Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity

Cyrus the Great : Asiatic Supremacy
Julius Caesar : Imperialism
Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome
Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned
Paula : Woman as Friend
Chrysostom : Sacred Eloquence
Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority
Saint Augustine : Christian Theology
Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome
Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity
John Lord

Topics Covered
Dignity of the Episcopal office in the early Church
Growth of Episcopal authority,–its causes
The See of Milan; election of Ambrose as Archbishop
His early life and character; his great ability
Change in his life after consecration
His conservation of the Faith
Persecution of the Manicheans
Opposition to the Arians
His enemies; Faustina
Quarrel with the Empress
Establishment of Spiritual Authority
Opposition to Temporal Power
Ambrose retires to his cathedral; Ambrosian chant
Rebellion of Soldiers; triumph of Ambrose
Sent as Ambassador to Maximus; his intrepidity
His rebuke of Theodosius; penance of the Emperor
Fidelity and ability of Ambrose as Bishop
His private virtues
His influence on succeeding ages

Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority

A.D. 340-397.

Of the great Fathers, few are dearer to the Church than Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, both on account of his virtues and the dignity he gave to the episcopal office.

Nearly all the great Fathers were bishops, but I select Ambrose as the representative of their order, because he was more illustrious as a prelate than as a theologian or orator, although he stood high as both. He contributed more than any man who preceded him to raise the power of bishops as one of the controlling agencies of society for more than a thousand years.

The episcopal office, aside from its spiritual aspects, had become a great worldly dignity as early as the fourth century. It gave its possessor rank, power, wealth,–a superb social position, even in the eyes of worldly men. “Make me but bishop of Rome,” said a great Pagan general, “and I too would become a Christian.” As archbishop of Milan, the second city of Italy, Ambrose found himself one of the highest dignitaries of the Empire.

Whence this great power of bishops? How happened it that the humble ministers of a new and persecuted religion became princes of the earth? What a change from the outward condition of Paul and Peter to that of Ambrose and Leo!

It would be unpleasant to present this subject on controversial and sectarian grounds. Let those people–and they are numerous–who believe in the divine right of bishops, enjoy their opinion; it is not for me to assail them. Let any party in the Church universal advocate the divine institution of their own form of government. But I do not believe that any particular form of government is laid down in the Bible; and yet I admit that church government is as essential and fundamental a matter as a worldly government. Government, then, must be in both Church and State. This is recognized in the Scriptures. No institution or State can live without it. Men are exhorted by apostles to obey it, as a Christian duty. But they do not prescribe the form,–leaving that to be settled by the circumstances of the times, the wants of nations, the exigencies of the religious world. And whatever form of government arises, and is confirmed by the wisest and best men, is to be sustained, is to be obeyed. The people of Germany recognize imperial authority: it may be the best government for them. England is practically ruled by an aristocracy,–for the House of Commons is virtually as aristocratic in sympathies as the House of Lords. In this country we have a representation of the people, chosen by the people, and ruling for the people. We think this is the best form of government for us,–just now. In Athens there was a pure democracy. Which of these forms of civil government did God appoint?

So in the Church. For four centuries the bishops controlled the infant Church. For ten centuries afterwards the Popes ruled the Christian world, and claimed a divine right. The government of the Church assumed the theocratic form. At the Reformation numerous sects arose, most of them claiming the indorsement of the Scriptures. Some of these sects became very high-church; that is, they based their organization on the supposed authority of the Bible. All these sects are sincere; but they differ, and they have a right to differ. Probably the day never will come when there will be uniformity of opinion on church government, any more than on doctrines in theology.

Now it seems to me that episcopal power arose, like all other powers, from the circumstances of society,–the wants of the age. One thing cannot be disputed, that the early bishop–or presbyter, or elder, whatever name you choose to call him–was a very humble and unimportant person in the eyes of the world. He lived in no state, in no dignity; he had no wealth, and no social position outside his flock. He preached in an upper chamber or in catacombs. Saint Paul preached at Rome with chains on his arms or legs. The apostles preached to plain people, to common people, and lived sometimes by the work of their own hands. In a century or two, although the Church was still hunted and persecuted, there were nevertheless many converts. These converts contributed from their small means to the support of the poor. At first the deacons, who seem to have been laymen, had charge of this money. Paul was too busy a man himself to serve tables. Gradually there arose the need of a superintendent, or overseer; and that is the meaning of the Greek word [Greek: episkopos], from which we get our term bishop. Soon, therefore, the superintendent or bishop of the local church had the control of the public funds, the expenditure of which he directed. This was necessary. As converts multiplied and wealth increased, it became indispensable for the clergy of a city to have a head; this officer became presiding elder, or bishop,–whose great duty, however, was to preach. In another century these bishops had become influential; and when Christianity was established by Constantine as the religion of the Empire, they added power to influence, for they disbursed great revenues and ruled a large body of inferior clergy. They were looked up to; they became honored and revered; and deserved to be, for they were good men, and some of them learned. Then they sought a warrant for their power outside the circumstances to which they were indebted for their elevation. It was easy to find it. What sect cannot find it? They strained texts of Scripture,–as that great and good man, Moses Stuart, of Andover, in his zeal for the temperance cause, strained texts to prove that the wine of Palestine did not intoxicate.

