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Ambrose (b. 339, Trier, Gaul;
d. 397, Milan; feast day, December 7) is one of the four traditional Fathers
of the Christian church. While he was serving as the governor of Milan, Ambrose
was drafted into ecclesiastical service. In his new role as bishop of Milan
he was a biblical and social critic, fighter of heresy, and political theorist.
Both before and after assuming the bishopric, Ambrose was strongly influenced
by the Neoplatonic tradition, and he carried those ideas into his theology.
He taught that the church must act as the moral guide to the prince, and, if
necessary, oppose him. He is remembered as a master of the Latin language and
a musician whose works are still part of Catholic ritual. Ambrose's most widely
known accomplishment is his contribution to Saint Augustine's conversion, but
his most lasting legacies lie intertwined in his involvement with politics
and his fight against heresy.
From his bishopric, Ambrose waged a very public fight against both paganism
and Arianism. He chastised emperors publicly (Theodosius, r. 379-395) and fought
Arians at the highest level (Valentinian II, r. 375-392). Arianism denied the
validity of the Trinity and held that Christ was a man inspired by God, but
not God incarnate. The Arian leaders, Palladius and Secundianus, prevailed
on the Orthodox co-ruler of the West, Gratian (r. 367-383), to call for a council
of Eastern and Western bishops to decide the issue once and for all. Ambrose,
worried that the Arians would pack the council with their own supporters, convinced
Gratian to invite only Western bishops. Palladius and Secundianus declined
to present their case, and Arianism was voted to be in conflict with the Orthodox
church. In 384, Ambrose opposed the restoration of the Cult of the Goddess
of Victory and defeated an appeal for tolerance of pagan senators made by his
own relative, Quintus Arelius Symachus.
Through these activities Ambrose established the model for the medieval concept
of a Christian emperor (or king) who was a servant of the church. During Theodosius's
ascension to power, Ambrose rebuked him publicly for the massacre of seven
thousand Thessalonians and commanded him to repent of his guilt. The emperor
was in the Church, not above it. Although this doctrine did not hold
in all cases (notably in the Eastern churches) Ambrose's example provided grounds
for more than a thousand years of church versus state controversy in western
Works by the Author
St. Ambrose. On the Sacraments and On the Mysteries. Translated by
T. Thompson. Edited by J. H. Srawley. London: S-P-C-K, 1950.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.