Archive for theology
A great Father of the Western Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the great bishops of the 4th century. Confronted with the Arians, who considered the Son of God a creature, albeit an excellent one, Hilary dedicated his life to the defense of faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and God as the Father, who generated him from all eternity.
We do not have definitive data about most of Hilary’s life. Ancient sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably around the year 310. From a well-to-do family, he received a good literary education, which is clearly evident in his writings. It does not seem that he was raised in a Christian environment. He himself tells us about a journey of searching for the truth, which little by little led him to the recognition of God the creator and of the incarnate God, who died to give us eternal life. He was baptized around 345, and elected bishop of Poitiers around 353-354.
In the years that followed, Hilary wrote his first work, the “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.” It is the oldest surviving commentary in Latin that we have on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary, as bishop, attended the Synod of Beziers in southern France, which he called the “Synod of the False Apostles,” given that the assembly was dominated by bishops who were followers of Arianism, and thus negated the divinity of Jesus Christ. These “false apostles” asked Emperor Constantine to condemn to exile the bishop of Poitiers. So Hilary was forced to leave Gaul during the summer of 356.
Exiled to Phrygia, in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in contact with a religious environment totally dominated by Arianism. There, too, his pastoral solicitude led him to work tirelessly for the re-establishment of the Church’s unity, based on the correct faith, as formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end, he began writing his most important and most famous dogmatic work: “De Trinitatae” (On the Trinity).
In it, Hilary talks about his own personal journey toward knowing God, and he is intent on showing that Scriptures clearly attest to the Son’s divinity and his equality with the Father, not only in the New Testament, but also in many pages of the Old Testament, in which the mystery of Christ is already presented. Faced with the Arians, he insists on the truth of the names of the Father and the Son and develops his entire Trinitarian theology departing from the formula of baptism given to us by the Lord himself: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And if some passages of the New Testament could lead one to think that the Son is inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading interpretations: Some passages in Scripture speak about Jesus as God, others emphasize his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into consideration his self lowering (“kenosis”), his lowering himself unto death; and lastly, others contemplate him in the glory of the resurrection.
During the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the “Book of the Synod,” in which, for his brother bishops of Gaul, he reproduces and comments on the confessions of faith and other documents of the synods which met in the East around the middle of the 4th century. Always firm in his opposition to radical Arians, St. Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit with those who accepted that the Son was similar to the Father in essence, naturally trying to lead them toward the fullness of faith, which says that there is not only a similarity, but a true equality of the Father and the Son in their divinity.
This also seems characteristic: His conciliatory spirit tries to understand those who still have not yet arrived to the fullness of the truth and helps them, with great theological intelligence, to reach the fullness of faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return from exile to his homeland and immediately resumed the pastoral work in his Church, but the influence of his teaching extended, in fact, well beyond its borders. A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 took up again the language used by the Council of Nicea. Some ancient authors think that this anti-Arian development of the bishops of Gaul was due, in large part, to the strength and meekness of the bishop of Poitiers.
This was precisely his gift: uniting strength of faith and meekness in interpersonal relationships. During the last years of his life, he wrote “Treatises on the Psalms,” a commentary on 58 psalms, interpreted according to the principle highlighted in the introduction to the work: “There is no doubt that all the things said in the Psalms must be understood according to the Gospel proclamation, so that, independently of the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, everything refers to the knowledge of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, incarnation, passion and kingdom, and the glory and power of our resurrection” (“Instructio Psalmorum,” 5).
In all of the Psalms, he sees this transparency of Christ’s mystery and of his body, which is the Church. On various occasions, Hilary met with St. Martin: The future bishop of Tours founded a monastery near Poitiers, which still exists today. Hilary died in 367. His feast day is celebrated on Jan. 13. In 1851, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a doctor of the Church.
