The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“Ambrose and Jefferson: Epistulists on the Relationship Between Church and State”


by Samuel Payne

"This was the first bridge thrown over the Tiber, and was known as the Pons Sublicius." - Livy, 1.33

In the ancient world bridge building was considered magical. One who could erect free-standing structures across a great expanse must be an associate of the gods. LE It is with the construction of this wooden bridge, nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Ambrose, our discussion begins (Palladio, p. 618). Bridge building was considered so God-like that the title of the chief priest of the cult of Rome was Pontifex maximus, or "chief bridge builder," a title later adopted by the emperors. LE Why should the head of the Roman Empire not also be the leader of the state-sponsored religious mosaic?

Following his vision, conversion, victory at Ponte Milvio, and subsequent Edict of Toleration, Constantine becomes the first Christian emperor. LE It is at this point Christianity inextricably merges with imperial office. The emperor needn't relinquish his title as the chief priest of the cult of Rome simply because of a change in the state-endorsed religion. Three-hundred years of tradition doesn't easily lose its potency. Constantine's successors retain the title until Gratian forwards the vestments to Damasus, the bishop of Rome. Here, Gratian (1) goes a long way to establishing Petrine supremacy[1] and (2) symbolically relinquishes his position as the leader of the state-endorsed religion, which simply happens to be Christianity at this point in time. Ambrose responds to this power shift in future events, shaping a relationship between church and state that will define Catholicism.

Ambrose' responses to events of the period establish the autonomy and domain of the Church as well as the influence it holds over heads of state. Specifically, his responses to Maximus' condemnation of Priscillian and Theodosius' policy concerning Callinicum establish Church-specific spheres of power. His treatment of Theodosius following the massacre at Thessalonica reinforces that the emperor must answer to the Lord, through the Church, for his sins.

Ambrose makes only a passing reference in his own writing to the Priscillian controversy, in a reference to Magnus Maximus[2]: "Later, when he saw that I was not in fellowship with bishops who were in fellowship with him, and who furthermore were petitioning that certain persons, albeit straying from the faith, should be put to death, he, instigated by them, ordered me to depart without delay." (Maur. 24[3]). Although Ambrose was opposed to Priscillian and his teachings, he was furious with Maximus for having Priscillian put to death following a secular trial. LE Ambrose maintained that the policing of bishops was an exclusive concern of the Church. This won't be the first time Ambrose challenges the policies of the emperor on Church matters.

In Maur. 40[4], we must not allow Ambrose' anti-Semitic rhetoric to mask his true aim in responding to Theodosius' decision to have the local bishop pay for the destruction of the synagogue in Callinicum. The presence of a large Jewish contingent at his funeral is a testament to the view that Ambrose was not the anti-Semite his letter otherwise suggests. LE If his correspondence with Theodosius was not fueled by a hatred of the Jews, what else might move Ambrose to concern himself with the people of an obscure eastern outpost along the Euphrates? The same reason any politician (or theo-politician) might concern himself with a relatively miniscule event: To prove a point. "The anti Judaist polemic expressed by Ambrose in this letter, so indefensible to our modern sensibilities, does not, in any case, constitute the core of his reflections and of his convictions, but is only an instrumental feature of emphasis to reach the other principle aim." (Pasini, 152). What is this "other principle aim?" Let us look at the passages in Ambrose' address to Theodosius: "Let there be a discussion, emperor, of what ought to be done, without damage to the faith. If over matters of finance you consult your comites[5], how much more appropriate is it that in a matter of religion you consult the priests of the Lord?" (Maur. 40, 27)

Ambrose makes clear his stance on the Ecclesiastical dimension of the matter: That matters concerning the church be left to the church, or at least that consideration be given to the bishops and priests acting in their capacity as agents of the Lord. I place emphasis on this role of holy men as Ambrose, a few sentences later, makes an indirect reference to those bishops used as tools of Maximus in the persecution of Priscillian: "What excuses will I make to the bishops who bitterly complain that certain priests who have performed the duties of their rank ... are dragged away from their sacred office and enrolled in a civic council?" (Ibid, 29) Ambrose warns that Theodosius may not circumvent the autonomy of the state through a facial consideration, or inclusion, of the clergy in matters which certainly concern the Church. So that we might not stray from the subject at hand, let us reflect on the present success of Ambrose in claiming "a new autonomy for the Church, formulated properly lest it succumb to illegal encroachments of its field." (Pasini, 181) While Ambrose campaigned for the autonomy and dominion of the Church relative to the administration of the state, he did not simultaneously extend to the emperor any exemption warranting a reciprocal domain over matters which concerned only the state.

