Saint of the Week: St. Hilary of Poitiers

Among western theologians of the patristic era, St. Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) is one of the important/major theologians of the Trinity, although his name does not ‘rank’ amongst the Famous Four (Doctors) — Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great — and he is less likely to be referenced than North Africans like Tertullian or Cyprian. Nevertheless, his work was read by Augustine as well as by Leo the Great who cites passages from St. Hilary’s De Trinitate in the patristic testimonia on two-nature Christology that he appended to Ep. 165 to Emperor Leo I (the ‘Second Tome’).

Hilary was born to well-to-do pagan parents and studied the Greek and Latin classics (as so many great men in history have done!), a study which in its breadth brought him to the Greek Old and New Testaments. It was the reading of the Scriptures themselves that converted St. Hilary, a testament to the power of God’s word written, enlivened by the Power of God’s Living Word to save.

He, his wife, and his daughter were baptised into the Catholic Church.

In the year 353, although his wife was still living, the people of Poitiers unanimously elected him bishop, demonstrating the quality of life exhibited by this saintly man. He immediately joined the controversy between Nicene and Arian theologians which was afoot at the time by excommunicating Saturninus, Bishop of the eminent see of Arles, with the aid of his fellow Gallic bishops.

Around 355, he wrote Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, pleading the case of the Nicenes against their Arian opponents who were persecuting the Pro-Nicenes. This letter was so unsuccessful that Constantius convened a synod in 356 that resulted in four years’ exile in Phrygia for Hilary.

Nevertheless, Hilary continued his anti-Arian work at breakneck pace, producing De fide orientalium in 358, a work addressed to the semi-Arians of Gaul that made clear the work of the Nicene theologians of the Greek East, seeking to bring about understanding in the minds of his theological opponents. In 359-360, he published his great work De Trinitate which brought to Latin theology many of the subtleties of Greek theological thought and laid the work for the great works of Latin theology to come in the later fourth and fifth centuries.

He made it home in 361, and spent a few years occupied with the Arians of his own diocese. Then in 364, he took on Auxentius of Milan, accusing him of being an Arian heretic. However, when face-to-face with Auxentius in Milan itself, he found that Auxentius answered all of his provocative questions adequately. He was kicked out of the city.

Around 365 he wrote a book denouncing Constantius, the emperor who exiled him and now dead, as a heretic and the Antichrist.

In his later years, he produced commentaries on the Psalms and on Matthew.

He also helped found a monastery in his diocese, giving assistance to the new ascetic movement as it grew in the West.

He died in 368.

St. Hilary of Poitiers is one of the many ancient theologians who serves as a reminder of the endless pursuit of holiness and truth. We must never give up. We must always seek to help others find the truth, even if the truth is inconvenient for them and this action on our part brings about much inconvenience for us. The truth is out there, and it matters, even if it brings us into controversy and conflict with the prevailing opinions of our times. Even if it leads us into exile.

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