THE Church over THE State



Church as Mediator and Intercessor of Secular Conflicts


After the conversion of Constantine Christianity became the religion of the Empire.  Ambrose insisted that Bishops have the duty of counselling and interceding in the affairs of the State and the Kings. Thus Ambrose set a precedence  so that rulers sought the intercession of the Church to settle disputes. In 383, the Empress Justina sought his aid in the protection of her son Valentinian II from Maximus.  Ambrose convinced Maximus to restrict his ambitions to Gaul, Spain, and Britain.


Massacre of Thessalonica


In 390 Butheric, a Gothic magistrate in command of Illyricum (which included Thessalonica), had a popular charioteer arrested for a homosexual offence.  The populace demanded the charioteer's release and, as Butheric refused, a general revolt ensued. Botheric and his aides were literally torn limb from limb and the charioteer was rescued. 

As soon as Theodosius heard of the uprising, he was enraged and ordered an immediate retaliation. The soldiers waited until a day that games were held in the Thessalonican Hippodrome before entering the city. Virtually all the citizens were in the amphitheater, giving the soldiers free reign to loot and plunder the city. Other entered the Hippodrome with drawn swords andl the spectators were put to sword at random, In the stampede men, women, and children were trampled to death or gutted by the soldiers' swords. Church historian Theodoretus puts the figure at about 7,000, saying:











Emperor Flavius Theodosius ( 11 January 347 – 17 January 395) known as Theodosius I and Theodosius the Great also issued decrees that effectively made Orthodox Nicene Christianity the official state church of the Roman Empire.

He neither prevented nor punished the destruction of prominent Hellenistic temples of classical antiquity, including the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and the Serapeum in Alexandria.

He dissolved the order of the Vestal Virgins in Rome.

 In 393, he banned the pagan rituals of the Olympics in Ancient Greece.

 After his death, Theodosius' young sons Arcadius and Honorius inherited the east and west halves respectively, and the Roman Empire was never again re-united..


"The anger of the Emperor rose to the highest pitch, and he gratified his vindictive desire for vengeance by unsheathing the sword most unjustly and tyrannically against all, slaying the innocent and guilty alike. It is said seven thousand perished without any forms of law, and without even having judicial sentence passed upon them; but that, like ears of wheat in the time of harvest, they were alike cut down."

Although the Emperor changed his mind rather quickly and sent another messenger to cancel his previous order and to prevent the troops from massacring the inhabitants of the city, this revocation came too late.















Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, after hearing about the massacre, left Milan (which was the residence of Theodosius at that time) and refused to celebrate a mass in the Emperor's presence, until Theodosius repented.  In a letter to the emperor, Ambrose explained his position and gave reasons for his resolution:

 "What could I do? Should I not hear? But I could not clog my ears with wax, as old fables tell. Should I then speak about what I heard? But I was obliged to avoid precisely what I feared could be brought about by your orders, that is, a bloodshed. Should I remain silent? But then the worst thing would happen as my conscience would be bound and my words taken away. And where would they be then? When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him."

According to Theodoret, when the emperor tried to enter a Milanese church, where Ambrose was about to celebrate a mass, the bishop stopped him and rebuked him for what he had done.  And because the emperor “had been brought up according to divine words and understood well that some affairs are handled by priests, others by emperors”, he could do nothing but return "weeping and sighing" to the palace.  












Eight months had passed and Theodosius still sitting  in the palace, moaning and sobbing. His magister officiorum by name Rufinus, noticed this behavior, "used great freedom due to the familiarity with the emperor", approached and asked him why he was weeping?.  Having been told what had happened, he volunteered to talk with the bishop and ask him to reconsider his position. Theodosius hesitantly agreed and even chose to follow Rufinus from a distance. Ambrose was not restrained at all when negotiating with Rufinus, scolding him and even accusing him of complicity in the massacre saying: "Rufinus, you are as impudent as a dog, because it was you who advised the emperor such a bloodshed."  When the emperor showed up, Ambrose at first remained stubborn and changed his mind only after Theodosius repented." He stripped himself of every sign of royalty and bewailed his sin openly in church.” and promised to promulgate a State law, which in cases of death sentences would introduce a thirty-day lag before the execution.

There is another version of the event as given in the the Golden Legend of James of Voragine:

 "The citizens of Thessalonica had aroused the Emperor’s wrath, but at Ambrose’s request he had pardoned them. Later the ruler, secretly influenced by some malicious courtiers, ordered the execution of a huge number of those he had pardoned. Ambrose knew nothing of this at the time, but when he learned what had happened, he refused to allow the Emperor to enter the church. Theodosius pointed out that David had committed adultery and homicide, and Ambrose responded: You followed David in wrongdoing, follow him in repentance. The most clement Emperor accepted the order gracefully and did not refuse to do public penance.…"

Being thus reconciled, he went into the church and stood inside the gates of the chancel. Ambrose asked him why he was waiting there. He said that he was waiting to take part in the sacred mysteries, to which Ambrose replied:” O Emperor, the space inside the chancel is reserved for priests. Go outside therefore, and participate with the rest of the people. The purple makes emperors, not priests. The Emperor promptly obeyed."

The developments of the events after the Thessalonican Massacre between Ambrose and Theodosius where a relgious leader could effectively force a monarch into his knees and beg for clemency was a remarkable moment in Christian history. Not only that the Church became legal and protected from persecution, its power grew so fast that within a century the Bishops became more powerful than the Emperor. Only Ambrose with his honey tongue and bee sting could achieve that strength.

" With "religious humility", says St. Augustine (DeCiv.Dei.,V,xxvi), Theodosius submitted; "and, being laid hold of by the discipline of the Church, did penance in such a way that the sight of his imperial loftiness prostrated made the people who were interceding for him weep more than the consciousness of offence had made them fear it when enraged".

"Stripping himself of every emblem of royalty", says Ambrose in his funeral oration (c. 34), "he publicly in church bewailed his sin. That public penance, which private individuals shrink from, an Emperor was not ashamed to perform; nor was there afterwards a day on which he did not grieve for his mistake." 

The Edict of Milan of 313 AD had established only tolerance for Christianity without placing it above other religions leave alone over the emperor. It was Constantine who convened the councils of Christian bishops to define the orthodoxy, or "correct teaching", of the Christian faith not the Bishops or the Pope. Justinian I, who became emperor in Constantinople in 527, established the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem and made them "Patriarchates". "the Emperor was the head of the Church in the sense that he had the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest details of worship and discipline, and also of dictating the theological opinions to be held in the Church".   In this context the the stinging bee of Ambrose must be a rare bee.

Emperor as Dutiful son of the Church

In his letters and in his funeral orations on the emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius—De obitu Valentiniani consolatio (392) and De obitu Theodosii (395)—Ambrose established the medieval concept of a Christian emperor as a “dutiful son of the church”, “serving under orders from Christ” and so subject to the advice and strictures of his bishop.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed Arianism. They demanded  two churches in Milan, one in the city (the Basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor's), be allocated to the Arians. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went in and with his eloquence in defense of the Church refusing to surrender any church reportedly overawing the ministers of Valentinian, was permitted to retire without making any consensus to  the Arians.

The Gothic officers of the palace were Arians also, as might be supposed, after the creed of their nation. At length they obtained a bishop of their persuasion from the East; and having now the form of an ecclesiastical body, they used the influence of Valentinian, or rather of his mother, to extort from Ambrose one of the churches of Milan for their worship. The bishop was again summoned to the palace before the assembled Court, and was formally asked to relinquish St. Victor's Church, then called the Portian Basilica, which was without the walls, for the Arian worship. The answer was plain; the churches were the property of Christ; he was the representative of Christ, and was therefore bound not to cede what was committed to him in trust. This is the account of the matter given by himself in the course of the dispute:—

"Do not," he says, "O Emperor, embarrass yourself with the thought that you have an Emperor's right over sacred things. Exalt not yourself, but, as you would enjoy a continuance of power, be God's subject. It is written, God's to God, and Cćsar's to Cćsar. The palace is the Emperor's, the churches are the bishop's."—Ep. 20.

The day following, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian basilica in the suburbs. As he still refused, certain deans or officers of the court were sent to take possession of the Portian basilica, by hanging up in it imperial escutcheons to prepare for the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of Imperial opposition, Ambrose declared, "If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it."


In 385–386 he refused to surrender a church for the use of Arian heretics. In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius the younger, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.







