Old Baptistries, old Baptists? and Ambrose

May 23, 2007

Dear friends, here are pictures taken by the ever-faithful Matt Schmucker.  The first picture is of a 4th-century baptistry in Ravenna.

Ravenna_baptistry_2 The second and third picturesMilan_baptistry_1 are of the 4th-century baptistry in Milan, in which Ambrose baptized Augustine.

Milan_baptistry_2 Lig, I could even fit in this baptistry!

Evangelicals know about Augustine, but we tend to be less familiar with Ambrose.  He was a fascinating figure in his own right.  Born in 339AD of an aristocratic Roman family, he trained to be an upper level Roman bureaucrat.  But he was elected bishop of Milan in 374, before he had even been baptized!  (That’s a long story, but let me simply say that immediately upon his election, he was baptized.)  He is the first figure from history that we know read silently.  He baptized Augustine in this pool on Easter, 387AD.  Ambrose was the same age then that I am now.  So when I was there, I prayed that God would lead people to Christ through my preaching, and that I would have the joy of baptizing those this year who would be of immense use to the kingdom.

There are some things about Ambrose that I don’t like.  He preached the OT allegorically.  (Augustine actually loved this!)  And he was one of the first to develop ideas of transubstantiation.

But there are many things about Ambrose that I DO like!  He thought the pastor’s main job was preaching Scripture.  Ambrose preferred to preach expositional series.  He believed that we would not know anything about God if God did not reveal Himself first.  He denied that any bishop was legally superior to any other, or that Peter had taught any kind of supermacy of one bishop over others.  He wrote hymns that became popular.  He was a staunch opponent of the Arian heresy.  He wore no special clerical dress (though neither did any other preachers at the time; that only came much later).

Ambrose broke fellowship with French pastors when they first used state power to carry out church punishments.  He led the way in using passive resistance to oppose state-sponsored injustices.  He made it clear that the power of the church was in no way dependent upon the state.  And he made this most clear in his dealings with the Roman emperor Theodosius, who resided in Milan 388-391.

During those years, Emperor Theodosius ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocents in Thessalonica.  The world was shocked.  Ambrose, as his pastor, excommunicated him.  He required the emperor to appear in church without his imperial regalia, and to confess his sins publicly and testify repentance of them before Ambrose would again admit him to the Lord’s table.  Citing Ezek 3:18, explaining that he himself would become guilty of Theodosius’ sin if he didn’t so rebuke him, Ambrose publicly opposed the emperor for some time.  Finally, Theodosius apparently relented, and came and confessed his sins to the congregation, just as Ambrose had required.  Theodosius was then again admitted to communion.

Ambrose fell sick in 397 and, when asked to pray for his own recovery, responded, "I have not lived among you in such a way, that I would have to be ashamed to live longer; but I am also not afraid of death, for we have a good Lord."  He died on April 4, 397.

And I also like the fact that Ambrose used a really big baptistry!