But whatever were the causes which led to the elevation and ascendency of bishops, the fact is clear enough that episcopal authority began at an early date; and that bishops were influential in the third century and powerful in the fourth,–a most fortunate thing, as I conceive, for the Church at that time. As early as the third century we read of so great a man as the martyr Cyprian declaring “that bishops had the same rights as apostles, whose successors they were.” In the fourth century, such illustrious men as Eusebius of Emesa, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Martin of Tours, Chrysostom of Constantinople, and Augustine of Hippo, and sundry other great men whose writings swayed the human mind until the Reformation, advocated equally high-church pretensions. The bishops of that day lived in a state of worldly grandeur, reduced the power of presbyters to a shadow, seated themselves on thrones, surrounded themselves with the insignia of princes, claimed the right of judging in civil matters, multiplied the offices of the Church, and controlled revenues greater than the incomes of senators and patricians. As for the bishoprics of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Milan, they were great governments, and required men of great executive ability to rule them. Preaching gave way to the multiplied duties and cares of an exalted station. A bishop was then not often selected because he could preach well, but because he knew how to govern. Who, even in our times, would think of filling the See of London, although it is Protestant, with a man whose chief merit is in his eloquence? They want a business man for such a post. Eloquence is no objection, but executive ability is the thing most needed.

So Providence imposed great duties on the bishops of the fourth century, especially in large cities; and very able as well as good men were required for this position, equally one of honor and authority.

The See of Milan was then one of the most important in the Empire. It was the seat of imperial government. Valentinian, an able general, bore the sceptre of the West; for the Empire was then divided,–Valentinian ruling the eastern, and his brother Gratian the western, portion of it,–and, as the Goths were overrunning the civilized world and threatening Italy, Valentinian fixed his seat of government at Milan. It was a turbulent city, disgraced by mobs and religious factions. The Arian party, headed by the Empress Justina, mother of the young emperor, was exceedingly powerful. It was a critical period, and even orthodoxy was in danger of being subverted. I might dwell on the miseries of that period, immediately preceding the fall of the Empire; but all I will say is, that the See of Milan needed a very able, conscientious, and wise prelate.

Hence Ambrose was selected, not by the emperor but by the people, in whom was vested the right of election. He was then governor of that part of Italy now embraced by the archbishoprics of Milan, Turin, Genoa, Ravenna, and Bologna,–the greater part of Lombardy and Sardinia. He belonged to an illustrious Roman family. His father had been praetorian prefect of Gaul, which embraced not only Gaul, but Britain and Africa,–about a third of the Roman Empire. The seat of this great prefecture was Treves; and here Ambrose was born in the year 340. His early days were of course passed in luxury and pomp. On the death of his father he retired to Rome to complete his education, and soon outstripped his noble companions in learning and accomplishments. Such was his character and position that he was selected, at the age of thirty-four, for the government of Northern Italy. Nothing eventful marked his rule as governor, except that he was just, humane, and able. Had he continued governor, his name would not have passed down in history; he would have been forgotten like other provincial governors.

But he was destined to a higher sphere and a more exalted position than that of governor of an important province. On the death of Archbishop Auxentius, A.D. 374, the See of Milan became vacant. A great man was required for the archbishopric in that age of factions, heresies, and tumults. The whole city was thrown into the wildest excitement. The emperor wisely declined to interfere with the election. Rival parties could not agree on a candidate. A tumult arose. The governor–Ambrose–proceeded to the cathedral church, where the election was going on, to appease the tumult. His appearance produced a momentary calm, when a little child cried out, “Let Ambrose our governor be our bishop!” That cry was regarded as a voice from heaven,–as the voice of inspiration. The people caught the words, re-echoed the cry, and tumultuously shouted, “Yes! let Ambrose our governor be our bishop!”

And the governor of a great province became archbishop of Milan. This is a very significant fact. It shows the great dignity and power of the episcopal office at that time: it transcended in influence and power the governorship of a province. It also shows the enormous strides which the Church had made as one of the mighty powers of the world since Constantine, only about sixty years before, had opened to organized Christianity the possibilities of influence. It shows how much more already was thought of a bishop than of a governor.

