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Introduction to the Homilies on Psalms I., LIII., CXXX.


Some account of St. Hilary’s Homilies on the Psalms has already been given in the Introduction to this volume, pp. xl.–xlv. A few words remain to be said concerning his principle of exposition. This may be gathered from his own statement in the fifth sections of the Instructio Psalmorum, the discourse preliminary to the Homilies:—‘There is no doubt that the language of the Psalms must be interpreted by the light of the teaching of the Gospel. Thus, whoever he be by whose mouth the Spirit of prophecy has spoken, the whole purpose of his words is our instruction concerning the glory and power of the coming, the Incarnation, the Passion, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of our resurrection. Moreover, all the prophecies are shut and sealed to worldly sense and pagan wisdom, as Isaiah says, And all these words shall be unto you as the sayings of this book which is sealed13581358    Is. xxix. 11..… The whole is a texture woven of allegorical and typical meanings, whereby are spread before our view all the mysteries of the Only-begotten Son of God, Who was to be born in the body, to suffer, to die, to rise again, to reign forever with, those who share His glory because they believed on Him, to be the Judge of the rest of mankind.’ It is true that Hilary from time to time discriminates, and sometimes very shrewdly, between passages which must, and others which must not, be thus interpreted, but for the most part the commentary is theological and therefore mystical. The Psalter is not used for the establishment of doctrine. No position for which Hilary had not another and an independent defence is maintained on the strength of an allegorical explanation, and no deductions are drawn from such allegories. They are simply used for the cumulative confirmation of truth otherwise revealed. The result is a commentary much more illustrative of Hilary’s own thought to of that of the writers of the Psalms; and great as are the merits of the Homilies, they are counter-balanced by obvious and serious defects. There is, of course, little interest taken in the circumstances in which the Psalms were written. They are, in Hilary’s eyes, essentially prophecies, and he is content as a rule to describe the writer simply as ‘the Prophet.’ And as with the history, so with the spirit of the Psalter. There is little evidence that he recognised in it the noblest and most perfect expression of human devotion towards God, and still less that he appreciated the elevation of its poetry. For the latter failure there is ample excuse. The Septuagint and Old Latin versions of the Psalms have for us venerable antiquity and sacred associations, but they can hardly be said to appeal to the imagination. Now while Hilary of course regarded the Greek translation as authoritative on account both of our Lord’s use of it and of general consent, he treats it not as literature but rather in the spirit of a lawyer interpreting and applying the terms of an ancient charter. Nor is it likely that the Latin version would move Hilary as it sometimes moves us who read it to-day and find a certain dignity and power in its unpolished sentences. Its roughness could only shock, and its obscurity perplex, one who, as we have said already (Intr. iii.), could think and express himself clearly in what was to him a living and a cultivated language. But with all his disadvantages he has produced a great and profoundly Christian work, of permanent value and interest and of abiding influence upon thought, theological and moral. For in these Homilies, and not least in those which are here translated, the Roman genius for moral reflection is manifest, and the pattern set which St. Ambrose was to follow with success in such work as his De officiis ministrorum.

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