Remembering St. Ambrose of Milan: A Pillar of Early Christianity

News: Commentary
by Church Militant  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  December 7, 2023   

A great light of the early Church

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Saint Ambrose was born into a notable Roman family around 340 in Trier, Arles or Lyons. His father, also named Ambrose, was the prefect of Gallia, overseeing regions that now comprise France, Britain, Spain and parts of Africa. Raised in a Christian household, Ambrose lived an early life shaped by his family's faith and status.

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"A Study of a Head (St. Ambrose)"
Peter Paul Reubens, c. 1618
Scottish National Gallery

Ambrose's sister, Marcellina, and his brother, Satyrus, played significant roles in his spiritual upbringing. After his father's death, the family moved to Rome, where Ambrose received an education that honed his skills in Greek and Roman literature.

Ambrose's path to the episcopate was unconventional. Trained in law, he rose to prominence as a skilled orator and lawyer and was eventually appointed as the governor of Liguria and Aemilia, with Milan as his base.

His life took a dramatic turn in 374 following the death of Arian Bp. Auxentius of Milan. During the election for a new bishop, Ambrose, then only a catechumen, was unexpectedly acclaimed by the people. Despite his initial reluctance, he accepted the episcopal office, seeing it as a divine calling.

Bishop of Milan, Defender of Orthodoxy

At that time in the early Church, the heresy of Arianism was attempting to tear the Church asunder. Propagated by the Alexandrian priest Arius, Arianism posited that Jesus Christ, while divine, was not coeternal with the Father, suggesting a time when the Son did not exist. As the bishop, Ambrose found himself at the epicenter of the Arian controversy. Milan was a crucial imperial hub, and its theological leanings had wide-reaching implications. Ambrose's predecessor, Auxentius, was an Arian, and his death left a deeply divided community.

His theological position was clear: Jesus Christ was fully divine, equal to the Father.

Ambrose staunchly advocated for the Nicene Creed, which affirmed the coeternity and consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. His theological position was clear: Jesus Christ was fully divine, equal to the Father, a stance directly opposing Arianism. Ambrose's eloquence and depth of theological understanding made him a formidable opponent to the Arians.

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"St. Ambrose denies Theodosius
entry to his Church," Juan de Valdés Leal, 1673

Ambrose skillfully navigated the complex relationship between the Church and the Roman state. He used his position to influence key political figures and leveraged his popularity with the people to strengthen orthodox Christian beliefs. His confrontations with Empress Justina, an Arian sympathizer, were particularly notable. She demanded that some churches in Milan be handed over to the Arians, a move Ambrose vehemently opposed.

Ambrose's ability to sway public opinion was crucial in his fight against Arianism. He was deeply connected with his congregation and the broader community, often using his sermons to articulate orthodox positions and rally the people against Arian influences. His charismatic leadership and persuasive oratory played a significant role in keeping Milan a stronghold of Nicene Christianity.

Ambrose's interactions with Emperor Theodosius I were significant in the broader context of the Arian controversy. Theodosius, influenced by Ambrose, was a staunch supporter of the Nicene Creed, so his edicts and policies, often guided by Ambrose's counsel, were instrumental in curbing the spread of Arianism within the empire.

Friendship With St. Augustine

The friendship between St. Ambrose and St. Augustine is a fascinating and pivotal chapter in the history of the Christian Church, marked by intellectual exchange, spiritual guidance, and profound influence. Augustine, who would later become one of the most influential theologians in Christian history, was deeply impacted by Ambrose, not only in his conversion to Christianity, but also in his theological development.

 
 
 
Saint of The Day: St. Ambrose
 

Augustine first encountered Ambrose in Milan, where Augustine had traveled in A.D. 384. At this time, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and adhered to Manichaeism, another early Christian heresy that Ambrose opposed. Augustine was initially drawn to Ambrose not for his Christian teachings but for his renowned eloquence and rhetorical skills. However, as Augustine attended Ambrose's sermons, he found himself increasingly attracted to the Christian faith.

Ambrose's influence on Augustine's theological development was profound.

Ambrose's interpretation of Scripture, particularly his allegorical approach, resolved many of Augustine's intellectual doubts about Christianity. Augustine was struck by Ambrose's ability to reconcile the philosophical and theological questions that had long troubled him. This intellectual respect gradually led to a spiritual awakening.

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"The Baptism of Saint Augustine," by Louis de Boullogne, c. 1695
Museum of Fine Arts, Bordeaux

Augustine admired Ambrose not only for his intellectual prowess but also for his personal virtues, including his ascetic lifestyle and commitment to his episcopal duties. Ambrose's guidance was instrumental in Augustine's eventual decision to embrace Christianity, culminating in Augustine's baptism by Ambrose on Easter Vigil in A.D. 387.

Ambrose's influence on Augustine's theological development was profound. Augustine's later works, which significantly shaped Christian doctrine, bear traces of Ambrose's teachings, informing his later writings on Original Sin and grace. 

Ambrose's allegorical interpretation of Scripture also left a lasting impact on Augustine, who adopted a similar approach in his own exegetical works. This method helped Augustine reconcile the philosophical ideas of Neoplatonism, which he had studied extensively, with Christian doctrine.

Beyond their intellectual and spiritual connections, there was a genuine personal bond between the two men. Augustine held Ambrose in high esteem, not just as a bishop and teacher, but also as a personal role model. In his Confessions, Augustine speaks of Ambrose with deep respect and affection, highlighting the bishop's role in his conversion and spiritual growth.

Theological Contributions & Pastoral Work

Ambrose was a prolific writer, with his works encompassing theology, morality and scriptural exegesis. His treatises on virginity, the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and Christian ethics, particularly De Officiis Ministrorum, were highly influential. His eloquent style combined Roman rhetorical skills with Christian doctrine, significantly impacting the Church. Known for his ascetic lifestyle, Ambrose maintained an open-door policy for his flock and engaged in extensive charitable work.

His life remains a pivotal chapter in the history of the Christian Church.

Ambrose's interactions with Roman emperors, especially Theodosius, were marked by a blend of respect and firmness. He is notably remembered for insisting on public penance from Emperor Theodosius following the massacre at Thessalonica, demonstrating his moral authority and commitment to Christian ethics.

Legacy & Death

St. Ambrose died on April 4, 397. His legacy endures through his writings, contributions to church music, and his influence on early Christian theology. His relics, preserved in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, continue to be venerated, and his life remains a pivotal chapter in the history of the Christian Church. 

 

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