Troops had surrounded the church for days; the congregation sang hymns inside. Their bishop, refusing to relinquish the church as commanded by the government, remained defiant. The situation was tense until, one by one, soldiers defected and joined the singers. Sensing their losing battle, the authorities yielded, and the church remained in the bishop’s hands.
The date was AD 386, twilight of the Roman Empire; the place, the basilica of Milan; and the bishop, Saint Ambrose. Italy was ruled by a court sympathetic to Arianism (the heresy that denied Christ’s divinity), which, by this time, had roiled the church for some sixty years. The Arians’ strategy had been to coerce, through state power, orthodox believers to conform to Arian heterodoxy. Thus the conflict with the staunchly Trinitarian Ambrose. The Arians, through the imperial court, had ordered Ambrose to give them his church for their public worship. Ambrose refused.
During the ensuing siege, Ambrose explained in a sermon the theology undergirding his refusal. His answer to the Roman emperor, he explained, is the one “our Lord and teacher taught us,” that is, “pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Since “the church is God’s, … it ought not to be given over to Caesar, because Caesar’s sway cannot extend over the temple of God.” Thus, “the emperor is within the church, not above it.” In this way, Ambrose reasserted the church’s conclusion (revolutionary in a context where the city’s gods and rulers were one) that the state is a creature of God and, therefore, subject to his rule. Hence Ambrose’s defiant order to the church: Come no further.
This theological basis for limited government is an essential bulwark of liberty, and the church has been its promulgator—imperfect, to be sure, but indispensable, nonetheless. The Acton Institute is committed to preserving and strengthening this bulwark, which your generous support continues to make possible. Thank you.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico