Hilary of Poitiers and the Wonder of the Triune God

Hilary of Poitiers and the Wonder of the Triune God

            “He Who upholds the universe, within Whom and through Whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth; He at Whose voice Archangels and Angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing. The Invisible and Incomprehensible, whom sight and feeling and touch cannot gauge, was wrapped in a cradle.”[1]

            This is how Hilary of Poitiers, considered by some the greatest Latin theologian before Augustine, expressed his wonder at the startling mystery of the incarnation – a wonder that intensifies when we realize the Triune God did this for sinful men. “He by Whom man was made had nothing to gain by becoming Man; it was our gain that God was incarnate and dwelt among us, making all flesh His home by taking upon Him the flesh of One. 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.”[2]

            Hilary spoke these words at a time when the message they conveyed seemed not only absurd but offensive and unworthy of a God, generating a host of objections and what appeared to be more logical and dignified explanations, such as the Arian fabrication of a created and lesser Christ. It was also a time when most Roman emperors, in their natural penchant for pragmatism and efficiency, chose to enforce Arianism in their territories.

Hilary’s Search

            Hilary’s convictions about Christ’s incarnation developed through a long study and investigation of Scriptures. Born to a well-to-do family in Poitiers, France, at the start of the fourth century, he started out with all the advantages of his social class, including a good education that could grant a wealthy and satisfying life. His teachers could also provide good moral directions, but Hilary wanted more.

            “My soul was eager not merely to do the things, neglect of which brings shame and suffering,” he said, “but to know the God and Father who had given this great gift, to whom, it felt, it owed its whole self.”[3]

            Opinions on this subject were as varied as his teachers. Some thought there was no god, “and confined their reverence to a nature which, in their opinion, owes its being to chance-led vibrations and collisions.”[4] Others believed in a whole pantheon of gods, with a whole system of ancestry lines from god to god. Others worshiped the elements of nature, or gods that supposedly manifested themselves in animal forms. Many adopted what we would call a theistic view of God, believing that he exists but is indifferent to human affairs. None of these answers satisfied Hilary.

            While reading the Bible, he became particularly impressed by God’s definition of himself: “I am that I am.” He was immediately overcome by the eternity and immensity of a God who is, has always been, and always will be – a God who holds heaven and earth in the palm of his hand and yet makes of the heavens his throne and of the earth his footstool (Isaiah 66:1 cfr. Psalms 139:7-10).

            To Hilary, the only appropriate response to this astounding revelation God gives of himself is “humble reverence.” “[One] must not measure the Divine nature by the limitations of his own, but gauge God’s assertions concerning Himself by the scale of His own glorious self-revelation. For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages.”[5]

Hilary’s Defense of Christ’s Divinity

            After being baptized and received into the church, Hilary earned such a reputation that, around 353, he was elected bishop of his native city. There, he wrote his first work, a Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (possibly the first commentary in Latin on that book).

            Almost immediately, he was thrown into the heat of the Arian controversy, in which he stood steadfastly with the conclusions of the First Council of Nicea (325) in defense of Christ’s divinity. In 356, the Synod of Béziers, composed mostly of Arians, sentenced Hilary to exile in Phrygia (in present-day Turkey). It was there that Hilary wrote his best-known work, On the Trinity, where he supported his stand with Scriptures from both Old and New Testament. For Hilary, the doctrine of the Trinity is not only biblical, but is the only way to reach a correct understanding of God, who can only be known in Christ and through the Spirit.

            Hilary was unique among the defenders of the Nicene creed in his ability to discuss this heated subject calmly with the most moderate Arians, in the assumption that they were simply struggling to understand a biblical teaching that can sound strange and counterintuitive. He was however firm against the radical Arians, who eventually became so incensed by his presence in the east that they begged Emperor Constantius to send him back to Poitiers.

            Constantius agreed and in 361 Hilary re-entered Poitiers in triumph, resuming his pastoral duties. He continued to contribute to the discussions on the nature of Christ until his death in 367, earning the title of “Athanasius of the West.”



[1] Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book II:25, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wade, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, p. 52, https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/209/2090014.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., I:3, p. 40

[4] Ibid., I:4

[5] Ibid, I:18.