church; and against Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan, whom he had failed to depose at a synod in 364. Jerome informs us that Hilary introduced the singing of hymns into the West (see hymns and hymnals) because he saw how effective they had been in propagating the heresy of Arius among the people. But only three incomplete hymns of his are extant; his hymns were not as well adapted to public singing as were those of St. ambrose.

Doctrine. Hilary bases his defense of the dogmas of faith on the testimony of Sacred Scripture. Its authority is unquestioned because it is the word of God Himself. Heretics who appeal to the Bible distort its meaning through ignorance or malice. His fondness for the allegorical interpretation is evident in his scriptural commentaries, and especially in the Liber mysteriorum, but he usually uses the literal meaning when citing a text in his dogmatic works.

Catholic Church. Hilary did not write any formal treatise on the Church, but he takes its authority for granted since the Church exhibits unity in Christ. It possesses what all the heretics lack: unity, universality, and indestructibility. Just as certain medicines, he says, can cure all diseases, so the doctrines of the Church provide a remedy against every kind of heresy.

God and the Trinity. Hilary teaches that the existence of God can be known by reason, but that His nature is incomprehensible. The eternal being of God, as expressed in Ex 3.14, "I Am Who Am," had filled him with admiration, even as a pagan, and to it he related all the other divine attributes. This God, who is perfectly happy in Himself, has created angels and men in order that they might share in His happiness. The human soul, according to the better interpretation of Hilary's words, was immediately created by God. The sublime doctrine of the Trinity was in his opinion foreshadowed in the Old Testament but only revealed fully when the Son of God came upon earth.

He marshals his arguments in orderly fashion to show that the proponents of sabellianism are wrong in considering Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as only three names of one and the same divine person and that the Arians are also wrong in speaking of inequality in the Trinity. The doctrine of Trinitarian interaction, later known as circumincession, and its corollary that the Three Divine Persons act inseparably in all works ad extra are clearly implied in his explanation of the Trinity. He is often charged, as was his contemporary, St. basil, with not giving the name God to the Holy Spirit. One answer to this accusation is that Hilary was concerned with refuting the Arians who denied the divinity of the Son. Another is that in numerous passages he ascribes the same attributes to the Holy Spirit as to the Father and the Son, so that it cannot be seriously maintained that he denied the true divinity of the Third Person of the Trinity.

Hilary's primary purpose in all his writings was to prove that the nature of the Son was consubstantial with that of the Father, and therefore he made no careful study of Christ's human nature. He teaches clearly the two essential doctrines of the Incarnation: that Jesus was only one divine person, and that He had both a divine and a human nature. However, his belief that Christ did not experience interior affliction when He was scourged, crucified, and so on, shows the limitations of his Christological doctrine. He failed to recognize the state of physical weakness to which the Son of God freely subjected Himself when He became a man.

Influence. Hilary was the first Latin writer to acquaint Western Christendom with the vast theological treasures of the Greek Fathers. Augustine and thomas aquinas cite his authority in their studies of the Trinity. Hilary is rightly called the Athanasius of the West; he preached, wrote, and suffered exile in defense of the divinity of Christ. His role was providential: by strengthening the faith of the clergy and laity of Europe in this fundamental dogma, he prepared the Church for its second struggle against Arianism during the barbarian invasions. In 1851 Pius IX declared Hilary a "doctor of the Universal Church."

Feast: Jan. 13 (formerly Jan. 14).

Bibliography: hilary of poitiers, Tractatus super Psalmos, ed. a. zingerle in Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 22 (Vienna 1891); Tractatus mysteriorum: Hymni Fragmenta, Spuria, ed. a. feder in Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 65 (Vienna 1916); The Trinity, tr. s. mckenna in Fathers of the Church 25 (New York 1954); Hilary of Poitiers' preface to his "Opus historicum," tr. p. smulders (Leiden 1995). j. e. emmenegger, The Functions of Reason and Faith in the Theology of St. Hilary of Poitiers (Washington 1948). e. p. meijering, Hilary of Poitiers on the Trinity (Leiden 1982). m. durst, Die Eschatologie des Hilarius von Poitiers: Ein Beitrag zur Dogmengeschichte des vierten Jahrhunderts (Bonn 1987). l. f. ladaria, La cristología de Hilario de Poitiers (Rome 1989).

[s. j. mckenna]

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