Ambrose: Does Celibacy Still Have Value?

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St. Ambrose is credited mostly with his influence on St. Augustine, but his contributions to Christianity stand on their own as well. Ambrose was known as the “honey-tongued” bishop -- the descriptor a play on the word ambrosia, the heavenly, honey-laced food of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. Of Ambrose Augustine once prayed, “Thy devout servant . . . dispense[s] unto Thy people the flour of Thy wheat, the gladness of Thy oil, and the sober intoxication of Thy wine. To him was I unknowingly led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee.”

Ambrose was born into a Roman ruling class family in Germany around 339 – twenty-six years after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration granted Christianity favored status in the Roman Empire, and fourteen years after the council of Nicea, from whence came the Nicene Creed. After the death of his father, Ambrose’s devout mother relocated her close-knit family to Rome. There Ambrose received a classical education and became well-versed in the writings of Greek theologians. His erudite manner garnered attention from the Roman government and in time he was appointed governor of Northern Italy, its capital at Milan.

Four years later the bishopric of Milan fell vacant, igniting riotous tensions over its pending occupancy. The city was evenly split theologically (people got into their theology back then) between pro- and anti-Nicene Creed factions. Ambrose (pro-Nicene) skillfully and politically managed to become the peacekeeper between the factions and consequently was elected bishop of Milan even though he had not yet been baptized. Because of this, Ambrose demurred, but the people insisted. Their tenacity led Ambrose to concede and accept the office, one he held until his death on Easter morning in 397.

Ambrose brought to Milan acute political perception, eloquent rhetoric and a profound fervor for an ascetic, simplistic, and Nicene-centered faith. He practiced what he preached, giving away all of his wealth and dedicating himself to work as a passionate and faithful champion of orthodox Christianity. Ambrosian scholar Kim Power notes that, “This passion drove him into disputes with fellow bishops over the demarcation of orthodoxy, with emperors over domains of spiritual and secular power, and with everyone else over the physical, social and spiritual boundaries between paganism, Judaism and Christianity. In these disputes, the good bishop perceived himself variously as a farmer clearing and tilling ground for the Word, a doctor healing sin, a warrior battling for the church’s enemies, and above all, a prophet challenging worldly powers with those of heaven.”

Ambrose is regarded as one of the “Eight Great Doctors of the Undivided Church,” a list that includes himself, Jerome, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great from the West and Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus from the East. The church divided into Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) constituencies in 1054, the first of many splits to come.

Augustine was deeply indebted to Ambrose, observing him to be “a happy man, as the world counted happiness, in that such great personages held him in honor; what hope he cherished, what struggles he had against the temptations that beset his very excellences, what solace in adversities, and what savory joys Thy bread possessed for the hidden mouth of his heart when ruminating on it, I could neither conjecture, nor had I experienced.” Augustine admired practically every aspect of Ambrose’s life save one. Augustine admitted, “ . . . only his celibacy appeared to me a painful thing.”

Indeed Ambrose never married and, along with his sister, he remained celibate throughout his life. He viewed his virginity as a priestly offering, a sacrifice patterned on the offering of Christ himself who forsook human, earthly union as insufficient in comparison to his intimate union with God. Ambrose reasoned that Jesus didn’t need sex -- his relationship with God was that close and all of his emotional needs were adequately filled. Ambrose considered virginity as a gateway to a similar satisfaction, a veritable heaven on earth. He wrote, some “angels because of incontinence fell from heaven into this world, but virgins because of chastity pass from the world into heaven. Blessed virgins, [they are those] whom the delights of the flesh do not allure, nor the defilement of pleasures cast down.” It may seem odd to focus on this aspect of Ambrose’s teaching, but since he was so earnest about it, and most everyone else ignores it, I figured we at least owe it a look and see if it has anything to offer to us who maneuver about in our sexually obsessed American culture.

11/22/2010 5:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.