Ambrose: On The Mysteries

Alright, here will start the discussion on this work by St. Ambrose. Feel free to comment, after you’ve read it, on pretty much any angle of it you wish. Background information you may have already would also be helpful to the discussion. Two places you may find the work are CCEL – Ambrose: On the Mysteries and New Advent – Ambrose: On the Mysteries.

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15 Responses to Ambrose: On The Mysteries

  1. I thought this would serve as some fun background to St. Ambrose’s work on baptism. Although St. Ambrose’s cathedral no longer stands, its baptistry still does and, according to tradition, it is where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine (how apropos for our little reading group!). It is a traditional octagonal shape, signifying the eighth day of resurrection (Christ slept on the 7th day, fulfilling the Sabbath) and bears the following poem (attributed to St. Ambrose):

    Eight-niched soars this temple for sacred rites
    Eight corners has its font
    Right it is to build this baptismal hall about the sacred number eight
    For here the people are reborn.

    The following travel site has some great photos of the baptistry:

  2. Forgive my typos, there are no bears in the baptistry…

  3. Does anyone have a link to the latin? Or at least have it available for questions?

  4. Eric says:

    You can find a Latin text here:

    Or here:

    You should also be able to find it here (the old Patrologia Latina text):

    …but right now it says that the link is temporarily broken.

  5. Tim Enloe says:

    Let me preface these remarks by saying that I have very little familiarity with Ambrose. To date, all I’ve read by him are portions of his controversy with the Roman senator Symmachus over the Altar of Victory, and portions of his disputes with the Emperor Theodosius over the massacre at Corinth. So, nothing that I say in this discussion should be given too much weight. I’m most definitely an Ambrose “newbie,” and I hope to learn a lot from this discussion. OK, onward.

    Chapter 1, Sec. 1 interests me because it connects reflection on the lessons of the Old Testament with the duty of the baptized believer to live a godly life. Ambrose is no doubt drawing on NT injunctions such as “All Scripture is inspired and profitable for…training in righteousness,” and “These things have been written for our edification,” and the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11. I don’t know if there’s much to discuss about this section, but now I’ve said why it interests me.

    Chapter 1, Sec. 2 reminds me of the “Christian gnostic” talk of Clement of Alexandria, though I am by no means super well-acquainted with that. It is interesting that at this relatively early date (4th century), the idea about baptism seems to be that something very mysterious happens in it and that to make proper use of it, people should not be instructed in detail about it beforehand. Ambrose in fact says that to teach about the mystery of baptism beforehand would be a “betrayal” of the mysteries rather than a “portrayal” of them. Nice rhetoric, by the way. Those guys could write!

    Chapter 1, Sec. 3 is explicitly “realist” regarding the effects of the sacraments – they “breathe upon you” the “savor of eternal life.” I know lots of people who would find this language very uncomfortable, but they tend also to be people who downplay the vital significance of the OT even for NT Christians, usually on grounds of making strong dichotomies between “flesh” and “spirit” and “faith” and “works” (and possibly, along the same lines, even between “faith” and “reason”). Anyway, the realistic portrayal of the sacraments as actually conveying what they signify is very interesting.

    That’s it for now. Nothing profound in these initial observations, but perhaps someone else sees things I don’t or can expand on them.

  6. With the moving of your blog, where should we post Ambrose comments?

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Nathaniel, I hope to get the blog restored to its old site,, later today or early tomorrow. You can go ahead and post Ambrose comments here, though, and once the move is done I’ll move your comments over there.

  7. I have much more detailed observations coming, but I thought, related to our previous hermeneutic discussion, that the Verbum Deus in 39 is interesting.

  8. Tim,

    Forgive me for being picky. You said “Ambrose is no doubt drawing on NT injunctions such as…” Wouldn’t it be best to first discuss the actual text itself before jumping to inferences? Otherwise we won’t be able to hear what Ambrose is actually saying.

    To that end, I’m working on an outline which I’ll post tomorrow.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Nathaniel, I didn’t mean to jump any guns. While I am no expert on the Fathers by any means, I have read enough of them to know that they “breathed” Scripture like the air around them, and very often alluded to it or cited it from memory in the ordinary course of their theological reflections. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Ambrose, soaked in Scripture, might be doing this in this work. However, I’ll try to refrain from using confident expressions like “no doubt” in the future. You’re right that we want to hear the text itself before attributing things to it.

  9. You are right about their “breathing” scripture (this work is no exception!). It was not my point to negate yours. Merely to suggest that we should listen to the text. The first verse of the passage merely says that he is turning from his typical moral teaching using the Patriarchs and Proverbs to the teaching on baptism. It is a standard introduction. The real meat of his scriptural usage, in fact his thesis on the mystery of baptism, is in v34-42. Though the entire work is infused with scripture, whether direcly or indirectly (as my outline will demonstrate).

    One question I have is the source of his scriptural translation. He is obviously using Latin, but his source is far closer to the LXX (see his quote from Songs 4:8 for instance). I don’t know enough latin mss to identify which translation he is using.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      I’m having some trouble restoring the blog to the old address, and am waiting on some tech help from a friend. In the meantime, if you have Ambrose comments, please go ahead and post them.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      I had an extremely busy week last week, and had no time at all to look at the Ambrose piece. However, I will do so this week and try to interact with what you said as well as possibly give some comments of my own.

  10. Tim Enloe says:

    I’m getting close to the end of On the Mysteries, but to be honest, I’m not sure what to suggest as topics of discussion. As a Protestant, the vivid sacramental realism of Ambrose interests me, especially because my variety of Protestantism is more open to a very close connection of the sign and the thing signified than many others are. The many instances of allegorical interpretation of the OT are also interesting to me, but probably a lot of it is just “par for the course” for Catholic and Orthodox readers. At any rate, if anyone wants to suggest topics for discussion, please do.

  11. I do think there are a couple interesting sections. Now if I could only finish my church work, I could post my outline…

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