Hilary of Poitiers



Who was Hilary of Poitiers?

Hilary of Poitiers (300 – 368 A.D.) was Bishop of Poitiers and is a Doctor of the Church. He was sometimes referred to as the "Hammer of the Arians" (Latin: Malleus Arianorum) and the "Athanasius of the West." His name comes from the Latin word for happy or cheerful. His optional memorial in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints is 13 January. In the past, when this date was occupied by the Octave Day of the Epiphany, his feast day was moved to 14 January.

Hilary was born at Poitiers either at the end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th century A.D. His parents were pagans of distinction. He received a good education, including what had even then become somewhat rare in the West, some knowledge of Greek. He studied, later on, the Old and New Testament writings, with the result that he abandoned his Neo-Platonism for Christianity, and with his wife and his daughter (traditionally named Saint Abra) were baptized and received into the Church.

So great was the respect in which he was held by the citizens of Poitiers that about 350 or 353, although still a married man, he was unanimously elected bishop. At that time Arianism was threatening to overrun the Western Church; to repel the disruption was the great task which Hilary undertook. One of his first steps was to secure the excommunication, by those of the Gallican hierarchy who still remained orthodox, of Saturninus, the Arian Bishop of Arles, and of Ursacius and Valens, two of his prominent supporters.

About the same time, he wrote to Emperor Constantius II a remonstrance against the persecutions by which the Arians had sought to crush their opponents (Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, of which the most probable date is 355). His efforts were not at first successful, for at the synod of Biterrae (Béziers), summoned by the emperor in 356 with the professed purpose of settling the longstanding disputes, Hilary was banished by an imperial rescript, along with Rhodanus of Toulouse to Phrygia, where he spent nearly four years in exile.




In exile

While in Phrygia, however, he continued to govern his diocese, while he found leisure for the preparation of two of the most important of his contributions to dogmatic and polemical theology: the De synodis or De fide Orientalium, an epistle addressed in 358 to the Semi-Arian bishops in Gaul, Germany and Britain, expounding the true views (sometimes veiled in ambiguous words) of the Eastern bishops on the Nicene controversy; and the De trinitate libri XII, composed in 359 and 360, in which, for the first time, a successful attempt was made to express in Latin the theological subtleties elaborated in the original Greek.

The former of these works was not entirely approved by some members of his own party, who thought he had shown too great a forbearance towards the Arians; he replied to their criticisms in the Apologetica ad reprehensores libri de synodis responsa.

He also during this time attended several synods, including the council at Seleucia (359) which saw the triumph of the homoion party and the forbidding of all discussion of the divine substance. In 360, he tried unsuccessfully to secure a personal audience with Constantius, and to address the council which met at Constantinople in 360.

When this council ratified the decisions of Ariminum and Seleucia, Hilary responded with the bitter In Constantium, an attack on the Emperor Constantius as Antichrist and persecutor of orthodox Christians. His urgent and repeated request for a public discussion with his opponents, especially with Ursacius and Valens, proved at last so inconvenient that he was sent back to his diocese, which he appears to have reached about 361, within a very short time of the accession of Emperor Julian.

Later life

On his return in 361, Hilary was occupied for two or three years in combating Arianism within his diocese. In particular, he aimed to persuade clergy that the homoion confession was merely a cover for traditional Arian subordinationism. Under Hilary's influence a number of synods were held in Gaul which condemned the creed promulgated at Council of Ariminium (359).

In 364, extending his efforts once more beyond Gaul, he impeached Auxentius, bishop of Milan, and a man high in the imperial favour, as heterodox. Summoned to appear before Emperor Valentinian I at Milan and there maintain his charges, Hilary was mortified to hear the supposed heretic giving satisfactory answers to all the questions proposed. His denunciation of Auxentius as a hypocrite did not save him from an ignominious expulsion from Milan.

In 365, he published the Contra Arianos vel Auxentium Mediolanensem liber, in connection with the controversy; and also (but perhaps at a somewhat earlier date) the Contra Constantium Augustum liber, in which he pronounced that lately deceased emperor to have been the Antichrist, a rebel against God, "a tyrant whose sole object had been to make a gift to the devil of that world for which Christ had suffered."

In about 360 or 361, with the encouragement of Hilary, Martin, the future bishop of Tours, founded a monastery at Ligugé in his diocese. After 364, Hilary's activities are unknown. According to Jerome, he returned to Poitiers and died there in 367.

Exegetical Writings

Among Hilary's earliest writings, completed sometime before his exile in 356, is his Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei, an allegorical exegesis of the first Gospel. This is the first Latin commentary on Matthew to have survived in its entirety. Hilary's commentary was strongly influenced by Tertullian and Cyprian, and made use of several classical writers, including Cicero, Quintilian, Pliny and the Roman historians.

His expositions of the Psalms, Tractatus super Psalmos, for which he was largely indebted to Origen, were composed some time after his return from exile in 360. Already in Jerome's day the work was incomplete, and it is not known whether Hilary originally commented on the whole Psalter. Now extant are the commentaries on Psalms 1, 2, 9, 13, 14, 51-69, 91, and 118-150. The third surviving exegetical writing by Hilary is the Tractatus mysteriorum, preserved in a single manuscript first published in 1887.

Theological Writings

Hilary's major theological work was the twelve books now known as De Trinitate. This was composed largely during his exile, though perhaps not completed until his return to Gaul in 360. Another important work is De synodis, written early in 359 in preparation for the councils of Ariminium and Seleucia. While he closely followed the two great Alexandrians, Origen and Athanasius, in exegesis and Christology respectively, his work shows many traces of vigorous independent thought.

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"Hilary of Poitiers." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.