This episode of Communio Sanctorum is titled, “Look Who’s Driving the Bus Now.”
As noted in a previous episode, it’s difficult in recounting Church History to follow a straight narrative timeline. The expansion of the Faith into different regions means many storylines. So it’s necessary to do a certain amount of backtracking as we follow the spread of the Gospel from region to region. The problem with that though in an audio series, it can be confusing as we bounce back & forth in time. We’ve already followed Christianity’s expansion to the Far East & went from the 4th C thru about the 6th, then did a quick little jaunt all the way to the 17th C. Then in the next episode we’re back in Italy talking about the 3rd C.
This week’s episode is a case in point. We’re going to take a look at 2 interesting & important individuals in the history; not only of the Faith, but of the world. It’s a couple men we’ve already looked at – Bishop Ambrose of Milan and Emperor Theodosius I. The reason we’re considering these 2 is because their relationship was instrumental in setting the tie between Church & State that becomes one of the defining realities of Europe in the Middle Ages.
I know some of this is a repeat of earlier material. Hang with me because we need to consider the background of the players here.
Ambrose was born into the powerful Roman family of Aurelius about 340 in the German city of Trier, which served at the time as the capital of the Roman province of Gaul. Both his parents were Christians. His father held the important position of praetorian prefect. His mother was a woman of great intellect & virtue.
His father died while he was still young & as was typical for wealthy Romans of the time, Ambrose followed his father into the political arena. He was educated in Rome where he studied law, literature, & as we’d expect of someone going into politics – rhetoric. In 372 he was made the governor of the region of Liguria, its capital being Milan, the 2nd capital of Italy after Rome. In fact, in the later 4th C, Milan was the new Imperial Capital. The Western Emperors deemed Rome as both in need of major repairs & too far removed from where all the action was. For decades the Emperors in Rome were too distant from the constant campaigns against the Germanic tribes. They wanted to be closer to the action, so imperial HQs shifted to Milan.
Not long after he became governor, the famous controversy between the Arians & Catholics heated up. In 374 the Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died. Of course, the Arians expected an Arian would be named to replace him. But the Catholics saw this as an opportunity to install one of their own. The ensuing controversy threatened to destroy the peace of the City, so Governor Ambrose attended the church meeting called to appoint a new bishop. He thought his presence as the chief civil magistrate would forestall rioting. Imagine that! The Christians had a reputation for getting unruly when they didn’t get their way. Sounds like LA when the Lakers win.
Yep è Those Christian in Milan! Running amok in the streets, overturning chariots & looting street vendors selling fish tacos – Shameful!
Anyway, Ambrose attended the election, hoping his presence would remind the crowd à Rioting would be forcefully suppressed. He gave a speech to those gathered about the need to show restraint & that violence would dishonor God. His message was so reasonable, his tone so honorable, when it came time to nominate candidates for the bishop’s chair, a voice called out “Ambrose for bishop!” There was a brief silence, then another voice said, “Yes, Ambrose.” Soon a whole chorus was chanting, “Ambrose for bishop. à Bishop Ambrose.”
The governor was known to be Catholic in belief, but had always shown the Arians respect in his dealing. They saw the way the political winds were blowing and knew in a straight vote, a Catholic bishop was sure to be elected. They realized Ambrose, though of the other theological camp, wouldn’t be a bad choice. So they added their voices to the call for his investiture as bishop of Milan.
At first, Ambrose vehemently refused. He was a politician, not a religious leader. He knew he was in no way prepared to lead the Church. He hadn’t even been baptized yet and had no formal training in theology. None of this mattered to the crowd who’d not take his refusal as the last word. They said he was bishop whether he liked it or not.
He fled to a colleague’s house to hide. His host received a letter from the Emperor Gratian saying it was entirely proper for the civil government to appoint qualified individuals to church leadership positions since the Church served an important role in providing social stability. If there were people serving in the political realm who’d be more effective in the religious sphere, then by all means, let them transfer to the Church. Ambrose’s friend showed him the letter & tried to reason with him but Ambrose wouldn’t budge. So the friend went to Church officials and told them where Ambrose was hiding. When they showed up at the door intent on seeing him take the seat they’d given him, he relented. Within a week he was baptized, ordained & consecrated as Bishop of Milan.
He immediately adopted the ascetic lifestyle shared by the monks. He appointed relief for the poor, donated all of his land, & committed the care of his family to his brother.
Once Ambrose became bishop, the religious toleration that had marked his posture as a political figure went out the window. A bishop must defend the Faith against error. So Ambrose took the Arians to task. He wrote several works against them and limited their access to Church life in Milan, which at the time was arguably the most influential church in the West since Milan was the seat of imperial power.
In response to Ambrose’s moves to squelch them, the Arians appealed to high-level leaders in both the civil & religious spheres at both sides of the Empire. The western Emperor Gratian was catholic while his younger successor & augustus, Valentinian II was an Arian. Ambrose tried, but was unsuccessful in swaying Valentinian to the Nicene-catholic position.
The Arian leaders felt there were enough of them in positions of influence that if they held a council, they might be able to win the day for Arianism and asked the Emperor for permission to hold one. Of course, they hid their real motive from Gratian, who thought a council during his reign a great idea and consented. Ambrose knew the real reason for the council and urged Gratian to stack the meeting with Western, pro-Nicene catholic bishops. In the council held the next year in 381 at Aquileia, Ambrose was elected to preside & the leading Arian bishops dropped out. They were then deposed by the council.
This wasn’t the end of troubles with the Arians however. Valentinian’s mother, the dynamic Justina, knew the Arians were well represented among the generals & got them to rally behind her son. They demanded 2 churches to hold Arian services in; a basilica in Milan, the other in a suburb. Saying “No” to the Emperor & his mother is usually not so good for one’s health & most students of history would assume this would be the end, not only of Ambrose’s career, but of his life. But that’s not the way this story ends.
When Ambrose denied the Arian demands, he was summoned to appear before a hastily convened court to answer for himself. His defense of the Nicene position & the necessity as bishop to defend the Faith was so eloquent the judges sat amazed. They realized there was nothing they could do to censure him w/o setting themselves in opposition to the truth & risking another riot. They released him and affirmed his right to forbid the use of the churches by the Arians.
The next day, as he performed services in the basilica, the governor of Milan tried to persuade him to compromise & give up the church in the suburb for use by the Emperor & his mother. After all, Ambrose had made his point and his concession now would be seen as an act of grace & good will. It’s precisely the kind of thing Ambrose would have urged when he was governor. But as bishop, it was a no-go. The governor wasn’t accustomed to being denied & gave orders that BOTH churches were to be turned over to the Arians for their use at Easter. Instead of being cowed, Bishop Ambrose declared:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the Church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to [support] me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The rioting of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.
Ambrose & his congregation then barricaded themselves inside the church in a kind of religious filibuster. When Valentinian & his mother Justina realized the only way to gain access was to forcefully evict them & how violently the people of Milan were likely to react, the order was rescinded.
Trained in rhetoric and law, well-versed in the Greek classics, Ambrose was known as a learned scholar, familiar with both Christian & pagan sources. His sermons were marked by references to the great thinkers, not only of the past but his own day. When he was elected bishop, he embarked on a kind of crash-course in theology. His teacher was an elder from Rome named Simplician. His knowledge of Greek, rare in the West, allowed him to study the NT in its original language. He also learned Hebrew so he could deepen his understanding of the OT. He quickly gained a reputation as an excellent preacher.
As noted in a previous episode, it was under his ministry that the brilliant Augustine of Hippo was converted. Prior to moving to Milan, Augustine was unimpressed by the quality of Christian scholarship. To be blunt, he thought Christians were for the most part an uneducated rabble. Ambrose shattered that opinion. Augustine found himself drawn to his sermons and sat rapt as he heard the Gospel explained.
Ambrose’s sermons often promoted an ascetic lifestyle. He was so persuasive, several noble families forbade their daughters listening to him, fearing they’d chose celibacy over marriage. Since marrying off a daughter to another noble family was a way to advance socially, they feared their girls would become nuns, and thwart their plans.
Ambrose introduced, or I should say re-introduced congregational singing to church services. Not afraid to innovate, when he included Eastern melodies in the hymns he wrote, and they proved to be wildly popular, some accused him of casting a spell on the people of Milan. Due to Ambrose, hymn singing became an important part of the liturgy of the Western Church.
Ambrose’s most important contribution was in the area of church-state relations. He contended, not with just 1, but 3 emperors; & prevailed in each encounter. His relationship with Theodosius, the first emperor to make Rome a Christian state, is the best known. And the tale is one of those moments in history that would make a great miniseries.
In 388 the local bishop & several monks led a mob in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum to destroy the city’s synagogue. Why isn’t clear – but there was much ill will between Christians & Jews because the later had been one of the main informants on Christians during the persecutions of the previous century. Now that the Christians were buddied up to civil power, it didn’t take much to ignite a little payback, even though it was utterly contrary to the love Jesus called His followers to show. Be that as it may, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the rebuilding of the synagogue at the expense of the rioters, including the bishop. When Ambrose heard of the decision, he immediately shot off a fierce protest. The glory of God was at stake, so he couldn’t remain silent. He wrote, “Shall a bishop be compelled to re-erect a synagogue? Can he do this thing that ought not be done? If he obeys the Emperor, he’d become a traitor to his faith; if he disobeys the Emperor, he becomes a martyr. What real wrong is there, after all, in destroying a synagogue, a home of perfidy, a home of impiety, in which Christ is daily blasphemed?” Ambrose went on to say he was no less guilty than the bishop of Callinicum since he made no secret of his wish that all synagogues be destroyed, that no such places of blasphemy be allowed to exist.
In a surprise move, Theodosius revoked his earlier decision. The Christians didn’t have to rebuild the synagogue they’d destroyed. Well, you might imagine what message that sent—it was open season on Jews & their meeting places.
All this makes Ambrose appear a rabid anti-Semite. It’s confusing then to read of his high regard for their moral purity & devotion to learning.
So ends Round 1 in the wrestling match between the Bishop of Milan & the Emperor Theodosius. Before we look at Round 2, let’s take a closer look at Theodosius.
Blond & elegant, Theodosius began his imperial career the usual way for emperors of this era. He was born in northwest Spain, to a father who was a talented military commander. Theodosius learned his military lessons by campaigning with his father’s staff in Britain.
After being crowned emperor in the East in 379, he battled the ever-troubling Germanic tribes in the North. The incessant war did little but wearing out both sides, so Theodosius offered the tribes an option. In exchange for land and supplies, Germans would provide soldiers for the legions. These Germans would serve under a Roman banner & generals. It was a novel idea for the time, an arrangement that later emperors increasingly depended on.
To fund this expanded army, Theodosius raised taxes to a new high. His enforcement of collection of the new taxes was carried out harshly. Any official neglecting to collect was flogged.
During a serious illness early in his reign, Theodosius was baptized. In 380 he proclaimed himself a Nicene Christian & called a council at Constantinople to put an end to the Arian heresy.
Having won that victory, Theodosius tried to get his choice for the patriarch of Constantinople approved but the bishops demanded he appoint someone from their list. They prevailed. It was the first of several instances where Theodosius yielded to church leaders.
And this brings us to Round 2 between Theodosius & Ambrose.
Chariot-racing was THE big sport of the Greco-Roman world for hundreds of years. Merge baseball, basketball, football, & soccer into a single sport & you get the idea of just how huge chariot-racing was. Many of the larger cities had 4 to 6 teams, designated by a color. These teams often represented a neighborhood or social class, so rivalries were sectarian & fierce. Fans formed clubs around their teams and attacked each other. A band of thugs for the Reds might rampage through the Purple neighborhood, leading to a riot of retribution a couple days later. The point is, supporters were fanatically loyal to their team.
In 390, local authorities imprisoned a charioteer in Thessalonica for homosexual rape. This charioteer happened to be one of the city’s favorites, and riots broke out when the governor refused to release him. That governor and several of his staff were killed, the charioteer busted out of jail by his fans.
Thessalonica was no out-of-the-way village; it was a major city and the riot couldn’t go without being answered. The Emperor needed to do something, but the something he did was all wrong. He announced another chariot race. When the crowd arrived, the gates to the arena were locked and they were massacred by imperial troops. In a 3 hour horror show, 7000 were executed!
Later records showed that after the initial order was sent by Theodosius with this plan, he realized it was a grave injustice & sent another message to rescind the first. It got there too late.
Many across the empire were stunned at the news of the massacre. Bishop Ambrose was horrified. He shot off another angry letter to Theodosius demanding repentance. He wrote, “I exhort, I beg, I entreat, I admonish you, because it is grief to me that the perishing of so many innocent is no grief to you. And now I call on you to repent.” Then Ambrose did something that proved the turning point in Church-State affairs.
When Theodosius visited Milan & attend a church service, he expected Bishop Ambrose to serve him Communion. Ambrose refused! He said until Theodosius repented for what he’d done at Thessalonica, no elements would cross his lips.
Now, remember—It was believed the celebration of Communion was essential for maintaining salvation. It renewed and refreshed God’s grace. Barring the Emperor from Communion put his soul at risk.
So when Theodosius professed repentance, Ambrose in effect replied, “Hold on pal; not so fast. Your repentance must be marked by penance – & a very public version.’ He told Theodosius to set aside his royal garments, put on a simple shroud, and publicly plead for God’s mercy where any & everyone could see & hear him. There’s some debate as to how long this went on but one source says it lasted 8 months before Ambrose finally relented & consented to serve the Emperor Communion.
As stated, Theodosius’ capitulation to Ambrose marks a major turning point in Church-State relations. The Bishop’s treatment of the Emperor introduced the medieval concept of a Christian Emperor as a dutiful “son of the Church serving under orders from Christ.” For the next thousand years, secular and religious rulers struggled to determine who was sovereign in the various spheres of life.
Lest the previous events I’ve just shared make Ambrose & Theodosius appear as rivals, understand that the Bishop of Milan was in fact the Emperor’s friend, confidant & counselor, in both religious & political matters. Theodosius is supposed to have said, “I know no bishop worthy of the title, except Ambrose.” When the emperor died, Ambrose was at his side.
Two years after the showdown, Ambrose himself fell ill. And his impending death caused far more concern on the part of people than the passing of a dozen emperors. One wrote: “When Ambrose dies, we shall see the ruin of Italy.” On the eve of Easter, 397, the man who’d been bishop of Milan for 23 years finally closed his eyes for the last time.