Saints for Our Times: St. Hilary fought Arianism, softened Latin
By Mary Lou Gibson
History has given us many examples of the problems that result when theology and politics are joined together. In the fourth century, it was the controversy over Arianism, the heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus, and embroiled religious leaders and many rulers and threatened to split the empire.
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Arius taught “that the Son was created out of non-being, that there was a time when he did not exist, that his nature was capable of good and evil, that he is a creature and created.” Constantine summoned a council in 325 at Nicaea in Phrygia to settle the question. Burns writes that the Council defined the doctrine that the Son was “of one being” with the Father, and excommunicated Arius. This did not solve the problem, however, because Arius’ views continued to be promulgated in the east.
In 350, Hilary of Poitiers (an area in southwestern France) was a recently elected bishop. At the time he was an orator, married, and had a daughter, Abra (or Afra). He was born into a wealthy pagan family in 315 and it was only through his studies when he came in contact with the Scriptures, that he was converted and baptized. Writing later of his conversion when he was about 35, he wrote, “I said to myself that if the present life is not given us to set us on the road to eternal life, then it is not a benefit from God.”
According to Burns, the Christian people of Poitiers chose Hilary as their bishop while he was possibly still a layman because sometimes the people chose a layman of good repute to be their bishop.
Hilary accepted and was immediately drawn into a period of theological controversy resulting from Arius’ teaching. When Constantine’s son Constantius became sole emperor, he promoted Arianism against the pope. Bishop Hilary soon became the outspoken champion of orthodoxy against the Arians.
The emperor called a synod in Milan in 355 to further the spread of Arianism in the west. Hilary wrote his First Book to Constantius begging him to restore peace to the church. Burns writes that Hilary did not attend two synods convoked in Gaul to get the French bishops to support Arius. He did have to attend a third, but he refused to sign a pro-Arian document and was exiled to Phrygia (now modern Turkey). In 358, Pope Liberius capitulated to the emperor’s views leaving Hilary the virtually sole champion of orthodox belief in the west.
Rosemary Guiley writes in the “Encyclopedia of Saints” that Hilary used his time in exile to study and write. One of his most celebrated works is “De Trinitate,” a series of 12 books arguing that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have the same essential substance or nature. After a few years, the Arian bishops feared the influence that Hilary’s writings would have in the east and pressured Constantius to return him to his see.
On his return to Poitiers in 360, Hilary traveled through Illyricum and Italy preaching against Arianism and making many converts. He received a hero’s welcome from the people in Poitiers. Guiley reports that the Arian persecution ended with Constantius’ death in 361 although the heresy remained strong.
Hilary then summoned all the bishops of Gaul to a synod in Paris and had them sign allegiance to the Nicene Creed, the doctrine issued by the Council of Nicaea in 325 in response to the Arian heresy. Omer Englebert writes in “Lives of the Saints” that Hilary’s perseverance and moderation purged all Gaul of heresy.
In his battle against Arianism, Hilary turned against the heresy one of its own innovations and strengths – that of hymns and he wrote some of his own. Englebert also notes that honor is given to Hilary for having softened Latin, making it more readily adaptable to Greek thought, and for the exact definition of the mysteries of our faith.
In character, Hilary was gentle, courteous and friendly, although his writings could be sometimes severe in tone. Along with “De Trinitate,” he wrote many other works including “Dy Synodis” and Commentaries on the Psalms and on Matthew’s Gospel.
Hilary died in Poitiers in 367 worn out by his travels, exile and struggles. John Delaney writes in the “Dictionary of Saints” that Hilary was one of the leading and most respected theologians of his times. He was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Pius IX in 1851. He has also been described as the “Athanasius of the West” based on his defense of orthodoxy at the Synod of Bitterae in 356. St. Jerome called Hilary “the trumpet of the Latins against the Arians.”
His feast day is Jan. 13, which traditionally marks the beginning of the “Hilary” term (spring semester) at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and in the British law courts.