Ambrose flashing his sign

Ambrose of Milan was an Italian government official, [reluctant] bishop, preacher, writer, hymn composer and champion of orthodoxy (against Arius, and others) that lived from 340-397 A. D.)  An interesting figure, Ambrose, was made a Bishop of the church by popular acclaim when he was an unconverted government official in Milan, Italy. Realizing that he was in on over his head, Ambrose tried to run away from being bishop, but the Roman emperor Gratian declared that anybody who sheltered the fugitive Ambrose would be subject to punishment, so he ultimately gave up and returned to Milan and began a long tenure as a highly influential bishop.

Initially quite ignorant of the Bible, Ambrose learned from Origen (an earlier church father) the practice of meditation, and thus he became a powerful, lifelong student of the Word of God, popularizing some forms of biblical meditation in the process. St. Augustine himself was largely converted to Christianity due to the ministry and sermons of Ambrose, and Augustine wrote of him that he was a, “a faithful teacher of the church, and even at the risk of his life a most strenuous defender of catholic [universal] truth…whose skill, constancy, labours, and perils, both on account of what he did and what he wrote, the Roman world unhesitatingly proclaims.” Augustine also noted that Ambrose possessed a skill that was, at the time, apparently quite rare and very impressive: He could read the Bible (and other books) silently without speaking aloud, or even mouthing the words. Finally, you might be interested to know that Ambrose of Milan was essentially the originator of the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” which was some advice he gave to young St. Augustine.  (“When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.“)

Ambrose reading silently!

Here below are some words from Ambrose in book 3 of his 3 volume work “Concerning Virginity,” published in 377 A.D. In this section of the book, Ambrose reflects on the virgin birth of Jesus and the nature of His Trinitarian relationship to God the Father. Note especially the  frequent use of the word “Begotten/Monogenes,” which has been much discussed in theological circles of late.  Note especially these phrases: “The Perfection of the Godhead does not admit of inequality,” and, “Only-begotten on earth, and Only-begotten in heaven,” and, “not unequal to His Father; nor separated in power, not confused by extension of the Word or enlargement as though mingled with the Father, but distinguished from the Father by virtue of His generation” Behold! This is lovely orthodox theology nestled in a beautiful discussion of the birth of Jesus. Read on:

Book 3, “Concerning Virgins”

To-day, indeed, He was born after the manner of men, of a Virgin, but was begotten of the Father before all things, resembling His mother in body, His Father in power. Only-begotten on earth, and Only-begotten in heaven. God of God, born of a Virgin, Righteousness from the Father, Power from the Mighty One, Light of Light, not unequal to His Father; nor separated in power, not confused by extension of the Word or enlargement as though mingled with the Father, but distinguished from the Father by virtue of His generation. He is your Brother, without Whom neither things in heaven, nor things in the sea, nor things on earth consist. The good Word of the Father, Which was, it is said, “in the beginning,”here you have His eternity. “And,” it is said, “the Word was with God.” Here you have His power, undivided and inseparable from the Father. “And the Word was God.” Here you have His unbegotten Godhead, for your faith is to be drawn from the mutual relationship.

Love him, my daughter, for He is good. For, “None is good save God only.”For if there be no doubt that the Son is God, and that God is good, there is certainly no doubt that God the Son is good. Love Him I say. He it is Whom the Father begat before the morning star,as being eternal, He brought Him forth from the womb as the Son; He uttered him from His heart, as the Word. He it is in Whom the Father is well pleased; He is the Arm of the Father, for He is Creator of all, and the Wisdom of the Father, for He proceeded from the mouth of God; the Power of the Father, because the fullness of the Godhead dwelleth in Him bodily. And the Father so loved Him, as to bear Him in His bosom, and place Him at His right hand, that you may learn His wisdom, and know His power.

If, then, Christ is the Power of God, was God ever without power? Was the Father ever without the Son? If the Father of a certainty always was, of a certainty the Son always was. So He is the perfect Son of a perfect Father. For he who derogates from the power, derogates from Him Whose is the power. The Perfection of the Godhead does not admit of inequality. Love, then, Him Whom the Father loves, honour Him Whom the Father honours, for “he that honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father,”16 and “whoso denieth the Son, hath not the Father.” So much as to the faith.

Christmas in the 300s? 

I also note the use of the phrase, “birthday of your spouse,” in this same discourse, quoted by Ambrose, and spoken by Liberius (Bishop of Rome) to Ambrose’s sister, a young virgin named Marcellina on the occasion of her profession of [lifelong]  virginity, which took place on the day of celebration of the Nativity of the Savior in St. Peter’s church. This was written in 377 A.D. and referred to an event that had taken place some time before, thus giving evidence of a large scale (and regular) celebration of the birth of Jesus in the 4th century.

“You,” said he, “my daughter, have desired a good espousal. You see how great a crowd has come together for the birthday of your Spouse, and none has gone away without food. This is He, Who, when invited to the marriage feast, changed water into wine. 

Source: Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 381.

P.S. Whilst we are discussing Saint Ambrose and The Trinity, here is another one of his excellent Trinitarian thoughts:

And that you may understand it to be said as a mystery and not in reference to the bare number that two are better than one, he adds a mystical saying, A threefold cord is not quickly broken. For that which is threefold and uncompounded cannot be broken. Thus the Trinity, being of an uncompounded nature, cannot be dissolved; for God is, whatever He is, one and simple and uncompounded; and what He is that He continues to be, and is not brought into subjection.

Source: Ambrose of Milan, The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (trans. H. Walford; A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church; London; Oxford; Cambridge: Oxford; James Parker and Co.; Rivingtons, 1881), 464

For other thoughts on the Trinity, including a fairly shallow treatment of this Summer’s Evangelical Trinity controversy, CLICK HERE.