And what is very remarkable, Ambrose had not even been baptized. He was a layman. There is no evidence that he was a Christian except in name. He had passed through no deep experience such as Augustine did, shortly after this. It was a more remarkable appointment than when Henry II. made his chancellor, Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. Why was Ambrose elevated to that great ecclesiastical post? What had he done for the Church? Did he feel the responsibility of his priestly office? Did he realize that he was raised in his social position, even in the eye of an emperor? Why did he not shrink from such an office, on the grounds of unfitness?

The fact is, as proved by his subsequent administration, he was the ablest man for that post to be found in Italy. He was really the most fitting man. If ever a man was called to be a priest, he was called. He had the confidence of both the emperor and the people. Such confidence can be based only on transcendent character. He was not selected because he was learned or eloquent, but because he had administrative ability; and because he was just and virtuous.

A great outward change in his life marked his elevation, as in Becket afterwards. As soon as he was baptized, he parted with his princely fortune and scattered it among the poor, like Cyprian and Chrysostom. This was in accordance with one of the great ideas of the early Church, almost impossible to resist. Charity unbounded, allied with poverty, was the great test of practical Christianity. It was afterwards lost sight of by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and never was recognized by Protestantism at all, not even in theory. Thrift has been one of the watchwords of Protestantism for three hundred years. One of the boasts of Protestantism has been its superior material prosperity. Travellers have harped on the worldly thrift of Protestant countries. The Puritans, full of the Old Testament, like the Jews, rejoiced in an outward prosperity as one of the evidences of the favor of God. The Catholics accuse the Protestants, of not only giving birth to rationalism, in their desire to extend liberality of mind, but of fostering a material life in their ambition to be outwardly prosperous. I make no comment on this fact; I only state it, for everybody knows the accusation to be true, and most people rejoice in it. One of the chief arguments I used to hear for the observance of public worship was, that it would raise the value of property and improve the temporal condition of the worshippers,–so that temporal thrift was made to be indissolubly connected with public worship. “Go to church, and you will thrive in business. Become a Sabbath-school teacher, and you will gain social position.” Such arguments logically grow out from linking the kingdom of heaven with success in life, and worldly prosperity with the outward performance of religious duties,–all of which may be true, and certainly marks Protestantism, but is somewhat different from the ideas of the Church eighteen hundred years ago. But those were unenlightened times, when men said, “How hardly shall they who have riches enter into the kingdom of God.”

I pass now to consider the services which Ambrose rendered to the Church, and which have given him a name in history.

One of these was the zealous conservation of the truths he received on authority. To guard the purity of the faith was one of the most important functions of a primitive bishop. The last thing the Church would tolerate in one of her overseers was a Gallio in religion. She scorned those philosophical dignitaries who would sit in the seats of Moses and Paul, and use the speculations of the Greeks to build up the orthodox faith. The last thing which a primitive bishop thought of was to advance against Goliath, not with the sling of David, but with the weapons of Pagan Grecian schools. It was incumbent on the watchman who stood on the walls of Zion, to see that no suspicious enemy entered her hallowed gates. The Church gave to him that trust, and reposed in his fidelity. Now Ambrose was not a great scholar, nor a subtle theologian. Nor was he dexterous in the use of dialectical weapons, like Athanasius, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. But he was sufficiently intelligent to know what the authorities declared to be orthodox. He knew that the fashionable speculations about the Trinity were not the doctrines of Paul. He knew that self-expiation was not the expiation of the cross; that the mission of Christ was something more than to set a good example; that faith was not estimation merely; that regeneration was not a mere external change of life; that the Divine government was a perpetual interference to bring good out of evil, even if it were in accordance with natural law. He knew that the boastful philosophy by which some sought to bolster up Christianity was that against which the apostles had warned the faithful. He knew that the Church was attacked in her most vital points, even in doctrines,–for “as a man thinketh, so is he.”

So he fearlessly entered the lists against the heretics, most of whom were enrolled among the Manicheans, Pelagians, and Arians.

The Manicheans were not the most dangerous, but they were the most offensive. Their doctrines were too absurd to gain a lasting foothold in the West. But they made great pretensions to advanced thought, and engrafted on Christianity the speculations of the East as to the origin of evil and the nature of God. They were not only dreamy theosophists, but materialists under the disguise of spiritualism. I shall have more to say of these people in the next Lecture, on Augustine, since one of his great fights was against the Manichean heresy. So I pass them by with only a brief allusion to their opinions.

The Arians were the most powerful and numerous body of heretics,–if I may use the language of historians,–and it was against these that Ambrose chiefly contended. The great battle against them had been fought by Athanasius two generations before; but they had not been put down. Their doctrines extensively prevailed among many of the barbaric chieftains, and the empress herself was an Arian, as well as many distinguished bishops. Ambrose did not deny the great intellectual ability of Arius, nor the purity of his morals; but he saw in his doctrines the virtual denial of Christ’s divinity and atonement, and a glorification of the reason, and an exaltation of the will, which rendered special divine grace unnecessary. The Arian controversy, which lasted one hundred years, and has been repeatedly revived, was not a mere dialectical display, not a war of words, but the most important controversy in which theologians ever enlisted, and the most vital in its logical deductions. Macaulay sneers at the homoousian and the homoiousian; and when viewed in a technical point of view, it may seem to many frivolous and vain. But the distinctions of the Trinity, which Arius sought to sweep away, are essential to the unity and completeness of the whole scheme of salvation, as held by the Church to have been revealed in the Scriptures; for if Christ is a mere creature of God,–a creation, and not one with Him in essence,–then his death would avail nothing for the efficacy of salvation; or,–to use the language of theologians, who have ever unfortunately blended the declarations and facts of Scripture with dialectical formularies, which are deductions made by reason and logic from accepted truths, yet not so binding as the plain truths themselves,–Christ’s death would be insufficient for an infinite redemption. No propitiation of a created being could atone for the sins of all other creatures. Thus by the Arian theory the Christ of the orthodox church was blotted out, and a man was substituted, who was divine only in the matchless purity of his life and the transcendent wisdom of his utterances; so that Christ, logically, was a pattern and teacher, and not a redeemer. Now, historically, everybody knows that for three hundred years Christ was viewed and worshipped as the Son of God,–a divine, uncreated being, who assumed a mortal form to make an atonement or propitiation for the sins of the world. Hence the doctrines of Arius undermined, so far as they were received, the whole theology of the early Church, and obscured the light of faith itself. I am compelled to say this, if I speak at all of the Arians, which I do historically rather than controversially. If I eliminated theology and political theories and changes from my Lectures altogether, there would be nothing left but commonplace matter.

But Ambrose had powerful enemies to contend with in his defence of the received doctrines of the Church. The Empress Faustina was herself an Arian, and the patroness of the sect. Milan was filled with its defenders, turbulent and insolent under the shield of the court. It was the headquarters of the sect at that time. Arianism was fashionable; and the empress had caused an edict to be passed, in the name of her son Valentinian, by which liberty of conscience and worship was granted to the Arians. She also caused a bishop of her nomination and creed to challenge Ambrose to a public disputation in her palace on the points in question. Now what course did Ambrose pursue? Nothing could be fairer, apparently, than the proposal of the empress,–nothing more just than her demands. We should say that she had enlightened reason on her side, for heresy can never be exterminated by force, unless the force is overwhelming,–as in the persecution of the Huguenots by Louis XIV., or the slaughter of the Albigenses by Innocent III. or the princes he incited to that cruel act. Ambrose, however, did not regard the edict as suggested by the love of toleration, but as the desire for ascendency,–as an advanced post to be taken in the conflict,–introductory to the triumph of the Arian doctrines in the West, and which the Arian emperor and his bishops intended should ultimately be the established religion of the Western nations. It was not a fight for toleration, but for ascendency. Moreover Ambrose saw in Arianism a hostile creed,–a dangerous error, subversive of what is most vital in Christianity. So he determined to make no concessions at all, to give no foothold to the enemy in a desperate fight. The least concession, he thought, would be followed by the demand for new concessions, and would be a cause of rejoicing to his enemies and of humiliation to his friends; and in accordance with the everlasting principles of all successful warfare he resolved to yield not one jot or tittle. The slightest concession was a compromise, and a compromise might lead to defeat. There could be no compromise on such a vital question as the divinity of our Lord. He might have conceded the wisdom of compromise in some quarrel about temporal matters. Had he, as governor of a province, been required to make some concession to conquering barbarians,–had he been a modern statesman devising a constitution, a matter of government,–he might have acted differently. A policy about tariffs and revenues, all resting on unsettled principles of political economy, may have been a matter of compromise,–not the fundamental principles of the Christian religion, as declared by inspiration, and which he was bound to accept as they were revealed and declared, whether they could be reconciled with his reason or not. There is great moral grandeur in the conflict of fundamental principles of religion; and there is equal grandeur in the conflict between principles and principalities, between combatants armed with spiritual weapons and combatants armed with the temporal sword, between defenceless priests and powerful emperors, between subjects and the powers that be, between men speaking in the name of God Almighty and men at the head of armies,–the former strong in the invisible power of truth; the latter resplendent with material forces.

Church of St. Ambroise from a photograph, Paris

Church of St. Ambroise from a photograph, Paris

Ambrose did not shun the conflict and the danger. Never before had a priest dared to confront an emperor, except to offer up his life as a martyr. Who could resist Caesar on his own ground? In the approaching conflict we see the precursor of the Hildebrands and the Beckets. One of the claims of Luther as a hero was his open defiance of the Pope, when no person in his condition had ever before ventured on such a step. But a Roman emperor, in his own capital, was greater than a distant Pope, especially when the defiant monk was protected by a powerful prince. Ambrose had the exalted merit of being the first to resist his emperor, not as a martyr willing to die for his cause, but as a prelate in a desperate and open fight,–as a prelate seeking to conquer. He was the first notable man to raise the standard of independent spiritual authority. Consider, for a moment, what a tremendous step that was,–how pregnant with future consequences. He was the first of all the heroes of the Church who dared to contend with the temporal powers, not as a man uttering a protest, but as an equal adversary,–as a warrior bent on victory. Therefore has his name great historical importance. I know of no man who equalled him in intrepidity, and in a far-reaching policy. I fancy him looking down the vista of the ages, and deliberately laying the foundation of an arrogant spiritual power. What an example did he set for the popes and bishops of the Middle Ages! Here was a just and equal law, as we should say,–a beneficent law of religious toleration, as it would outwardly appear,–which Ambrose, as a subject of the emperor, was required to obey. True, it was in reference to a spiritual matter, but emperors, from Caesar downwards, as Pontifex Maximus, had believed it their right and province to meddle in such matters. See what a hand Constantine had in the organization of the Church, even in the discussion of religious doctrines. He presided at the Council of Nice, where the great subject of discussion was the Trinity. But the Archbishop of Milan dares to say, virtually, to the emperor, “This law-making about our church matters is none of your concern. Christianity has abrogated your power as High Priest. In spiritual things we will not obey you. Your enactments conflict with the divine laws,–higher than yours; and we, in this matter of conscience, defy your authority. We will obey God rather than you.” See in this defiance the rise of a new power,–the power of the Middle Ages,–the reign of the clergy.

In the first place, Ambrose refused to take part in a religious disputation held in the palace of his enemy,–in any palace where a monarch sat as umpire. The Church was the true place for a religious controversy, and the umpire, if such were needed, should be a priest and not a layman. The idea of temporal lords settling a disputed point of theology seemed to him preposterous. So, with blended indignation and haughtiness, he declared it was against the usages of the Church for the laity to sit as judges in theological discussions; that in all spiritual matters emperors were subordinate to bishops, not bishops to emperors. Oh, how great is the posthumous influence of original heroes! Contemplate those fiery remonstrances of Ambrose,–the first on record,–when prelates and emperors contended for the mastery, and you will see why the Archbishop of Milan is so great a favorite of the Catholic Church.

And what was the response of the empress, who ruled in the name of her son, in view of this disobedience and defiance? Chrysostom dared to reprove female vices; he did not rebel against imperial power. But Ambrose raised an issue with his sovereign. And this angry sovereign sent forth her soldiers to eject Ambrose from the city. The haughty and insolent priest should be exiled, should be imprisoned, should die. Shall he be permitted to disobey an imperial command? Where would then be the imperial authority?–a mere shadow in an age of anarchy.

Ambrose did not oppose force by force. His warfare was not carnal, but spiritual. He would not, if he could, have braved the soldiers of the Government by rallying his adherents in the streets. That would have been a mob, a sedition, a rebellion.

But he seeks the shelter of his church, and prays to Almighty God. And his friends and admirers–the people to whom he preached, to whom he is an oracle–also follow him to his sanctuary. The church is crowded with his adherents, but they are unarmed. Their trust is not in the armor of Goliath, nor even in the sling of David, but in that power which protected Daniel in the lions’ den. The soldiers are armed, and they surround the spacious basilica, the form which the church then assumed. And yet though they surround the church in battle array, they dare not force the doors,–they dare not enter. Why? Because the church had become a sacred place. It was consecrated to the worship of Jehovah. The soldiers were afraid of the wrath of God more than of the wrath of Faustina or Valentinian. What do you see in this fact? You see how religious ideas had permeated the minds even of soldiers. They were not strong enough or brave enough to fight the ideas of their age. Why did not the troops of Louis XVI. defend the Bastille? They were strong enough; its cannon could have demolished the whole Faubourg St. Antoine. Alas! the soldiers who defended that fortress had caught the ideas of the people. They fraternized with them, rather than with the Government; they were afraid of opposing the ideas which shook France to its centre. So the soldiers of the imperial government at Milan, converted to the ideas of Christianity, or sympathizing with them, or afraid of them, dared not assail the church to which Ambrose fled for refuge. Behold in this fact the majestic power of ideas when they reach the people.

