Speaking to truth to power: the bold Christian legacy of Ambrose of Milan

Today is the Feast Day of St Ambrose of Milan, a fourth century scholar, statesman and Church Father who inspired politicians and theologians alike.

Ambrosius, as his Latin name had him, was born in 339 to family of power – he was the son of Aurelius, the imperial viceroy of Gaul, western Europe. When his father died he was raised in Rome, in the setting of a palace, surrounded by Christian clergy. These twin influences of both politics and faith have come to characterise Ambrose's career.

He was a politician first, serving as governor in northern Italy, where he was tasked with mediating a bitter and decisive conflict, between (what became) the heretical group known as Arians and the Christians who opposed them. Impressively, Ambrose was seen as a friend to both warring parties, who collectively insisted that he be the next Bishop of Milan.

'St Ambrose' by Matthias Stom.Wikimedia Commons

As Christianity Today notes, such was the fervour for Ambrose that he was put under house arrest until he agreed to take the position. Unfortunately for the Arians, Ambrose ultimately became their clear opponent. The trained scholar confidently opposed the theological idea that 'there was a time when the Son was not' (Arians believed that Christ was not pre-existent with the Father, but was created by God), and insisted that Arianism not be embraced as part of Orthodoxy. A renowned preacher in his day, Ambrose advocated mercy, peace and asceticism. 

A defining moment for the Bishop comes in a famous encounter between him and the Roman Emperor Theodosius. The Emperor had exacted a horrific massacre of civilians, killing 7,000 in a vengeful response to a public uprising.

'It is grief to me that the perishing of so many innocent is no grief to you,' wrote Ambrose to Theodosius, demanding that the emperor repent. He refused him access to worship services until the leader showed contrition for his sin.

Theodosius eventually did repent, showing, the remarkable influence that the Church could have on the State, prophetically speaking truth to power. The pair remained close, and Theodosius is attributed (perhaps apocryphally) as saying: 'I know no bishop worthy of the name, except Ambrose.'

Milan's bishop would have a major impact on another icon of history: Augustine of Hippo. Augustine, once a wayward and impious rhetorician, was famously moved after visiting Milan and hearing the preaching of Ambrose. He admired the Bishop's virtue and exposition of Scripture, and Ambrose helped dismantle Augustine's intellectual objections to Christianity. Following a later profound spiritual encounter, Augustine converted, and it was Ambrose who baptised him.

In the millennia that followed, the magisterial theologian Augustine would inspire generations of Christians much as Ambrose had once inspired him. Commited to the post that came to define him, Ambrose remained as Bishop of Milan until his death in 397.