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Hilary of Poitiers: The Hammer of the Arians

The new issue of Credo Magazine, “The Great Tradition,” focuses on the early Church Fathers. The following is an excerpt from one of the issue’s featured articles by Peter Barnes. Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church. He lectures in Church History at the Presbyterian Theological College in Burwood.

Hilary of Poitiers has been called “the Athanasius of the West” and “the Hammer of the Arians,” although both titles could use some caveats applied. In addition, he is sometimes regarded as the patron saint of lawyers, and perhaps even more caveats would be required. Hilary’s biography was written by Venantius Fortunatus, nearly two centuries after Hilary’s death. This serves as an indication that we know relatively little about him.

Mary Clark says that Hilary was born about A.D. 315, while R. P. C. Hanson opts for a date between 310 and 320. It seems that about 350, or perhaps later, he became bishop of Poitiers, a fairly obscure town in western Gaul. Venantius Fortunatus says that Hilary was raised in a Christian household, but from brief references in his works, it is often assumed that he converted to Christianity from a background in paganism. Mary Clark, for example, says that this came about through reading the Bible which weaned him from his classical pagan education. Manlio Simonetti sets no store by this, perhaps without sufficient reason. In any case, the good bishop was almost certainly married and had a daughter named Abra.

Discovering the Nicene creed

Hilary’s times – albeit full of crises and confusion – are better known than his person. The Council of Nicaea in 325 was supposed to have cleared up the issue of the deity of Christ for the Church. The Son was defined as homoousios (“of one substance” or “of one essence”) with the Father. This has stood the test of time, but in the mid-fourth century that was not so obvious. In fact, Hilary was to comment that he had been a bishop for some years before he ever heard of the Nicene creed!

Many churches in the East came to fear that the Nicene formula tended to Modalism or Monarchianism, the belief that the Son is the same Person as the Father, and they simply carry out different roles. Most, but by no means all, churches in the West were more fearful of some variation of Arianism, the belief that the Son is not quite divine in the full sense. It was the age of creed after creed, council after council, and expulsions for those on the outer. Best known among the exiles was Athanasius of Alexandria, who was forced to leave his home city five times in his career. Best known for complaints was the last great ancient Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan, who grumbled that, in calling so many councils, the emperor Constantius had “only succeeded in hamstringing the post service.”

At the rather small council of Sirmium (northern Serbia) in 357 the term homoousios was forbidden as an unbiblical word. For that matter, homoiousios (of like essence) was also forbidden for the same reason. The Son and the Father were thought to share the same will, not essence. This became known as the homoian theology (not to be confused with homoiousian creeds). The condemnation of ousia language was directed at the Nicene creed, but also at the homoiousians such as Basil of Ancyra and George of Laodicea. Hilary dubbed this “the blasphemy of Sirmium.” As it turned out, in the providence of God, this gave the homoousians in the West and the homoiousians in the East a common enemy. Basil of Ancyra, for example, had always been suspicious of Athanasius of Alexandria for the same reason that he was hostile to his own predecessor, Marcellus of Ancyra – that he was guilty of Modalism. Yet now he was using ousia language – which made it easier for some kind of mutual understanding to take place.

Hilary held to the full deity of Christ, even if early in his career he may not have been certain how to express this. He defended the Nicene creed that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were one in substance, but he also came to acknowledge that “The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion.” However, he considered that if some misunderstood homoousion, that ought not to prevent him from understanding it.

His Life

Now we must look at Hilary himself. The council of Milan in 355 had seen some Western bishops submit to the condemnation of Athanasius. Hilary responded with some vigour, and broke off communion with these bishops, which led to his deposition and exile at the council of Béziers in 356 (although some say this occurred at the earlier council of Milan). Living, and moving quite freely, in Phrygia in the East proved decisive, for he was able to learn Greek and study the works of the Greek fathers. He met Basil of Ancyra, although no details survive of that meeting. Hilary saw himself as one who was tempted to live quietly and accept a corrupt judgment, but in all conscience he had to continue the battle. Retreat was not possible: “This the love of Christ, which through faith and hope abides in a sincere heart, could not countenance.”

In the East, Hilary came to appreciate the dangers of Sabellian Monarchianism that may have lurked behind the expression homoiousios – at least in the Eastern mind. The Arianising emperor, Constantius II, who reigned from 337-361, was determined to sink the Nicene creed and achieve unanimity in the Empire. Hilary’s response was to compare him to the persecuting emperors Nero, Decius, and Maximian. With or without imperial permission, Hilary returned to the West in 360. He was warmly received, but in 364 he failed to have Auxentius, the reputedly Arian bishop of Milan, deposed. A few years later, in 367 according to Jerome, Hilary died.

**Read the remainder of Peter Barnes’s article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.

Peter Barnes

Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church. He lectures in Church History at the Presbyterian Theological College in Burwood.

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