Theology Thursday: St. Ambrose of Milan

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)

General summary of Ambrose and his theology: St. Ambrose is one of the four traditional Doctors of the Latin church along with St. Jerome (345-420), St. Augustine (354-430), and St. Gregory the Great (530-604). Ambrose was born into the increasingly prevalent Christian minority of the aristocracy. His father was Praetorian prefect of Gaul.  His father died not long after he was born, leaving his mother and sister to raise him.  His training was in law, and included a knowledge of Greek.  He followed his father into the imperial administration and, after practicing in Roman law courts, was appointed governor of Aemilia-Liguria, ca. 370, the seat of which was Milan.

There was a situation in Milan in 373.  The earlier orthodox bishop had been exiled by the Arian emperor, Constantius, in 343.  An Arian bishop, Auxentius, had been installed in his place, by Gregory, the intruded bishop of Alexandria (Athanasius’s supplanter).  Now, after thirty long years of Arian rule, Auxentius was dead, and both sides wanted control of the see.  Because the possibility of civil disorder was great, Ambrose, who was by this time governor, attended the election. 

Ambrose was an unlikely candidate for the Bishop.  At a point of high tension, Ambrose mounted the pulpit to restore order, and a child, seeing him in the place ordinarily occupied by the bishop, called out, “Ambrose, bishop.”  Reminded of the Scripture that says, “A little child shall lead them,” the congregation took this to be a sign from God that their governor was God’s choice for bishop.  While Ambrose had no desire to be bishop, Emperor Valentinian I concurred with the people,  and Ambrose had no real choice but to accept.  He was only an unbaptized catechumen at the time. So, he received baptism and was hurried through the various levels of ordination, all in eight days!  On December 7, 373, he was consecrated bishop of Milan. He was thirty-four at the time.

Though from a Christian family with a solid Nicene faith, Ambrose took further instruction in theology from the priest, Simplicianus, who had catechized him.  Not long after his consecration an emergency arose when Gothic raiders terrorized the nearby region, taking some people captive and sending the others fleeing to Milan for refuge.  Despite a howl of criticism, Ambrose melted down the golden vessels of the church in order to ransom the captives.

Because of Ambrose’s fame as a preacher, many came to hear his sermons.  Among them was a young teacher of rhetoric, Augustine, who initially went to hear Ambrose for his oratorical art, but increasingly for the content of his sermons. Ambrose’s sermons were instrumental in bringing Augustine back to the faith of his mother, Monica. Ambrose baptized him on Easter eve, 387.

During Ambrose’s tenure as bishop, the West was ruled by:

  • Valentinian I (364-75)
  • Gratian (375-83)
  • Valentinian II (375-92)
  • Theodosius I (379-95)

During Ambrose’s career, he would have four confrontations with the powers of state, winning them all, not only because of the respect he commanded, but because of the faith of the emperors.

In 384 there was a confrontation at the Altar of the Goddess Victory. Its prehistory was as follows:

Gratian had come to the throne in the West in 375 at the age of 16, and in 378 seen the pro-Arian emperor, Valens, struck down by the Goths. He likely viewed this as God’s judgment on Valens.   He chose a strongly orthodox general, Theodosius, to be Valens’ successor in the East, and moved to Milan in 379, where he came under Ambrose’s influence.

The first of many antiheretical edicts followed, and Gratian asked Ambrose to instruct him more fully in Christianity in 380. Under Ambrose’s influence, in 382 Gratian ordered the altar to the goddess, Victory, removed from the Roman senate.  In 384 the senate voted to have it restored. By this time Gratian had been murdered in a military coup, and his half-brother, Valenintian II (age 13) had succeeded him.  Young Valentinian followed Ambrose’s advice, and rebuffed the senate’s will.

Young Valenintian’s position as emperor was anything but secure at the time.  The usurper (Magnus Maximus) who had murdered his brother was threatening to invade his lands.  The emperor’s mother, Justina, therefore begged Ambrose to intercede for her son. He did so and averted the invasion.  Even so, Ambrose’s relations with Justina were not good, for she was an Arian, and this would lead to Ambrose’s next confrontation with the powers of state.

In 385-86, Justina demanded that Arians be given a basilica outside the walls of Milan where they could worship, and Ambrose refused, setting the stage for more confrontation.  On one occasion, Ambrose organized a “sit-in” with his flock in the contested church. While they were being surrounded by imperial troops, Ambrose kept his people’s spirits up by leading them in hymns.  Justina sought a graceful retreat from the confrontation by demanding that, if not the church, at least its sacred vessels be given over. But Ambrose refused this concession, too.

