The title of this episode is simply à “Ambrose.” And once we learn a little about him, we’ll see that title is enough.
I begin with a quote à
When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.
Born in 340, Ambrose was the second son of Ambrosius, the imperial governor of Gaul and part of an ancient Roman family that included the famous Marcus Aurelius. Not long after Aurelius, and his utterly disastrous son Commodus, the family became Christians who provided not a few notable martyrs. Ambrose was born at Trier, the imperial capital of Gaul. When his father died while he was still a lad, Ambrose was taken to Rome to be raised. His childhood was spent in the company of many members of the clergy, mostly men of sincere faith with a solid grasp on the theological challenges the Church of that day wrestled with; things you’re familiar with because we’ve spent the last several episodes dealing with them; that is, the Christological controversies that swirled first around Arius, then the blood-feud between Cyril & Nestorius.
Now would be a good time for me to toss in some place-makers so we can get a sense of what was going on as Ambrose grew up. Donatus is the bishop of Carthage. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, and the 2 Gregory’s are hammering out the proper verbiage to understand the Trinity. Athanasius has his long run as THE chief defender or Biblical orthodoxy. When Ambrose was 16, the famous Desert Father Anthony of Egypt died. The Goths were running rampant over northern Europe, causing great consternation in the Roman Empire, especially up in Gaul where Ambrose hailed from. When Ambrose was 38 the Goths defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in a loss so thorough, the Emperor Valens himself was killed.
During Ambrose’s lifetime, Pope Damasus will rule the Church from Rome. Jerome will move to Bethlehem and complete the Vulgate. John Chrysostom will serve as Patriarch at Constantinople.
Clearly, a lot of major import was going on during Ambrose’s lifetime.
When he was 30, Ambrose became governor of NW Italy & lived at the regional capital of Milan.
As governor he was charged with the responsibility to officiate in church disputes. This was the time when Nicaean & Arians believers were practically at war with each other; if not a war fought with literal weapons, at least a vitriolic war of words. Ambrose was no friend of the Arians, but he was so well regarded, both sides supported him. When the Arian bishop of Milan died, Ambrose attended the meeting to elect his replacement, hoping his presence would forestall violence. To his surprise, both sides shouted their wish for him to be the replacement.
Ambrose did NOT want to be a churchman. He was doing quite well as a political leader. Following the practice of many at that time, he hadn’t even been baptized yet. But the people wrote to Emperor Valentian, asking for his approval of their selection. Ambrose was placed under arrest until he agreed to serve a Milan’s new bishop.
Now, if the Arians hoped to gain favor by supporting Ambrose as bishop, they were destined to be disappointed. Their new bishop helped define what the word ‘orthodox’ meant. He soon took the Arians to task & refused to surrender a building for them to meet in. He wrote several works against them that went on to prove instrumental in bringing an end to Arianism.
Trained in rhetoric and law, and having studied Greek, Ambrose became known for his knowledge of Greek scholars, both Christian and pagan. In addition to Philo, Origen, and Basil of Caesarea, he quoted the Neo-platonist Plotinus in his sermons. He was widely regarded as an excellent preacher.
In many of his messages, Ambrose expounded upon the virtues of asceticism. He was so persuasive that noble families sometimes forbade their daughters to attend his sermons, fearing they’d trade their marriageable status for a life of austere virginity.
One piece of his pastoral advice became a maxim for the clergy: “When you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; when you are elsewhere, live as they live elsewhere.”
Ambrose also introduced congregational singing, and was accused of “bewitching” Milan by introducing Eastern melodies into the hymns he wrote. Because of his influence, hymn singing became an important part of the Western liturgy.
It’s important to mention while Ambrose was a fierce opponent of heresy, as seen in his stand against Arianism, his opposition to religious issues didn’t morph over into how people were treated civilly. Arians & pagans were still citizens who possessed rights as citizens. As human beings, they were still objects of God’s love and desire for salvation. Respect needed to be shown to them, even while opposing them theologically. That was a rare perspective for the time; inordinately rare. And it earned Ambrose tremendous respect across the board.
While the people of Ambrose’s time would credit his writings and worship innovations as the most notable feature of his life & ministry, history attributes two other momentous events to his impact on the Church.
First is in the realm of church-state relations.
Second would be his influence on a young pagan who visited his church and became a follower of Jesus; his name was Augustine.
Let’s consider first, Ambrose’s impact of church-state relations.
