AMBROSE (c. 339–397), church father, bishop, theologian, and Christian saint. Ambrose is distinguished by being the first Latin church father to have been born and reared in the Christian faith. His life mirrors the social, political, and religious tensions of the Constantinian era. His fame rests largely on his work as churchman and practical administrator. A son of the praetorian prefect of Gaul, Ambrose was educated in Roman law, which he practiced as governor of Emilia-Liguria in Milan before being called to a Christian bishopric by popular demand in 374. He brought the confidence of his social class and training in Roman rhetoric to his ecclesiastical duties. Although he underwent instruction and baptism only after being named bishop, Ambrose contributed significantly to the settlement of Nicene orthodoxy, especially concerning the doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit, while imparting moral-ascetical instruction and vigorously defending the church's moral-spiritual authority in relations with the state. Ambrose's life, recorded by his contemporary biographer Paulinus, was one of simplicity and austerity. A popular and powerful figure in Milan, which in his time was the center of Western Roman rule, Ambrose was "court theologian" to a series of notable figures, including the emperors Valentinian I (364–375), Gratian (375–383), and Valentinian II (383–392) as well as Theodosius (379–395, sole ruler of the empire 392–395). In his political dealings Ambrose effectively appealed to Roman legal structures and symbols while invoking the symbolic and sacramental power of the new faith.
Having begun his formal theological training at age thirty-four, Ambrose produced a series of notable works that reflect his active life amid the stresses of the age. He was more a consolidator and a creative transmitter than an original intellect. His chief models were Philo Judaeus and Origen on exegetical, dogmatic, and ascetical teachings and Cicero on morals. Although an important transmission of Neoplatonic thought occurs in his sermons (which deeply impressed Augustine), his Platonizing insight is more evident in spiritual and allegorical interpretations of scripture than in strict philosophical arguments.
Major exegetical works include Hexaemeron, six books on the creation epic of the Old Testament; On Paradise; On Cain and Abel; On Isaac and the Soul; a meditation on Psalm 118; and a lengthy commentary on Luke, which arose largely from sermons. A series of works in defense of the ideal of chastity characterizes Ambrose's rigoristic moral thought in an age of rampant self-indulgence. These include On Virginity, To Sister Marcellina on Virginity, On Widows, and Exhortation to Virginity. Ambrose never worked out a formal Mariology, but he resolutely championed devotion to the Virgin Mary. His best-known moral work, On the Duties of the Clergy (386), is a lightly but significantly reworked moral handbook for clergy that is modeled on Cicero's On Duties. Much debated as a key instrument for transmission of classical Greco-Roman culture, this work is the first comprehensive ethical treatise by a Christian writer. Ambrose's main dogmatic works are On Faith and On the Holy Spirit, both of which mediate and defend Nicene orthodoxy to the Western world and mark its full victory over the Arian heresy. Two other theological writings, On the Sacraments and On Penance, arose directly from catechetical needs.
Ambrose had a large impact on his contemporaries through his person and his exercise of church office. He championed what was virtually a monastic clergy under his spiritual direction. In defending the new order of Christian life against lingering influences of a dying paganism, Ambrose was without compromise. His removal of the pagan altar of victory from the Senate house symbolizes this tendency. Ambrose's dedication to Christian primacy is also demonstrated by his sanctioning of the burning of a synagogue in Callinicum by Christians, a deed that he zealously defended when Theodosius initially required the Christians to rebuild it.
In his admiration for Cicero's On Duties, Ambrose assumes a place in company with Luther, Melanchthon, Hume, Kant, and Frederick the Great, all of whom recognized in Cicero's work a common, practical Stoic wisdom that lies at the heart of Western humanistic thought. This Stoicism took seriously the ability to pattern a life after one's own nature. The notion of "the fitting" (decorum ) loomed large as an aspect of the classical virtue of moderation. Ambrose christianized classical ideals, defending the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, fortitude, and justice, in addition to moderation) and the classical "just war" theory, and he perpetuated a Ciceronic way of resolving the clash between duty and expediency by appealing to moral (in his case, biblical) examples.
Like Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory I, Ambrose is considered one of the four major doctors of the Latin-speaking church and a towering figure of the age. From 374 until his death in 397 he held undisputed sway over affairs of the Latin church through the force of his personality and his courage, as seen during the repeated crises between church and state. His most celebrated appeal to ecclesiastical interests in dealing with the state, his humbling of Theodosius when the emperor, in a fit of rage, ordered a massacre of seven thousand citizens as a reprisal for unrest in Thessalonica, echoes the Old Testament prophet Nathan's rebuke of King David. Ambrose's actions provided a momentous precedent for later church-state relations.
Church tradition remembers Ambrose as a founder of Latin hymnody. A number of well-known hymns (e.g., Aeterne rerum conditor, Deus Creator omnium ) reflect his poetic skill and indicate something of his contribution to the life of liturgy and worship. His effectiveness in acting on practical moral concerns, as seen in the writing on duties and his sermons on behalf of the oppressed (e.g., On Naboth ), set an enduring pattern for church engagement in public life. Whether it was Ambrose's moral concerns, his platonizing, his elevated scriptural interpretations, or his vital strength of character that led to the conversion in 387 of Augustine of Hippo cannot be easily determined. Ambrose's influence lived on in Augustine, his greatest convert and a figure who never forgot the work and example of the bishop of Milan, even while towering over his mentor intellectually.
Texts of Ambrose in Patrologia Latina, vols. 14 and 15, edited by J. P. Migne (Paris, 1845), are being superseded by those in "Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina." Of the several volumes that are planned, only volume 14, Sancti Ambrosii Medio-lanensis Opera (Turnhout, 1957), containing his exposition of Luke and fragments on Isaiah, has appeared to date. English translations of works and letters are found in Some of the Principal Works of Saint Ambrose, "The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers," 2d series, vol. 10 (1896; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1955), and in "Fathers of the Church," vols. 26, 42, 44, and 65 (1954–1972). The contemporary biography by Paulinus, a classic among "lives of the saints," is printed in The Western Fathers, edited by F. R. Hoare (New York, 1954), while the comprehensive modern biography is the two-volume work by Frederick H. Dudden, The Life and Times of Saint Ambrose (Oxford, 1935). The work of Hans von Campenhausen, Ambrosius von Mailand als Kirchenpolitiker (Berlin, 1929), is still the formative study of Ambrose's activities as church politician; Campenhausen's vivid interpretation is restated in his biographical portrait, "Ambrose," chapter 4 of The Fathers of the Latin Church (London, 1964). For an account of "middle Stoic" influences and their significance in Western thought, see my "Ambrose's 'On the Duties of the Clergy': A Study of Its Setting, Content, and Significance in the Light of Its Stoic and Ciceronian Sources" (Ph.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1968). Ernst Dassmann's Die Frömmigkeit des Kirchenvaters Ambrosius von Mailand (Münster, 1965) constitutes a well-balanced, chronologically arranged study of Ambrose's mystical theology and biblical interpretations.
Richard Crouter (1987)
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