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St. Hilary, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

January 11, 2019

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St. Hilary was born in Poitiers, a town in southwest France, in 315, into an upper-class, non-Christian family. He was raised as a pagan, given a solid liberal education, and was fluent in both Latin and Greek. He was married as a young man, and had a daughter named Apra.

St. HilarySometime later he became aware of the Bible, and out of curiosity, and with his facility in the biblical languages, he began to read Scripture. He was fascinated with the prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), and developed a deep appreciation for Jesus, the gospels, and the wisdom and truth of the Bible, which led to his conversion and baptism in 350.

Three years later, in 353, Hilary was elected bishop of Poitiers, over his objections, while still a married layman. He was a staunch defender of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Council of Nicaea (325) which declared that Jesus is divine, eternal, and consubstantial, of the same substance, as the Father. Furthermore, he strenuously opposed Arianism which held that Jesus is the greatest of human beings but less than God, created, and not eternal.

Arianism had many adherents, both in France and throughout the West. The emperor, Constantius II, himself an Arian, called a synod in Milan in 355 which Hilary refused to attend. The synod produced a document that condemned Athanasius, the chief proponent of Nicaea in the East, which all bishops were required to sign. Hilary defiantly refused. The synod of Beziers followed in 356, comprised mainly of Arian bishops, which condemned Hilary for his orthodox beliefs. Subsequently, Constantius exiled Hilary to Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor.

Upon his arrival in the East, Hilary was invited to attend the Council of Seleucia in 359, where he, like Athanasius, remained insistent about the divinity of Jesus. He was deeply disappointed that so many resisted him and clung to their erroneous ideas, and that so many bishops who supposedly were his allies remained silent and in effect yielded to the opposition. The Arians detested his presence, regarded him as “the sower of discord and the troublemaker of the Orient,” and petitioned the emperor to end his exile and allow him to return to Poitiers, and they were overjoyed when he departed in 360.

Hilary was warmly received upon his return. He convoked a synod of Gallic bishops in Paris in 361 to unify and solidify their support of Nicaea. He exerted his leadership, not only in France, but throughout Europe, and he traveled extensively, constantly a vigorous proponent of the Nicene Trinitarian doctrine. In 364 he publicly denounced Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan. He also objected to the emperor’s interference in the church, and insisted on separation between the church and government.

Hilary wrote De Trinitate, his most famous work, a multivolume treatise on Trinitarian theology, as well as De synodis and Opus historicum. He also wrote scripture commentaries, most notably on the gospel of Matthew and the Psalms, and composed a number of liturgical hymns. Hilary died at the age of 53 of exhaustion, worn out from his travels, his exile to the East, and the relentless bitter wrangling. St. Augustine called him “the illustrious doctor of the churches,” and in 1851 Pope Pius IX declared Hilary a Doctor of the Church.

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