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.  


Whose theology was triumphant at Chalcedon?

I was recently going through some notes about the period 451-565, and I found this quotation from PTR Gray, ‘The Legacy of Chalcedon: Christological Problems and Their Significance’, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian:

The West was happy enough [with the Council of Chalcedon], but then Chalcedon seemed to be enshrining what they traditionally believed. The Antiochene bishops could, if they put it artfully, claim that they were vindicated. For the rest in the East, three little words — ‘in two natures’ — made Chalcedon a monumental disaster. (222)

With its approval of Leo the Great’s Tome (Ep. 28) and its christological definition (read my translation!) engineered by imperial delegates and papal envoys, Chalcedon is a triumph of western Christology above all else — despite RV Sellers’ demonstration of how it steers a course between the perceived ‘extremes’ of the Alexandrian and Antiochene positions (themselves not as clear-cut at the modern historian would like to have it), or the idea of Grillmeier that Chalcedonian theology is the natural growth and trajectory of Christian theology. To the followers of the trajectory of Athanasius-Cyril (such as Severus of Antioch or TF Torrance), this is not immediately apparent.

But to the student of Chalcedon who sits down to read the great Fathers of the western Church, it becomes clear almost immediately that Chalcedon’s theology — whatever political purposes it may have served Marcian, whatever fallout it may have had, however it may have been interpreted immediately or in the Age of Justinian or in the 20th century — however we view it in those ways, was western.

I just finished the Fathers of the Church translation by Roy J. Deferrari of On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation by St. Ambrose of Milan.* In many of his works, St. Ambrose is very clearly following eastern examples — his On the Holy Spirit and Hexaemeron owe much to St. Basil, his anti-Arian polemic is very much Athanasian — but when he discusses the idea of Christ’s natura, it becomes evident that we have a fully western writer before our eyes, someone who would have been chuffed over the Council of Chalcedon.

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

In the first place, he uses Matthew 16 as a defence of Christ’s divinity; this passage is one of Leo’s pivotal passages in the Tome. But that alone could have been used by any eastern exegete. Shortly after his use of Mt. 16, however, he sounds highly Chalcedonian and dangerously Nestorian:

Thus, He died according to the assumption of our nature, and did not die according to the substance of eternal life; and He suffered according tot he assumption of the body, that the truth of the assumption of the body might be believed, and He did not suffer according to the impassible divinity of the Word which is entirely without pain. (Ch. 5(36), p. 232)

He uses a Leo-worthy antithesis (or perhaps Leo uses Ambrose-worthy antitheses) in 5(39):

Therefore, He was immortal in death, impassible in His Passion. For just as the sting of death did not seize Him as God, hell saw Him as man. (p. 233)

One of the most ‘dyophysite’ passages is:

Why do you attribute the calamities of the body to divinity, and connect the weakness of human pain even with divine nature? (5(41), p. 234)


For in the form of a servant there was the fullness of true light; and when the form emptied itself, there was the light. (5(41), p. 234)

He closes his discussion on this topic saying, ‘So the nature of the flesh and of divinity could not have been the same.’ (6(61), p. 243) This, the preceding, and a number of other passages point to a strong tradition of two-nature Christology within western Christianity that pre-dates Chalcedon. However, there are also passages later in Ambrose’s treatise that struck me as peculiarly Cyrillian.

I would argue that western two-nature Christology usually sounds ‘Antiochene’ but can at times sound ‘Alexandrian’ on the grounds that western theology is composed in Latin. While Syriac theology has words that serve as perfect parallels for their Greek counterparts in technical jargon, Latin theology does not. Thus, natura and physis do not have an exactly overlapping semantic range. This means that in duobus naturis does not (necessarily) mean en duo physesin.

To prove this thesis, I have a lot more work to do, scouring Latin philosophical writings and uses of natura and the TLL, but I believe that it is true, and it is part of the key of setting Leo and Chalcedon free from the misconceptions that surround what occurred, as Latin theology was translated into Greek and, thus, lost in translation.

*I think it would be better titled ‘On the Mystery …’ since that is what sacramentum means.

A Poem of St. Ambrose

Given that today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan (Saint of the Week here), a man whose hymnody we have discussed in the past, here is a Christmassy/Advently hymn for your enjoyment. The translation is mine, based on the text of Early Latin Hymns (ed. A. S. Walpole for Cambridge Patristic Texts, 1922: pp. 35-39).

It is known by first line as ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’:

Splendour of the Father’s glory,
bringing forth light from light,
light of light and source of brightness,
the brightening day of days,

and true Sun slide in,
gleaming with eternal brilliance,
and radiance of the Holy Spirit
pour into our senses.


With prayers let us also call the Father—
the Father of eternal glory,
the Father of mighty grace—
that he may remove the deceitful blame,

that he may shape our actions of vigour,
dullen the teeth of the grudging one,
favourably guide harsh occurrences,
bestow the grace of carrying things through,

guide the mind and rule it
with a chaste, faithful body;
may faith be inflamed with heat,
may it not know the poisons of fraud.

And may Christ be food for us,
and may faith be our drink;
happy, may we drink the sober
inebriation of the Spirit.

May this happy day come to pass,
may modesty exist as the dawn,
faith like the noonday,
and may the mind not know the dusk.

Dawn pulls the chariot,
may the complete dawn come,
the Son complete in the Father,
and the Father complete in the Word.

Saint of the Week: Saint Monica

One of the most popular saints in all of western/Latin Christianity is St. Augustine of Hippo. The Oxford Patristics Conference proved that, with at least two papers about St. Augustine being given at any moment. Whether you like St. Augustine or not, he is a force to be reckoned, if you’re a Calvinist, a Catholic, a Lutheran, or a Pelagian, you have to come to grips with St. Augustine for good or for ill.

As they say, however, behind every great man lies a great woman.

St. Monica (331-387) was the mother of St. Augustine. She was married to a man named Patricius who was a pagan, and their marriage seems not to have been a happy one; he seems to have been a violent man and opposed to his wife’s religion. He refused her requests to have their three children (Augustine, Navigius, Perpetua), although he relented for the ailing Augustine. Until Augustine recovered, of course.

Monica displayed her motherly concern for her children, such as the wayward and worldly Augustine, through prayer. Indeed, perhaps because she saw his brilliance, perhaps because the other two children, like their father, converted earlier, Monica had prayers and concern especially for young Augustine.

Widowed when Patricius died shortly after his conversion, Monica followed Augustine first to Rome and then to Milan where, in answer to seventeen years of prayer through her son’s dissolute life, Manicheanism, and paganism, she saw him converted and baptised by St. Ambrose.

In the time between Augustine’s conversion and baptism, Monica and Augustine had a sort of semi-ascetic, philosophical retreat where they spent time in prayer and conversation about spiritual things.

Monica fell asleep in the Lord at Ostia on the journey back to Africa from Italy.

St. Augustine, as I understand it, left behind the largest body of Latin literature from a single writer in antiquity. His was a keen mind, and he produced works of great erudition ranking with the greatest of theologians and philosophers. Whether you agree with him or not.

We are not all gifted as Augustine was, nor are we all blessed with the sort of education he was blessed with.

But God can save the world through us, through our prayers, for we can all be like St. Monica. We can all pray for those whom we love. And the prayer of a righteous (wo)man is powerful. God hears it.

Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.  If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba