Ambrose of Milan, J. den Boeft observes, was motivated to communicate theological truth to his congregation.[1] In his sermon against Auxentius during the basilica crisis of 386, Ambrose speaks to the Arian reaction regarding the success of his anti-Arian hymns and says:

They declare also that the people have been beguiled by the strains of my hymns. I certainly do not deny it. That is a lofty strain, and there is nothing more powerful than it. For what has more power than the confession of the Trinity which is daily celebrated by the mouth of the whole people? All eagerly vie one with the other in confessing the faith, and know how to praise in verse the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So they all have become teachers, who scarcely could be disciples.[2]

There is a clear connection between the simplicity of Ambrose’s hymns and his people’s ability to communicate theological truth. “They all have become teachers,” says Ambrose. He composed hymns as a means of instructing his people in a way that they would appreciate and understand; he wrote hymns which they could sing, as heretics had already done before him.[3] This last observation is important as the reader must first understand that Ambrose did not invent the Christian hymn itself, just a particular form of hymnody.

The hymns of Ambrose could be easily learned and sung. More importantly, their doctrinal content “was simple and basic, such that even the uneducated could grasp it.”[4] Boeft observes, “He did not compose beautiful songs which were gratifying to the ears, but authentic poetry which could move men’s hearts.”[5] It was only fitting that Ambrose turn to hymnody, as this had been the strategy of Arius years before. One author conjectures that it is possible that Auxentius introduced Arian hymns in Milan; Arian’s Thalia being particularly famous.[6] The diffusion of Arianism is often explained by the use of verse. Ballads were sung “ad nauseam by sailors, merchants, and travelers in the streets and harbors.”[7] It is only natural for a man such as Ambrose to appropriate his opponent’s method and employ it for his own means. The erudite pastor was keen on using whatever means necessary to arrest heresy and promote orthodoxy.

A Lasting Impact

The impact of Ambrose’s hymns is great when one considers the pastoral paucity of previous hymn writers. Hilary of Poitiers likewise composed hymns for congregational singing, but this endeavor ultimately failed most likely to the “obscurity and heaviness of his words.”[8] Illiterate parishioners likely were unable to learn the rhythmic prose and complex theological reflection. Due to the rapid spread and ease of use, Ambrose’s hymns (or at least his style) soon took upon themselves the name of their progenitor with the term “Ambrosian” becoming synonymous with “hymn.”[9] Mans contributes this important note:

Although Hilary of Poitiers is credited with being the first to introduce liturgical hymns in the Latin language into the West, Ambrose developed the genre into a simple, highly poetic form, in order to capture the imagination of his congregation, and to communicate particular evangelical messages, thereby making it a very popular and useful medium.[10]

He continues by saying, “The real history of ancient Latin Christian hymns in the West, therefore, begins with St. Ambrose.”

Ambrose and his congregation refused to vacate the basilica in the spring of 386 and with court soldiers surrounding the church; Ambrose implored his people to sing hymns. It is proper to say that it was by his hymns, more than his theological works that Ambrose was able to triumph over the enemies of orthodoxy, while likewise producing a profitable instrument to be used in the church’s liturgy.[11] In these hymns, Ambrose reveals his poetic nature and orthodox convictions. The hymns which Ambrose composed were wholly conceived to be sung by Nicene-confessing Christians. Any genuinely confessing Arian could not have affirmed their content. By these hymns, Ambrose encouraged the hearts of his congregation and provided a means to gain spiritual strength in the face of spiritual adversity.[12] 

About the Author:
Coleman Ford

Coleman is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests lie in the concept of virtue in the patristic tradition, patristic ethics, patristic exegesis, reception history of the church fathers, and Christian ethics.


  1. J. den Boeft, “Ambrosius Lyricus,” in Early Christian Poetry: A Collection of Essay, ed. J. den Boeft and A. Hilhorst (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 83.  ↩

  2. Ambrose, Sermon Against Auxentius, 34, in Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 436. (I will refer to this work as Sermon Against Auxentius from this point forward).  ↩

  3. Angelo Paredi, Saint Ambrose: His Life and Times (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 336.  ↩

  4. Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History, Vol. 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 273.  ↩

  5. den Boeft, “Ambrosius Lyricus,” 89.  ↩

  6. Paredi, Saint Ambrose, 337.  ↩

  7. Ibid.  ↩

  8. Ibid.  ↩

  9. Ibid.  ↩

  10. M.J. Mans, “The Function of Biblical Material in the Hymns of Ambrose,” in Early Christian Poetry: A Collection of Essays, ed. J. den Boeft and A. Hilhorst (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 91.  ↩

  11. Ibid.  ↩

  12. Because of the style and simplicity, Ambrosian hymns were often imitated. Though numerous hymns are attributed to Ambrose, there are four that are universally recognized to be authentic. This is largely based on Augustine’s mention of them in his Confessions. For a quick reference regarding this, I refer the reader to Moreschini and Norelli, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, 2:273.  ↩