Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise On the Mysteries (de Mysteriis) - On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments
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II.: Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise “On the Mysteries” (de Mysteriis) - Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments [387 AD]
On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments by an Unknown Author, trans. T. Thompson, ed. with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Strawley (New York: Macmillan, 1919).
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Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise “On the Mysteries” (de Mysteriis)
The treatise On the Mysteries bears the name of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who played so large a part in the history of the Western Church in the last quarter of the fourth century. It consists of addresses to the newly-baptized in Easter week. The author expounds the ceremonies connected with Baptism, and illustrates its doctrinal significance from the Old and New Testaments. He next shows the superiority of the Eucharist to the sacraments of the Old Testament, and attributes the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood to the operative power of Christ’s words of institution, finding illustrations of his theme in the miracles of the Old Testament and in the Incarnation. After dwelling on the benefits and fruits of Communion he encourages the newly-baptized to believe in the certainty and power of the new life given in Baptism. At two points Ambrose introduces a mystical commentary on certain chapters of the Song of Songs, which is employed to illustrate the joy of the Church presented to the Bridegroom in all the purity and glory of baptismal grace (vii. 33-41), and again, to show the wonder and joy of the divine feast spread by Christ (ix. 55-58). This use of the Song of Songs Ambrose derived, like so much else in his teaching, from Greek sources. The mystical interpretation of the Song of Songs, which appears to have been the interpretation given to it by those who assigned it a place in the Jewish Canon of Scripture, first found clear expression in the Church in Origen’s commentary on the book. Origen was followed by Methodius in his Banquet of the Virgins, and later on by Gregory of Nyssa. Through Ambrose it passed into the West, and later on found expression in the writings of St. Bernard. To Origen also is due the idea that the imagery of the Song may be applied either to the Church or to the individual soul (de Myst. vii. 37; cf. de Sacram. v. 2. 7 f.). This mystical use of the Song recurs constantly in the writings of Ambrose (see e.g. de Isaac et anima (passim); de Institutione Virginis; de Obitu Valentini, cc. 59 f.).
The authenticity of the treatise On the Mysteries was vigorously contested in the controversy between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation period. Some of the objections were trivial and dealt with the author’s interpretation of particular passages of Scripture (e.g. Jn. v. 7 in de Myst. iv. 24). Daillé (de Confirmatione, 1659) maintained that Ambrose could not possibly have attributed to the “feet-washing” the sacramental significance given to it in de Myst. vi. 32 (on this see note on the passage). The teaching of the author on the subject of the Eucharist was appealed to in support of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and this led to the further objection by Protestant writers that such teaching could not possibly have come from Ambrose. This latter objection has been revived in recent times by Loofs,1 who maintains that Ambrose in his genuine works nowhere affirms the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. But it cannot be said that he has made out a convincing case, or that the sharp contrast which he draws between the language of Ambrose in this treatise and in de Fide (iv. 10. 124) and Enarr. in Ps. xxxviii. 25 is justified.2
On the other hand, there are many points of contact between the present treatise and other works of Ambrose. As we have seen, the mystical use of the Song of Songs is found elsewhere in Ambrose, and the sacramental efficacy which the author finds in the “feet-washing” may be paralleled from other writings of Ambrose (see note on de Myst. vi. 32). There are also echoes in the treatise of the two works of Ambrose de Spiritu sancto and de Institutione Virginis.1 In the opening words of the treatise the author refers to the daily sermons which he had preached on “right conduct” during Lent, when the lives of the patriarchs were read. The sermons of Ambrose On Abraham (Book I.) correspond exactly to this description. They were addressed to candidates for baptism, and they deal with questions of conduct. The date of the treatise in that case would be about a.d. 387, to which year the treatise On Abraham is assigned.
[1 ]Loofs, art. “Abendmahl” in Hauck-Hertzog, Realencyklopädie; also Leitfaden z. Studium der Dogmengesch., pp. 470 f.
[2 ]In the passage de Fide l.c. Ambrose says: “As often as we receive the sacraments, which by the mystery of the sacred prayer are transformed (transfigurantur) into the flesh and the blood, we proclaim the Lord’s death.” Here transfigurare appears to be a synonym of convertere, mutare, which are used in de Myst. to describe the “change” of the elements. Loofs would qualify this language by reference to the second passage cited above from the Commentary on Ps. xxxviii, where Ambrose speaks of the offering of the body of Christ on earth (in the Eucharist) as a “symbol” (imago) of a heavenly reality.
[1 ]Cf. de Myst. vii. 35, de Spir. s. ii. 10. 112; de Myst. vii. 41, 42, de Spir. s. i. 6. 71, 72; de Myst. lx. 51, de Spir. s. iii. 4. 22; de Myst. vii. 37, de Inst. Virg. i. 4; de Myst. vii. 40, de Inst. Virg. i. 5; de Myst. vii. 41, de Inst. Virg. xvii. 113.