What Am I Reading? Garry Wills’s “Font of Life”

So there I was, lecturing away on Augustine and his influence on the developing Christian tradition, when a student question stopped me in my tracks: “That Ambrose guy sounds pretty cool. What more can you tell us about him?” (paraphrase)

It turned out that the answer to that question at the time was: “Not very much!” But I have since remedied that situation with some further reading, including Gary Wills’s tidy volume, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism.

This has been an eye-opening read. For instance, I discovered that I have for years been beholden to an outdated view of Augustine’s relationship to Ambrose: the traditional story of Ambrose converting Augustine is rather off base! Other figures were much more instrumental, although – as Wills discusses – the pre- and post-baptismal catechesis that Augustine received from Ambrose seems to have been rather formative. Also, it seems that Augustine didn’t even like Ambrose all that much around the time of his conversion, and only later came to a greater appreciation for him after he (Augustine) had become a bishop himself.

In any case, for more on all that you should read Wills. I read this book in two sittings: it is well written, accessible, and very engaging.

Anyway, there are three paragraphs from Wills that I want to share with you. I always tell my students to note what passages jump out at them, and these jumped for me. The first has to do with the influence of Ambrose’s catechesis on Augustine (as usual, bold is mine):

The weeks of baptismal instruction Augustine received twice daily from Ambrose were of crucial importance to him. It was his most prolonged and convincing exposure to Ambrose’s method of using the Jewish scripture in typological senses, as prefigurements of the revelation complete in Jesus. This at last cleared up a long-standing problem Augustine had with the older parts of the Bible, which he had considered a primitive muddle. . . . Much of the medieval approach to the Bible as allegory would develop from this cross-fertilization of the minds of Ambrose and Augustine on the subject of biblical typology. (p. 15)

The traditional story has Augustine having his hermeneutical problems cleared up by listening to Ambrose’s sermons prior to his baptism. But, as Wills draws on more recent historical work to show, Augustine didn’t pay particularly close attention to Ambrose prior to his pre-baptismal catechesis and seems not to have attended services with any regularity.

Anyway, on to the next paragraph. This one, which immediately follows that quoted above, describes the converging influence of Ambrose and Augustine on the developing Christian tradition:

Much of medieval Christendom in the West acquired its broad contours from what took place here. The church would learn to act according to Ambrose’s ruling patterns—his development of doctrinal rigor (especially on the Nicene Creed), the centrality of baptism, liturgical expansiveness, monastic discipline, the cult of saints, and episcopal control. And the church would learn to think with the imaginative flights and intellectual daring of Augustine. (p. 15)

I can’t help but insert a silent “for good and ill” after the first sentence of that paragraph. But hey, I’m a Protestant. (*insert Seinfeld clip: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”*)

On to the next paragraph! This one has to do with Augustine’s relationship to Ambrose while in Milan, but it has the added benefit of giving us a sense of Ambrose’s workload. Like so many of the great theologians and church leaders in the Christian tradition, Ambrose seems to have been a high-functioning workaholic.

Ambrose tended to the construction and upkeep of all his churches while he was also preaching sermons (twice daily in Lent), writing theological treatises, maintaining a far-flung correspondence, hunting for heretics, promoting Nicene bishops in other places, going on missions to the imperial headquarters at Trier, or organizing councils at home or in in Aquileia. His army of scribes, secretaries, and diplomatic agents helped fill the days of his energetic time as bishop. It is no wonder that Augustine, while he was serving as court orator to Emperor Valentinian II, felt neglected when he tried to consult Ambrose on his personal problems. Ambrose had better things to do than listen to the queries of a man who had been a protégé of Manicheans and of the pagan Symmachus in Rome. . . . On the other hand, when Augustine became an applicant (competens) for baptism, he and his fellows were the objects of the most intense care and instruction. Ambrose’s secretary-biographer, Paulinus, says that Ambrose was diligent in performing all these exercises personally, so that five men had to replace him in performing the instruction of competentes after his death. (p. 26)

Whenever I come face to face with the amount of industry involved in these earlier periods of the church’s history, I can’t help but be surprised by how much of it was devoted to the theological-spiritual instruction of the people. Just imagine the effect of hearing sermons twice a day for about six weeks! What would happen if we managed to do that today? Would the members of our churches be able to, for instance, mount such an effective protest against police authority in the streets over a period of weeks that the police finally back down? Because Ambrose’s people managed it. Only they were facing down the Roman Imperial Guard rather than a police force in a democratic state. And it’s not like we lack things that need protesting . . .


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