Getting to Know the Fathers: Ambrose of Milan

“Naboth defended his vines with his own blood. And if he did not give up his vineyard, shall we give up the Church of Christ?”

Come Holy Ghost, Who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.
In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.1

Thus wrote St. Ambrose the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a man who, in will and deed, by heart and tongue, with all his powers, served Christ. He was an eloquent and inspiring preacher and a diligent and careful catechist. He was a man adept in the worlds of both the sacred cathedral and the political basilica. He was a defender of Christian orthodoxy and a proponent of faithful charity. He was a writer of both theological treatises and of beautiful hymns which are still chanted among us today. St. Ambrose was one of the most important and influential bishops the Christian Church has known.

The career of Ambrose within the Church began rather unexpectedly and abruptly. Born into a believing patrician family, the young Ambrose received the usual education of the privileged elite and embarked upon a political career that resulted in his rising to the position of governor of Aemilia-Liguria in Northern Italy. The capital of this region was the city of Milan, a center of politics and sometimes home of the emperors. Religiously, Milan was divided between orthodoxy and Arianism. When the bishop of Milan, who was a strident opponent of Nicene orthodoxy and an Arian, died in the year 374, turmoil between the two camps threatened to turn into civic unrest. According to the 5th century historian Sozomen,2 Ambrose appeared on the scene as governor to protect the order of the city. While calling upon the crowds to be at peace with one another, one of the people shouted out that Ambrose should be made bishop. Ambrose had not even been baptized yet (due to a strange convention of the early 4th century), but his popularity as governor was such that the cry of one became the cry of all. After a brief attempt to deny this calling, Ambrose was baptized and made bishop of Milan. The man of the state was become a man of the cloth.

Ambrose’s political experience helped him gain prominence almost at once as a leader among the bishops of the Church and as an outstanding preacher and catechist. His great eloquence and his clear teaching, especially against Arianism, won the hearts of the orthodox believers, and were instrumental to the conversion of many to orthodox Christianity, among them St. Augustine. Augustine recalls in his confessions: “To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop, known to the whole world as among the best of men, Thy devout servant; whose eloquent discourse did then plentifully dispense unto Thy people the flour of Thy wheat, the gladness of Thy oil, and the sober inebriation of Thy wine. To him was I unknowing led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee…I listened diligently to him preaching to the people, not with that intent I ought, but, as it were, trying his eloquence, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; and I hung on his words attentively…”3

Augustine was not alone in his admiration of Ambrose’s eloquence. His sermons continue to please, both for their orthodoxy and for their beauty. Take, for example, one of his sermons on the Gospel of St. Luke, where Ambrose describes the Epiphany of our Lord:

“Is it with ordinary signs that He is proved to be God? The angels serve Him. The Magi worship Him. The martyrs confess Him. He comes forth from the womb, yet rushes down from heaven. He lies in an earthly inn, yet shines with heavenly light. The wife gives birth, yet the virgin conceives. The wife conceives, yet the virgin gives birth.…Therefore the Magi offer gifts from their treasures. Do you want to know how wonderful was the benefit they received? By them the star is seen, but where Herod is, the star is not seen. The star is seen again where Christ is, and it shows the way to Him. Therefore the star is the way and the way is Christ, because according to the mystery of the Incarnation, Christ is the Star: For a Star shall come forth from Jacob and a Man shall arise from Israel (Num. 24:17). And so where Christ is, there also is the star, because He Himself is the bright and morning Star. He Himself, therefore, reveals Himself with His very own light.”4

As can be seen from just this brief snippet, Christ likewise shown forth in the words of His bishop; and the proclamation of His Gospel was Ambrose’s chief concern.

Ambrose not only preached the Gospel to the Church; he also strove to defend the Gospel, and the Church, from those who would do it harm. In the course of his life, he not only fought theological battles against Arian bishops, but took on the Arian emperor, Valentinian II, who sought to remove two churches from Ambrose’s authority so that the Arians would have places in which to worship in Milan. Ambrose, however, refused to give them up. He preached:

“You remember also that we read today of Naboth, a holy man who owned his own vineyard, being urged on the king’s request to give it up. When the king intended after rooting up the vines to plant common herbs, he answered him: ‘God forbid that I should give up the inheritance of my fathers.’…Naboth defended his vines with his own blood. And if he did not give up his vineyard, shall we give up the Church of Christ?”5 The emperor was not pleased. George Herbert Dryer recounts the confrontation in his History of the Christian Church:

“Force was employed [by the emperor] to take possession of the large basilica for the imperial [i.e. Arian] worshippers. The people favored Ambrose, and filled the church. Ambrose said: ‘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 succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.’ One of the imperial chamberlains sent word to him: ‘While I live, dost thou despise Valentinian, I will strike off thy head!’ Ambrose replied: ‘God grant you to fulfill what you threaten; for then my fate will be that of a bishop, your act will be that of a eunuch.’”6 Ambrose won the day. The emperor desisted and both churches were preserved for the services of the orthodox Christians.

Valentinian was not the only emperor Ambrose would have to deal with. When Valentinian II’s successor, the emperor Theodosius the Great—a staunch defender himself of orthodox Christianity—massacred 7,000 people in response to a minor uprising in Thessalonica, Ambrose demanded his public repentance and refused to commune him until he had done so. Sozomen reports: “the emperor went to Milan, and repaired towards the church to pray within its walls. When he drew near the gates of the edifice, he was met by Ambrose, the bishop of the city, who took hold of him by his purple robe, and said to him, in the presence of the multitude, “Stand back! a man defiled by sin, and with hands imbrued in blood unjustly shed, is not worthy, without repentance, to enter within these sacred precincts, or partake of the holy mysteries.”7 The emperor, struck with admiration at the boldness of the bishop, began to reflect on his own conduct…” The emperor repented and was welcomed back to communion shortly thereafter.

When Ambrose wasn’t dealing with heretics and emperors, he was busy caring for the diocese under his charge. In this capacity, and to instill sound doctrine among his people, he composed a number of hymns. Scholars are certain of his authorship of at least four hymns, but many others bear the marks of his influence and may also have been written by him. Every Adventtide when you hear “Savior of the Nations, Come,” for example, you are hearing or singing words penned by the bishop of Milan.

Clearly Ambrose stands before us as a man to be emulated, an example of faithfulness, of learning, of piety and worship, and of boldness. His influence in his own day was immense, and is still significant nearly seventeen centuries later. In him the love of Christ lit up a mortal frame, and many others caught the living flame.

End Notes

1 Nunc Sancte Nobis Spiritus, by Ambrose, translated by J.H. Newman.  

2 Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. VI:24 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 2, Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 361.

3 Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Bk. V:13, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1, Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 88.

4 Patrologia Latina, Vol. 15, col. 1568, 2 in Luc, translated by Christian Preus.

5 Ambrose of Milan, Sermon against Auxentius, §17, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10, Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 433.

6 George H. Dreyer, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1 (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1896), 197. 

7 Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book VII:25 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 2, Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 393-394.

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David Kind

Rev. David Kind is Pastor of University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis, MN, and teaches early and medieval history and literature at Wittenberg Academy.

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