Friday, January 13, 2017

Athanasius of the West

Today is the Feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church, often called the most Greek of the Latin Fathers. St. Hilary was a highly educated pagan Neoplatonist who converted to Christianity along with his wife and daughter, and was so respected in Poitiers that somewhere around 350 they forced him to become bishop, despite the fact that he was still married. He became active in opposition to the Arian heresy, and spent four years exiled for his opposition. It was during his exile in Phrygia that he turned his attention to a problem he was one of the few to recognize: a lack of communication between the orthodox in the East and the orthodox in the West, resulting in a failure of cooperation. Out of this recognition came the two works that most contribute to his status as one of the Church's great teachers: the De synodis, which explained the doctrines of several major Eastern councils (Ancyra, Antioch, Sirmium) and analyzed apparent differences between Eastern and Western formulations, and the De trinitate, the first systematic and thorough examination of Nicene Christology in Latin and a major early conduit for introducing Greek theological ideas to the West. Defense of orthodoxy in both East and West had often been a matter of simply defending what one's local church had always done; Hilary was one of the few who fully grasped the fact that an adequate response to Arianism required both East and West supporting each other.

From the Liber de synodis, speaking of the Nicene homoousion:

But perhaps on the opposite side it will be said that it ought to meet with disapproval, because an erroneous interpretation is generally put upon it. If such is our fear, we ought to erase the words of the Apostle, There is one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, because Photinus uses this to support his heresy, and refuse to read it because he interprets it mischievously. And the fire or the sponge should annihilate the Epistle to the Philippians, lest Marcion should read again in it, And was found in fashion as a man, and say Christ's body was only a phantasm and not a body. Away with the Gospel of John, lest Sabellius learn from it, I and the Father are one. Nor must those who now affirm the Son to be a creature find it written, The Father is greater than I. Nor must those who wish to declare that the Son is unlike the Father read: But of that day and hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father....Shall we, because the wise men of the world have not understood these things, and they are foolish unto them, be wise as the world is wise and believe these things foolish? Because they are hidden from the godless, shall we refuse to shine with the truth of a doctrine which we understand? We prejudice the cause of divine doctrines when we think that they ought not to exist, because some do not regard them as holy. If so, we must not glory in the cross of Christ, because it is a stumbling-block to the world; and we must not preach death in connection with the living God, lest the godless argue that God is dead.

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