Worship leaders would do well to learn at least a little bit about the life and work of Ambrose (c. 340-397), a pastor and church leader in Milan, Italy. He became an important figure in the early church because of his strong opposition to Arianism, a heresy which argued against the full deity of Christ and therefore challenged Trinitarian theology. Ambrose was also an early mentor to Augustine.
What is less known about Ambrose is that he was an early songwriter in the church. Let’s just say that he was the fourth century’s Chris Tomlin. In fact, I set one Ambrosian hymn, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” to new music and added the Gloria Patri as a chorus—a true experiment in ancient-future doxology.
D. H. Williams, a respected evangelical patristics scholar, helped elucidate one of the principle reasons Ambrose wrote hymns. Ambrose gave songs to the church as a means of imparting good theology and warding off bad theology. He knew the power of song. Ambrose recognized that when people sing, they learn truth more by drinking it than by thinking it. Read this description of Ambrose:
Just before Easter in A.D. 386, Ambrose…found himself and his congregation besieged by imperial soldiers. The emperor Valentinian II, who sponsored an “Arian” form of the faith, demanded that the bishop hand over one of the basilicas in the city. Ambrose refused. Tensions rose throughout the city, and the threat of riot became real. During Holy Week, armed men were sent to take by force the church where Ambrose was presiding. While soldiers surrounded the building, packed with the faithful, Ambrose decided to teach the congregation hymns. Augustine was an eyewitness of the event, being a catechumen at the time, and he tells us that the church at Milan had only recently begun the custom of singing together for mutual comfort and exhortation.
The impact these hymns had on the minds of the congregants was made clear by Ambrose himself, who reported in a sermon that “Arian” detractors had accused him of leading the people astray by his hymns. He writes, “I certainly do not deny it. That is a lofty strain and there is nothing more powerful than it. For what has more powerful than the confession of the Trinity…All eagerly view with another in confessing the faith, and know how to praise in verse the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
These Milanese hymns and chants provided believers with more than inspiration and pious sound bites about their faith. Ambrose’s intent was to reinforce key features of Nicene theology. But as dramatic as these circumstances were, the creative inculcation of Christian truths through recitation and song was not an unfamiliar practice. Since the days of the apostles, the worship of the church served as a critical vehicle for imparting doctrina, that is, ordered teaching about the Christian faith. Christian leaders of the early centuries found that worship was a good opportunity to supply believers with the concrete foundations of how to think and live Christianly.*
Herein lies both an encouragement and a warning to worship leaders. The encouragement is that we have a very important job with some wonderful, powerful opportunities. Before us lies the task of the education and formation of the people of God. The questions become: What theology will we give them? What views of God are they singing? And there we have the warning. We mustn’t squander or abuse this opportunity. We must find creative ways, within our cultural musical idioms, to clothe in an accessible way the theology we’ve been handed by our forefathers and mothers, as it has been discerned from the Scriptures. What an opportunity!
*D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 164-165.