7 December (c334 - 397)
Doctor of the church

Ambrose is one of those figures in history whose influence rests mainly on a single event - a couple of hours consideration and then confrontation with an emperor. As a churchman he is celebrated as a great teacher and recognised as one of the four Latin doctors of the church, along with Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great and Jerome. It was he who brought Augustine to the faith.

Ambrose was born in Trier about 334 AD into a longstanding Christian family of senatorial rank actively involved in public service - his father was a prefect of Gaul. He was so to speak weaned into a public life. In his early years he studied law and while working in the Roman courts was appointed, at the age of 34, Governor of Aemilia-Liguria, an important province which included Milan, at that time administrative centre for the western part of the Roman Empire.

He was learned as a lay person, familiar with philosophical ideas, and among other things produced a condensed version of some of the works of Josephus. He was also knowledgeable on ecclesiastical matters and doctrinal controversies within the church, where he was known as a Nicene.

In 373 Auxentius, Bishop of Milan, died and Ambrose was chosen to succeed him by acclamation of the people. At the time he was a catechumen and not yet baptised. He accepted unwillingly and in just eight days passed through all the stages necessary to become a bishop.

During an active episcopacy he faced many major problems. He was one of many seeking to unify the doctrine of the church around the Nicene Creed and vigorously opposed movements that tended to fragment the church, particularly Arianism which was supported by the emperor. He worked to diminish the influence of the pagan aristocracy, opposing senators who sought to erect a statue to a goddess. For him the laws of religious toleration in the secular world did not apply within the church and he refused to give up churches for unorthodox worship, prevailing through a mixture of diplomacy, persuasion and dogged assertion of the rights of the church. “Things that are sacred are not subject to the power of the Emperor”.

The most important and lasting historical legacy of Ambrose was his influence on the relationship between church and state. There was at the time a ‘two swords’ theory of this relationship and Ambrose was determined that the church's sword would be the sharper! The single event for which he is famed was in 390 when a Roman governor was killed in a riot and in retribution the Emperor massacred an entire village. Ambrose ordered the Emperor to perform a public penance: ‘if he wished to maintain his authority he should submit himself to God’ - which he did. This helped clarify an increasing influence of the church over the state, a profound historical movement which over centuries led to a period of ecclesiastical tyranny when clergy took to intervening in secular matters for their own advantage.

While asserting the ascendancy of the church, condemning unacceptable doctrines and countering paganism, Ambrose was also busy with his main pastoral work as a bishop. His preaching and teaching included ‘catechism lessons’ on Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist and his discourses are reported to have been ‘very practical’.

He also had an influence on the development of liturgy, being the first Western teacher to make significant use of congregational hymns in worship as a way of fostering and maintaining a true and lively faith. Some of his works survive and are in use today. Tradition has it that Ambrose and Augustine together composed the Te Deum for the latter’s baptism.

In public Ambrose was bold and uncompromising, in his teaching he promoted an ascetic practice of faith, and in private he was said to have a very calm and quiet manner, much appreciated by those who knew him well. It worked on the sceptical Augustine!

Many of us have a public face different from our private face. We have all read of public figures, admired for their work or loved by their fans, who treat their family unkindly, even with cruelty. We can show our best qualities to strangers and outsiders but our less attractive side at home. Ambrose was assertive in public but gentle in private.

He died in 397 having been Bishop of Milan for twenty-four years, admired and respected in public life but loved by the people he served.

Jim McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 4th December 2001