Highlights from Hilary of Poitiers

Hilary of Poitiers is not much of a household name today, but in the fourth century he was an important figure in the church. After opposing Arianism in Gaul, Hilary was banished to Asia Minor for a time by the magistrate. His interaction with Greek-speaking Christians there, and careful theological interaction with them, made him an important bridge between orthodox theologians on both sides of the East-West linguistic/cultural divide in the fourth century.

While upon his return from exile he may have eventually given into the semi-modalistic tendencies of his native region, prior to this he authored a work of great historical and theological importance On the Councils of the Easterners. In this work he did much to try to bridge the growing east-west divide in the church by carefully communicating the various eastern regional councils’ decisions against Arianism.

While there is much that could be said on this work, and I strongly recommend it to the interested reader, here I hope to briefly examine a few quotes from Hilary that show his belief that the one God is the Father in particular, contra modalism and semi-modalism.

“God is One on account of the true character of His natural essence and because from the Unborn God the Father, who is the one God, the Only-begotten God the Son is born, and draws His divine Being only from God; and since the essence of Him who is begotten is exactly similar to the essence of Him who begot Him, there must be one name for the exactly similar nature. That the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him is chiefly shown in the fact that He was subjected to Him to render obedience, in that the Lord rained from the Lord and that the Father did not, as Photinus and Sabellius say, rain from Himself, as the Lord from the Lord; in that He then sat down at the right hand of God when it was told Him to seat Himself; in that He is sent, in that He receives, in that He submits in all things to the will of Him who sent Him. But the subordination of filial love is not a diminution of essence, nor does pious duty cause a degeneration of nature, since in spite of the fact that both the Unborn Father is God and the Only-begotten Son of God is God, God is nevertheless One, and the subjection and dignity of the Son are both taught in that by being called Son He is made subject to that name which because it implies that God is His Father is yet a name which denotes His nature. Having a name which belongs to Him whose Son He is, He is subject to the Father both in service and name; yet in such a way that the subordination of His name bears witness to the true character of His natural and exactly similar essence.”

Here we see Hilary skillfully explain several things, including the communication of the divine nature to the Son in eternal generation (which you can read more about here: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/does-teaching-the-father-is-the-one-god-undermine-the-divinity-of-christ/), the equality of the Son’s nature with that of the Father, the Son’s personal subordination to His Father, and not least of all, he expressly defines the one God as the Father (“from the Unborn God the Father, who is the one God, the Only-begotten God the Son is born”).

Next we see Hilary quote a statement made by one of the Eastern Synods, and then his commentary on it.

““If any man says that the Son is incapable of birth and without beginning, speaking as though there were two incapable of birth and unborn and without beginning, and makes two Gods: let him be anathema. For the Head, which is the beginning of all things, is the Son; but the Head or beginning of Christ is God: for so to One who is without beginning and is the beginning of all things, we refer the whole world through Christ.

  1. To declare the Son to be incapable of birth is the height of impiety. God would no longer be One: for the nature of the one Unborn God demands that we should confess that God is one. Since therefore God is one, there cannot be two incapable of birth: because God is one (although both the Father is God and the Son of God is God) for the very reason that incapability of birth is the only quality that can belong to one Person only. The Son is God for the very reason that He derives His birth from that essence which cannot be born. Therefore our holy faith rejects the idea that the Son is incapable of birth in order to predicate one God incapable of birth and consequently one God, and in order to embrace the Only-begotten nature, begotten from the unborn essence, in the one name of the Unborn God. For the Head of all things is the Son: but the Head of the Son is God. And to one God through this stepping-stone and by this confession all things are referred, since the whole world takes its beginning from Him to whom God Himself is the beginning.”

Hilary’s explanation here is helpful in giving us an understanding of how the ancient orthodox Christians understood there to be only one God, Who is the Father, and yet also confessed the divinity of the Son and Spirit without somehow ending up being tri-theists (believing in three gods). The fact that the Father alone is unborn and uncaused, and is the Cause and Begetter of the Son before all time, was understood to logically explain why the Son’s divinity did not pose any problem to the Father being the one God. Although both the Father and Son are of the same divine nature, yet one (the Father) possesses is without cause and of Himself, while the Son was begotten of the Father and so given His divine nature by Him. Hilary explains that because everything can be referred to back to only one unoriginate first cause, the Father, there is still only one God, although the Son and Spirit also possess the same divine nature as He.

In our last highlight Hilary again responds to the common modalist argument against orthodoxy, that it presents a plurality of Gods, and finishes with some strong comments showing the falsehood of modalism.

“Kept always from guile by the gift of the Holy Spirit, we confess and write of our own will that there are not two Gods but one God; nor do we therefore deny that the Son of God is also God; for He is God of God. We deny that there are two incapable of birth, because God is one through the prerogative of being incapable of birth; nor does it follow that the Unbegotten is not God, for His source is the Unborn substance. There is not one subsistent Person, but a similar substance in both Persons. There is not one name of God applied to dissimilar natures, but a wholly similar essence belonging to one name and nature. One is not superior to the other on account of the kind of His substance, but one is subject to the other because born of the other. The Father is greater because He is Father, the Son is not the less because He is Son. The difference is one of the meaning of a name and not of a nature. We confess that the Father is not affected by time, but do not deny that the Son is equally eternal. We assert that the Father is in the Son because the Son has nothing in Himself unlike the Father: we confess that the Son is in the Father because the existence of the Son is not from any other source. We recognize that their nature is mutual and similar because equal: we do not think them to be one Person because they are one: we declare that they are through the similarity of an identical nature one, in such a way that they nevertheless are not one Person.”

I would like to especially point attention here to Hilary’s statement: “because God is one through the prerogative of being incapable of birth”: as we have seen, this refers only to the Father, Who is unbegotten. The Son, we have seen Him say, is born of the Father. We see him then clearly articulating that the unborn Father in particular is the one God.

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