• Diane Severance, Ph.D.
  • 2010 3 May

The proper relationship between Christianity and government had been an item of controversy since the earliest days of the church. In the fourth century, the controversy was inflamed by government attempting to force Arian beliefs on the church. Arianism was the teaching that Jesus was not fully God but was a creature of the Father. Justina, mother of the Roman Emperor Valentinian II was a strong Arian, and she sought to increase the Arian influence in the empire. She met her match, however, in Ambrose, the bishop of Milan.

Ambrose was born in 339, the son of the Roman praetorian prefect of Gaul (which then included Britain, France, and parts of Africa). He received a good Roman education and at the age of 34 became the governor of Northern Italy. This was the period of the barbarian invasions of the empire, and the emperor for a time moved his imperial seat to Milan to better resist the invaders. Ambrose's position as governor was an important one. Soon, however, he received an even more important post.

We want Ambrose!
In 374, the Archbishop of Milan died. The people at that time elected the bishops, but there was a great division among them as to who the new bishop should be. The crowd became disorderly, and it appeared riots were about to break out. Governor Ambrose came to encourage the people to conduct themselves in an orderly and Christian manner. A little child cried out, "Let Ambrose be our bishop," and the crowd picked up the cry. Ambrose was chosen. Up to this point in his life, Ambrose was only a nominal Christian, but he was obviously changed after his election. In a little more than a week he was baptized, taken into Christian ministry, and made a bishop.

Selling the church's treasure
Once Ambrose took office, he parted with all of his fortune and distributed it to the poor. This was in keeping with the ideal of practical Christianity of that time--unbounded charity and personal poverty. Throughout his life, Ambrose was known for his charity, justice, and humanity. When a man left a large legacy to the church while leaving his sister poor and penniless, Ambrose gave the legacy to the poor woman. On several occasions he refused money which had been given to the church grudgingly or for wrong reasons. Once he took the valuable communion vessels of the cathedral and converted them into money to redeem some Illyrian captives. When he was criticized for this he asked: Is it better to preserve our gold or the souls of men? Has the Church no higher mission to fulfill than to guard the ornaments made by men's hands, while the faithful are suffering in exile? Ambrose knew the Church had a spiritual mission and it was not to be tied down by the things of this world. Such was the man the Roman Empress soon found herself up against.

Empress battles bishop
In order to spread her Arian views, the emperor's mother wanted Ambrose to debate the topic of Arianism in the palace. Ambrose refused to debate. He said that the spiritual authority did not lie with the state and that religious controversy should be kept within the church. So, she sent soldiers to eject Ambrose from the city. Though Ambrose could have encouraged his supporters to resist, he knew that he was fighting a spiritual war which should be waged with spiritual weapons. Ambrose went to his church and prayed. His people went with him, and the soldiers would not enter the church. Ambrose and his people stayed in the church for days, surrounded by the soldiers. They prayed, sang psalms, and listened to Ambrose preach. During this time Ambrose developed an antiphonal chant which was to be used in the church for centuries. It was a form of congregational singing in which two groups of the congregation sang alternately. When Ambrose would not compromise Christian truth, the Empress ordered the soldiers to seize Ambrose and the church. The soldiers refused; there was disorder in the city; and the Emperor stepped in to recall the soldiers. Ambrose had won the spiritual battle by using spiritual weapons, especially Christian hymns.

His best hymn
Ambrose's hymn on the birth of Christ, "Veni, Redemptor Gentium," is often considered his best hymn. It is a strong statement of Ambrose's orthodoxy against the Arianism of his day: Here's part of it:

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds:
Proceeds -- as far as very hell:
Speeds back -- to light ineffable.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Beautiful baptismal duet
Ambrose's personal, private ministry to individuals was probably more important than his public bouts with the emperor. When Augustine was stumbling in darkness, he was drawn to Ambrose by his life and character. Ambrose spent time with the unconverted Augustine. Augustine loved Ambrose's eloquence and came to embrace the truth he taught. Ambrose baptized Augustine in Milan in 387. One story says the two spontaneously composed and sang the Te Deum Laudamus ("We Praise Thee O God") at the baptism.