But if the soldiers dared not attack Ambrose and his followers in a consecrated place, they might starve him out, or frighten him into a surrender. At this point appears the intrepidity of the Christian hero. Day after day, and night after night, the bishop maintained his post. The time was spent in religious exercises. The people listened to exhortation; they prayed; they sang psalms. Then was instituted, amid that long-protracted religious meeting that beautiful antiphonal chant of Ambrose, which afterwards, modified and simplified by Pope Gregory, became the great attraction of religious worship in all the cathedrals and abbeys and churches of Europe for more than one thousand years. It was true congregational singing, in which all took part; simple and religious as the songs of Methodists, both to drive away fear and ennui, and fortify the soul by inspiring melodies,–not artistic music borrowed from the opera and oratorio, and sung by four people, in a distant loft, for the amusement of the rich pew-holders of a fashionable congregation, and calculated to make it forget the truths which the preacher has declared; but more like the hymns and anthems of the son of Jesse, when sung by the whole synagogue, making the vaulted roof and lofty pillars of the Medieval church re-echo the paeans of the transported worshippers.

At last there were signs of rebellion among the soldiers. The new spiritual power was felt, even among them. They were tired of their work; they hated it, since Ambrose was the representative of ideas that claimed obedience no less than the temporal powers. The spiritual and temporal powers were, in fact, arrayed against each other,–an unarmed clergy, declaring principles, against an armed soldiery with swords and lances. What an unequal fight! Why, the very weapons of the soldier are in defence of ideas! The soldier himself is very strong in defence of universally recognized principles, like law and government, whose servant he is. In the case of Ambrose, it was the supposed law of God against the laws of man. What soldier dares to fight against Omnipotence, if he believes at all in the God to whom he is as personally responsible as he is to a ruler?

Ambrose thus remained the victor. The empress was defeated. But she was a woman, and had persistency; she had no intention of succumbing to a priest, and that priest her subject. With subtle dexterity she would change the mode of attack, not relinquish the fight. She sought to compromise. She promised to molest Ambrose no more if he would allow one church for the Arians. If the powerful metropolitan would concede that, he might return to his palace in safety; she would withdraw the soldiers. But this he refused. Not one church, declared he, should the detractors of our Lord possess in the city over which he presided as bishop. The Government might take his revenues, might take his life; but he would be true to his cause. With his last breath he would defend the Church, and the doctrines on which it rested.

The angry empress then renewed her attack more fiercely. She commanded the troops to seize by force one of the churches of the city for the use of the Arians; and the bishop was celebrating the sacred mysteries on Palm Sunday when news was brought to him of this outrage,–of this encroachment on the episcopal authority. The whole city was thrown into confusion. Every man armed himself; some siding with the empress, and others with the bishop. The magistrates were in despair, since they could not maintain law and order. They appealed to Ambrose to yield for the sake of peace and public order. To whom he replied, in substance, “What is that to me? My kingdom is not of this world. I will not interfere in civil matters. The responsibility of maintaining order in the streets does not rest on me, but on you. See you to that. It is only by prayer that I am strong.”

Again the furious empress–baffled, not conquered–ordered the soldiers to seize the person of Ambrose in his church. But they were terror-stricken. Seize the minister at the altar of Omnipotence! It was not to be thought of. They refused to obey. They sent word to the imperial palace that they would only take possession of the church on the sole condition that the emperor (who was controlled by his mother) should abandon Arianism. How angry must have been the Court! Soldiers not only disobedient, but audaciously dictating in matters of religion! But this treason on the part of the defenders of the throne was a very serious matter. The Court now became alarmed in its turn. And this alarm was increased when the officers of the palace sided with the bishop. “I perceive,” said the crestfallen and defeated monarch, and in words of bitterness, “that I am only the shadow of an emperor, to whom you dare dictate my religious belief.”

Valentinian was at last aroused to a sense of his danger. He might be dragged from his throne and assassinated. He saw that his throne was undermined by a priest, who used only these simple words, “It is my duty to obey God rather than man.” A rebellious mob, an indignant court, a superstitious soldiery, and angry factions compelled him to recall his guards. It was a great triumph for the archbishop. Face to face he had defeated the emperor. The temporal power had yielded to the spiritual. Six hundred years before Henry IV. stooped to beg the favor and forgiveness of Hildebrand, at the fortress of Canossa, the State had conceded the supremacy of the Church in the person of the fearless Ambrose.

Not only was Ambrose an intrepid champion of the Church and the orthodox faith, but he was often sent, in critical crises, as an ambassador to the barbaric courts. Such was the force and dignity of his personal character. This is one of the first examples on record of a priest being employed by kings in the difficult art of negotiation in State matters; but it became very common in the Middle Ages for prelates and abbots to be ambassadors of princes, since they were not only the most powerful but most intelligent and learned personages of their times. They had, moreover, the most tact and the most agreeable manners.

