Hilary of Poitiers on Conciliating the Homouseans and the Homoeouseans

An Inquiry on the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversy

by Jannel Abogado (Author)
©2016 Thesis 318 Pages


The concern of the book is whether Hilary of Poitiers compromised the Nicene faith, a charge suggested even in Hilary’s own day, when he attempted to bring together the homouseans and the homoeouseans. The author revisits the arguments offered by recent studies on the issue and analyzes the primary sources to assert confidently that Hilary did not compromise the Nicene confession. The book demonstrates that the confession of faith of the homoeousean group with whom Hilary conciliated was not another form of Arianism. Similarly, the author clarifies that the distinction between the numeric unity and specific unity on which modern authors unsympathetic to Hilary base their negative assessment of the Hilarian program of rapprochement was not operative in the fourth century Trinitarian discourse. Hilary merely affirmed the orthodoxy of the homoeousean confession by demonstrating its affinity with the Nicene doctrine through his explication of the significance of the nativitas of the Son from God the Father, a theological concept employed by both ecclesiastical parties to establish their respective beliefs in the divinity of the Son and His substantial relationship with the Father.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface and Acknowledgement
  • Introduction
  • 1. Objective of the book
  • 2. The Arian context
  • 3. A note on the use of labels
  • Chapter I: Towards Hilary’s involvment in the Trinitarian crisis
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The changing ecclesiastical politics under the reign of the sons of Constantine
  • 3. The councils of Arles (353) and Milan (355)
  • 4. The council of Béziers (356) and the motivation behind Hilary’s exile
  • 5. Hilary’s pre-Béziers knowledge of Arianism: The testimony of In Matthaeum
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Chapter II: The homousean party
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. From silence about the homousean formula to its committed defense
  • 3. Athanasius
  • 3.1 The function of ὁμοούσιος in De Decretis
  • 3.2 The defense of ὁμοούσιος in De Synodis
  • 3.3 The Athanasian concept of ὁμοούσιος
  • 4. The Latin homouseans
  • 4.1 The Latin Church’s collective act of defense of Nicaea in the synod of Rimini (359)
  • 4.2 The defense of Nicaea of selected prominent Latin authors
  • 4.2.1 Phoebadius of Agen
  • 4.2.2 Gregory of Elvira
  • 4.2.3 Marius Victorinus
  • 5. Conclusion
  • Chapter III: The homoeousean party
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The emergence and the pursuit for theological hegemony of the homoeousean party
  • 3. Some thoughts on the origin of the term ὁμοιούσιος
  • 4. The formula ὁμοιούσιος as more suitable than ὁμοούσιος for the Son’s relationship with the Father
  • 5. The Trinitarian theology of the homoeousean party
  • 5.1 The synodal letter of the 358 council of Ancyra
  • 5.2 The memorandum of Basil of Ancyra and George of Laodicea
  • 5.2.1 Apology for Basil’s action at 4th Sirmium
  • 5.2.2 Polemics against the neo-Arian theology
  • 5.2.3 Attempt to conciliate with the pro-Nicene party
  • 6. The homoeouseans and Hilary of Poitiers
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Chapter IV: Hilary of Poitiers conciliates the Homouseans and the Homoeouseans
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Overcoming the West’s suspicion that the easterners uphold Arianism
  • 2.1 Hilary’s appraisal of the theology of the Ancyran synod of 358
  • 2.2 The creeds of the easterners do not replace the theology of Nicaea
  • 2.3 The meaning of ὁμοιούσιος appropriates the meaning of ὁμοούσιος
  • 3. Overcoming the East’s objection to ὁμοούσιος
  • 4. The theology of nativitas as point of convergence of the homousean and homoeousean doctrines
  • 4.1 The concept of nativitas as basic assumption in both the homousean and homoeousean affirmations
  • 4.1.1 The nativitas of the Son and the analogy of human birth
  • 4.1.2 The foundation of the theological affirmations of the Nicene group in the nativitas of the Son
  • 4.1.3 The foundation of the homoeousean doctrine in the nativitas of the Son
  • 4.2 The function of the concept of nativitas in Hilary’s anti-Arian arguments
  • 4.2.1 The heretics opposed the natural birth of the Son: The significance of the Letter of Arius
  • 4.2.2 Using the conceptuality of nativitas to show that the Arian proof-texts actually confirm the Nicene view of God
  • 4.3 The meaning of unity of nature in the theology of Hilary
  • 5. Conclusion
  • General Conclusion
  • Bibliography

