Tag Archives: Athanasius

Saint Hilary of Potiers

Hilary

Besides  the scriptures, the saints are companions on life’s journey, revealing  the wisdom of God from age to age.  “A cloud of witnesses,” the Letter to the Hebrews calls them.

January 13th we remember St. Hilary of Potiers, who lived in the early 4th century, a crucial time for the church, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors ended years of persecution and welcomed Christians as allies in governing the empire.

Hilary was born in Gaul into a wealthy family, but he wasn’t brought up in a Christian environment. He came to baptism (about the year 345 AD) through personal study of the scriptures. He was married and had a daughter. Then, about ten years after his baptism he was elected by the people of Potiers as their bishop. An unusual path to become a bishop!

A bishop’s role changed after Constantine gave the church freedom in 312 AD. More and more, they became agents of the emperor and his administration, and that brought temptation. Hilary and one of his friends, Martin of Tours, thought a good number of the bishops in Gaul were after worldly power and prestige rather than a spiritual ministry.

Many bishops closely associated with the emperors– both in the eastern and western parts of the empire– were also influenced by Arianism, which was favored by the emperors Constantius ( 350-361) and Valens (364-378). Arianism claimed that Jesus was human and not divine. He was only godlike.

Arianism is Christianity lite; it dismisses the claims of Jesus to be divine and makes him like us, only better and more powerful. Probably the emperors and  bishops sympathetic to the Arian doctrine felt it made Christianity more palatable for unbelievers. A good political option

Hilary strongly upheld the divinity of Jesus, basing his faith on the scriptures  he read and the sacrament of baptism he received. His stand brought him exile in Asia Minor, but he continued to teach and write in defense of orthodoxy and eventually he was restored to his diocese.

Hilary’s counterpart in the eastern church, St. Athanasius, was another big opponent of Arianism and imperial control of the church. Both bishops suffered exile and helped the church hold to the faith professed at the Council of Nicea in 321 AD. St. Jerome expressed the gravity of the situation: “The world groaned, amazed that it had become Arian.”

Hilary in Gaul and Athanasius in Egypt argued for Catholic orthodoxy from the scriptures and church tradition. They also strongly encouraged religious life in the church. Athanasius saw the spirituality of the desert, exemplified by St. Anthony ( we remember him later this week) as a remedy for the increasing worldliness of Christians. Hilary was the teacher of Martin of Tours, founder of religious life in Gaul.

The two saints promoted religious life which played an important part in promoting sound faith in the church. Christianity always needs communities of dedicated believers as well as sharp-minded leaders for its journey through time. Say a prayer for our religious communities, including my own. We need them in the church.

And let’s not forget to pray for good bishops too.

No Person is an Island

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

In the previous post, God from God, Light from Light, a development in understanding the being of God was seen in the exegesis of Hebrews 1:3 by Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The statement that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις) was stretched beyond its original conceptual boundaries (being, essence, nature, substance) to include the notion of person.

But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.1

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)

For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.2

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (fl. c. 248-264)

Later Fathers picked up their thread and contemplated Hebrews 1:3 in a new, personalistic light beyond Greek philosophical categories.

For the apostle says that the Son is the express image of the person of the Father.3

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394)

I believe that there is one God the Father and one Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. Also that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, brightness of his glory and express image of the Father’s person…4

Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-466)

St. John Chrysostom (fl. 386-407), while recognizing that God is utterly beyond thought and conception, embraces the personalistic turn: 

For instance, that God is everywhere we know, but how we do not understand. That there is a certain incorporeal power, the cause of all our good things, we know, but how it is or what it is, we know not. We speak and do not understand! I said that he is everywhere, but I do not understand it. I said that he begot from himself, and again I know not how I shall understand it… 

And to show you that even Paul is weak and does not put out his illustrations with exactness, and to make you tremble and refrain from searching too far, hear what he says, having called him Son and named him Creator, “who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.”5

St. Athanasius (fl. 325-373), among others, retains the original Greek meaning of hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, which suits his defense of the Son’s consubstantiality (“one in being”) with the Father:

Therefore, he is true God, existing consubstantially (homoousios) with the true Father, while other beings to whom he said, “I say, ‘you are gods,’” have this grace from the Father only by participation in the Word through the Spirit. For he is the “very stamp” of the Father’s “being,” and “light” from “light,” and the “power” and true “image” of the Father’s substance.6

Both interpretations of hupostasis approach but do not encompass divinity, for being and person are not bounded concepts but fluid, dynamic, interpenetrating realities.

This survey of patristic commentary on Hebrews 1:3 reveals a new revolution in the history of metaphysics.

What God is (being/nature) and Who God is (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) interpenetrate in an indivisible perichoresis (“dance”) without borders.

The notion of “person” is permeable and bursts the bounds of Hellenistic individual substance.

To be a person is to be in all other persons. No person is an island.

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Faith.

4 Theodoret of Cyr, Letter 83.

5 St. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews 2.1.

6 St. Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.3.9.

The last four quotations are from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 12-15.