To summarize the essential aspects of his doctrine, I would like to say that the starting point for Hilary’s theological reflection is the baptismal faith. In “De Trinitate,” he writes: Jesus “commanded to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19), that is to say, confessing the Author, the Only Begotten One and the Gift. One alone is the author of all things, because there is only one God the Father, from whom all things proceed. And one alone is our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (1 Corinthians 8:6), and one alone is the Spirit (Ephesians 4:4), gift in everything. … Nothing can be found lacking in a plenitude that is so grand, in which converges in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, the immensity of the Eternal, the revelation in the Image, the joy in the Gift” (“De Trinitatae” 2:1).
God the Father, being all love, is able to communicate the fullness of his divinity to the Son. I find this phrase of St. Hilary to be particularly beautiful: “God only knows how to be love, only knows how to be Father. And he who loves is not envious, and whoever is Father, is so totally. This name does not allow for compromise, as if to say that God is father only in certain aspects and not in others” (ibid. 9:61).
For this reason, the Son is fully God without lacking anything or having any lessening: “He who comes from the perfect is perfect, because he who has everything, has given him everything” (ibid. 2:8). Only in Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does humanity find salvation. Taking on human nature, he united every man to himself, “he became our flesh” (“Tractatus in Psalmos” 54:9); “he took on the nature of all flesh, thus becoming the true vine, the root of all branches” (ibid. 51:16).
Precisely because of this motive, the path to Christ is open to all — because he drew everyone into his humanity — even though personal conversion is always required: “Through the relationship with his flesh, access to Christ is open to everyone, provided that they leave aside the old man (cf. Ephesians 4:22) and nail him to his cross (cf. Colossians 2:14); provided they abandon their former works and are converted, in order to be buried with him in baptism, in view of life (cf. Colossians 1:12; Romans 6:4)” (ibid. 91:9).
Faithfulness to God is a gift of his grace. Therefore St. Hilary asks, at the end of his treatise on the Trinity, to be able to remain faithful to the faith of baptism. One of the characteristics of this book is this: Reflection is transformed into prayer and prayer leads to reflection. The entire book is a dialogue with God.
I would like to end today’s catechesis with one of these prayers, that also becomes our prayer: “Grant, O Lord,” Hilary prays in a moment of inspiration, “that I may remain faithful to that which I professed in the symbol of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That I may adore you, our Father, and together with you, your Son; that I may be worthy of your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from you through your only Son. … Amen” (“De Trinitatae” 12:57).
Cyril took care to ensure that his theology was firmly situated within the tradition of the Church, by which he sees the guarantee of continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.
Venerated as a saint in both the East and the West, in 1882 St. Cyril was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII, who at that time also gave the same title to another important representative of Greek patristics, St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This shows that Pope’s attention and love for the Eastern Christian traditions; he would later proclaim St. John Damascene a doctor of the Church, showing how the Eastern and Western traditions express the doctrine of the one Church of Christ.
Information on the life of Cyril before his election to the important See of Alexandria is scarce. A nephew of Theophilus — who, as bishop from 385, upheld the Diocese of Alexandria with resolve and prestige — Cyril was most likely born in that same Egyptian city sometime between 370-380. He soon embraced the ecclesiastical life and received a good education, both in culture and theology. In 403, he was in Constantinople following his powerful uncle and, here, he participated in the so-called Synod of the Oak, which deposed the city’s bishop — John, later called Chrysostom. This indicated the triumph of the Alexandrian See over its traditional rival, the See of Constantinople, where the emperor resided.
Upon the death of his uncle Theophilus, though still young, Cyril was elected bishop of the influential Church of Alexandria in 412, which he governed with great energy for 32 years, working tirelessly to affirm its primacy in the East, strengthened by its traditional bonds with Rome.
Two or three years later, in 417 or 418, the bishop of Alexandria showed himself to be a realist and healed the rift in the communion with Constantinople, which had been going on since 406, in the wake of Chrysostom’s removal from office.
But the old conflict with the See of Constantinople was rekindled some 10 years later, when Nestorius was elected in 428, a prestigious but severe monk, educated in Antioch. The new bishop of Constantinople quickly brought much opposition because he preferred the title “Mother of Christ” (Christotòkos) for Mary, in place of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos), which was already beloved in popular devotion.
