Hilary of Poitiers on Justification

Hilary of Poitiers was a French bishop of the fourth century. It is disputed by Roman Catholics and Protestants as to what Hilary taught regarding justification. The most relevant passage comes from his commentary on Matthew chapter 8, paragraph 6. Here is the translation in The Fathers of the Church series (the passage under consideration is the healing of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins):

A pattern of the truth is followed in these events, even as an image of the future is fulfilled in the words. It disturbed the scribes that sin was forgiven by a man (for they considered that Jesus Christ was only a man) and that he forgave sin, for which the Law was not able to grant absolution, since faith alone justifies. When the Lord discerned the murmuring of the scribes, he said that it was easy for the Son of Man to forgive sins on earth. For truly no one is able to forgive sins except God alone. He who forgave, therefore, is God because no one can forgive except God. For the Word of God which abides in that Man offers to a man healing, and there was no difficulty for him to do and speak since it is given to him to perform everything that he said he would do.

The particular sentence under dispute is obviously the one that mentions that faith alone justifies. In Latin, the sentence runs “Et remissum est ab eo, quod lex laxare non poterat; fides enim sola justificat” (from Migne PL volume 9, column 961). The author of The Thoughts of Francis Turretin blog has a lengthy article on Hilary, including a very brief mention of this passage, arguing that the passage is in itself clear. However, Matt1618 has a lengthy argument against a “Protestant” understanding of the passage. We will assess Matt1618’s argument carefully.

To put it briefly, Matt1618 argues from what Hilary does not say in order to import a whole lot of Roman Catholic theology into the silences. Observe case number one: Matt1618 says, “Here it is apparent St. Hilary is speaking about initial justification.” I would answer “yes and no.” I would agree that Hilary is talking about a moment in time. I would disagree that Hilary implies a process that starts with initial justification. Hilary does not mention any kind of process at all. Instead, he is simply contrasting what the Law can do versus what faith can do. Faith justifies, and the Law cannot.

Case number two: Matt1618 says, “He does not mean or say that once one is justified, one cannot lose that justification through sin as Calvin or Luther would say.” In Matt1618’s eagerness to prevent anachronistic readings of Hilary, he neglects to mention that, although Hilary does not speak of an unlosable justification, that does not imply that Hilary is speaking about a losable justification. It is an argument from silence on Matt1618’s part. Hilary doesn’t address the question of whether justification is losable here at all. In the context following (paragraph 7), Hilary does speak of irrevocable gifts like resurrection, and a state wherein “sickness and sorrow will affect our bodies no more.” But he nowhere in the context mentions a losable justification, whether by words or ideas.

Case number three: Matt1618 says, “Of course, just as in other fathers, St. Hilary has faith explicitly linked to baptism so the reference to faith here does not mean that justification is without baptism.” Excuse me, but where does Hilary explicitly link justification to baptism? In the entirety of chapter 8 of the commentary, neither the word “baptism” nor the idea of baptism appear. The closest we get is “deep waters” in section 4. However, since Hilary is there talking about “a desire for the world instigated by demonic forces,” this is hardly applicable to baptism. At this point I am wondering if Matt1618 and I are reading the same text.

Case number four: Matt1618 says, “Nor does he say that following initial justification that sacraments or works are not necessary to maintain that state of justification.” Again an argument from what Hilary does not say. Hilary doesn’t here say that the sacraments or works are necessary to maintain such a state of justification, either. Again, he simply doesn’t address the question. He is not, in this passage, interested in the maintenance of the state of being justified, but rather the mechanism by which we become justified, and that is by faith alone.

Case number five: Matt1618 says, “He just spells out here that the law without faith, in and of itself does not justify, something any Catholic would hold to.” This is precisely what Hilary does NOT say. Hilary is saying that the Law is unable to grant absolution (the forgiveness of sins), since faith alone (i.e., without the Law) justifies. In order for Matt1618 to be correct, Hilary would have had to say something like this: “The law without faith is powerless, but the law with faith can justify.” This is almost, though not quite, the opposite of what Hilary actually said. Hilary said that the Law is not involved in justification from our side. Only faith justifies.

Case number six: Matt1618 then adduces passages from Hilary’s On the Trinity and later in the Matthew commentary, none of which are talking about justification. The passage from 9.5 from Hilary’s work on the Trinity is talking about the importance of good works (which no Protestant but an antinomian would deny). If Matt1618’s interpretation is correct, then Protestants ignore the place of good works entirely. This is manifestly an incorrect interpretation of Protestantism. But it is obvious that Hilary is not talking about justification, but about the behavior of the justified.

Section 18.8 of the Matthew commentary is talking about the power of the keys, not justification. That there should be “a tremendous fear” is certainly the goal of what Hilary writes in this section. That Hilary is talking about justification is not clear at all. He is talking about the ability of the church to make assessments about the spiritual state of a member of the church.

It becomes clear, then, in the course of this investigation, that Hilary taught that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law. While his theology was not as developed on this point as the Reformers would be, it is not difficult to see the continuity of Hilary’s statement here with the Reformers’ teaching on justification.



  1. roberty bob said,

    October 26, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    1. The paralytic and his friends come to the Lord Jesus in FAITH.
    2. The Lord Jesus FORGIVES the paralytic of his sins.
    3. The Son of Man [Jesus] has authority on earth to forgive sins, with the healing of the paralytic serving as confirmation of such authority.
    4. The man of FAITH, now FORGIVEN, is JUSTIFIED BY FAITH.
    5. Anyone whose sins are FORGIVEN by the Lord is JUSTIFIED.
    6. “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.” — Psalm 32:1,2 quoted by Paul in Romans 4:7,8

  2. roberty bob said,

    October 27, 2017 at 11:50 am

    You will not find the story of the paralytic and his friends in Matthew 8, as mentioned above, but in the early verses of Matthew 9. In case anyone wants to read the actual biblical telling of the story.

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