Ambrose - Bishop and Theologian

Ambrose - Bishop and Theologian
Ambrose - Bishop and Theologian

Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was born in Trier of the noble Aurelian family. His mother moved the family to Rome after the death of his father. Educated in rhetoric and law, Ambrose was first employed in Sirmium and then in c. 370 c.e. as governor of Milan.

After the death of the Arian bishop of Milan, a violent conflict broke out in the city over whether the next bishop would be a Catholic or an Arian. Ambrose intervened to restore peace and was so admired by all that both sides accepted him as a candidate for bishop, although he was not even baptized at the time. He was baptized and consecrated a bishop within a week.

He immediately gave his wealth to the poor and devoted himself to the study of scripture and the Greek fathers of the church. As a bishop, he was famous for his preaching, which was partly responsible for the conversion of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo, whom Ambrose baptized at Easter in 387.

Ambrose’s career was heavily involved with politics. He was continually defending the position of the Catholic Church against the power of the various Roman emperors during his episcopate: Gratian, Maximus, Justina (pro-Arian mother of Valentinian II), and Theodosius I.

He was able to maintain the independence of the church against the civil power in his conflicts with paganism and Arianism. Regarding the former, Ambrose battled with Symmachus, magistrate of Rome, over the Altar of Victory in the Senate: The emperor Gratian had removed the altar in 382, and after Gratian’s death Symmachus petitioned Valentinian II for its restoration. Under Ambrose’s influence, the request was denied.

Arianism received a blow when Ambrose refused to surrender a church for the use of the Arians. His decision was taken as sanctioned by heaven when—in the midst of the controversy—the bodies of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius were discovered in the church. Ambrose further strengthened the church’s authority before the state in two incidents in which he took a firm stand against the emperor Theodosius I.

One incident involved the rebuilding of the synagogue at Callinicum in 388; the other had to do with the emperor’s rash order that resulted in the massacre of thousands of innocent people at Thessalonica in the summer of 390. Ambrose refused to allow Theodosius to receive the sacraments until he had performed public penance for this atrocity. The reconciliation took place at Christmas 390.

One reason for Ambrose’s influence over Theodosius was that, unlike most Christian emperors who delayed their reception into the church until their deathbed, he had been baptized and so fell under the authority of the church in his private life.

Ambrose’s knowledge of Greek enabled him to introduce much Eastern theology into the West. His works include hymns, letters, sermons, treatises on the moral life, and commentaries on scripture and on the sacraments. He was also a strong supporter of the monastic life in northern Italy.