THE PRIVATE LIFE AND THE WORKS OF
If we had the real life of this bishop written by Ambrow
Paulinus of Nola, we might make a profitable use di">
of it. But that, which goes under his namef, is so D-
stuffed with fables, that I scarcely know how to quote 397-
it. Ambrose died about the year 397, admired, re-
gretted, and lamented by the whole Christian world.
His life not improbably had been shortened by the
incessant activity of his mind, and by the multipli-
city of his employments; for he was only fifty-seven
years old, and had been appointed bishop of- Milan
at the age of thirty-four.
His spirit was remarkably kind and sympathetic; his benevolence was extended to all, but especially those of the household of faith. His estate, real and personal, he bestowed on the poor, and for the support of the church, styling the poor his stewards and treasurers %. His labours were immense : he administered the eucharist daily, and preached commonly on the Lord's day, frequently on extraordinary occasions, and spent much time in teaching catechumens. His temper was heroic and strong ; and no dignity or authority could shelter offenders from his episcopal rebukes, where he deemed it his
* Matt. x. 23.
f It is prefixed to the works of Ambrose.
X Orat. in Aux.
duty to reprehend. Augustine tells us, that he found it, in a manner, impossible to have access to him, because of the multiplicity of his employments. The time he could spare from pastoral and charitable engagements was devoted to study and meditation.
The moral writings of Ambrose contain various things of solid utility; his Treatise on Offices shines among these. It was evidently his wish to imitate Tully, and to show the superiority of Christian over philosophical morals. A noble design, but, considered as a whole, feebly executed, because conducted without a plan. He modestly owns indeed, that he was called to teach, before he himself had learned. But he might have both preached and written better, had he always attended to the simple word of God, and exercised his own natural good sense in humble dependence on Divine Grace, and paid less regard to the fanciful writings of Origen, which corrupted his understanding exceedingly. Less of this, however, appears in his moral than in his theological pieces.
In his usual manner, which is sententious, and full of quick turns, he discourses strikingly of the excellent use of taciturnity, and the difficulty of acquiring it. " Most men speak, when they do not know how to be silent. Seldom do you see any one silent, when to speak is of no profit. He is wise who knows when to hold his peace.—Must we then be dumb ? No; for there is a time to speak, and a time to be silent. And if we must give an account of every idle word, take care lest you have to answer also for idle silence. Tie your tongue, lest it be wanton and luxuriant: keep it within the banks; a rapidly flowing river soon collects mud*."
His ideas of decorum in behaviour and carriage he illustrates by the account of two persons of his own diocese. The first was a friend of his own, * C. 9 & 3. B. 1. de Officiis.
who by sedulous offices recommended himself to Ambrose, in order to be admitted as a clergyman into his bishopric. The only reason why Ambrose refused, was because his gestures were light and indecent. The other he found already a clergyman, and made this sole exception, namely, of indecent levity, to his conduct. His judgment was verified in both. The former, during the Arian persecution at Milan, deserted the faith; the latter, through the love of gain, denied himself to be a priest of Ambrose's diocese, to avoid judicial penalties.
His directions to his clergy would deserve to be made a part of an episcopal charge in every age of the Church. " It becomes," says he, " the prudence and gravity of clergymen, to avoid the public banquets frequently made for strangers: you may exercise hospitality to them at your own houses, and by this caution there will be no room for reproach. Entertainments of this sort take up much time, and also evidence a fondness for feasting. Secular and voluptuous discourse is apt to creep in; to shut your ears is impossible; to forbid, will be looked on as imperious. Why do you not employ the time which is free from clerical employments in reading ? Why do you not revisit Christ, speak to Christ, hear Christ? We speak to him, when we pray; we hear him, when we read the divine oracles. What have we to do with other men's houses? Let them rather come to us, who want us. What have we to do with idle chitchat? We received the ministry to attend on the service of Christ, not to pay court to men*."
In his book of Repentance, he remonstrates with great justice against the inexorable spirit of the Novatians, in refusing to re-admit penitents into the church. " Learn of me," says Christ, " for I am meek and lowly in heart." " I am unmerciful, says the Novatian f-" In the same chapter, he bears testimony • B. i. de Officiis, so. t B- «* c- 2
to the immaculate conception of Jesus, and to the native depravity of mankind. " He was not like the rest of us, born in the ordinary way of generation, but born from the Holy Ghost, and he received from the virgin a spotless body, with no taint of sin. For we are all born in sin, as David witnesses; I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin did my mother conceive me." I only remind the reader here of the preservation of two important truths in the Church during the days of Ambrose.