← 8 | 9 →Preface and Acknowledgement

This book was originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome and was examined by Prof. Patrick Descourtieux, Prof. Manlio Simonetti, and Prof. Robert Dodaro. Its conception may be traced back to the time when my superiors decided to send me to Rome to take up studies in Patrology. Before leaving for Rome I was told that it would be preferable if I could work on the Latin fathers. The reason being was that there is already a friar in our province who specializes in the study of the writings of the Oriental fathers. Hence, as I commenced my studies, I started exploring the catalogue of the works of the Latin fathers available in the library of the Augustinianum to look for a possible topic for dissertation. It led me to the doctoral thesis of Paul Burns at the Augustinianum entitled The Christology in Hilary of Poitiers’ Commentary on Matthew (Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 16, 1981). P. Burns disclosed before concluding his manuscript that his original intent was to write about “Hilary of Poitiers as an example of a reconciler between divergent theological and linguistic groups in the Roman Empire of the fourth century” (118). But he did not pursue it because he felt at that time that he first needed to do some preliminary studies before he could commit to such project. It prompted me to inquire whether he has followed through with his original plan to write about Hilary as a reconciler of East and West. I discovered that, except for a brief essay entitled “West meets East in the De Synodis of Hilary of Poitiers” (SP 28, 24–28), he did not make any comprehensive study of the issue. My book therefore is intended to fill up this lacuna in Hilarain scholarship as originally conceived by P. Burns, to whom I am beholden for the insight.

I am indebted to many different persons for different kinds of help extended to me in the course of writing and publication of this work. To my professors who accompanied me in the tedious process of writing this manuscript and shared with me their critical expertise: In particular I thank Prof. Manlio Simonetti, for his attention to details and his insightful counsels to carefully clarify the thought and the historical context of the fathers and other ancient personalities discussed in this work. To my ← 9 | 10 →thesis-moderator, Prof. Patrick Descourtieux, for the high standard he set for me to climb, motivating me to give my best in this endeavor, for his constant encouragement in the course of my research and writing, always encouraging me with assuring words that I am treading the right path, and for his erudite suggestions, which directed me to refine my arguments and present them in a clear and more straightforward manner. Their valuable suggestions significantly helped improve the final outcome of this work. However, if there are still misgivings and inaccuracies in the interpretation of the textual data, it could only be attributed to my stubbornness to stand by my own opinion rather than listen to their expert suggestions.

Likewise, I am grateful to Mr. Benjamin Fröhlich, the commissioning editor of Peter Lang International Academics, Bern, Switzerland, for his generous guidance every step of the way in the course of the preparation of my manuscript for publication, to Chrisma, Teresa, Vynette, Karen and Patrice for the tireless effort they spent to review the grammar and help improve my otherwise long and complex sentences, and to the Director of the Center for Religious Studies and Ethics of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, for subsidizing its publication.

I would like also to extend my gratitude to my superiors in the Dominican Province of the Philippines, the present Prior Provincial, Fr. Gerard Timoner, III, OP, and his immediate predecessors, Fr. Quirico Pedregosa, Jr., OP and Fr. Edmund Nantes, OP, and the Prior of my convent of assignation, Fr. Rodel Aligan, OP, for giving me the time and opportunity to pursue studies in Theology and Patristic Science of which this manuscript is the product. To the current rector of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Fr. Herminio Dagohoy, OP and his immediate predecessors, Fr. Rolando dela Rosa, OP and Fr. Ernesto Arceo, OP, for financing my study and research abroad. To my community during my stay in Rome, the friars of the Convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, under the prior, P. Daniele Ols, OP, for providing me with the right environment conducive for study and writing. And to my parents, Telesforo and Maria, for nurturing in me at a very young age a strong faith in God and for inculcating in me the love of studies – two qualities that led me to discover my Dominican vocation.