When Maximus revolted against the feeble Gratian (emperor of the West), subdued his forces, took his life, and established himself in Gaul, Spain, and Britain, the Emperor Valentinian sent Ambrose to the barbarian’s court to demand the body of his murdered brother. Arriving at Treves, the seat of the prefecture, where his father had been governor, he repaired at once to the palace of the usurper, and demanded an interview with Maximus. The lord chamberlain informed him he could only be heard before council. Led to the council chamber, the usurper arose to give him the accustomed kiss of salutation among the Teutonic kings. But Ambrose refused it, and upbraided the potentate for compelling him to appear in the council chamber. “But,” replied Maximus, “on a former mission you came to this chamber.” “True,” replied the prelate, “but then I came to sue for peace, as a suppliant; now I come to demand, as an equal, the body of Gratian.” “An equal, are you?” replied the usurper; “from whom have you received this rank?” “From God Almighty,” replied the prelate, “who preserves to Valentinian the empire he has given him.” On this, the angry Maximus threatened the life of the ambassador, who, rising in wrath, in his turn thus addressed him, before all his councillors: “Since you have robbed an anointed prince of his throne, at least restore his ashes to his kindred. Do you fear a tumult when the soldiers shall see the dead body of their murdered emperor? What have you to fear from a corpse whose death you ordered? Do you say you only destroyed your enemy? Alas! he was not your enemy, but you were his. If some one had possessed himself of your provinces, as you seized those of Gratian, would not he–instead of you–be the enemy? Can you call him an enemy who only sought to preserve what was his own? Who is the lawful sovereign,–he who seeks to keep together his legitimate provinces, or he who has succeeded in wresting them away? Oh, thou successful usurper! God himself shall smite thee. Thou shalt be delivered into the hands of Theodosius. Thou shalt lose thy kingdom and thy life.” How the prelate reminds us of a Jewish prophet giving to kings unwelcome messages,–of Daniel pointing out to Belshazzar the handwriting on the wall! He was not a Priam begging the dead body of his son, or hurling impotent weapons amid the crackling ruins of Troy, but an Elijah at the court of Ahab. But this fearlessness was surpassed by the boldness of rebuke which later he dared to give to Theodosius, when this great general had defeated the Goths, and postponed for a time the ruin of the Empire, of which he became the supreme and only emperor. Theodosius was in fact one of the greatest of the emperors, and the last great man who swayed the sceptre of Trajan, his ancestor. On him the vulgar and the high-born equally gazed with admiration,–and yet he was not great enough to be free from vices, patron as he was of the Church and her institutions.

St. Ambrose Refuses the Emperor Theodosius Admittance to His Church. After the painting by Gebhart Fügel

It seems that this illustrious emperor, in a fit of passion, ordered the slaughter of the people of Thessalonica, because they had arisen and killed some half-a-dozen of the officers of the government, in a sedition, on account of the imprisonment of a favorite circus-rider. The wrath of Theodosius knew no bounds. He had once before forgiven the people of Antioch for a more outrageous insult to imperial authority; but he would not pardon the people of Thessalonica, and caused some seven thousand of them to be executed,–an outrageous vengeance, a crime against humanity. The severity of this punishment filled the whole Empire with consternation. Ambrose himself was so overwhelmed with grief and indignation that he retired into the country in order to avoid all intercourse with his sovereign. And there he remained, until the emperor came to himself and comprehended the enormity of his crime. But Ambrose wrote a letter to the emperor, in which he insisted on his repentance and expiation. The emperor was so touched by the fidelity and eloquence of the prelate that he came to the cathedral to offer up his customary oblations. But the bishop, in his episcopal robes, met him at the porch and forbade his entrance. “Do not think, O Emperor, to atone for the enormity of your offence by merely presenting yourself in the church. Dream not of entering these sacred precincts with your hands stained with blood. Receive with submission the sentence of the Church.” Then Theodosius attempted to justify himself by the example of David. “But,” retorted the bishop, “if you imitate David in his crime, imitate David in his repentance. Insult not the Church by a double crime.” So the emperor, in spite of his elevated rank and power, was obliged to return. The festival of Christmas approached, the great holiday of the Church, and then was seen one of the rarest spectacles which history records. The great emperor, now with undivided authority, penetrated with grief and shame and penitence, again approached the sacred edifice, and openly made a full confession of his sins; and not till then was he received into the communion of the Church.

I think this scene is grand; worthy of a great painter,–of a painter who knows history as well as art, which so few painters do know; yet ought to know if they would produce immortal pictures. Nor do I know which to admire the more,–the penitent emperor offering public penance for his abuse of imperial authority, or the brave and conscientious prelate who dared to rebuke his sin. When has such a thing happened in modern times? Bossuet had the courage to dictate, in the royal chapel, the duties of a king, and Bourdaloue once ventured to reprove his royal hearer for an outrageous scandal. These instances of priestly boldness and fidelity are cited as remarkable. And they were remarkable, when we consider what an egotistical, haughty, exacting, voluptuous monarch Louis XIV. was,–a monarch who killed Racine by an angry glance. But what bishop presumed to insist on public penance for the persecutions of the Huguenots, or the lavish expenditures and imperious tyranny of the court mistresses, who scandalized France? I read of no churchman who, in more recent times, has dared to reprove and openly rebuke a sovereign, in the style of Ambrose, except John Knox. Ambrose not merely reproved, but he punished, and brought the greatest emperor, since Constantine, to the stool of penitence.