Hear how humbly and evangelically he speaks of himself*. " How shall I hear thee say to me, He has loved much, and is forgiven much ? I confess my debts were greater than those of the penitent woman, and more was forgiven me, who was called into the ministry from the noise of the forum, and the terror of judicial administration. Yet, if we cannot equal her, the Lord Jesus knows how to support the weak, and to bring with himself the fountain of living water. He came to the grave himself. Oh, that thou wouldest come to this my sepulchre of corruption, Lord Jesus, and wash me with thy tears ! If thou weep for me, I shall be saved. Thou shalt call me from the grave of this body, and say, come forth, that my thoughts may go forth to Christ and call forth thy servant. Though, bound with the chains of my sins, I am entangled hand and foot, and buried in dead works; on thy call I shall come forth free, and be found one of those who sit at thy table. It shall be said, behold a man taken from the midst of secular vanity, remains in the priesthood not by his own strength, but by the grace of Christ. Preserve, Lord, thy own gift. I know myself unworthy of the episcopal office, because I had given myself to this world, but, by thy grace, I am what I am. The least of all bishops : yet because I have * B. ii. de Poenitentia, c. 8.
undertaken some labour for thy Church, preserve this fruit, lest whom thou callest to the ministry, when lost, thou shouldest suffer to perish in that ministry: And particularly, granting me the spirit of sympathizing with sinners ; that I may not proudly chide, but mourn and weep ; that while I deplore another, I may mourn over myself, saying, Tamar is more righteous than I *. Perhaps a young person may have sinned, deceived and hurried on into folly; we old persons sin also. The law of the flesh rebels against the law of our mind, even in us, whose duty it is to teach. Tamar is more righteous than I. We blame the avarice of another; let us remember whether our conduct has been stained with the same vice, which secretly dwells in our corrupt nature, and let each say, Tamar is more righteous than I. The same may be said with respect to the vice of anger. This is the way to avoid the severity of that just rebuke of our
Lord concerning the mote and the beam. He
who rejoices in another's fall, rejoices in the devil's victory. Let us rather grieve, when we hear that a man perishes for whom Christ died. Let us repent, and hope for pardon by faith, not as an act of justice: God wants not our money, but our faith."
Should any, who calls himself a minister of Christ, however dignified, distinguished, or denominated, read these lines of Ambrose, and catch a little of the tenderness, humility, and charity, which they breathe, and conceive more highly and more reverently of his office than he did before, and be stirred up to a measure of the same spirit, I shall rejoice that I have not laid them before the reader in vain. In truth, the ideas of the pastoral office were in Ambrose exceedingly serious, meek, lowly, and devotional. Have we not, too generally, great occasion to be • Gen. xxxviii.
Chap- humbled, on comparing ourselves with this holy t XV1IL , servant of God?
That good men, who see and feel the evil of the world, should be tempted to seek for solitude and retirement, is so natural, that one does not wonder at the growth of the monastic spirit. The true security against it would have been, to have attended more closely to the scriptural rules of secular conduct given to Christians, and to have exercised more faith in those divine promises, which engage to preserve the soul in the midst of the world. Such an attention and exercise would have led Christians into a far nobler method of serving God, and letting their light shine before men, than that self-devised one, which many took, of retiring altogether from society. Ambrose, I have already observed, unhappily contributed much to the growth of this monastic taste ; yet the following quotation shows, how serious and upright were his views, and how deeply conscious he was of the difficulties of the Christian life. " I wish a cau- . tious and earnest affection for the things of God were as easy to be attained, as it is easy to speak of it. But the enticement of earthly lusts frequently creeps in, and the diffusion of vanity fills the mind. To avoid these snares is difficult, to be divested of them impossible. In fine, that the thing is rather matter of desire than effect, the prophet confesses, in saying, ' Incline my heart to thy testimonies, and not to covetousness.' Our heart is not in our own power; our thoughts by sudden incursions confound the mind, and draw it a different way from what we have determined. Who so happy as always to mount upwards in his heart r How can this be done without divine aid ? Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee*."
He who feels so strongly the power of that sin which dwelleth in usf, needs the light of grace to * Ps. 84. Ambrose de Fuga seculi, C. i. f Rom. vii. 17.
conduct him. Nor was it wanting in Ambrose. In that age of declension, not of apostasy from the faith, the candlestick of Milan was possessed of as clear and steady a light, under the ministration of her angel*, as any at that time in the Christian world. Hear his summary view of the Gospel salvation : " God therefore assumed flesh, that he might abolish the curse of sinful flesh, and was made a curse for us, that the blessing might swallow up the curse ; and that righteousness, pardon, and life, might swallow up our sin, our condemnation, and our death. For he underwent death, that the sentence might be fulfilled.—Nothing is done in the Gospel against the sentence of God, since the condition of the divine sentence has been fulfilled. .
We are dead with Christ: why then do we seek any more the acts of this life ? For we carry about us the death of Christ, that the life of Christ may also be manifested in us. We live therefore now, not our own life, but the life of Christ, of all virtues. We are risen with Christ, let us live in him, let us rise in him, that the serpent may not be able to find in earthly things our heel, which he may wound." The reader, who is well versed in St. Paul's epistles, will see how the spirit of them was understood by Ambrose.
