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Saint Ambrose
Saint Ambrose of Milan.jpg

Mosaic of Saint Ambrose in Milan
Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church
Born Born::340 AD, Trier, Germany
Died Died::April 4, 397 AD, Milan, Italy
Venerated in Roman Catholicism
Eastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Major shrine Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan, Italy
Feast December 7
Attributes Beehive, child, whip, bones
Patronage bee keepers, bees, candle makers, domestic animals, French Commissariat, learning, Milan, Italy, students, wax refiners

Saint Ambrose (Latin: Sanctus Ambrosius; Italian: Sant'Ambrogio), (Born::340 ADDied::397 AD) was a bishop of Milan and was one of the most eminent fathers of the Christian Church in the 4th century. He is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church and is regarded as one of the four original doctors of the Church.


Born the son of Aurelius Ambrosius, the imperial viceroy of Gaul,[1] Ambrose followed in his father’s footsteps and became governor of Aemilia-Liguria (Northern Italy) in AD 370. He might well have remained in a political career had not dramatic events overtaken him.Ambrose had his official residence in Milan, where he was a catechumen in the church. When the bishop of the city, a pro-Arian named Auxentius died, the election of a new bishop was hotly contested by the Arian and Nicene parties within the church. The contest became so violent that Governor Ambrose was summoned to the church where the election was taking place because of reports of a riot.The story goes on to tell how someone shouted out “Bishop Ambrose! ”a cry that was taken up and resulted in his being elected bishop.[2] Being only a catechumen he was hurriedly rushed through the various church orders and was ordained only eight days later, on 7th December 373.[3]

Whatever the reasons for his election Ambrose proved his determination to succeed in his new position. His training and particularly his knowledge of Greek[4] set him in good stead. He devoted himself to prayer and to the study of both the Scriptures and pagan literature, rapidly becoming an accomplished preacher and writer.[5] His was able to read the works of the eastern writers in their original language and he made use of Philo, Origen, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Caesarea, Hippolytus of Rome and the Neoplatonist, Plotinus.[6] Ambrose is credited as being chiefly responsible for the final defeat of Arianism within the Western church.[7] Familiarity with Greek also enabled Ambrose to introduce allegorical interpretation to the western church.[8] He was deeply influenced by Philo and Origen, seeing in Scripture three levels of meaning: the literal, the moral and the allegorical, but also making use of typology.[9] His hermeneutic was of great help to Augustine, who refers to Ambrose in his Confessions, in removing his objections to the Old Testament Scriptures.[10]

On Creation

Ambrose’s teaching on creation is well documented. A strong Neoplatonist influence is evident in his work, Paradise (written around 374) which repeats many of Philo’s interpretations[11] (see Appendix 2).The serpent stands for Enjoyment,[12] Paradise represents a fertile soul in which Adam (mind) and Eve (sense) exist.[13] The River Pison means Prudence;[14] Gihon, Sanctity;[15] Tigris is Fortitude,[16] and the Euphrates, Justice.[17] Eve was created out of Adam’s ribs, a fact that has implications for the unity of human nature,[18] and God’s walking in the garden (Gen. 3:8) simply indicates His spiritual presence.[19] Concerning the Fall Ambrose notes the difference in wording of God’s command to Adam (Gen. 2:17), and that of Eve’s reply to the serpent (3:2), this brought him to the conclusion that “...the initial violation and deceit was due to the woman. Although there may appear to be an element of uncertainty in deciding which of the two was guilty, we can discern the sex which was liable first to do wrong.”[20]

His nine sermons of the Six Days of Creation (otherwise known as the Hexameron), delivered during the Easter of 387, survive. In them he was heavily indebted to the work of Basil of Caesarea by the same title,[21] but also drew from other sources, including Hippolytus, Origen, Plotinus, Macrobius, Virgil and Cicero.[22] He explains the account of creation and draws from it lessons concerning the nature of man and illustrations of the Gospel[23] in the created world.[24]

Ambrose taught that God created the universe ex nihilo,[25] rejecting Plato’s idea that the universe was formed from pre-existing matter.[26] Thales was wrong when he said that the would was formed from water,[27] the world will not last forever as Aristotle had claimed.[28] The ‘science’ of the day is unable to account for the creation, because the creation is formed by the will of God.[29] In the beginning God first called matter into existence and then used that to form the universe, or as Ambrose himself put it: “God first made, afterwards beautified.”[30] The earth is spherical in shape,[31] and formed from the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.[32] Psalm 74:4 does not teach that the earth is resting upon literal ‘columns’, but “rather by that power that props up the world and sustains it.”[33]

The days of creation are defined as being 24 hours in length.[34] The creation of the world took place in the spring, because Exodus 12:2 says that Abib or Nisan (March-April) is to be the first month in the Hebrew calendar.[35] Job 26:7 answers to his satisfaction the question of the position of the earth when it states that God “suspends the world over nothing” [36]

Ambrose’s ascetic leanings often influenced his interpretation, a fact that is apparent in his understanding of the coats of skins in Genesis 3:21, 24. They were clearly designed (in Ambrose’s opinion) as a means of doing penance, for otherwise they would have been made of silk![37] Ambrose did not conceive of there only being one ocean before the Flood (cf. Gen. 1:9), but argued that the seas were in the same position before as they were afterwards.[38] In Duties of the Clergy he affirms that Noah and his family were the only survivors of the Flood.[39]