It was by such acts, as prelate, that Ambrose won immortal fame, and set an example to future ages. His whole career is full of such deeds of intrepidity. Once he refused to offer the customary oblation of the altar until Theodosius had consented to remit an unjust fine. He battled all enemies alike,–infidels, emperors, and Pagans. It was his mission to act, rather than to talk. His greatness was in his character, like that of our Washington, who was not a man of words or genius. What a failure is a man in an exalted post without character!

But he had also other qualities which did him honor,–for which we reverence him. See his laborious life, his assiduity in the discharge of every duty, his charity, his broad humanity, soaring beyond mere conventional and technical and legal piety. See him breaking in pieces the consecrated vessels of the cathedral, and turning them into money to redeem Illyrian captives; and when reproached for this apparent desecration replying thus: “Whether is it better to preserve our gold or the souls of men? Has the Church no higher mission to fulfil than to guard the ornaments made by men’s hands, while the faithful are suffering exile and bonds? Do the blessed sacraments need silver and gold, to be efficacious? What greater service to the Church can we render than charities to the unfortunate, in obedience to that eternal test, ‘I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat'”? See this venerated prelate giving away his private fortune to the poor; see him refusing even to handle money, knowing the temptation to avarice or greed. What a low estimate he placed on what was so universally valued, measuring money by the standard of eternal weights! See this good bishop, always surrounded with the pious and the learned, attending to all their wants, evincing with his charities the greatest capacity of friendship. His affections went out to all the world, and his chamber was open to everybody. The companion and Mentor of emperors, the prelate charged with the most pressing duties finds time for all who seek his advice or consolation.

One of the most striking facts which attest his goodness was his generous and affectionate treatment of Saint Augustine, at that time an unconverted teacher of rhetoric. It was Ambrose who was instrumental in his conversion; and only a man of broad experience, and deep convictions, and profound knowledge, and exquisite tact, could have had influence over the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity. Augustine not only praises the private life of Ambrose, but the eloquence of his sermons; and I suppose that Augustine was a judge in such matters. “For,” says Augustine, “while I opened my heart to admire how eloquently he spoke, I also felt how truly he spoke.” Everybody equally admired and loved this great metropolitan, because his piety was enlightened, because he was above all religious tricks and pious frauds. He even refused money for the Church when given grudgingly, or extorted by plausible sophistries. He remitted to a poor woman a legacy which her brother had given to the Church, leaving her penniless and dependent; declaring that “if the Church is to be enriched at the expense of fraternal friendships, if family ties are to be sundered, the cause of Christ would be dishonored rather than advanced.” We see here not only a broad humanity, but a profound sense of justice,–a practical piety, showing an enlightened and generous soul. He was not the man to allow a family to be starved because a conscience-stricken husband or father wished, under ghostly influences and in face of death, to make a propitiation for a life of greediness and usurious grindings, by an unjust disposition of his fortune to the Church. Possibly he had doubts whether any money would benefit the Church which was obtained by wicked arts, or had been originally gained by injustice and hard-heartedness.

Thus does Saint Ambrose come down to us from antiquity,–great in his feats of heroism, great as an executive ruler of the Church, great in deeds of benevolence, rather than as orator, theologian, or student. Yet, like Chrysostom, he preached every Sunday, and often in the week besides, and his sermons had great power on his generation. When he died in 397 he left behind him even a rich legacy of theological treatises, as well as some fervid, inspiring hymns, and an influence for the better in the modes of church music, which was the beginning of the modern development of that great element in public worship. As a defender of the faith by his pen, he may have yielded to greater geniuses than he; but as the guardian of the interests of the Church, as a stalwart giant, who prostrated the kings of the earth before him and gained the first great battles of the spiritual over the temporal power, Ambrose is worthy to be ranked among the great Fathers, and will continue to receive the praises of enlightened Christendom.


Life of Ambrose, by his deacon, Paulinus; Theodoret; Tillemont’s Memoires Ecclesiastique, tom. x; Baronius; Zosimus; the Epistles of Ambrose; Butler’s Lives of the Saints; Biographie Universelle; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Milman has only a very brief notice of this great bishop, the founder of sacerdotalism in the Latin Church. Neander’s and the standard Church Histories. There are some popular biographical sketches in the encyclopedias, but no classical history of this prelate, in English, with which I am acquainted. The French writers are the best.

Saint Augustine : Christian Theology

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity