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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Pastors and Preachers > Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose of Milan
Most talented bishop of the early church
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ."

"When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ." So wrote Ambrose, bishop of Milan, biblical exegete, political theorist, master of Latin eloquence, musician, and teacher; in all these roles, he was speaking about Christ.



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Arrested career

The first Latin church father from a Christian family, Ambrose was also born into power, part of the Roman family of Aurelius. The pope and church dignitaries visited his parent's home when he was a child, and he was a governor in Italy's northern provinces before the age of 30. As he was sent, the prefect gave him a word of prophetic advice: "Go, conduct yourself not as a judge, but as a bishop."

Indeed, even as governor he had ecclesiastical problems to deal with. Orthodox Christians and Arians were practically at war at the time. Ambrose was no friend of the Arians, but he was so well regarded that both sides supported him. When the bishop of Milan (an Arian) died, Ambrose attended the meeting to elect a replacement, hoping that his presence would preempt violence between the parties. Much to his surprise, both sides shouted their wish for him to be their replacement.

Ambrose really didn't want to be an ecclesiastical leader; he was doing quite well as a political one. And he hadn't even been baptized yet! But the people wrote to Emperor Valentian, asking for his seal on their verdict. Ambrose was placed under arrest until he agreed to serve.

If the Arians had hoped to gain favor by supporting Ambrose as bishop, their hopes were soon dashed. The new bishop was as orthodox as could be, and he soon took the Arians to task. He refused to surrender a church for use by Arians, and he wrote several works against them, including On the Faith, The Mystery of the Lord's Incarnation, and On the Holy Spirit.

Having been trained in rhetoric and law and having studied Greek, Ambrose became known for his knowledge of the latest Greek writings, both Christian and pagan. In addition to Philo, Origen, and Basil of Caesarea, he even quoted Neoplatonist Plotinus in his sermons. He was widely regarded as an excellent preacher.

In many of those sermons, Ambrose expounded upon the virtues of asceticism. He was so persuasive that noble families sometimes forbade their daughters to attend his sermons, fearing they'd trade their marriageable status for a life of austere virginity.

One piece of his pastoral advice is still universally known: "When you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; when you are elsewhere, live as they live elsewhere."

Ambrose also introduced congregational singing, and he was accused of "bewitching" Milan by introducing Eastern melodies into the hymns he wrote. Because of his influence, hymn singing became an important part of the Western liturgy.

The emperor repents

Ambrose's most lasting contribution, though, was in the area of church-state relations. He wrestled with three emperors—and won each time. His relationship with Theodosius, the first emperor to try to make Rome a Christian state, is the most well-known example.

In 390, local authorities imprisoned a charioteer of Thessalonica for homosexuality. Unfortunately, the charioteer was one of the city's favorites, and riots broke out when the governor refused to release him. The governor and a few others were killed in the melee, and the charioteer was freed.

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