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.

Noah’s Ark & the Annunciation of the BVM

I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!

This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.

One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).

That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).

Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.

In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.

The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.

The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.

Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.