His relationship with Emperor Theodosius, who finalized a long-running political trend of folding the Roman Empire into a Christian state, was a dramatic shift from the first 200 years of Church history that saw an on & off persecution of Christians.
An example of the change from paganism to Christianity occurred in 390, when local officials imprisoned a charioteer of Thessalonica for homosexual behavior. The public rebelled against this action because the charioteer was a major celebrity, a sports hero & crowd favorite. Riots broke out w/a loud cry for his release. Not a few of the rioters & innocent bystanders were killed, including the governor. The mob took over the prison and the prisoner was freed.
Theodosius was enraged by the melee. He was determined to exact revenge against the people of Thessalonica by such a flagrant disregard for the law and the disrespect he felt at having his hand-picked governor so casually relived of life. So he slyly announced another chariot race. When the crowds showed up & settled into their seats, the gates were locked, & the people inside were massacred. Some 7,000 were put to the sword in less than 3 hours.
Ambrose was stunned! Once he recovered from his shock, he sat down and composed a letter to Theodosius, demanding the Emperor repent. As Emperor, Theodosius wasn’t inclined to follow some far-off bishop’s counsel. Ambrose was merely a clergyman in Milan, Italy; Theodosius was the mighty ruler headquartered in the East at Constantinople.
But Theodosius didn’t stay in Constantinople. Wouldn’t you just know it? Imperial business took him, guess where! Yep – Milan. As a Christian Emperor of a now Christian Empire, Theodosius went to church, and expected Pastor Ambrose to serve him Communion. Ambrose refused! His letter calling for the Emperor to repent had gone unheeded. Who did this guy think he was that he could just waltz into the church in Milan and line up for Communion as though everything was hunky-dory? Why – the nerve of the guy!
Ambrose repeated the condition: Unless the emperor repent of his gross abuse of power, & do so publicly, no Communion would pass his lips! Either Ambrose was gutsy or had a death wish! An Emperor who’d ordered the execution of thousands probably wouldn’t think much of offing a lone, obstinate bishop. But Ambrose demonstrated he would not compromise his calling to save his life and Theodosius realized his best course was to do as instructed and repented by setting aside his royal garments & emblems of State, wearing humble sackcloth, & a face streaked w/ash as a sign of penance.
Ambrose in no way intended this humiliation of the Emperor as a way to elevate himself or other church officials. For Ambrose, it was simply something he believed Theodosius, who claimed to be a Christian, was required to do as a sign of sincere contrition before God. Ambrose would have been appalled at how later bishops used their office & power to administer the sacraments as a way to manipulate civil rulers, and by doing so, use civil power to accomplish church ends. Or maybe I should say, their own ends hidden behind a thin veneer of church business.
Though Ambrose could not have foreseen the consequences of this episode with the Emperor, it introduced the medieval concept of a Christian emperor as the compliant “son of the church serving under orders from Christ.” Over the next millennium, secular and religious rulers vied with each other over who was sovereign in the different spheres of life.
Though we might expect Emperor Theodosius to leave Milan with an axe to grind as it related to Ambrose, legend says he was so impressed with Ambrose’s courage & quality of Christian witness that he once said, “I know no bishop worthy of the name, except Ambrose” When the emperor died, it was in Ambrose’s arms. Of Theodosius’ death Ambrose said, “I confess I loved him, and felt the sorrow of his death in the abyss of my heart.”
Two years later, Ambrose himself fell ill. The worries of entire Italian countryside were felt were expressed by one writer as; “When Ambrose dies, we shall see the ruin of Italy.” On the Eve of Easter in 397, Milan’s beloved bishop breathed his last.
Only one name is more associated with Ambrose than Theodosius’s. And that leads us to the second event of his ministry, historians reckon as most important. That one name is the student who outshined this teacher: Augustine. But that is the subject of our next few episodes . . .
As we end this week, Please remember to visit the CS FB page, give us a like and leave a comment on who you are & where you live.
I wanted to say a special word of thanks to all those who’ve been telling others about the podcast lately. It seems we’ve hit another phase of rapid growth with a lot of new listeners.
The comments have been encouraging. Thanks to all.
Have to warn you that while it’s my intention to continue releasing one episode every Sunday, Augustine is a towering & complicated figure. I’m thinking I need to do one long study, then figure out how to break it up in sections of typical podcast length. As I look at the material, it may take a couple weeks at least to get it all done. So if there’s a Sunday or 2 that no new episode pops, don’t worry. Yeah – you can go ahead and be bummed out. But don’t fret. It’ll eventually arrive. And who knows – there might be no lag at all. >> Later.