Finally, to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, this present work I offer in gratitude for the gift of vocation and the grace of intellectual desire to understand more profoundly my faith in the God who ← 10 | 11 →called me to the priesthood, inspiring me to discern his presence in the world, more particularly in the experience and the writings of the fathers of the Church. To the one triune God be glory unto the ages!

Jannel N. Abogado, OP
University of Santo Tomas, Manila
April 30, 2015← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 →Introduction

1. Objective of the book

From the title given, it is rather obvious what this volume aims to achieve. To state it in simple terms, it is focused on the effort of the eminent bishop of Poitiers to conciliate the homouseans and the homoeouseans, two ecclesiastical parties which, in his appraisal, were defending the same faith against those who denied the divinity of the Son and his consubstantial relationship with the Father, although at odds with each other due to their usage of seemingly mutually exclusive formula to express such faith. The subtitle puts the object of this treatise in the context of the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy. One cannot isolate the discussion of the two mentioned ecclesiastical parties without dealing with the other ecclesiastical groups they interacted with as the former clarified and safeguarded their own perceived orthodoxy from the latter’s offensives. As I will demonstrate in the course of the book, the emergence of the different ecclesiastical groups and the definition of their respective doctrines were often occasioned as a reaction to the theological conviction of the other party or parties, viewed as departing from the criterion of right doctrine that each upheld.

Information about the life of St. Hilary is scarce. However, scholars do agree on the opinion that he was probably born between 310 to 320,1 that he was, as he himself claimed, baptized as an adult,2 that he was ordained bishop not prior to 350, since, in De Synodis, he wrote that before the Synod of Beziers (356) he had already served as bishop for a short time,3 and that he died in the year 367 or 368.4 Written accounts about ← 13 | 14 →him either by others or by him commenced with his career as the bishop of his birthplace, Limonum or Pictavi as it was later called, the present day Poitiers. He was best known as a bishop who resisted the Arian heresy in the West, a fact allowing scholars to ascribe him the title Athanasius of the West,5 and who made an effort to mediate the theologies of the predominantly pro-Nicene westerners and the homoeousean party of the East. Such was not just a case of him being compelled out of “religious duty to write sound and faithful words”6 to his fellow pastors in the Church to promote ecclesial unity;7 he was also adept for the job in that he was one of those few theologians of the period who was profoundly knowledgeable on both the western theological tradition, to which he belonged, and that of the East. Thanks to his exile; he had the opportunity and the proper environment to acquaint himself with the contemporary theological issues current in the eastern part of the empire. As a result, he was able to discern astutely the nuances of the different existing ecclesiastical parties, and thus avoided his contemporaries’ mistake of branding all who did not approve of the Nicene Creed as Arians.

The gathering of the small group of bishops in Sirmium in 357, which released a manifesto that prohibited the use of ousia language in describing the relationship of the Son to the Father and which adopted an agnostic attitude towards the Son’s generation, paved the way for this reconciliation conceived by Hilary. It caused the old coalition of the eastern bishops to crumble, with the majority of them, under the leadership of Basil of Ancyra, separating themselves from a few but imperially connected bishops who approved of the said manifesto. In reaction to this Blasphemy of Sirmium, as Hilary rendered it,8 a group of eastern bishops, receptive of the doctrine of the divinity of the Son assembled in Ancyra for a synod (358), presided over by the bishop of the place, Basil of Ancyra. The synodal letter which the gathering produced contained a vindication of the use of the ousia language as well as the assertion of the generation of the Son if the faith of the holy Fathers was to be preserved. From their declaration of faith, Hilary was able to discern that their fundamental religious conviction and his pro-Nicene conviction were not at all dissimilar. Thus it ← 14 | 15 →allowed him to conceive of the possibility of forging a union between this group, the homoeouseans as they were called, and his pro-Nicene western colleagues. Moreover, Hilary did not only realize that the faith of the homoeouseans could be accommodated to his own cherished pro-Nicene religious conviction, but also that their alliance could efficiently oppose the heresy propagated by the Sirmium manifesto of 357 towards its complete suppression.

