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The Example of Ambrose

Travis Johnson’s proposal concerning the election of state Administrative Bishops in the Church of God is an interesting one.  From its start the Church of God has appointed its state and regional (diocesan, for you Anglicans and Roman Catholics) prelates centrally at the biennial General Assembly.  It’s easy to draw from this (and current Roman Catholic practice) that centrally appointed bishops are the rule for centrally organised churches, but this is not necessarily the case.

Let’s look at an era of Christian history which first had to deal with the New Testament’s idea of church government, namely the Roman Empire church between the end of the New Testament and the end of the empire itself.  The role of bishop was in a state of flux, as my discussion of Iraneus and Jerome illustrate.  Rather than a long historical diatribe, let’s consider an example, and a relatively late one: Ambrose of Milan’s election to the episcopate of that great city in 374, long after Christianity was legalised and during the Arian controversies.  The account of this is taken from the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

Ever since the heroic Bishop Dionysius, in the year 355, had been dragged in chains to his place of exile in the distant East, the ancient chair of St. Barnabas had been occupied by the intruded Cappadocian, Auxentius, an Arian filled with bitter hatred of the Catholic Faith, ignorant of the Latin language, a wily and violent persecutor of his orthodox subjects. To the great relief of the Catholics, the death of the petty tyrant in 374 ended a bondage which had lasted nearly twenty years. The bishops of the province, dreading the inevitable tumults of a popular election, begged the Emperor Valentinian to appoint a successor by imperial edict; he, however, decided that the election must take place in the usual way. It devolved upon Ambrose, therefore, to maintain order in the city at this perilous juncture. Proceeding to the basilica in which the disunited clergy and people were assembled, he began a conciliatory discourse in the interest of peace and moderation, but was interrupted by a voice (according to Paulinus, the voice of an infant) crying, "Ambrose, Bishop". The cry was instantly repeated by the entire assembly, and Ambrose, to his surprise and dismay, was unanimously pronounced elected. Quite apart from any supernatural intervention, he was the only logical candidate, known to the Catholics as a firm believer in the Nicene Creed, unobnoxious to the Arians, as one who had kept aloof from all theological controversies. The only difficulty was that of forcing the bewildered consular to accept an office for which his previous training nowise fitted him. Strange to say, like so many other believers of that age, from a misguided reverence for the sanctity of baptism, he was still only a catechumen, and by a wise provision of the canons ineligible to the episcopate. That he was sincere in his repugnance to accepting the responsibilities of the sacred office, those only have doubted who have judged a great man by the standard of their own pettiness. Were Ambrose the worldly-minded, ambitious, and scheming individual they choose to paint him, he would have surely sought advancement in the career that lay wide open before him as a man of acknowledged ability and noble blood. It is difficult to believe that he resorted to the questionable expedients mentioned by his biographer as practised by him with a view to undermining his reputation with the populace. At any rate his efforts were unsuccessful. Valentinian, who was proud that his favourable opinion of Ambrose had been so fully ratified by the voice of clergy and people, confirmed the election and pronounced severe penalties against all who should abet him in his attempt to conceal himself. The Saint finally acquiesced, received baptism at the hands of a Catholic bishop, and eight day later, 7 December 374, the day on which East and West annually honour his memory, after the necessary preliminary degrees was consecrated bishop.

The following is noteworthy:

  • The bishop was elected popularly, with both clergy and laity involved.  This was normal practice at the time and earlier.
  • Becuase of the Arian/Trinitarian controversy, the bishops around Milan appealed to the Emperor (not the Bishop of Rome or Constantinople) to appoint a bishop.  But the Emperor wisely declined, and went on to confirm Ambrose’s election.
  • Ambrose’s nomination was spontaneous (pre-Pentecostals, perhaps?)
  • Ambrose wasn’t even a member of the clergy when he was elected bishop.  He hadn’t even been baptised! (Infant baptism, although practiced some, really didn’t get traction until Augustine proposed the doctrine of original sin.)  So much for a credentialling process!  So they had to elevate him on a "quickie" basis.

Ambrose, of course, went on to become one of the "Doctors of the Church."


2 Replies to “The Example of Ambrose”

  1. I love it! Great story. I think the last lay person elected to be bishop of Rome was Martin V, who was a sub-deacon. That’s another interesting story.

    Keep these stories on the early church politics coming. Great topic.

    Maybe some stuff on how the Celts treated the episcopate?


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