Getting to Know the Fathers: Hilary of Poitiers

We must clothe ourselves in foolishness that we may gain wisdom—not in the foolishness of hazardous conclusions, but in the foolishness of a modest sense of our own infirmity...

Christianity is a distinct culture. Usually we think of Christianity as fitting into a given culture, such as Western culture, not as a separate and distinct culture. Culture comes from the Latin word cultus, which means, among other things, “worship.” Usually culture is defined as “the way of life for an entire society,” and includes worship, spirituality, structure, ethics, and behavior. Culture is about everything. 

Christianity is a distinct culture in so far as it reflects in the behavior of the Church the spirituality of the God who gives His divine service to her. The culture of the church includes a strong boundary between belief and unbelief, truth and falsehood, wisdom and foolishness. That boundary also implies a decisive break with the world and its ways. The cult of the Western world, although arising in the cradle of the Church, is no longer directed by its original mother. Western culture has become a self-willed Nietzschean bastard. When it came of age it cut itself off from God its Father and its mother, the Church. This coming of age has a profound effect on the Church. She is now forced to distinguish herself from her ingrate child. She can no longer expect support from the cult of the West, based as it is on self-willed and self-centered knowledge: knowledge always critical of both Father and mother, mimicking the attitude of  an ill-mannered teen. 

For example, the Western university and its open inquiry into truth and the nature of reality arises out of the Christian insistence that all truth is God’s. And though the Western university tradition battled over the validity of certain kinds of knowledge, still there used to be an openness about the modes and methods of inquiry into the world and the nature of God. That openness is now being closed off in the dying of the light. Matters of spirit, life, truth, beauty, ultimacy, and God are routinely ruled out of bounds in the so-called secular universities. They have forgotten that even the saeculum, “the age,” remains God’s. Finally, the cultus of the West has become the cult of the self, drowning in the solipsistic sea of foolishness and rabid and intentional ignorance of the cross of Christ. How tragically this narrowing of thought impoverishes the Western world. But this foolish narrowness is not new. It has its roots in Eden’s invention of the cult of self. The Apostle Paul speaks of it as the foolishness of unbelief. The foolishness of the cross, despite all this, still looms as the wisdom of God. This is the Church’s cultus and the cultus of her schools.

HILARY OF POITIERS (pron. pwot-YAY; c. AD 310–c. 367) was a Christian Bishop in what is today the midwestern part of France. Hilary was an important opponent of Arianism in the West before the Constantinopolitan restatement of the Nicene Creed in 381. He was a clear thinker and writer, especially on the unity of the divine nature and the distinction of the persons of the Father and the Son. Here we see Hilary defend the wisdom of the cross against the foolishness of the pagans of his day. We must do the same in ours.

“Hence the Apostle Paul, familiar with the narrow assumption of human thought that what it does not know is not truth, says that he does not speak in the language of knowledge, lest his preaching should be in vain [1 Cor. 1:17-25]. To save himself from being regarded as a preacher of foolishness, he adds that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who perish. He knew that the unbelievers held that the only true knowledge was that which formed their own wisdom, and that, since their wisdom was cognizant only of matters that lay within their narrow horizon, the other wisdom, which alone is Divine and perfect, seemed foolishness to them. Thus their foolishness actually consisted in that feeble imagination which they mistook for wisdom. Hence it is that the very things which are foolishness to those who perish are the power of God to those who are saved; for the latter never use their own inadequate faculties as a measure, but attribute to the divine activities the omnipotence of heaven. 

“God rejects the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent in this sense, that just because they recognize their own foolishness, salvation is granted to those who believe. Unbelievers pronounce the verdict of foolishness on everything that lies beyond their knowledge, while believers leave to the power and majesty of God the choice of the mysteries wherein salvation is bestowed. There is no foolishness in the things of God; the foolishness lies in that human wisdom which demands of God, as the condition of belief, signs and wisdom. It is the foolishness of the Jews to demand signs; they have a certain knowledge of the Name of God through long acquaintance with the Law, but the offense of the cross repels them. The foolishness of the Greeks is to demand wisdom; with Gentile folly and the philosophy of men they seek the reason why God was lifted up on the cross. And because, in consideration for the weakness of our mental powers, these things have been hidden in a mystery, this foolishness of Jews and Greeks turns to unbelief; for they denounce, as unworthy of reasonable credence, truths which their mind is inherently incapable of comprehending. 

“But, because the world’s wisdom was so foolish—for previously through God’s wisdom it knew not God, that is, the splendor of the universe, and the wonderful order which He planned for His handiwork, taught it no reverence for its Creator—God was pleased through the preaching of foolishness to save those who believe, that is, through the faith of the cross to make everlasting life the lot of mortals; so that the self-confidence of human wisdom might be put to shame and salvation found where men had thought that foolishness dwelt. For Christ, who is foolishness to Gentiles and offense to Jews, is the Power of God and the Wisdom of God [1 Cor. 1:24], because what seems weak and foolish to human apprehension in the things of God transcends in true wisdom and might the thoughts and the powers of earth.

“Therefore the action of God must not be investigated by human faculties; the Creator must not be judged by those who are the work of His hands. We must clothe ourselves in foolishness that we may gain wisdom—not in the foolishness of hazardous conclusions, but in the foolishness of a modest sense of our own infirmity—so that the evidence of God’s power may teach us truths to which the arguments of earthly philosophy cannot attain. For when we are fully conscious of our own foolishness and have felt the helplessness and destitution of our reason, then through the counsels of Divine Wisdom we shall be initiated into the wisdom of God, setting no bounds to boundless majesty and power, nor tying the Lord of nature down to nature’s laws, sure that for us the one true faith concerning God is that of which He is at once the Author and the Witness.” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 3.25-26; language updated)

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Scott Murray

Rev. Dr. Scott Murray is Senior Pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston and is a vice-president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

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