The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan symposium at 2 p.m. on April 4, 2013, featured a keynote address by Ethan Gannaway, PhD, on the topic of "Saint Ambrose and Toleration." Following are some of Dr. Gannawy's thoughts on the subject:
This year, the Edict of Toleration issued by the Emperors Constantine and Licinius at Milan, celebrates its 1700th anniversary. This monumental event changed the trajectory, and the appearance, of Christianity and the Roman culture to which it belonged. No longer to be the object of empire-wide persecution under the command of the emperor, Christianity began to develop its monumental presence in Roman politics and society as well as in the physical Roman landscape.
Roughly sixty years later, Ambrose, a traditional Roman aristocrat by birth and by trade, found himself the bishop of Milan. During his tenure, his heavy-handed actions at the imperial level have caused him to be called a "conqueror of emperors with a prickly egoism," "a bully and a bigot." To be sure, Ambrose was no push-over. Yet, this caricature of the man derives primarily from a handful of famous episodes. Let me briefly summarize the most significant events.
First is the Council of Aquileia in 381, where Ambrose ambushed two homoian bishops, Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Signidunum. They viewed Christ to be like God, not to be God, in opposition to the recently confirmed Nicene beliefs at the Council of Constantinople (May, 381). Ambrose turned the Council of Aquileia into a court, no doubt relying on his training as a lawyer, and put these men to the test. The result? Their excommunicaton.
While not an imperial opponent here, this episode sets the pattern of Ambrose's anti-Arian attacks. (Arian is a commonly-used misnomer for homoian.) In another example, Ambrose does take on the court. Ambrose refuses in 385 and 386 to open a Milanese church to Emperor Valentinian and his regent mother, Justina, for their homoian worship. The affair nearly came to physical violence, but still Ambrose held his ground. In the end, Valentinian and Justina were forced to submit-twice.
The famous Altar of Victory Debate, 384 CE, provides another example of Ambrose's intolerance. In this event, Ambrose successfully argued against the urban prefect of Rome, Symmachus, to have the altar of victory removed from the senate house in Rome. Nevermind tradition. Nevermind the fact that he had no business in such affairs, with Milan ranking well behind Rome in ecclesiastical and secular importance -- especially in its own city! Simply put, non-Christian deities had no place in government. Valentinian's decision was an easy one.
Next, the dreadful Callinicum incident of 388. Theodosius, emperor of the east and de facto emperor of the entire empire, punished Christians who had burned a synagogue in a small town, Callinicum, on the Euphrates: they were to rebuild the synagogue. Ambrose bullied Theodosius into repealing his punishment, and the Christians there received no penalties.
In the end, Ambrose should strike the audience as wholly intolerant and the epitome of Christian hypocrisy just two generations after the famous edict. He appears inhumane, unmerciful, lacking in compassion. A belligerent bully, he would appear to embody the worst of church officials.
Ambrose's intolerance cannot be viewed with modern sensibilities. The position of the Christian church is wholly different now than in the fourth century. Ambrose's church is not the medieval, which was the centerpiece of city, town, and village. Ambrose was beset on all sides. The Roman culture to which he belonged was still overwhelmingly pagan. Then, within the Christian tradition, he had to deal with Arians and Jews, among many other lesser opponents, who muddied the waters of Christian belief. Ambrose's Nicene Christianity was fragile. He couldn't even rely on the prime support of emperors: Constantius II (r. 337-361) and, later, Valentinian and Justina (r. in Milan 375-387) were Arians (Constantius too retained some pagan leanings); Julian (r. 361-363) had reverted to a philosophical paganism. The usurpers Arbogastes and Eugenius (392-394) were pagan sympathizers. And what would happen should the barbarians overwhelm the empire? They just happened to be Arian. In fact, the armies were composed largely of barbarian Arian troops.
Ambrose knew that the great age of persecution had passed, but he also knew how easily it could return. The church had taken a grand step, but there was a long journey ahead, rife with obstacles. The church was tolerated, but not the official religion of the empire until an edict by Theodosius in 395. Aside from the outside forces, Ambrose exhorted his own congregation time and again to keep the proper faith. Even Augustine's mother was the subject of Ambrose's correctives.
So let's review Ambrose's special moments of intolerance. His debate over the Altar of Victory can, and has been, the subject of numerous interpretations. Most commonly, it is used as an example of Ambrose's intolerance against traditional religion. (Although, I imagine, you all find yourselves unperturbed by this event.) On the one hand, Christians battled the numbers and continued attacks, such as those by Neo-Platonists, who could count among their ranks the emperor Julian. Ambrose recognized that to continue to promote Christianity, without the heroic martyrdoms of the past, he would need to stay firm. Christianity could not become another mystery cult like that of Isis or Dionysos.
Moreover, note Ambrose's intolerance of beliefs. In no way was Ambrose intolerant of pagans as people. When Theodosius massacred 7,000 people at Thessalonika, Ambrose required him to serve a year of penance not because those massacred were all Christians. Likewise his ransom of prisoners from Goths and his defense of those abetting the defeated usurper Eugenius in 394. The Altar of Victory controversy was a pointed moment to solidify the position of the Church. There were no human casualties.
The Callincum affair follows suit. The rest of the facts are these: there were no humans harmed physically. Ambrose never proposed, urged, or applauded such actions. In fact, as others have noted, one should find it strange he chose such a relatively minor affair, in a tiny town, on the other side of the empire. If Ambrose supported such acts against Jews, why does he boast of no other incidents? Ambrose's conflation of the Valentinians, a popular Christian Gnostic sect that challenged, among other things, the notion of the Trinity and had been linked to Arianism, with the Callinicum Jews demonstrates Ambrose's view of Jews as a heresy. Ambrose could no more allow the Emperor to force Christians to build a synagogue than a temple to Jupiter, a Mithraic cave, or a church for, say, Priscillian Christians.
Or for homoian Christians. The pattern is set. Ambrose is as hard on homoians as he is on pagans and Jews. The church is beset even within itself by false beliefs. Consider the many heresies circulating, and popular, then. (Ambrosiaster names many in Rome at this very time.) But, when push came to shove, Ambrose protects these "others" too, most clearly seen in the episode with Magnus Maximus, who kills the heretic, and one-time opponent of Ambrose, Priscillian (d.385). Ambrose categorically denounces such an action.
Ambrose is indeed intolerant, but he needed to be. Ambrose's fledgling Nicene Christianity needed to be strong, with clearly defined limits and beliefs, or it would never survive. All too easily could it have been persecuted again or, perhaps worse, it could have become a syncretized, and so lesser, form of Christianity. To allow any some form of paganism, some form of heresy, to get too close, and the Nicene faith might be irreversibly lost.
This intolerance, however, is an intolerance of beliefs, not of the people themselves. When Ambrose ransoms prisoners or scolds Maximus for his murder of Priscillian, whatever the motivations, he does not do so to champion the Nicene Christian cause. He does so because it is the right thing to do. It is about saving human lives. Perhaps one should also see his intolerance for beliefs as having the same goal: saving human lives, in this world and the next.