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Reading Hilary of Poitiers

Reading Hilary of Poitiers

The long, dark nights of the winter solstice are naturally congenial to contemplation.  Every Christmas I am drawn to relections on the mystery of the incarnation in the writings of the ancient Christians which helped to shape the church's doctrine.

This year I have been reading again one of my favorite ancient books on the doctrine of the Trinity, De Trinitate ,or, "on the Trinity," by Hilary of Potiers (A.D. 300-367).   This work was a major influence upon the thinking  of Leo the Great,  Ambrose and Augustine of Hippo.  De Trinitate is available in translation in both The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers and The Fathers of the Church series.

Born in what is now France, Hilary had been a philosopher before he was converted to Christ as a mature man.  At age 50 , he was consecrated bishop in his hometown, and he became, over time, a supporter of the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325.

Hilary found truth in revelation he could never find in reason alone.  He learned in the church how the Holy Spirit illumines the human mind so that faith enables us to use our reason to understand the truth.  Thus faith opens up for reason a new horizon for the operation of its powers. [ Hilary is representative of other ancient Christian theologians who, in the words of historian Robert Louis Wilkin, showed how "Christianity did introduce something new to intellectual life, namely, that faith is the portal that leads to the knowledge of God" ("The Reasonableness of Faith," The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 165).]

Throughout his book, Hilary's purpose is to help the church to know Jesus Christ and his salvation.  He is anxious that the speculations of the Arian theologians, who taught that the Son of God is only a creature of God the Father, would destroy the faith of the people and their hope of salvation.  As he stated in chapter 2 of On the Trinity:  "He, by whom human beings were made, had nothing to gain by becoming human; it was our gain that God was incarnate and dwelt among us, making all flesh his home by taking upon himself the flesh of one of us.  We were raised because he was lowered; shame to him was glory to us.  He, being God, made flesh his residence, and we in return are lifted anew from the flesh to God."

Hilary never forgets that the person and work of Jesus Christ is a mystery beyond our capacity to fully understand it.  He warns repeatedly against what we today would call reductionism.  Speaking of the resurrection of Jesus in chapter 3, he says, "If we assume that an event did not happen, because we cannot discover how it was done, we make the limits of our understanding into the limits of reality."  Rather than reject what we cannot fully grasp, we must acquire the humility to receive the mystery being revealed to us, and to understand it to the best of our ability by the exercise of our intelligence through faith.

Hilary devotes much space in On the Trinity in reflecting upon the portrait of Jesus Christ in the four gospels.  Jesus Christ is protrayed paradoxically as both a human being, who shares the natural needs and weaknesses of all human beings, and the divine Son of God.  At times, Hilary's intention to show that Christ is the Son of God leads him to unnecessarily explain away some features of his humanity.  Although he does not always succeed, Hilary seeks to adhere to the apostolic witness contained in the four gospels which proclaims Jesus Christ as the Son of God who emptied himself to become fully human for our sakes.  Hilary also never forgets the true meaning of the incarnation.  In chapter 6, he writes, "God, who loved the world, gave us not an adopted Son, but his own, his only-begotten.  Here is personal interest, true Sonship, sincerity; not crreation, or adoption, or pretence.  Herein is the proof of his love and affection, that he gave his own, his only-begotten Son."

I think that the greatest moment in this work occurs in chapter 7.  There Hilary makes his famous statement, "...Though God is one, God is not solitary."  By this, he means that "the Word is God, the only -begotten, and yet the unbegotten Father is never without his Word."  Elsewhere he states that the Holy Spirit is also God with the Father and the Son (or Word).  Here is the crux of the distinctively Christian understanding of God.  While God is one, God is not a solitary Being, but the relationship of love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It is this Trinitarian love which has been given to us through the coming of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

There is much constructive theological work being done today on the meaning of the Trinity. Most of it is consistent with Hilary's teaching that God is one, but not solitary.  Indeed, our world-view today, which is informed by the knowledge of modern physics-- that everything which exists is in relationship with everything else--makes us appreciate more than ever our world and ourselves as the creation of the God who is--in God's own being--a relationship of love.

Hilary concluded his great work with this prayer:  "...May I ever hold fast that which I professed in the creed of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Let me, in short, adore you our Father, and your Son together with you; let me win the favor of your Holy Spirit, who is from you, through your only-begotten."