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Hilary of Poitiers on Prohibition and Imperative in the Christian Life

By Chad Thornhill

Evangelicals tend to bristle a bit when the “saints” of old are remembered. While more liturgical Christian denominations often celebrate the saints, most Protestant evangelicals shy away from such remembrances, except perhaps for the Reformers. Over the coming year, the contributors at Moral Apologetics would like to offer some reflections on some of the important figures of Christianity past.

Hilary is the first known bishop of Poitiers, a city in Gaul (modern day France). He is remembered primarily as the “Hammer of the Arians” and the “Athanasius of the West” for his role in fighting against the Arian heresy which denied the ontological equality and eternality of Jesus, viewing him instead as a creation of God. Hilary is best remembered for his De Trinitate, a treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Some of Hilary’s homilies on the Psalms are also preserved for us, which Hilary reads through the lens of the Gospel and the Christ. He thus uses them prophetically and interprets them allegorically, though he constrains this exegetical method by keeping an eye to the New Testament.

In his homily on Psalm 1, Hilary reads the Psalm as a reflection of the condition of the psalmist/prophet, though read very intentionally through a Christian lens. Hilary first comments upon what it means to not “walk in the counsel of the ungodly,” “stand in the way of sinners,” and “sit in the seat of pestilence.” But having examined these prohibitions, Hilary aptly notes, “But the fact that he has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of pestilence, does not constitute the perfection of the man’s happiness” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 11). It is not avoidance of immorality alone that constitutes the good and right life of faith. Rather, Hilary remarks,

To refrain from what has gone before is useless unless his mind be set on what follows, But his will hath been in the Law of the Lord. The Prophet does not look for fear. The majority of men are kept within the bounds of Law by fear; the few are brought under the Law by will: for it is the mark of fear not to dare to omit what it is afraid of, but of perfect piety to be ready to obey commands. This is why that man is happy whose will, not whose fear, is in the Law of God” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 11).

Hilary recognizes the profundity of the Christian life. It is not merely the “thou shalt not,” but also the “thou shalt” which must characterize the Spirit-led life. A life of Spirit-led obedience, full of a faithful following of God’s commands, truly is the good life. Hilary continues,

Meditation in the Law, therefore, does not lie in reading its words, but in pious performance of its injunctions; not in a mere perusal of the books and writings, but in a practical meditation and exercise in their respective contents, and in a fulfilment of the Law by the works we do by night and day, as the Apostle says: Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. The way to secure uninterrupted prayer is for every devout man to make his life one long prayer by works acceptable to God and always done to His glory: thus a life lived according to the Law by night and day will in itself become a nightly and daily meditation in the Law” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 12).

Hilary recognizes the importance of the relationship between prohibition and imperative in the Christian life. A life marked by “one long prayer by works acceptable to God and always done to His glory.” A prayer not just of petition, but of offering. An active meditation. A responsive reading. A meditation of pious performance.

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