In 390, only a year after the episode at Callinicum, there is an insurrection along the Aegean. [LE] In Thessalonica a series of events led to the death of the consulares[6], who had one of the city's most popular athletes imprisoned for personal reasons. In what appears to be out of carelessness, Theodosius dispatches a primarily Gothic contingent of the Roman army to remedy the situation. The result is a massacre in which 7,000 were killed. In Ambrose' own words, "an act was committed at Thessalonica which is unprecedented in human memory." (Maur. 51, 6)

Ambrose cites the stories of King David, in which he begs for forgiveness from the Lord. This sets a precedent for what Ambrose suggests Theodosius ought to do: "Lift this burden of sin from your kingship; and you will lift it by humbling your soul before God." (Ibid, 11) In this way, Ambrose offers advice just as he would to any parishioner. Ambrose exercises the influence of the church when he personally withholds the sacrament of Holy Communion from Theodosius: "I dare not offer the sacrifice, if you intend to be there. Or what is not allowed when the blood of one innocent victim has been shed, allowed when the blood has been shed of many? I do not think so." (Ibid, 13)

The events in Thessalonica are a secular affair insofar as they do not directly affect the administration of the Church. The individual murders which constitute the massacre are individual sins, for which Theodosius must seek forgiveness. No one encapsulates the significance of Ambrose' bold actions better than Angelo Paredi[7]: "for the first time in history, a monarch admitted publically as being under the eternal law of justice, and a bishop claimed for himself the right to judge and to absolve even kings." (p. 431) This was no small feat, as "it certainly required the force of a soul of a bishop like Ambrose to convince an emperor to submit himself as a humble penitent..." (Pasini, 182)

How Ambrose responds to the persecution of Priscillian, the massacre at Thessalonica, and the incident in Callinicum establish the dominion of the Church and the accountability of world leaders for their sins.

Ambrose certainly never shared our temporary concept of a wall of separation between church and state, and no one alive in the Fourth Century would have understood a distinction between religion and politics. LE Ambrose campaigned for a Church that could operate independently of the State, yet one which was not withdrawn unto itself. Ambrose is the father of Roman Catholicism, an ecclesiastical organization with an unparalleled role in European politics until the Reformation.

Without Ambrose' great contribution to Western society, contemporary Christianity would not be nearly as unified in its beliefs. Roman Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans all abide by the Nicene Creed. This relative homogeneity would not have been possible without the development of a strong Church free of undue manipulation, yet one which could also, quite literally, bring kings and emperors to their knees.

How do we get from Ambrose' solution to this ubiquitous wall of separation that is the current understanding of the relationship between church and state in our Republic? Two-hundred years of U.S. Supreme Court opinions and the source of the notion: An 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to Baptist figureheads in Connecticut.

Jefferson held some controversial religious views. There is the "Jefferson Bible", in which he extracts Christ's moral and ethical teachings from the Gospels in an attempt to weed out what he considered to be the unimportant and dangerous bits (Corbett, p. 63). These "unimportant" passages are those proclaiming Christ's divinity.

Forget the Arians[8]. Had Jefferson been alive sixteen-hundred years ago, Ambrose would have found a new opponent.

Jefferson's 1802 letter is in response to an inquiry from the Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association on the implications of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson's is a rather short reply:

"...that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature make "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State." (Jefferson, 1802)

Jefferson's articulation doesn't become law until 1878 (Reynolds v. U.S.), when the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the practice of bigamy is not protected by the language of the First Amendment, as its criminality is founded in the assertion that it is detrimental to society (The Oyez Project). The opinion cites Jefferson's letter, and is in line with Jefferson's own assertion that "the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions" (Jefferson, 1802).

Jefferson was a deist, and believed that religions and their various tenets are valuable insofar as they subjugate the commoner (Corbett, p. 64). But what would be Ambrose' hypothetical response to Jefferson's own solution?

