The Word Among Us

November 2009 Issue

A New Kind of Bishop

St. Ambrose marked a new era for church and state relations.

By: Robert G. Kennedy

A New Kind of Bishop: St. Ambrose marked a new era for church and state relations. by Robert G. Kennedy

The crowd that gathered in the church in Milan that day late in a.d. 374 was confused, fearful, and angry.

The Christian community in the city had been bitterly divided for decades between the followers of Arius, who taught that Christ was not divine but merely a creature, and those who defended the teaching of Rome that Jesus was both man and God, equal to the Father in all respects.

Earlier in the year, the bishop of Milan had died after nearly twenty years in office. He was a committed Arian who had secured his position by political appointment, not through the customary election by the people and clergy of the city. His tenure was marked by such oppression of orthodox Christians that many of the faithful clergy had left the city.

The governor of the area, a man by the name of Ambrose, was very concerned that rioting—and perhaps even violence—might accompany the election. He believed it was his duty to keep order as best he could, so he decided to speak to the assembly to urge them to be peaceful.

In his few years as governor, Ambrose had won broad admiration and respect for his wisdom and fairness. Though an orthodox Christian himself, he was trained in law and had remained aloof from theological controversies. Apparently, while he was speaking to the assembly, a young voice rang out from the crowd, “Ambrose for bishop! Ambrose for bishop!”

The effect was electric. Spontaneously, people on both sides of the theological divide recognized that Ambrose was the solution to the challenge they faced. Those who held that Jesus was both God and man knew that he and his extended family were staunch, if quiet, supporters of this truth. The Arians knew that, whatever his views, Ambrose would treat them fairly and not seek revenge for the abuses of his predecessor.

To his shock and utter surprise, Ambrose was elected bishop of Milan by acclamation. No one knew it then, but this was one of the most important episcopal elections in the history of the church.

No Looking Back. Certainly, it was a completely life-altering event for Ambrose. Until that day, he was a young man on the rise, a man with an almost unlimited political future. He came from an aristocratic family, had the right connections in the imperial court, and was a brilliant lawyer. Remarkably, he set all that aside. Accepting his new office without regret, he immediately set about making himself into a bishop.

His biographers tell us that he took two early steps that had profound consequences. First, he gave away his money. While this may sound simple and commonplace, it was not. Ambrose was a wealthy man and heir to a wealthy family. At that time, some men sought episcopal office because it often brought opportunities for building a fortune. This was nowhere more true than in Milan, which was one of the principal cities of Italy, having replaced Rome as the seat of government. For Ambrose to embrace a simple life spoke volumes to his people and provided a new model for the clergy.

The second thing he did was to begin an intensive, lifelong study of Scripture. Like many lay Christians, then and now, Ambrose had a general acquaintance with the Bible and with theology. He was humble enough to acknowledge that this was not adequate for the bishop of Milan. And so he became a student of sorts, not only reading widely in the Bible itself but also absorbing the lessons of the great scholars of the day. What he learned, he shared, not only by educating his clergy but also by preaching to his community.

Master of Humility. We know little enough of the details of Ambrose’s first months and years as a bishop, and almost nothing directly of his personal struggles. Even St. Augustine, who knew him fairly well and claimed that it was through Ambrose that he was brought to God, said that he knew nothing of Ambrose’s private trials and doubts. Instead, he saw someone widely admired as an exemplary bishop and a Christian who seemed “a very happy man.”

But Ambrose’s own writing reveals something else. Later in his life, he wrote a long essay for his priests on the demands and responsibilities of ministry. One of its themes—a theme that emerges in his sermons and letters as well—is the importance of humility. The priest must take Christ, the “master of humility,” as his model, Ambrose stressed. From this humility flow the modesty, chastity, and good manners that characterize the man of God. Indeed, Ambrose admitted that he refused on two occasions to admit men to ministry because their physical mannerisms showed that they lacked humility.

It is not difficult to see here something of Ambrose’s personal spiritual challenges. He was a man bred to rule, highly educated, trained in the law, and naturally adept at commanding others. It would have been easy for him to be arrogant and demanding, yet St. Augustine and others described him as being gentle and patient, a bishop who impressed them by the countless hours he spent counseling and comforting his people. This genuine humility could have been achieved only by deliberate effort and through conscious sacrifice.

Scripture Comes Alive. St. Augustine, no mean speaker himself, tells us that he was in awe of the eloquence of Ambrose’s preaching, which was widely renowned. Ambrose undoubtedly had formal training as a public speaker, but he was quite successful at adapting these skills to the pulpit. We do have edited copies of a number of his sermons, but unfortunately, these plain texts are somewhat ordinary and do not convey the presence and power that so impressed the people who saw and heard Ambrose in person.

His preaching often focused on the Old Testament, for he loved to tell and comment on the great stories of the men and women of the Hebrew Bible. One of his favorite themes concerned the virtues and the ways in which these stories illustrated one virtue or another. He admired the wisdom of Joseph and the courage and justice of Job.

Unlike some other teachers of the early church, and perhaps because of his former life, Ambrose was not inclined to use his preaching for lofty theological speculation. Instead, the figures of the Old Testament became real men and women in his sermons.

Once, for example, he wondered aloud why Eve gave Adam the forbidden fruit. Especially after eating it herself, she must have known that it was sinful to do so, Ambrose said—but surely, she could not have given Adam the fruit to harm him, the man she loved. He speculated that perhaps Eve did it because she realized that she could no longer remain in paradise, but she could not bear to be parted from Adam!

Whether or not this is a compelling interpretation, no other preacher of Ambrose’s time had such sensitivity to human frailty.

Best of Bishops. But there was another side to Ambrose, a much sterner side. He took his responsibilities as bishop very seriously, and some of those responsibilities required him to defend the church and the faith.

After his election, the Christian community in Milan remained in factions. The Arians were strong and had considerable support in the emperor’s household. There was also a powerful party that was opposed to Christianity and favored a return to pagan worship. Ambrose was invariably a leader among the bishops of Italy in defending the church against both of these groups.

These, however, were not the only challenges. In Roman culture, religious practice and worship were elements of civil society. One responsibility of government was to support the temples and ensure that worship was properly conducted for the good of the state. And so, when the emperor Constantine became a Christian early in the fourth century, the natural assumption was that the church would enjoy the protection of the emperor but would also be subordinate to him. By the time Ambrose became a bishop, it was clear that this old pattern could not be continued. In order to be faithful to the gospel, the church had to be independent of imperial control.

No one was more responsible for defining a new relationship between church and state than Ambrose. He was canny and diplomatic in his relationships with a series of emperors, but adamant in witnessing to the gospel. When the great emperor Theodosius, a pious Christian, suppressed a rebellion in the east by slaughtering thousands of women and children in a fit of temper, Ambrose quietly and firmly wrote privately to him to say that he could not attend Mass until he had done public penance.

The emperor’s admiration for his bishop was so great that he did the penance—no small tribute to Ambrose’s holiness and pastoral skill. Indeed, Theodosius later said, “There is no bishop in the empire worthy of the name, except Ambrose.” And several years later, it was Ambrose who preached at the emperor’s funeral.

Ambrose died quietly on April 4, 397, after serving as bishop in Milan for nearly twenty-three years. The ancient church in the West recognized him as one of its four great teachers, or doctors. Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great are the best known, but Ambrose deserves to be remembered as well. By his wholehearted embrace of God’s plan for his life, he not only set a model for bishops but also showed what all Christians are called to be: humble, loving, and courageous lifelong learners in the school of the Lord.

Robert Kennedy holds a PhD in medieval studies and teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.