Ambrose (339-397)

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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 Europe.


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.

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