The reason for Bishop Nestorius’ choice was his adhesion to the Christology of the Antiochean tradition, which, to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, ended up affirming its separation from his divinity. Thus, there was no longer an authentic union between God and the man Christ, and therefore, one could no longer speak of a “Mother of God.”
Cyril — the leading exponent of Alexandrian Christology at the time, one who emphatically underlined the unity of Christ’s person — reacted almost immediately, using every means possible beginning in 429, even writing letters to Nestorius himself.
In the second letter (PG 77, 44-49) which Cyril sent to him, in February 430, we read a clear affirmation of the pastor’s task to preserve the faith of God’s people. This was his criterion, which is still valid today: The faith of God’s people is an expression of tradition, a guarantee of sound doctrine. He wrote to Nestorius: “It is necessary to explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in an irreproachable way, and recall that he who scandalizes even one of these little ones who believes in Christ will suffer an intolerable punishment.”
In the same letter to Nestorius — which later, in 451, would be approved by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon — Cyril describes his Christological faith with clarity: “The natures that have united in a true unity are different, but from both resulted one Christ and Son, not because, due to the unity, the differences of the human and divine natures have been eliminated, but rather because humanity and divinity united in an ineffable way have produced the one Lord, Christ, the Son of God.”
And this is important: The true humanity and the true divinity are really united in one person, our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, continues the bishop of Alexandria, “we profess only one Christ and Lord, not in the sense that we adore the man together with the Logos, so as not to insinuate the idea of separation by saying ‘together,’ but rather in the sense that we adore only one; his body is not something detached from the Logos, who sits at the Father’s side. There are not two sons sitting at his side, but one alone united with his own flesh.”
Soon the bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, saw to it that Nestorius was repeatedly condemned: by the Roman See with a series of 12 anathemas Cyril himself composed and, in the end, by the council held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council.
The assembly, which took place amid tumultuous and alternating incidents, concluded with the great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the bishop of Constantinople, who refused to recognize Mary under the title of “Mother of God,” because of a mistaken Christology, which claimed that Christ was divided in himself.
After prevailing in such a definitive way over his rival and his doctrine, Cyril was able to reach, as soon as 433, a theological formula of compromise and reconciliation with the people of Antioch. And this is also significant: On one hand there is clarity about the doctrine of faith, but on the other, there is the intense search for unity and reconciliation. In the years that followed, he dedicated himself in every way to defend and clarify his theological position until his death on June 27, 444.
Cyril’s writings — numerous and widespread in various Latin and Eastern traditions even during his life, which is a testament to their immediate success — are of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity. His commentaries on many of the books of the Old and New Testaments, including the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and Luke, are important. Many of his doctrinal works are also greatly important, in which he continually defends the Trinitarian faith against the Arian theses and Nestorius.
The basis of Cyril’s teaching is the ecclesiastical tradition, and in particular, as I mentioned, the writings of Athanasius, his great predecessor in the Alexandrian See. Among Cyril’s other writings, we must recall the books “Against Julian,” the last great answer to anti-Christian polemics, dictated by the bishop of Alexandria most likely during the last years of his life as a response to “Against the Galileans,” written many years before, in 363, by the emperor who was called an apostate for having abandoned the Christianity in which he had been educated.
The Christian faith is above all a meeting with Jesus, “a person who gives life a new horizon” (encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” No. 1). St. Cyril of Alexandria was an untiring and firm witness of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, emphasizing his unity above all, as he repeats in his first letter in 433 to Bishop Succens: “One alone is the Son, one alone is the Lord Jesus Christ, before the incarnation and after the incarnation. In fact, it is not a question of a Son, the Logos, born of God the Father, and another, born of the holy Virgin; but we believe that he who is before all time was born according to the flesh of a woman.”
This affirmation, beyond its doctrinal significance, shows that faith in Jesus, the “Logos,” born of the Father, is also deeply rooted in history because, as St. Cyril says, this same Jesus came in time by being born of Mary, the “Theotòkos,” and will be, according to his promise, with us always. And this is important: God is eternal, he was born of a woman and remains with us every day. We live in this trust, in this trust we find the path of our life.