They can aspire to the loftiest heights or wallow in the dingiest gutters. The loveliest sentiment may flow readily from the lips, followed in step by a vile and blackened curse.

Gods are panegyricized, philosophical subtleties uncovered and utter nonsense made sacrosanct under their charge, as both the garrulous sage and the loquacious fool share in the spoils.

Despite all their inadequacy, words nevertheless matter, forming and expanding the boundaries of thought while circumscribing the expression of the idea itself, which makes communication possible, deficient though it may be.

In the mid fourth century AD St. Hilary of Poitiers took to the pen in order to give an account concerning the eastern understanding of the nature of the Son.

Some 25 years earlier the Council of Nicea had met to definitely settle the matter of the relation of the nature of the Son to the nature of the Father. From the Council’s deliberation emerged the Nicene Creed which predicated of the Son that he was homoousious with the Father. Homoousios as understood by Nicea refers to the Son as being of the same substance or essence as the Father.

Homoousios is a compound of two Greek words: homos which means same and ousia which means being or essence. (Homoousios is functionally equivalent to the Latin consubstantialis– one in substance) The underlying point that was intended to be made at Nicea was the the Son really was God. Even though in the previous phrase the Son is described as very God of very God, the use of homoousios was deemed necessary to guard against understandings of the Son that held him to be subordinate to the Father in essence.

During the deliberations another word- homoiousios– was thrown into the mix as a possible alternative. It is the same in etymology as homoousios, but the inclusion of the iota subtly changes the meaning from one in essence to similar or like in essence. For many this word seemed to be a reasonable middle ground. After all, to be similar to something does not preclude it from being the same, but doesn’t press the point either.

There was additionally the argument that homoousios is not a scriptural word, and to make it part of a creed would be going too far. Homoiousios would be liable to the same critique, but there were passages that spoke of the Son being like the Father or like God.

Eventually the Council decided that homoousios was the best choice to maintain fealty to the understanding that the Son was of the same substance as the Father. Even though the word itself went beyond the language of the scriptures, it did not go beyond the thought and meaning of the scriptures.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans often come to not. While Nicea was intended by the Council to be definitive and bring the question to some sort of resolution, the result was in fact nearly the opposite. Rather than creating a unified concept of the nature of the Son, it merely succeeded in galvanizing opposing forms of theology. Arianism, the substantial reason for the Council’s inclusion of homoousios, made gains among bishops and laity alike. Having imperial backing was crucial to this development, and the seemingly unstoppable spread of Arianism, especially among the Germanic peoples, would have serious repercussions well into the future. Arianism itself would press its stamp upon the West until Justinian’s reconquest of Northern Africa and Spain and the rise of Frankish rule under Charlemagne and his successors.

Fast forward 25 years or so later. The eastern church has been rocked by numerous heresies and teachings contrary to Nicea, For whatever reason the Easterns had always been interested in theology and philosophy, and it wasn’t confined to the church or the academy. St. Gregory Nazianzen informs us that in Constantinople:

If you go into a shop to buy bread, the baker, instead of telling you the price of it, will set himself to prove to you that the Father is greater than the Son; if you go to the money-changer, the man will talk to you of the Begotten and the Non-Begotten instead of giving you money; and if you visit the baths, you can be sure that before letting you enter the water the attendant will proceed to demonstrate to you that the Son assuredly proceeds from nothing.

In this sort of environment the church in the East has suffered greatly in that a wide majority of its bishops had defected to semi-Arianism or one of the many other heresies, whether they were prevalent or minor. (Even in the West full-blown Arianism was beginning to make inroads to Gaul and beyond.)

St. Hilary, who was bishop of Poitiers in what is now modern day France, had been forced into exile by the Arian bishop Saturninus, whom St. Hilary had exposed for his heresy. Saturninus responded by convening a council to be rid of Hilary, and as the council was composed primarily of other Arians, St. Hilary was sent off by the Emperor Constantius to Phrygia in AD 356.

It was in exile that St. Hilary familiarized himself with the distinctive nature of the eastern church and in his communion with its orthodox bishops came to a fuller understanding of the particular ways in which theology was done in the East.

Although the split between the Eastern and Western churches wouldn’t occur for centuries, even now the seeds of discord had been sown. In many respects it was political, as the church in the West composed itself around the primacy of Rome while in the East Constantinople was the seat of ecclesial power. East and West even diverged theologically in some instances, in vocabulary and methodology if not in substance.

During St. Hilary’s exile he had maintained correspondence with western bishops. Around 359 the letters stopped arriving, and Hilary feared that his enemies had prevailed in sullying his reputation among even his friends. Fortunately, as Hilary mentions in his letter de Synodis, it was due to a misunderstanding- somehow in the course of switching residences his address had become unknown to his friends and supporters.

