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:
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.
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.
dissolved the order of the Vestal Virgins in Rome.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.