Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

43. Some Other Latin Authors

Hilary of Poitiers

Hilary corresponds to many Christian writers of the fourth century in coming from a good (in his case pagan) family, well educated, and receiving baptism as an adult. He was bishop of Poitiers, France, from about 353 until his death about 367. His literary remains do not contain a special treatment of baptism,1 but he mentions it with some frequency in his doctrinal and exegetical works. He was indebted to ideas found in Origen and other Greek authors as well as his Latin predecessors. His treatment of the baptism of Jesus in his Commentary on Matthew was summarized in chapter 7.

In a manner similar to Gregory of Nyssa and others, Hilary speaks of multiple “births” of Christ. In addition to his eternal generation as divine Son of God, the incarnation, baptism, and resurrection of Christ are presented as births, a description prompted by the language of scripture. The three are brought together in his Commentary on Psalms 2.27, 29, where Christ’s baptism is said to have made him a perfect Son in his humanity (2.29).2

Hilary relates baptism to circumcision, also with reference to Christ’s incarnation. Quoting Colossians 2:11-12, he explains:

1. His Treatise on the Mysteries does not concern the sacraments and Christian initiation (as Ambrose’s does) but is a spiritual, figurative interpretation of persons from the Old Testament. Kilian McDonnell and George T. Montague, Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1991), pp. 122–157, mainly treats the spiritual gifts in Hilary.

2. In addition to the Commentary on Matthew 2.5-6 (chap. 7) Hilary refers to the “birth that took place in his baptism” as a “perfect and true birth” in On the Trinity 8.25. For this work I quote the translation of Stephen McKenna, Saint Hilary of Poitiers: The Trinity, Fathers of the Church 25 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954), here p. 294. For the resurrection as a birth, see also Commentary on Psalms 53.14.

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