The appropriate time to carry out this plan of reconciliation came in 358 when Hilary received a letter from his fellow bishops from Gaul, requesting him to provide them information about the faith of the eastern bishops. In reply, Hilary wrote De Synodis, in which he did not only introduce the creeds held by their eastern counterparts but also provided useful commentary so that his western colleagues might easily understand them. Particular stress was given on the insistence of the easterners on divine Sonship to accentuate its correspondence with their Nicene affiliation, so that both his western readers, who were then preparing for the ecclesiastical council that was to be held in Rimini (359), and the easterners, who were also summoned to gather in Seleucia (359) might find in each other a reliable ally in opposing the group that denied the Son divine dignity. Furthermore, the same conciliatory spirit that permeated De Synodis was similarly advanced in De Trinitate so much so, one can claim, that an eastern reader of homoeousean affiliation who might have heard of it could readily agree to the doctrine of God it preached. In De Trinitate Hilary maintained the theme of conciliation, parading significant arguments that are likewise rehearsed in De Synodis, but presented in a more systematic manner, i.e., having the nativitas of the Son from the substance of the Father as controlling category and no longer exclusively attaching his theology on the acceptance of the homoousios formula.

The present work is an amplification of this initiative of Hilary to conciliate the homouseans and the homoeouseans briefly outlined above. Principally, it investigates the subject matter from the point of view of doctrine even as it takes notice of the historical context that furnished the occasion for this theology to be articulated and expressed more thoroughly. The principal question it aims to answer is: Did Hilary compromise the faith of Nicaea when he proposed rapprochement between the homouseans and the homoeouseans? The question is warranted because there are modern authors who sustain the opinion that he did.

← 15 | 16 →Moreover, among ancient authors one could also appeal for support to the negative assessment of the conciliatory effort of Hilary. It is tied-up to the popular opinion of the ancients that speaks of the homoeouseans as semi-Arians, or, another shape of the Arian teaching. Sulpitius Severus, for instance, states his own appraisal of the homoeouseans, numbering them as belonging to the Arian group, in what follows:

In the meantime, the Arians, not secretly as before, but openly and publicly proclaimed their monstrous heretical doctrines. Moreover, they interpreted after their own views the Synod of Nicaea, and by the addition of one letter to its finding, threw a sort of obscurity over the truth. For where the expression Homoousion had been written, which denotes ‘of one substance,’ they maintained that it was written Homoiousion which simply means ‘of like substance.’ They thus granted a likeness, but took away unity; for likeness is very different from unity.9

The words of the bishop of Salamis, the author of the sourcebook on the heresies that plagued the Church, to illustrate the same group is rather more harsh than the description of Sulpitius.

Let us survey the tangled woodland which has grown up from Arius, to see how some are halfway Arians, who repudiate his name but adopt the man and his heresy. […] Thus, though these people would like to mislead the simple, they are the same as Arius and the Arian nuts – on the surface, in their behavior, and in their heresy. But in the desire to pretty up their perverse doctrine, as a deceitful piece of flattery they call the Son of God a creature but cheaply add, ‘We do not mean a creature like any other creature or an offspring like any other offspring’ – as a piece of deception and to do the son of God a favor, as well as to soothe those who are frightened by this expression. And yet they all together reject the homoousion as untrue to the sacred scripture, if you will! […] But to suggest a word similar to ‘homoousion’ they say, […] ‘We do not say, homoousion, but homoeousion. These were the members of the council at Ancyra who separated from the sect of the Arian Nuts itself.’10

