Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan

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Brian P. Dunkle, SJ
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198788225.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ambrose of Milan is known to some as “the father of church hymnody,” and to others as a staunch defender of Nicene Christianity. It is not always clear, however, how these two identities fit together. Given the scope of particular academic disciplines, rarely have the hymns been seen as constitutive in any substantive way of his theological project. This is a lacuna Brian Dunkle remedies with Enchantment and Creed, a revision of a Notre Dame dissertation under the supervision of Brian Daley. Dunkle answers two questions: Why did Ambrose use hymns for the pro-Nicene project, and what is uniquely Ambrosianabout them? Eschewing the reductionism of seeing Ambrose’s hymns merely as “fight songs” against doctrinal rivals (the Homoians), Dunkle shows the sophisticated way in which the hymns figured into Ambrose’s catechetical strategy of cultivating a pro-Nicene sensibility—indeed, an “enchantment”—to the sacramental character of scripture, the liturgical rites, even time and nature itself. The argument unfolds in three parts: first by treating the hymns in the broader fourth-century doctrinal and pastoral context (chapters 1–2); next by offering a close reading of fourteen of the broadly attributable hymns (chapters 3–5); and finally by comparing these with the early receptors of Ambrose’s poetry (chapters 6­–7). 

In the first two chapters, Dunkle situates Ambrose’s hymnody amidst other fourth-century pro-Nicene hymnists (Ephrem the Syrian, Hilary of Poitiers, and Augustine), along with Ambrose’s broader mystagogical practice, wherein the bishop sought to transform his congregation’s spiritual senses, attuning them to the contours of orthodox doctrine. The next three chapters make up the heart of the book, offering a close reading of three subgroups of Ambrose’s hymns: the four hymns on the hours of the day (the most undisputed in terms of authorship); the three hymns for the dominical feasts; and the five hymns for martyrs. Chapter 3 in particular compares the stylistic features of Ambrose’s hymns to classical Latin hymnody, which then provides a matrix for how the hymns function as Dunkle says they do. He shows, for instance, how Ambrose uses “indexicals” (temporal or spatial “pointers” such as hocor iam) to focus the collective attention of his audience on certain aspects of the poem, and the way he uses “polyptoton” (repetition of particular words) to signal the multivalent meanings in a passage, providing a way to develop one’s spiritual vision to see beyond the surface appearance of things. In his analysis of the three festal hymns on Christ (chapter 4), he shows how the hymns not only give facts about Christ but also cultivate a sense of wonder at the events of which the hymns speak. In his chapter on the hymns of the martyrs (chapter 5), Dunkle shows how they cultivate an ecclesial identity, forming spiritual allegiances between the Roman martyrs, the biblical martyrs (especially Peter and Paul), and the Milanese church. In the final two chapters, he treats the reception of Ambrose’s hymns, first in the early anonymous imitators, and then in the more famous Latin hymnists, Sedulius and Prudentius. Here his main contention is to show how certain features of the imitators—namely, “centonization” (drawing on particular terminology) and amplificatio (narrative or expositional expansion)—provide a way to see how the mystagogical features of Ambrosian hymnody were adopted to new theological and poetic circumstances. 

Dunkle’s book is lucid and well researched, and his claims consistently argued. Moreover, he has interrelated the complex fields of classical hymnody, 4th-century Nicene-“Arian” debates, and Ambrose’s mystagogical theology. One of the most important contributions this book makes is its close attention to the kind of theological work that hymnody did in the 4th century, and not to disregard these as mere political tools in the hands of a deceptive propagandist. Dunkle shows that not only do these overly politicized reading miss the unique way in which Ambrose performed his clerical duties, it more importantly overlooks the way in which the cultivation of a pro-Nicene theology was instantiated in actual congregations and communities. 

This last feature is more suggestive than fully developed in the book, but it is well worth noting. For the ultimate triumph of Nicene Christianity was more than articulating precise terminology or procuring imperial favor. It was also a matter of cultivating the sensibilities and perceptions of actual congregations. Much scholarly sweat has been spent on how 4th-century bishops articulated doctrinal formulae, or on how certain political-ecclesiastical dynamics were at play, and this work should not be undervalued. But equally important were the ways in which church communities came to imagine and intuit “orthodoxy.” In other words, concomitant with learning precise creedal formulations were certain modes of scriptural interpretation and epistemological frameworks—certain ways of figuring time (the liturgical hours of the day and year), the person and work of Christ, and the ecclesial community, especially in relation to the cult of the martyrs. These features of the debate have more often been asserted than argued, but it is the promise of studies like Dunkle’s that attention to the broader contours of a Nicene habitus will lend clearer understanding to the momentous 4th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Fogelman is a doctoral student in Historical Theology and Patristics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian P. Dunkle, SJ, is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

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