Hilary's View of the Trinity

In our last post, we saw how Tertullian clarified, expounded, and defended the doctrine of the Trinity. Now we turn to another figure in the western, Latin branch of the Church: Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–367 AD).

When it comes to studying the doctrine of the Trinity, Hilary is often passed by in favor of Tertullian or Augustine.[1] Yet Hilary makes a significant contribution in his work De Trinitate (c. 356 AD), particularly with regards to Christology. In Hilary we find unbounded respect and reverence for the Word of God as the rule of faith and life. He does not hesitate to utilize both the Old and New Testaments to prove his points—in his estimation, they are one undivided whole.[2]

In regard to Hilary's contribution to Christology, we must speak briefly of the tenets of Arianism. In short, Arianism maintained that Jesus was not the Son of God in a consubstantial sense (i.e. not of the same essence as God the Father) and therefore was created as a third kind of intermediate being (tertium quid), neither fully God nor fully man. Thus the Arian slogan, “There was a time when he (Christ) was not.” This was the call-to-arms which roused Hilary to write roughly 200 pages of highly nuanced Latin in his De Trinitate. Hilary argues on this point that Jesus Christ is the natural son of God, unique and only-begotten, and is not the recipient of God's gracious adoption in a sense similar to the adoption of believers. It is certainly true that believers are adopted children of God, but Hilary adamantly maintains that Christ is the Son of God par excellence—naturally, uniquely, and divinely. Consider Hilary's following comments:

Let us therefore cite every example of a statement of the faith made by an Apostle. All of them, when they confess the Son of God, confess Him not as a nominal and adoptive Son, but as Son by possession of that Divine nature. They never degrade Him to the level of a creature, but assign Him the splendor of a true birth from God…[3]

Commenting on John 1:18 "No one has seen God at any time, except the Only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him," Hilary notes: 

It seemed to him [the Apostle John] that the name of Son did not set forth with sufficient distinctness His true Divinity, unless he gave an external support to the peculiar majesty of Christ by indicating the difference between Him and all others. Hence he not only calls Him the Son, but adds the further designation of the Only-begotten, and so cuts away the last prop from under this imaginary adoption. For the fact that He is Only-begotten is proof positive of His right to the name of Son.[4]

This is not an esoteric point of patristic theology, but cuts to the heart of the evangelical faith. Hilary exposits Romans 8:14-15 and observes:

Can Son, by any remaining possibility, be a title received [by Christ] through adoption, when He is expressly called God's own Son? For the Apostle, wishing to make manifest the love of God towards us, uses a kind of comparison, to enable us to estimate how great that love is, when He says that it was His own Son whom God did not spare. He suggests the thought that this was no sacrifice of an adopted Son, on behalf of those whom He purposed to adopt, of a creature for creatures, but of His Son for strangers, His own Son for those to whom He had willed to give a share in the name of sons. Seek out the full import of the term, that you may understand the extent of the love! Consider the meaning of own! Mark the genuineness of the Sonship which it implies. For the Apostle now describes Him as God's own Son! ... Previously he had declared that through the Spirit of adoption there are many sons; now his object is to point to God's own Son, God the Only begotten.[5]

This last point concerning the uniqueness of the Son of God and the derivative, adoptive sonship of believers is a thread spanning centuries of exposition and thought, winding its way through Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin, to name but a few. Thus, Hilary of Poitiers' contribution at this point is immense and not quickly overestimated. Hilary, standing on tip-toe, cries out across the ages that if we lose any part of the Trinity, whether divinity or humanity of Christ, we lose all. There is no Christianity, no salvation, no justification, no pardon, no remission of sins, no adoption, no communion with God, no hope of glory apart from the Only-Begotten, natural Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Trinitarian formulations of Tertullian and Hilary are characterized by a strong dependence on the exposition of Holy Scripture. The preaching of the Gospel was at stake in these debates. Both men were deeply concerned for the preservation of the ontological unity of God, the economic diversity, and the consubstantial equality of the persons of the Trinity. In short, that God is revealed to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. That Christ was born, suffered, died, was resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father that we might enter into blessed communion with God. The Holy Spirit is the one who works in us by His Word and Power to draw us to Christ. None of this would be possible if Christ was neither human nor God.

This is the same message that we must proclaim today. And in so doing, we must pass on to the next generation of the Church a doctrine of the Trinity that grounds the biblical doctrine of salvation in the grace of God. Without the doctrine of the Trinity we cannot maintain that Christ is our Savior, God our Father, or the Holy Spirit our Comforter. This is why men like Tertullian and Hilary labored and toiled over such things as the words of doctrine for its preservation in the midst of persecution and ridicule. By God's grace may we do the same.

For more from Todd Rester, Michael Barrett, Richard Phillips and others on the Trinity, be sure to check out this year's PCRT: Delighting in Our Triune God.

Todd Rester (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA. 

Related Links

"Hilary of Poitiers and the Wonder of the Triune God" by Simonetta Carr

"Is the Son Eternally Begotten?" by Ben Franks

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw [ Paperback  | eBook ]

The Essential Trinity, ed. by Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman

The Holy Trinity (Revised and Expanded) by Robert Letham


[1] Perhaps the reason is that he labored for, and lost for a season, a specific argument with an Arian-leaning bishop—a bishop who enjoyed significant influence over the Emperor of the Western Empire and, consequently, the Church.

[2] It is appropriate to recognize that the texts which he utilized were the Greek Septuagint and the Old Latin Version of the Old Testament (as he was unfamiliar with the Hebrew) and the Latin text for the New Testament.

[3] De Trinitate, VI.39

[4] Ibid, VI.39. "Naturae fides non satis explicata videbatur ex nomine filii, nisi proprietatis extrinsecus virtus per exceptionis significantiam adderetur. Praeter filium enim, et unigenitum cognominans, suspicionem penitus adoptionis exsecuit: cum veritatem nominis, unigeniti natura praestaret." 

[5] De Trinitate, VI.45. "Num quidnam etiam nunc adoptionis in eo erit nuncupatio, in quo proprietatis est nomen? Apostolus enim volens charitatem erga nos Dei ostendere, ut magnificentia Dei dilectionis ex comparationis genere nosceretur, non pepercisse Deum proprio filio suo docuit: non utique pro adoptandis adoptato, neque pro creatis creaturae, sed pro alienis suo, pro connuncupandis proprio. Quaere virtutem dicti; ut magnitudinem charitatis intelligas. Quid sit proprium expende; ne ignores veritatem. Nunc enim Apostolus proprium ait filium, cum in multis vel suum vel eius saepe dixisset. ... ut qui superius filios plures per spiritum adoptionis demonstrasset, nunc unigenitum Deum filium proprietatis ostenderet."

Note: This post was originally published on reformation21 in Novemeber 2006.