The prejudiced evaluation of the homoeousean theology provided by ancient authors, interpreting their theological contribution after the view of the Arians, no doubt has contributed to the reason why a number of modern ← 16 | 17 →authors frown upon the conciliation attempted by the fourth-century fathers, Hilary of Poitiers in this particular study, between the homouseans and the homoeouseans, assuming that the tolerance of the latter’s theological convictions necessarily implies the watering down of the criteria of Nicene orthodoxy.11

It was A. Harnack who first observed that as the result of the initiated conciliation it was the theology of the homoiousios (understood as incompatible with Nicaea) that was established. Other theologians followed the lead of A. Harnack. F. Loofs for instance wrote: “The homoiousians became the trailbrazers of later orthodoxy.”12 R. Seeberg was of similar judgment: “The interpretation of the homoousios in the sense of the homoiousios and of homoios kat’ousian will engender new ideas foreign to those of Athanasius and the Nicene Creed.”13 What all these scholars suppose is that the Nicene doctrine of the susbtantial unity of the Godhead bears the sense of numerical unity, which the term homoiousios failed to communicate. As H.M. Gwatkin, who was similarly of the same opinion as the three mentioned scholars, wrote: “What the word (i.e., homoiousios) fails to express is the numerical unity and as it were organic cohesion of the divine nature.”14

For these scholars, the Nicene position spoke of the numeric sense of unity conveyed in the notion of the primary substance while the homoeouseans the generic sense of unity conveyed in the notion of the secondary substance. They thus maintain the incompatibility of the doctrine of the homouseans and the homoeouseans basing their justification on Aristotelian metaphysics. Accordingly, since it was the strict sense of unity of substance that was proclaimed by Nicaea whereas the homoeouseans taught the generic sense of unity, then the conciliation of Hilary, although well intentioned, demanded that concession be made to accommodate the theological perspective of the Orientals. This is the idea behind this judgment of A. Harnack: “We may still further say it was not the homoousios which ← 17 | 18 →finally triumphed, but on the contrary the homoiousioan doctrine, which fixed on the terms of agreement with the homoousios.”15

It is the task of this book to demonstrate that the following observations are unfounded. That contrary to the prejudiced description of the ancients, the homoeousean theology was not another shape of Arian doctrine. Moreover, the supposed distinction between the strict and generic understandings of unity to demonstrate the incongruity of the homousean and the homoeousean positions is likewise not operative in fourth-century theological discourse, especially not present in Hilary whose main preoccupation was the defense of the divine status of the Son. It is then the hypothesis of this work, which it will prove in its discussion, that in the conciliation attempted by Hilary, no compromise was made, but only the recognition of the orthodox faith in the doctrinal teachings of the homoeosueans.

2. The Arian context

The Arian crisis did not start in a vacuum. Long before Arius and Alexander, the concern about the exact nature of the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son has been the subject of discussion among theologians not only in the East but also in the West. The sentiment of Arius that precipitated the Trinitarian controversy and led to the celebration of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 was not just something that he devised ex abrupto, reacting to the preaching of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, which he alleged as compromising the basic tenet of Christian belief. Rather, it is born out of the long-standing theological traditions in the Church in which he was schooled. For as John Behr acutely observes: “If Arius really was the originator of a new heresy as he is thus portrayed, then it is difficult to account for the wide and ready support he found in Syria and Asia Minor.”16 What the conflict between Arius and ← 18 | 19 →Alexander and eventually the Council of Nicaea contributed was that it made the latent different theological views on God more manifest and provided an opportunity for their different representatives to be aware of the other’s position leading to confrontation in a dramatic theological battle that took more than half of the century to settle.

The Nicene Creed stresses the natural generation of the Son with its usage of the expressions such as μονογενς and κ τς οσίας το πατρός. The term μοούσιος was not originally the major point of conflict of the controversy. In fact, at Nicea it was merely employed to further establish the conceived relationship of the Father and the Son on the level of substance. On the part of the anti-Nicene bishops, there occurred a sort of evolution in their understanding of the sense of μοούσιος. It was initially understood in a materialist sense. This was the objection raised by Arius in his letter to Alexander17 and also of Eusebius of Nicomedia in the letter that he read at the Council of Nicaea.18 Later on however, its sense became that of the identification of the Son and the Father. The entrance of Marcellus in the debate instigated the shift of focus. Marcellus’ sense of μοούσιος highlights not the traditional materialist reading, but the sense Paul of Samosata has provided. The Marcellan understanding of Nicea became the target of the criticism of the anti-Nicene ecclesiastics who mistakenly regarded the orthodox fathers as sharing the same conviction given that the bishop of Ancyra was part of Nicene alliance.

Certainly the opposing ecclesiastical parties involved in the Trinitarian dispute in the fourth century were not at all homogenous despite having agreed to unite their efforts to work against a common adversary, there being among their ranks differences in opinions as regards some basic propositions about the nature of the relationship of the Father and the Son. The theological alignments in the Church at this period should be seen as the initiative of several people who, judging that they shared a common stand on certain questions of belief, formed themselves together into a group to stand against a perceived opponent that championed the contrary doctrine. This common belief, however, is not equivalent to having exactly identical doctrine. They bonded together, tolerating differences in some details, in order to fight a perceived common enemy.

← 19 | 20 →In both the anti- and pro-Nicene alliances were bishops espousing the extremist and centrist positions of their respective theological traditions. It is to be noted that the centrist theology of anti-Nicene group could be reconciled with the theology of the centrist pro-Nicene bishops. Such is for instance witnessed in the doctrine of divinity of the Son of Eusebius of Caesarea, which although not completely identical with the teaching of Nicaea, still sympathizes with its concern for preserving the natural relationship of the Son to the Father and its effort to remove the Son among the ranks of the created nature which the Arians unwaveringly taught.19 The work of conciliation of Hilary has basis on this. Essentially the corresponding theological perspectives of those who shared either the opinion of the Caesarean or that of the defenders of Nicea were compatible, only that they took different sides because of the lack of knowledge of the theological position of the other. Hilary would realize this misunderstanding in the second generation of ecclesiastics who confronted the issue that the Nicene faith engendered. Thus he would work hard to make the heirs of these two identified reconcilable factions get acquainted with and understand each other’s theology.

3. A note on the use of labels

To help facilitate the discussion of the subject of this study, the conventional labels pertaining to the ecclesiastical groups – players in the Trinitarian debate – need to be defined, as they are used in this work. ‘Nicene’ is used in this work to refer to those who upheld the creed of Nicaea 325. To this group, it must be noted, belonged both orthodox and non-orthodox bishops. There are then the mainstream bishops, who are also termed in this work as orthodox pro-Nicene or simply the homouseans, who endorsed the theology of Nicaea according to the interpretation of bishops like Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius and the majority of the Latins. There are also those reckoned in this work as non-orthodox pro-Nicene bishops ← 20 | 21 →who likewise sustained the Nicene Creed, but interpreted it according to the modalist doctrine of the solitary God. Notable bishops numbered in this sub-group were Marcellus of Ancyra and Photinus of Sirmium.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
trinitarian crisis council of arles arianism nicaea homousean party
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, New York, Wien, 2016. 318 pp.

Biographical notes

Jannel Abogado (Author)

Jannel Abogado, OP is a member of the Philippine Dominican Province. He is assigned in the priory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He holds a doctorate degree in Theology and Patristic Sciences from the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, Rome, Italy. He teaches Patrology at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila.


Title: Hilary of Poitiers on Conciliating the Homouseans and the Homoeouseans
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