The palm of heavenly-mindedness, in which the primitive Christians so much excelled, was still in the possession of many in the fourth century. The last chapter of Ambrose, on the benefit of death, is remarkable in this light. Take notice of a few sentences.
" We shall go to those who sit down in the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because, being asked to the supper, they made no excuse. We shall go, where there is a paradise of pleasure; where the wretched being, who fell among
* Rev. i. 20 ; " the angels of the sevenchurches."
thieves, no longer weeps over his wounds, where the thief himself rejoices in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, where there shall be no more storms or vicissitudes, but the glory of God alone shall shine. We shall go where Jesus has prepared mansions for his servants, that where he is, there we
may be also. The will of Christ is the same as
performance. That we may know his true will, he hath said, Father, I will that those whom thou hast given me, be with me, where I am, that they may behold my glory. We follow thee, Lord Jesus, but draw us that we may follow ; no one rises without thee; open to us thy good, which David desired to see, when he said, I believe verily to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Show us that good, which in its nature is unchangeable, and which, when we arrive at heaven, we shall never cease to acknowledge and approve. There thy saints are freed from errors and anxieties, from folly and ignorance, from fear and terror, from all lusts and carnal affections. Let us seek him, and embrace his feet, and worship him, that he may say to us, fear not, I am the remission of sins, I am the light, I am the life: he that cometh to me shall not see death :—because he is the fulness of divinity."
In his three books concerning the Holy Ghost, he proves his Deity, partly by express testimony, such as, God is a spirit*, the Lord is that spirit; but chiefly by showing that whatever is said of the divine properties and acts of the Father and of the Son, is said also of the Holy Ghost.
In comforting Faustinus, who mourned for the death of a sister, he says, " If it be said to the soul, thy strength shall be renewed, like the eagle; why f should we grieve ? Why should we groan for the
• John iv. 24. It is remarkable what he observes of the fraud committed by the Arians on the sacred volume at Milan, in the time of his predecessor Auxentius, namely, that they erased this text out of St. John's Gospel.
t Psalm ciii. 5.
dead, when the reconciliation of the world with God the Father is made by Jesus Christ? As we hold the benefits of Christ before all men, and before you, we are ambassadors for Christ, that you should know his gifts to be without repentance ; that you may believe as you have always done, nor bring your faith into doubt by excess of sorrow, because Jesus was made sin for us, that he might take away the sin of the world, and we might be made the righteousness of God in him *."
In another epistle he gives an excellent view of spiritual illumination, and of Christ dwelling in the heart f : of which suffice it to say, that he has the same views and sensations as holy men have confessed in all times and circumstances.
An epistolary address to clergymen deserves to be read by persons of this order in all ages. " It is," says he, " a common temptation to the human mind, that persons meeting with some slight offence in the path of duty, are inclined to depart from it. In a clergyman such conduct is peculiarly lamentable. Satan labours by this method, if he can by no other, to offend them. What advantage is it to me to remain in the pastoral office, to be laboriously employed, and ill-treated, as if I had no other way of getting my bread ? What, are worldly ends the governing motive, and do you not mean to lay up
in store for the world to come ? Say not of thy
God, he is a hard master; say not of thy office it is unprofitable. The devil envies thy hope. Depart not from the Lord's inheritance, that he may at length bid thee enter into his joy. Farewell, my sons, and serve the Lord; for he is a good Master."
His expositions of Scripture are liable to great exceptions in point of accuracy, perspicuity, and order. The fancies of Origenism seduced him continually into vague and arbitrary interpretations. * Epi». 8. B. ii. f Epis. 11. B. iii.
Yet is he true to the fundamentals of divine truth, and a rich unction of godliness will at all times afford to the reader that edification which is in vain to be expected from cold, but more faultless comments. The doctrine of predestination and election he evidently misunderstands : this part of divine truth had indeed scarcely seen the light since the days of Justin Martyr. On justification, he is more explicit, and sometimes uses the term in its proper forensic sense. The fathers, in these times, commonly confounded it with sanctification, though, in substance, they held the true doctrine concerning it . Ambrose is perhaps more clear of mistake, in this respect, than most of them.
Yet he appears to have given into the same sort of superstitions concerning the dead, which I remarked in the historian Sulpitius Severus ; nor is it to be denied, that he helped forward the growth of monastic bondage and prelatical pride, by giving occasion to others, who followed, to make use of his well-meant positions, for the furtherance of their own wicked designs. The same thing must, however, be said of his works, as of those of many of the fathers, that great injustice is done to his memory by frauds and interpolations. In the dark times, every error and absurdity seems to have come forth with the pretended patronage of some of the renowned doctors of antiquity. In one or two instances alone, works have been ascribed to him, which in clearness of doctrine and excellence of composition exceed the magnitude of his abilities, and I shall therefore defer the consideration of them at present.
But the lover of godliness will be disposed to forget his errors and superstitions, faults of the times rather than of his disposition, and will remember only the fervent, the humble, the laborious, and the charitable bishop of Milan.