The works of Ambrose reflect many elements of the common ‘scientific’ beliefs of his day, and it would hardly be fair to blame him for repeating them. F. Homes Dudden provides an excellent summary of Ambrose’s scientific references which is worth quoting at length:

[The earth] heated by an internal fire (the existence of which is demonstrated by the sparks struck from flints), but the heat is tempered by seas and rivers.[40] The sun, which looks as though it were only a cubit in diameter, is in reality an immense body, as is proved by the fact that it illumines and warms such vast tracts of earth and air.[41] It is naturally, and not accidentally, hot.[42] The suns rays draw up moisture from the sea, which, being cooled by the shadow of the clouds, falls back on the earth as rain.[43]

It is tempting to concentrate on those elements of Ambrose’s work that accord most with modern science, but this would give a very biased impression of his teaching. Some further examples from Dudden make this clear:

Yet he entertains and gravely repeats many extraordinary fancies. He believes the old tales about the phoenix,[44] about the swan’s dying song,[45] and about the eagle holding up her young towards the sun and casting away those that turn their eyes from its rays - the rejected eaglets, he adds, are brought up by the coot.[46]



  1. F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose, Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935. p.2: “From his palace at Trier he administered a region roughly equivalent to the modern countries of France, Spain, Portugal, part of Germany, and Britain together with the islands of Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily.”
  2. The story passed into the folklore of the early church and so may well have been embellished.See W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. p.645, n.10 for references.
  3. Frend, op.cit.,, 618; W.G. Rusch, The Later Christian Fathers. London: Duckworth, 1977. p.48.
  4. Which was becoming a rarity for western bishops by this time.
  5. Angelo Di Bernardino, ed. Patrology, Vol. 4. Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, Inc., 1991. p.145.
  6. Rusch, op.cit., p.49; Louis J. Swift, “Ambrose,” Everett F. Ferguson, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990. p.30.
  7. Rusch, op.cit., p.48.
  8. Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Latin Church, trans. Manfred Hoffman. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1964. p.94; Roland J. Teske, trans. Saint Augustine On Genesis. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991. pp.14-15.
  9. Swift, op.cit., 30.
  10. Augustine, Confessions, 6.3.3-6.4.6 (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF], 1st series, Vol. 1, pp.91-92).
  11. Rusch, op.cit., p.51.
  12. Ambrose, Paradise 11; John J. Savage, trans., “Hexameron,” Saint Ambrose. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1961. p.293.
  13. Ambrose, Paradise 12 (Savage, op.cit., 294).
  14. Ambrose, Paradise 15 (Savage, op.cit., p.296).
  15. Ambrose, Paradise 16 (Savage, op.cit., p.297).
  16. Ambrose, Paradise 17 (Savage, op.cit., p.297-298).
  17. Ambrose, Paradise 18 (Savage, op.cit., p.298).
  18. Ambrose, Paradise 48, 50 (Savage, op.cit., pp.327, 328-329).
  19. Ambrose, Paradise 68 (Savage, op.cit., p.346).
  20. Ambrose, Paradise 57 (Savage, op.cit., p.336).
  21. Savage, op.cit., pp.v-vi.
  22. Savage, op.cit., pp.vii-viii; Rusch, op.cit., p.51.
  23. Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.14 (Savage, op.cit., pp.169-170).
  24. Rusch, op.cit., pp.50-51.
  25. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.4.16; 4.8.31 (Savage, op.cit., pp.16, 154).
  26. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.1.1; 2.1.2 (Savage, op.cit., pp.3, 46).
  27. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.2.6 (Savage, op.cit., p.6).
  28. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.1.3 (Savage, op.cit., 4).
  29. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.1.1-15 (Savage, op.cit., pp.3-5).
  30. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.7.27 (Savage, op.cit., p.27).
  31. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.3.10 (Savage, op.cit., p.10).
  32. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.6.20 (Savage, op.cit., p.19).
  33. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.6.22 (Savage, op.cit., pp.21-22).
  34. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.10.3-7 (Savage, op.cit., pp.42-43).
  35. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.4.13 (Savage, op.cit., p.12).
  36. Ambrose, Hexameron, 1.6.22; 2.3.11 (Savage, op.cit., pp.20, 56).
  37. Ambrose, Repentance, 2.11.
  38. Ambrose, Hexameron 3.3.12-14 (Savage, op.cit., pp.76-78).
  39. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1.121.
  40. Ambrose, Hexameron, 2.3.12 (Savage, op.cit., p.56).
  41. Ambrose, Hexameron, 4.6.25-27 (Savage, op.cit., pp.148-151).
  42. Ambrose, Hexameron, 2.3.14; cf. 4.3.9 (Savage, op.cit., pp.59.133).
  43. Ambrose, Hexameron, 3.5.22 (Savage, op.cit., p.83).Dudden, Vol. 1, 16-17.
  44. Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.23.79 (Savage, op.cit., pp.219).
  45. Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.12.39 (Savage, op.cit., p.193).
  46. Ambrose, Hexameron, 5.18.60-61 (Savage, op.cit., pp.208-210); Exposition of Psalm 118:19, 13.Dudden, Vol. 1, op.cit., p.17.

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