In the persecution of Priscillian and the Callinicum controversy, Ambrose doesn't necessarily take issue with outcomes, but with methods. Would Ambrose take issue with the methods employed by Jefferson? I've already established that Jefferson would likely be the political opponent of Ambrose, but this is not enough to support a hypothetical rejection by Ambrose.

When heads-of-state overstepped the boundaries of office, Ambrose protested. Does Jefferson overstep his boundary as President in addressing church-state relations? At this point in the development of our republic, it isn't clear who rightfully interprets the laws[9]. Within the context of church- and state-specific spheres of power, an evaluation the validity of Jefferson's remarks hinges on whether he is overstepping his bounds as President of the United States. While the word of an Emperor becomes law, the executive opinion of a President does not. It is a challenge to compare two men separated from one another by more than a millennia, operating in different political systems, and arrive at a concise conclusion.

Ambrose the theo-politician would be vehemently opposed to Jefferson, and this is enough to support a hypothetical, public challenge from Ambrose concerning the letter in question. It is also likely that Ambrose would privately agree with Jefferson's aim. Ambrose and Jefferson were two different men, with different views and from different points in history, but they were each trying to answer similar questions: How can I simultaneously be a Roman and a Christian? How can I simultaneously be a Baptist and an American? A Quaker and an American? A Methodist and an American?

Let me point out that Ambrose' and Jefferson's challenges are not analogous. Ambrose was attempting to reconcile a relatively new religion with an established Empire with ancient foundations. Jefferson was attempting to reconcile a twenty-year-old state with established (oft-opposed) sects of Christianity.

There are just too many variables to consider. Had Ambrose been familiar with the views of Jefferson, he would logically be opposed to any proclamations issuing from him. But one can draw uncanny parallels between the issues each man faced. Ambrose faces his issues by rejecting the various heterodoxies of the day and fusing pagan virtues with Nicene Christianity. Jefferson addresses his own by rejecting the divinity of Christ but maintaining His teachings apply to the individual situated in a broad society. These approaches seem radically opposed upon a facial consideration, but are similar upon an in-depth analysis: Each man purifies ancient systems and applies their respective teachings to a novelty in the interest of assuring each novelty with thrive.


A reference to in-class lecture is indicated by a superscripted "LE"

When a source is cited it may be referenced until there is an explicit switch to another source

All references to Ambrose' writings are translations quoted from Liebeschuetz' Ambrose of Milan: Political letters and speeches

[1] The now widely-accepted notion that the successors of Peter ought to be given greater deference than other bishops

[2] Previously a general of the Roman garrison in Brittania, Maximus is established "emperor" by his own troops and spends the rest of his life trying to overthrow Theodosius

[3] Throughout, I use the Mauratanian system of referencing Ambrose' letters

[4] It should be mentioned that Maur. 40 is actually received following Theodosius' decision to withdraw his orders

[5] Here, Ambrose refers to "the two principal financial officers, the comes rei privatae and the comes sacrarum largitionum" (Liebeschuetz, 108)

[6] "The title of a provincial governor of senatorial rank" (Liebeschuetz, 401)

[7] I am using a direct reference quoted by Pasini, translated by the same individual translating Pasini's original work

[8] One of the many heterodoxies contemporary with Ambrose, the Arians believed in the subjugation of the Son to the Father.

[9] Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803): Establishes the power of judicial review of the U.S. Supreme Court. Until this opinion, it wasn't clear which branch of government had the ultimate authority to interpret national legislation, including the U.S. Constitution itself.


Works Cited

  • Corbett, M. (1999). Politics and religion in the United States. New York: Garland.
  • Jefferson, T. (1802). Thomas Jefferson: Addresses, messages, and replies. Raleigh: Alex Catalogue.
  • Liebeschuetz, J. H., & Hill, C. (2005). Ambrose of Milan: Political letters and speeches. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
  • Palladio, A. (1997). The four books on architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Paredi, A. (1994). S. Ambrogio e la sua eta. (R. Grant, Trans.) Milan.
  • Pasini, C. (1996). Ambrogio di Milano: Azione e pensiero di un vescovo. (R. Grant, Trans.) San Paolo.
  • Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145 (1878).
  • The Oyez Project. Reynolds v. United States. Retrieved December 11, 2010, from Oyez: U.S. Supreme Court media:
  • University of Virginia. Livius, Titus. The History of Rome, Vol. I . Retrieved November 12, 2010, from Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library: