In the anthology God, Truth, and Witness, church historian Robert Wilkens argues that Constantinianism was not a program engineered from the halls of power, but rather it was a grass roots movement from the people of the Roman Empire. In making his case, he gives an account of the episcopacy of Ambrose of Milan, who lived a generation after the death of Constantine I. He contrasts Ambrose's episcopacy with that of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who lived a century before Ambrose. As bishop Cyprian's dealings were exclusively with the church he over sought. The church in Carthage was "a city within a city-- whose life moved by its own rhythms independent of the society at large: regular worship, caring for the poor, widows, orphans, the sick; burying the dead; visiting prisoners; welcoming Christian visitors; the inevitable petty squabbles of a small community" (p. 76). Those involved in the political machine of Carthage knew Cyprian, but the only encounter he had with the authorities was when the emperor decreed that all Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to the gods were to be executed, bishops first.
In contrast, Ambrose found himself in a situation where bishops, to quote Harold Drake, "became players in the game of empire" (p. 73). In 300, the Emperor Maximian moved his imperial court to Milan. By the time of Ambrose Milan was an important imperial town, and after the emperor, Ambrose found himself "the most important public figure in the city. This was the new role for a Christian bishop" (p. 76).
Wilkens points out that Ambrose was quite supportive of the emperor, but he did not hesitate to oppose him in ecclesiastical matters that Ambrose believed were out of the jurisdiction of Caesar. At this point the bishops did not officially function as officers of the state. The empire had no say in the selection of those who served in the episcopacy; but as Wilkens notes, "the emperors did exercise control, and one of the central story lines of the fourth century is how Christian emperors-- beginning with Constantine, followed by his sons, who succeeded him in office-- were able, often with great success, to dominate the affairs of the church" (p. 80).
Nevertheless, Ambrose was able to navigate these potentially treacherous waters with courage and conviction. In 385, when Ambrose was told that he would have to give the Basilica of Portius (a church building just outside the walls of Milan) to the Arians, he refused saying, "A bishop cannot give up the temple of God" (p. 82). When the emperor insisted that the utilization of religious buildings were in the purview of the the imperial court, Ambrose responded, "If the emperor asked of me anything of my own, "my estates, my money, everything that is mine, I would not refuse him, but the things of God are not subject to the authority of the emperor" (p. 82). Even when Ambrose found the basilica surrounded by the military, Ambrose refused to hand over control of the basilica, "I cannot surrender the basilica, but I must not fight" (p. 82). The emperor relented. What must be noted, as Wilkens points out, is that it was not only Ambrose's courage that must be seen as critical in the resolution of the tension, but in the support that Ambrose had from the population of Milan. Things may have turned out differently had the people of the city not been supportive of the bishop, or at the very least, uninterested in the situation.
Perhaps the most interesting demonstration of Ambrose's episcopal courage was when the bishop insisted that the Emperor Theodosius do penance for a bloody massacre in the city of Thessalonica, insisting to the emperor that he would not receive the Eucharist until he did so. This act by Ambrose is clearly reminiscent of recent events in which some Catholic bishops have said the Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should not be served the mass. There is historical precedent for their words.
What intrigues me about Wilken's excellent account is two-fold: First, that the support Ambrose had among the people of Milan was clearly instrumental in the success he had in staring down the imperial authorities on several occasions. In one sense the population of Milan was acting subversively in their support of Ambrose over the emperor, but in another sense, in the short generation from Constantine to Theodosius, from the century between Cyprian and Ambrose, the Christian population of the Roman Empire had already shifted from just hoping the Empire would leave them alone, to supporting the Empire outright. A century earlier, Origen insisted that Christians refuse public office saying the way Christians served the public good was through prayer and a virtuous way of life. By the time of Ambrose, Christians were being thrust into public life in an official capacity; and Christians no longer prayed for the conversion of the emperor; they prayed for his health and success.
The second thing I find interesting is that Ambrose confronts the emperor, not on his own accord, but only in responding to actions first taken by the imperial court. Had the emperor not made some of the decisions he did that affected the church, Ambrose might have been content to serve as a bishop in Cyprian-like fashion, even though he still would have carried, by his office, public respect and authority. It is almost as if, while favored by the empire, Christians did not have, as yet, enough of a stake in the empire to initiate influence. That, of course, would change.
I have said before that my great wish and hope is that Christendom in the West would die a sudden death, but unfortunately Christians on the partisan left and right continue to do their best to keep it alive. So perhaps we should look to how Ambrose helps Christians navigate the world of Christendom in the twenty-first century, something of their own making, and something that has grown out of their control as well.. Like Ambrose we find that, after all these centuries, the church has to navigate between the waters of bearing witness to the gospel to the powers that be without being co-opted by the state for its own purposes.
Those waters, then and now, are quite treacherous.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)