St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

George Herbert, The Holy Scriptures

For we who pray the Prayer Book Collects, Bible Sunday has come around again. I have no deep meditations on Scripture and its role in our lives this year, so what I do have I offer you — George Herbert:

THE HOLY SCRIPTURES

PART I.

O Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify any pain.

Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,

That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art Heaven’s Lieger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.

Thou art joy’s handsel: heaven lies flat in thee,
Subject to every mounter’s bended knee.

PART II.

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth sine,
But all the constellations of the story.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie;
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christian’s destiny.

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in every thing
Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.

Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:
This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

And, in case you need a reminder, the Collect for Advent 2:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

St Ambrose on Scripture

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper's House, Toronto
2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

I missed getting this post out time for Advent 2 — called ‘Bible Sunday’ in some circles because the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (at the bottom of this post) is a masterpiece about Scripture. Here’s a bit of St Ambrose for you:

The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last. (Letter 2.3: To Constantius, A Newly Appointed Bishop)

Taken from the blog Classical Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy for Today.

My previous Bible Sunday posts:

Some Cassiodorus for “Bible Sunday”

In light of Bible Sunday … (a catena of quotations)

Happy Bible Sunday!

The Collect for Advent 2:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.  

Some Cassiodorus for ‘Bible Sunday’

St Augustine Gospels, fol. 125r
St Augustine Gospels (6th c), fol. 125r

Advent 2 in the BCP is Bible Sunday, on which I’ve blogged in other Advents, here and here. Here’s some Cassiodorus (6th c) to keep it real:

Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146

Happy Bible Sunday!

In the days of one united Prayer Book and lectionary, Anglican circles called this Sunday, the Second of Advent, “Bible Sunday” because of the Collect:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The epistle reading is similarly Bible-focussed: Romans 15:4-13.

We would do well to pray this collect over and over again, for, like many of Cranmer’s little masterpieces,* it is a sermon unto itself.  We learn first (regarding the Bible; no doubt an entire homily could be preached on “Blessed Lord”):

  • God caused all holy Scriptures to be written

This alone is to give us pause when we recall some of the things we hear, such as that the NT writers were choosy in their selection and not everything in them is historically true.  Like the Virgin Birth.  Or the Resurrection.  Or the very idea of Jesus being God-in-flesh.  If God caused all holy Scriptures to be written, then we should take these passages and doctrines very seriously before moving on to:

  • written for our learning

The purpose of this writing of Scripture was our learning.  The Bible is there to teach us.  We are to learn from it.  How?  Cranmer shows us next:

  • hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

The Word of God is to be proclaimed and read aloud.  I believe this applies even to today when most of the population is literate.  The spoken word, as an action, has force and power different from the printed word.**  We are also to read it ourselves, though.  Sunday morning is not enough; our involvement with the Scriptures is to be personal.  As we read the words of life, we are also called to mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them.

That last phrase, “inwardly digest them,” is among my favourite Prayer-Book phrases.  As we study the Scriptures, we aren’t just supposed to observe them critically as we would the Aeneid or the Tome of Leo.  We are to digest them.  They are to enter into our very being and become part of us.  This is a very dynamic, very physical image.  And what is the result of our intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures?

  • by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life

The Scriptures give us patience — endurance through suffering — and comfort — strength.  Through this endurance and this strength, we come to a place where we are able to embrace — again, a very personal verb — and hold fast — imagine someone holding onto a rope so as not to fall into a chasm — the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Christian hope is not simply the hope of a better world, the hope of temporal joy, the hope of moral improvement but the hope of eternity for those who put their trust in Jesus, in God, Whose character is displayed to us on the pages of the Bible.

And whence does our hope come?

  • our Saviour Jesus Christ

The Christocentrism of Reformational thought (I acknowledge that there was/is much Christocentrism in Catholic thought; I am not speaking of Catholics, though) comes forth.  Our hope of eternity comes from Jesus.  Cling to him whom we have found in the pages of the Scriptures and we cling to our hope, we cling to eternity and escape from death.  This is a good thing.

So we should all read our Bibles, and read them carefully, so that we can come to know better the God who saves us through Jesus Christ and be transformed and cling to the hope of everlasting life.

*I hereby acknowledge Archbp. Thomas Cranmer’s debt to the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries.  Part of his genius was in selection and translation, part in adaptation of the tradition, part in original composition.

**My own adaptation of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.