When the emperor died, the Empress Justina (c. 340 – c. 388AD)  the second wife of the Roman Emperor Valentinian I, became regent for her four year old son Valentinian II (who reigned 375–392AD).  Maximus, a former Roman soldier, realized the emperor's death might weaken the empire enough for his army to conquer it. Justina begged Ambrose to negotiate with him. In spite of the fact that she was his enemy, Ambrose went on a diplomatic mission that convinced Maximus not to invade.

Justina's idea of showing gratitude to Ambrose was to demand that Ambrose's basilica be handed over to the Arians. Ambrose answered that he would never give up the temple of God.

The people were on Ambrose's side. It is possible he could have even started a coup to overthrow Justina. But Ambrose was careful never to say or do anything to start violence. When Catholics seized an Arian priest and were going to put him to death, Ambrose intervened in the name of peace and prayed God suffer no blood to be shed. He sent out priests and deacons to rescue his Arian enemy.

Ambrose said, "When I was told the church was surrounded with soldiers I said I cannot give it up but I must not fight." The soldiers came in to the basilica - but they came in to pray.

Justina then persuaded her son to make a law legalizing Arians and forbidding Catholics to oppose Arians under pain of death. No one could even present a petition against a church being yielded up.

On Palm Sunday, Ambrose preached a sermon about not giving up churches. The congregation, afraid for their lives, barricaded themselves in the basilica with their pastor Ambrose. The imperial troops surrounded the basilica in an attempt to starve them out, but on Easter Sunday all the people were still inside.

In the face of arms and soldiers, Ambrose said, "My only arms are my tears. I will never depart willingly but I won't resist by force."

In order to calm the frightened people Ambrose taught them to sing hymns he had composed. He split the congregation in two in order to alternate verses of the hymns. This is our first record of communal singing in church.

The music of praise and prayer seeped out through the walls of the basilica and into the hearts of the soldiers. Soon the soldiers outside joined in the singing. The siege ended.

The Other Cheek

With the military concentrated on fighting Catholics, Maximus decided Rome was ready for an invasion. Justina and her son were panic-stricken. What could they do? 

They turned to one person they knew could handle the mission - the person they had just attacked and threatened. They asked Ambrose to go to Maximus again and stop his invasion.

Who would have blamed Ambrose for refusing?

In a miraculous act of forgiveness, Ambrose went on this mission for his enemies. When Maximus refused to compromise, Ambrose hurried home to warn them.

Justina and her son fled to Greece, while Ambrose stayed behind.

Fortunately, the eastern Emperor Theodosius intervened and defeated Maximus. Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and they regained the kingdom. Theodosius took over control of the whole empire.

Theodosius was Catholic and became a lifelong friend of Ambrose.

He tried to emphasize the superiority of divine authority over secular authority.  Although legitimate  and deriving from divine authority,  secular power has a temporary and relative character.  It is useful, but it cannot be in conflict with the religious values that must prevail and influence the institutions of the State.  If the Edict of Milan enframed the Church in the Roman State, Saint Ambrose enframed the State in the Church.

The Sons of God can coexist with the sons of the Earth (terrae filii), but they must follow their own  way, overcoming the limits imposed by earthly existence. They can be good citizens of the State without endangering their salvation if they keep the necessary distance from the temporal structures  of the State.(http://orthodox-theology.com/media/PDF/IJOT2.2015/Marius.Telea.pdf)

In his letters and in his funeral orations on the emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius (De obitu Valentiniani consolatio (392) and De obitu Theodosii (395)) Ambrose again reiterated the concept of a “Christian emperor as a dutiful son of the church”, “serving under orders from Christ” and so subject to the advice and strictures of his bishop.




Saint Ambrose with scourge and book, a painting in the church of San Giuseppe alla Lungara, Rome

One of Ambrose’s biographers observed that at the Last Judgment, people would still be divided between those who admired Ambrose and those who heartily disliked him. He emerges as the man of action who cut a furrow through the lives of his contemporaries. Even royal personages were numbered among those who were to suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in Ambrose’s way.

When the Empress Justina attempted to wrest two basilicas from Ambrose’s Catholics and give them to the Arians, he dared the eunuchs of the court to execute him. His own people rallied behind him in the face of imperial troops. In the midst of riots, he both spurred and calmed his people with bewitching new hymns set to exciting Eastern melodies.




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