At the time, Ambrose was building a magnificent new church, and ordered the ground dug up near the supposed tomb of two martyrs, Protasius and Gervasius. His hope was to find relics with which to furnish the new church.  Two skeletons were indeed found, covered with red ocher, and the rumor spread that these were the martyrs’ blood-stained bones. A blind man even received his sight.  Milan, which had been without relics up to this time, could now  boast the protection of two saints, and Ambrose’s position vis-à-vis the empress became unassailable.

At this time Maximus was again threatening to invade, and Justina was forced to depend on Ambrose for another mission in the spring of 387. This mission failed, and Italy was invaded.  Justina and Valentinian fled to Thessalonica, and implored the eastern emperor, Theodosius, to come to their aid. He did so, defeating Maximus on July 28, 388.   Theodosius came to Milan, where he remained for three years, and sent Valentinian to rule Gaul. When the latter was killed in 392, Theodosius became sole ruler of the empire.

Though Theodosius had shown himself to be a champion of orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381, Ambrose clashed with him on two occasions.  On the first, a Catholic mob led by rampaging monks had burned down a Jewish synagogue, and Theodosius ordered that they be punished and the synagogue rebuilt.  Ambrose insisted that no Christian emperor ought to order his subjects to rebuild a synagogue. Ambrose prevailed: the arsonists were not punished, the synagogue was not rebuilt.

The other confrontation occurred after a riot in which several officials, including the governor of the city, had been killed. Knowing the anger of the emperor, Ambrose went to him to dissuade him from rash action.  When he left, the emperor’s wrath seemed to have abated, only to rekindle once he was gone. Theodosius sent a delegation to the city with the news that the uprising had been forgiven, and invited the people to a show in the circus. Once the crowd had been seated, his troops moved in to butcher the 6-7,000 present.

Afterward, Ambrose met Theodosius at the door of the church, barring his entry with these words:

“Stop! A man such as you, stained with sin, whose hands are bathed in blood of injustice, is unworthy, until he repents, to enter this holy place, and to partake of communion.”

When the emperor’s guard threatened violence, Theodosius interceded, acknowledging that Ambrose was right.  He made public repentance and gave the order that if ever he were to order capital punishment again, that the execution should be deferred for thirty days.  A precedent had been set: “The first milestone on the road to Canossa had been set up on that day.” (W. H. C. Frend).

As Theodosius lay dying in 395, he asked that Ambrose, the only man who had ever dared to censure him in public, be at his side. By this time, Ambrose’s fame was such that Fritigil, queen of the Marcomanni, asked him to write for her an introduction to the faith. After reading it she resolved to visit him in Milan.   On her way, she learned that he had died on April 4, 397, Easter Sunday.

Probably no one played a greater part in the development of medieval piety than Ambrose.  His great cathedral was the prototype of the medieval cathedral. It had daily mass, morning and evening prayers – sometimes at other times of the day –  and there were special ceremonies to commemorate the saints.  To combat the Arians, Ambrose deliberately transformed the worship service into theater, introducing fine vestments, antiphonal singing, and he hired professional singers. Ambrose formulated a theory of two separate powers, civil and ecclesiastical.  He sought no political power for the church, yet, by his actions, set an example of church authority over the state that would be emulated by later church leaders. Ambrose was the prototype of the medieval prince-bishop.

At the very time that Arianism was being defeated in the East (Constantinople, May 381), the Balkans were still a bastion of Arianism in the West.  Ambrose brought about Arianism’s defeat by a synod he convened at Aquileia, at Eastertide, 381 for the purpose of deposing two Arian bishops.  This was while Gratian was emperor, and for the time being, Arianism had become a spent force in the West.

Ambrose was a firm believer in the efficacy of relics to offset the hordes of demons that he believed were all about us.  Such relics offered protection to the church that contained them, and Ambrose was the first to place relics beneath the altar of a church. In short, he was a superstitious man.  He promoted the perpetual virginity of Mary against Bonosus, who doubted this.

Ambrose wrote in praise of asceticism and encouraged the spread of monasticism in N. Italy.  He (and Jerome) condemned Jovinian, who taught that all baptized persons, whether married or virginal, could be equally pleasing to God.  Ambrose was the first bishop to deal at length with the topic of sex. He was adamant that married life was incompatible with a church career. If a bishop did happen to be married, he thought he should cease to cohabit and beget children with his wife.

Ambrose was one of the few Latin fathers with a knowledge of Greek, and this enabled him to introduce eastern theology to the western church.  Of course, Ambrose’s greatest legacy was the brilliant mind he helped influence – the man who would prove to be the greatest theologian from the time of Paul down to our own day – St. Augustine.

His most noteworthy works were:

  • On Virgins 
  • On the Faith (addressed to Gratian, and an important contribution to Latin thought on the Trinity)
  • On the Sacraments (addressed to the newly baptized)
  • On the Duties of Ministers (a treatise on Christian ethics, addressed to priests)
  • The rest of his works are letters, hymns, sermons, and instruction given to baptismal candidates.
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