Document: Letter 21
Date: 386
Addressee: Valentinian II
English Translation: FC 26.52-56
Summary of Contents: Declination of an offer to debate the Arians and Auxentius

Alleging that he was acting at your command, the tribune and notary Dalmatius came to me and asked that I choose judges just as Auxentius has done. Yet he has not indicated the names of those who have been demanded. But he adds that there will be a discussion in the consistory, and the judgment of your Piety will be the deciding factor.

To this I am making, as I think, a suitable response. No one should find that I am being insolent when I assert that your father of august memory not only gave his answer by word of mouth, but sanctioned by law this truth: In a matter of faith or of any Church regulation the decision should be given by him who is neither unsuited to the task nor disqualified by law. These are the words of his decree; in other words, he wished priests to make judgments regarding priests. In fact, if a bishop were accused of any charge and the case of his character needed to be examined, he wished these matters to belong to the judgment of bishops.

Who, then, has given your Clemency an insolent answer? One who wishes you to be like your father, or one who wishes you to be unlike him? Perhaps little importance is attached by some persons to the opinion of that great emperor, although his faith was proved by his firm confession and his wisdom was declared by his development of a better commonwealth.

O most clement Emperor, when have you heard the laity judge a bishop in a matter of faith? Are we so bent down with flattery as to forget our priestly privileges and think that we should entrust to others that which God has given to us? If a bishop has to be instructed by a layman, what next? If so, the laity will dispute and the bishop will listen ; and the bishop will learn from the laity! But if we examine the context of holy Scripture or of times past, who will deny that in a matter of faith, in a matter, I say, of faith, bishops usually judge Christian emperors; not emperors, bishops.

By God’s favor you will reach a ripe old age, and then you will realize what kind of a bishop subjects his priestly power to the laity. By God’s favor your father, a man of ripe old age, said: “It does not belong to me to judge between Bishops;” your Clemency now says: “I must be the judge.” He, although baptized, thought he was unfit for the burden of such a judgment; your Clemency, who must still earn the sacrament of baptism, takes to yourself a judgment concerning faith, although you are unacquainted with the sacraments of that faith.

We can well imagine what sort of judges he [Auxentius] will choose, for he fears to reveal their names. Of course, let them come to the church, if there are any to come. Let them listen to the people, not so that each may sit in judgment, but that each may have proof of his disposition and choose whom he will follow. The matter concerns the bishop of that church; if the people decide after hearing him that he argues a better case, let them follow the faith he teaches. I shall not be jealous.

I will not mention the fact that the people have already passed judgment. I am silent about their demand from the father of your Clemency for the one whom they have. I am silent about the promise of the father of your Piety that there would be peace if the one chosen would assume the bishopric. I have kept faith in these promises.

If he boasts of the approval of some foreigners, let him be bishop there where there are people who think that he should be given the name of bishop. But I neither recognize him as a bishop nor know whence he comes.

When have we ever decided a matter on which you have declared your judgment? Nay, have you not even promulgated laws and not allowed anyone freedom of judgment? When you made such a provision for others, you also made it for yourself. An emperor passes laws which he first of all keeps. Do you want me to try to see whether those who have been chosen judges will begin to go contrary to your opinion, or at least excuse themselves on the grounds that they cannot act against so severe and rigid a law of the emperor?

This, then, is the action of an insolent individual, not of a well-meaning bishop. See, O Emperor, you are rescinding your own law in part. Would that you did so, not in part, but entirely, for I would not want your law to be above the law of God. God’s law teaches us what we are to follow; man’s laws cannot teach us this. These alter the conduct of the timid; they are unable to inspire confidence.

What man will there be who reads that at one moment it has been decreed that one who opposes the emperor should be struck with the sword, and whoever does not hand over the temple of God is straightway slain; what man, I say, either singly or with a few could say to the emperor: “Your law does not meet my approval”? If priests are not allowed this, are the laity permitted? And will he be the judge in a matter of faith who either hopes for favor or fears to give offense?

Shall I agree to choose laymen as judges, who, if they maintain the truth with faith, will be proscribed or killed, because a law passed about faith has so decreed? Shall I expose these men either to the denial of truth or to punishment?

Ambrose is not worth so much that he would throw away his priestly office for his own sake. The life of one man is not worth the dignity of all priests on whose advice I made these statements, since they suggested that we would perhaps surrender the triumph of Christ to some pagan or Jew, chosen by Auxentius, if we gave them judgment regarding Christ. What else do they rejoice to hear but the harm being done to Christ? What else can please them except that (God forbid!) Christ’s divinity is being denied? Plainly, they agree completely with the Arians, who say that Christ is a creature, for heathens and Jews readily admit this.

This decree was made at the Synod of Ariminium and I rightfully despise that council, for I follow the rule of the Council of Nicaea from which neither death nor the sword can separate me. This is the creed which the parent of your Clemency, Theodosius most blessed emperor, follows and approves. This creed is held by the Gauls, it is held by the Spaniards, who keep it with pious profession of the Holy Spirit.

If there must be discussion, I have learned from my predecessor to have the discussion in church. If there has to be a conference about the faith, it should be a conference of bishops, as was done under Constantine, prince of august memory, who promulgated no laws until he had given free judgment to the bishops. This was also done under Constantius, emperor of august memory, heir of his father’s dignity. Yet, what began well is ending otherwise. The bishops had subscribed at first to a definite creed. Then, when certain persons within the palace wished to pass judgment on the faith, they managed to alter the judgments of the bishops by surreptitious methods. The bishops at once called for resolute opinions. And, certainly, the greater number at Ariminium approved the creed of the Council of Nicaea and condemned the Arian decrees.

If Auxentius appeals to a synod to dispute the faith (please God it may not be necessary for so many bishops to be wearied on account of one man, for, even if he were an angel from heaven, he must not be esteemed above the peace of the Church), when I shall hear that the synod is gathering, I myself will not be missing. Pass the law if you want a struggle!

I would have come, O Emperor, to your Clemency’s consistory to make these remarks in person if either the bishops or people had permitted me, but they said rather that discussions of the faith should be held in church in the presence of the people.

Would, O Emperor, that you had not sentenced me to go wherever I wished! I went out daily; no one guarded me. You should have dispatched me where you wished, me who offered myself for anything. Now I am told by the bishops: It makes little difference whether you willingly leave the altar of Christ or hand it over, for, when you leave it, you will be handing it over.

Would that it were clearly evident to me that the Church would not be handed over to the Arians! I would then willingly offer myself to the wishes of your Piety. But, if I am the only one guilty of making a disturbance, why is there the decree to invade all the other churches? Would that there were the assurance that no one would harm the churches! I choose that you pass on me whatever sentence you wish.

Wherefore, O Emperor, receive with dignity my reason for being unable to come to the consistory. I have not learned to take my place in a consistory except to act in your behalf, and I am unable to dispute in the palace, neither seeking nor knowing the secrets of the palace.

I, Ambrose, the bishop, offer this notice to the most clement emperor and most blessed Augustus Valentinian.

Translation from FC 26.52-56, adapted by SMT

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