Election of Ambrose as Archbishop of Milan


Hence Ambrose was selected, not by the emperor but by the people, in whom was vested the right of election. He was then governor of that part of Italy now embraced by the archbishoprics of Milan, Turin, Genoa, Ravenna, and Bologna,--the greater part of Lombardy and Sardinia. He belonged to an illustrious Roman family. His father had been praetorian prefect of Gaul, which embraced not only Gaul, but Britain and Africa,--about a third of the Roman Empire. The seat of this great prefecture was Treves; and here Ambrose was born in the year 340.

Growth of Episcopal authority


Whence this great power of bishops? How happened it that the humble ministers of a new and persecuted religion became princes of the earth? What a change from the outward condition of Paul and Peter to that of Ambrose and Leo!
It would be unpleasant to present this subject on controversial and sectarian grounds. Let those people and they are numerous who believe in the divine right of bishops, enjoy their opinion; it is not for me to assail them. Let any party in the Church universal advocate the divine institution of their own form of government. But I do not believe that any particular form of government is laid down in the Bible; and yet I admit that church government is as essential and fundamental a matter as a worldly government. Government, then, must be in both Church and State. This is recognized in the Scriptures. No institution or State can live without it. Men are exhorted by apostles to obey it, as a Christian duty. But they do not prescribe the form, leaving that to be settled by the circumstances of the times, the wants of nations, the exigencies of the religious world. And whatever form of government arises, and is confirmed by the wisest and best men, is to be sustained, is to be obeyed. The people of Germany recognize imperial authority: it may be the best government for them. England is practically ruled by an aristocracy, for the House of Commons is virtually as aristocratic in sympathies as the House of Lords. In this country we have a representation of the people, chosen by the people, and ruling for the people. We think this is the best form of government for us, just now. In Athens there was a pure democracy. Which of these forms of civil government did God appoint?
So in the Church. For four centuries the bishops controlled the infant Church. For ten centuries afterwards the Popes ruled the Christian world, and claimed a divine right. The government of the Church assumed the theocratic form. At the Reformation numerous sects arose, most of them claiming the indorsement of the Scriptures. Some of these sects became very high-church; that is, they based their organization on the supposed authority of the Bible. All these sects are sincere; but they differ, and they have a right to differ. Probably the day never will come when there will be uniformity of opinion on church government, any more than on doctrines in theology.
Now it seems to me that episcopal power arose, like all other powers, from the circumstances of society, the wants of the age. One thing cannot be disputed, that the early bishop or presbyter, or elder, whatever name you choose to call him was a very humble and unimportant person in the eyes of the world. He lived in no state, in no dignity; he had no wealth, and no social position outside his flock. He preached in an upper chamber or in catacombs. Saint Paul preached at Rome with chains on his arms or legs. The apostles preached to plain people, to common people, and lived sometimes by the work of their own hands. In a century or two, although the Church was still hunted and persecuted, there were nevertheless many converts. These converts contributed from their small means to the support of the poor. At first the deacons, who seem to have been laymen, had charge of this money. Paul was too busy a man himself to serve tables. Gradually there arose the need of a superintendent, or overseer; and that is the meaning of the Greek word [Greek: Episcopal], from which we get our term bishop. Soon, therefore, the superintendent or bishop of the local church had the control of the public funds, the expenditure of which he directed. This was necessary. As converts multiplied and wealth increased, it became indispensable for the clergy of a city to have a head; this officer became presiding elder, or bishop, whose great duty, however, was to preach. In another century these bishops had become influential; and when Christianity was established by Constantine as the religion of the Empire, they added power to influence, for they disbursed great revenues and ruled a large body of inferior clergy. They were looked up to; they became honored and revered; and deserved to be, for they were good men, and some of them learned. Then they sought a warrant for their power outside the circumstances to which they were indebted for their elevation. It was easy to find it. What sect cannot find it? They strained texts of Scripture, as that great and good man, Moses Stuart, of Andover, in his zeal for the temperance cause, strained texts to prove that the wine of Palestine did not intoxicate.
But whatever were the causes which led to the elevation and ascendency of bishops, the fact is clear enough that episcopal authority began at an early date; and that bishops were influential in the third century and powerful in the fourth, a most fortunate thing, as I conceive, for the Church at that time. As early as the third century we read of so great a man as the martyr Cyprian declaring "that bishops had the same rights as apostles, whose successors they were." In the fourth century, such illustrious men as Eusebius of Emesa, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Martin of Tours, Chrysostom of Constantinople, and Augustine of Hippo, and sundry other great men whose writings swayed the human mind until the Reformation, advocated equally high-church pretensions. The bishops of that day lived in a state of worldly grandeur, reduced the power of presbyters to a shadow, seated themselves on thrones, surrounded themselves with the insignia of princes, claimed the right of judging in civil matters, multiplied the offices of the Church, and controlled revenues greater than the incomes of senators and patricians. As for the bishoprics of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Milan, they were great governments, and required men of great executive ability to rule them. Preaching gave way to the multiplied duties and cares of an exalted station. A bishop was then not often selected because he could preach well, but because he knew how to govern. Who, even in our times, would think of filling the See of London, although it is Protestant, with a man whose chief merit is in his eloquence? They want a business man for such a post. Eloquence is no objection, but executive ability is the thing most needed.
So Providence imposed great duties on the bishops of the fourth century, especially in large cities; and very able as well as good men were required for this position, equally one of honor and authority.
The See of Milan was then one of the most important in the Empire. It was the seat of imperial government. Valentinian, an able general, bore the scepter of the West; for the Empire was then divided, Valentinian ruling the eastern, and his brother Gratian the western, portion of it, and, as the Goths were overrunning the civilized world and threatening Italy, Valentinian fixed his seat of government at Milan. It was a turbulent city, disgraced by mobs and religious factions. The Arian party, headed by the Empress Justina, mother of the young emperor, was exceedingly powerful. It was a critical period, and even orthodoxy was in danger of being subverted. I might dwell on the miseries of that period, immediately preceding the fall of the Empire; but all I will say is, that the See of Milan needed a very able, conscientious, and wise prelate.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...