De Synodis, however, was occasioned by more than a misunderstanding. A council had been summoned by some of the semi-Arian bishops at Sirmium; here they had promulgated a document entitled Blasphemia which asserted that the Father is greater than the Son and forbade speaking of essence (ousia) or the use of either homoousios or homoiousios.

But since some or many persons were disturbed by questions concerning substance, called in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to homoousion, or what is called homoiousion, there ought to be no mention made of these at all.

In response to this the Eastern bishops who still held to Nicea convened their own councils to contravene the Blasphemia. All of these conciliar documents had made their way to the western bishops, and since there had already been suspicions regarding the churches of the east, many in the west were inclined to deem even the more orthodox councils as heterodox. This was compounded by the fact that these councils had employed homoiousios in their arguments concerning the nature of the Son relative to the Father rather than homoousios as Nicea had. Additionally, the eastern councils were prepared to anathematize the usage of homoousios since they felt this word gave heterodox opinions ammunition.

St. Hilary, essentially stuck in the middle between East and West, desired to use this position as an intermediary of sorts. Being a western bishop he was fully cognizant of their concerns and approach to theology, while during his time in exile he had become sufficiently appraised of eastern theology to realize that their use of homoiousios was not necessarily heterodox. Due to his unique position he composed de Synodis to address the concerns of the western bishops while giving a full account of the eastern understanding of the essence of the Son, (as well as a commentary on the conciliar decisions) hoping that the two could be reconciled.

St. Hilary begins by providing a working definition of essence. The western bishops were more likely to think in the term substance, since it was (at least in theory) the Latin equivalent of the Greek ousia. Hilary feared that a misunderstanding of terminology could attend the western bishops reception of any eastern conciliar documents by virtue of the western bishops misunderstanding what the bishops of the east meant by essence and thus of homoiousios.

Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.

The question of how ousia related to substantia (or essentia) was not incidental to theology, for there was as yet no clearly defined way in which these terms were employed. The same would prove true for hypostasis and persona. After all, even though substantia was at times functionally equivalent to ousia in meaning, it was etymologically equivalent to hypostasis since both mean that which stands beneath. Because of this lack of precision, some authors would use hypostasis when they meant what others intended by ousia, some would use substantia for what others would mean by hypostasis, and so on and so forth.

As homoousios at least had the distinction of being explicitly included in the formulation of the Creed at Nicea, and as most Western bishops did not actually know what was meant by ousia, let alone homoiousios, it is little wonder that St. Hilary was concerned that disunity might be brought about by what amounted to mere semantics. At the same time, however, he seems to have wanted to facilitate actual understanding, and thus these seemingly obtuse issues could potentially be of the utmost importance.

Concerning homoiousios, Hilary realizes that its rejection at Nicea is wont to predispose the western bishops against it and any eastern formulation which contains it. He thus proceeds to demonstrate how to be ‘like something’ in nature is to in fact be equal with it.

But perhaps the word similarity may not seem fully appropriate. If so, I ask how I can express the equality of one Person with the other except by such a word? Or is to be like not the same thing as to be equal? If I say the divine nature is one I am suspected of meaning that it is undifferentiated: if I say the Persons are similar, I mean that I compare what is exactly like.

I ask what position equal holds between like and one? I enquire whether it means similarity rather than singularity. Equality does not exist between things unlike, nor does similarity exist in one. What is the difference between those that are similar and those that are equal? Can one equal be distinguished from the other? So those who are equal are not unlike. If then those who are unlike are not equals, what can those who are like be but equals?

St. Hilary’s point here is that there isn’t a sliding scale of ontology between likeness and oneness. If two subjects being considered are unlike, equality is precluded by this unlikeness. Thus, if essence or substance is being considered, two subjects that are like or similar in substance must be admitted to be equal in essence or substance. Hilary will move on to consider this with an analogy- in the scriptures Adam gives birth to Seth, and Seth is said to be according to Adam’s likeness. In this instance, no one would presume that Seth’s likeness to Adam in substance was merely analogical; rather, this likeness denotes that both Adam and Seth are of the same nature.

From here St. Hilary considers the place in the scriptures where Jesus calls God his own Father:

Therefore every son by virtue of his natural birth is the equal of his father, in that he has a natural likeness to him. And with regard to the nature of the Father and the Son the blessed John teaches the very likeness which Moses says existed between Seth and Adam, a likeness which is this equality of nature. He says, Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was His father, making Himself equal with God. Why do we allow minds that are dulled with the weight of sin to interfere with the doctrines and sayings of such holy men, and impiously match our rash though sluggish senses against their impregnable assertions? According to Moses, Seth is the likeness of Adam, according to John, the Son is equal to the Father, yet we seek to find a third impossible something between the Father and the Son. He is like the Father, He is the Son of the Father, He is born of Him: this fact alone justifies the assertion that they are one.

Hilary’s meaning, of course, is that equality isn’t an ontological category that exists somewhere in between likeness and oneness; rather, likeness presumes equality in regards to substance. From here it is merely a matter of realizing that this likeness actuality constitutes equality, since what is predicated of the likeness between the Father and the Son presumes the oneness and equality of essence:

I am aware, dear brethren, that there are some who confess the likeness, but deny the equality. Let them speak as they will, and insert the poison of their blasphemy into ignorant ears. If they say that there is a difference between likeness and equality, I ask whence equality can be obtained? If the Son is like the Father in essence, might, glory and eternity, I ask why they decline to say He is equal? In the above creed an anathema was pronounced on any man who should say that the Father was Father of an essence unlike Himself. Therefore if He gave to Him whom He begot without effect upon Himself a nature which was neither another nor a different nature, He cannot have given Him any other than His own. Likeness then is the sharing of what is one’s own, the sharing of one’s own is equality, and equality admits of no difference. Those things which do not differ at all are one. So the Father and the Son are one, not by unity of Person but by equality of nature.

He makes an interesting point here- The scriptures speak of the Son as having the might, glory and eternality of God. Hilary raises the question: how could these things which are proper to the divine nature exist in the Son if the Son does not have the divine nature? How could saying that the Son is like the Father in these things constitutive of God be construed to mean that the Son is not equal with God? The only way is to intentionally pervert the meaning of likeness, which is the verdict the heretics have placed upon themselves.

St. Hilary will go on to more fully develop this idea of likeness:

He has Himself added, What things soever He does, these also does the Son likewise. Surely then the likeness implies equality. Certainly it does, even though we deny it: for these also does the Son likewise. Are not things done likewise the same? Or do not the same things admit equality? Is there any other difference between likeness and equality, when things that are done likewise are understood to be made the same? Unless perchance any one will deny that the same things are equal, or deny that similar things are equal, for things that are done in like manner are not only declared to be equal but to be the same things.

As an analogy, my wife might say to me, “I love you”, to which I might reply, “Likewise.” In my use of likewise I do not intend to mean that my love is of a different sort or completely unrelated to the love she has expressed for me; on the contrary, the very idea contained within the expression likewise is that my love equals her love, is of the same sort and quality, and extends towards her relative to the way in which it extends to me. The expression of similarity is underscored by the implied equality, rather then intending a distinction or dissimilarity.

Therefore, similarity in nature between the Father and the Son, from Hilary’s perspective, implies equality. If the essence of God is properly understood and approached by sincere faith, this consequence flows forth from it without question.

Therefore, brethren, likeness of nature can be attacked by no cavil, and the Son cannot be said to lack the true qualities of the Father’s nature because He is like Him. No real likeness exists where there is no equality of nature, and equality of nature cannot exist unless it imply unity, not unity of person but of kind. It is right to believe, religious to feel, and wholesome to confess, that we do not deny that the substance of the Father and the Son is one because it is similar, and that it is similar because they are one.

Having established his argument towards the Western bishops, he now addresses the Eastern bishops. The use of homoousios by the West had troubled them similarly since many heresies in the East tended to use it to buttress their heterodox opinions. Some Eastern bishops were prepared, in their zeal to uphold the doctrine of Nicea, to anathematize the use of homoousios altogether, thus impugning the fathers of the council who strove so valiantly for its inclusion. St. Hilary, realizing the disunity which might arise from what amounted to semantics, pleads for understanding:

Have we to fear that homoiousion does not imply the same belief as homoousion? Let us decree that there is no difference between being of one or of a similar substance. The word homoousion can be understood in a wrong sense. Let us prove that it can be understood in a very good sense. We hold one and the same sacred truth. I beseech you that we should agree that this truth, which is one and the same, should be regarded as sacred. Forgive me, brethren, as I have so often asked you to do. You are not Arians: why should you be thought to be Arians by denying the homoousion?

St. Hilary hopes rather that the substance and essence of meaning that the Western and Eastern bishops hold in common can be maintained instead of letting either homoousios or homoiousios become a sort of shibboleth for determining orthodoxy. He senses a real danger in the prospect of division over words rather than meaning. As such, Hilary proposes a greater unity that might be fostered by a sincere desire to understand one another:

Our desire is sacred. Let us not condemn the fathers, let us not encourage heretics, lest while we drive one heresy away, we nurture another. After the Council of Nicea our fathers interpreted the due meaning of homoousion with scrupulous care; the books are extant, the facts are fresh in mens’ minds: if anything has to be added to the interpretation, let us consult together. Between us we can thoroughly establish the faith, so that what has been well settled need not be disturbed, and what has been misunderstood may be removed.

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