Milpitas Christian Church

St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397)

Bishop, Doctor of the Catholic Church


  • It’s AD 374. You are the governor of a major city.

  • You are competent, respected, well-liked, and have good relations with the Roman emperor. You have hopes of a great career in government.

  • You are studying Christianity with a priest in order to be baptized.

  • The bishop of your city’s church dies. He was an Arian heretic, and the Arians are willing to fight to ensure that the next bishop elected is also an Arian. But the orthodox, Nicene Christians are also willing to fight to return the church to true doctrine. A riot on election day is very possible.

  • As governor, you can’t allow a riot in the city. And as a new Christian hoping to be accepted into the local church, you don’t want that church descending into chaos and violence!

  • What do you do?

An unwanted change of career

  • If you were Ambrose, governor of Milan, you attend the church election and speak to the crowd, calming their tempers and restoring order

    • But apparently, a child’s voice in the crowd was heard to say “Ambrose, bishop!” And the crowd gets excited and starts chanting for Ambrose to be the next bishop
  • After trying and failing several times to reject the bishopric, even by fleeing the city, Ambrose finally bowed to the wishes of the city and the emperor, and became Bishop of Milan.

    • He was swiftly baptized, ordained, and put through the requirements in only 8 days before his consecration as bishop!
  • Though he hadn’t wanted to be bishop, he took the responsibility seriously

    • He used his government experience and connections to improve the administration of the church

    • He asked his priest and mentor to teach him deeper theology

    • He quickly became a knowledgeable and skilled theologian

  • His sermons are his main literary output

    • They often emphasize morality, self-denial, and attack social abuses

Church and State

  • A Gothic warband crossed into Italy and ravaged the region; refugees poured into Milan, but many people in the countryside were captured. The Goths demanded a large ransom for their captives.

  • Ambrose raised funds for the ransom by melting down some of the fancy gold vessels and ornaments of the church. When criticized for this, he said that the strong should defend the weak, and that:

It is better to preserve for the Lord souls rather than gold. He who sent the apostles without gold also gathered the churches without gold. The church has gold, not to store it, but to give it up, to use it for those who are in need. (Duties of the Clergy, 2.137)

  • As bishop of Milan, Ambrose gained far more power and influence than he would have merely as the city’s governor

  • When the threat of civil war between a boy-emperor and a usurper would have led to an invasion of Italy, Bishop Ambrose was sent on a diplomatic mission and successfully averted war

  • He used his position to bar Arians from worshiping in Christian buildings, even defying an empress amidst dramatic confrontations that included soldiers surrounding the church. His firmness and success in these matters made him very popular with the city’s Christians

  • When Theodosius, a Nicene Christian, became emperor in 379, this lessened the conflicts with Arians, but not conflicts between church and state. Ambrose clashed twice with Emperor Theodosius

    1. some Christians in a small town burned a Jewish synagogue, in a sad example of an early pogrom. Theodosius sentenced the offenders to be punished and to rebuild the synagogue, but Ambrose intervened and argued that Christians should not be forced to build Jewish synagogues. The bishop and the emperor argued fiercely several times but eventually the emperor relented and no one was punished for the crime

    2. A riot in Thessalonica led to a military official being killed. The emperor’s wrath was going to be bloody, but Ambrose cautioned that restraint and justice was better than revenge. However, the emperor decided to trick the rioters. He told the city that the rioters were all pardoned. When citizens gathered at the local arena to celebrate, Theodosius’s army trapped them and killed thousands.

      • Horrified by Theodosius’s deception and bloody revenge, Ambrose demanded that the emperor repent publicly. When the emperor attended church in Milan, Ambrose stopped him at the door and denied him entrance and communion.

      • Surprising his courtiers, the emperor admitted that Ambrose was right and publicly repented. He also made a decree that any order of execution must have a delay of 30 days before it was carried out

      • This didn’t mean that Ambrose now had effective authority over the emperor. He didn’t, by any means. But it demonstrated the idea that even an emperor needs repentance and atonement for his sin just like any other believer

  • Eventually Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius became more friendly, and on his deathbed it was Ambrose that the emperor wanted near him

  • Ambrose had become so famous that a queen of a pagan Germanic tribe wrote to the bishop, asking him to write for her an introduction to Christianity. She was so impressed by it that she traveled to Milan to meet him. But on the way, she learned that Ambrose had died

  • AD 397 - Easter Sunday, Ambrose died

Duties of the Clergy

  • Heavily shapes the understanding and organization of Christian ministry

  • Informed by classical ideals, especially from Cicero’s_De officiis_


  • He brought a lot of Eastern theology, like that of the Cappadocians, over to the Latin-speaking West, because he knew the Greek language and literature very well

    • By popularizing Basil the Great’s On the Holy Ghost, Ambrose strengthened Trinitarian theology in the West

    • His sermons show his extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy

    • But he gives a more Western flavor to the Greek ideas, doing more to emphasize human sin and God’s grace

  • He emphasized the centrality of Christ’s incarnation in relatable, pastoral terms rather than abstract theological terms

  • Laid out the arguments for why the secular ruler, like the emperor, should at times obey the local bishop. Very influential in the West. However, he resisted the idea that the secular state should be subservient to any church, because he feared that paganism might one day rise again and replace Christianity as the state religion, which would then make emperors subservient to pagan priests

  • Spread the idea of replacing classical Roman and Greek heroes with Christian saints in terms of popular culture

  • Introduced to the West many hymns from the Eastern churches and wrote new ones

  • He baptized a young man named Augustine, who will soon become one of the most famous men in all of Christian history


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