Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism

Here is a fascinating, insightful work on a particular little slice of church history.  Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism explores the nature of 4th century baptism in Milan and in Hippo through the stories of the two figures that dominated those two cities in that time:  Ambrose and Augustine, respectively.  The book also explores the complex relationship between Ambrose and Augustine and how, over time, Augustine was driven to a more explicit appreciation for Ambrose as he, Augustine, conflicted with the Pelagians (who likewise attempted to appeal to Ambrose).

The baptismal details are utterly fascinating.  Wills demonstrates Ambrose’s almost theatrical approach to the act of baptism with persuasive detail.  This is not to say that Ambrose indulged in empty, cheap theatrics.  Rather, it is simply to say that Ambrose developed a much more exhaustive, detailed and visual pageantry around the act than Augustine would after his departure from Milan for Hippo.  To some extent, Ambrose’s approach to baptism was shaped by his battle with the Arians just as Augustine’s will be by his battles with the Donatists and Pelagians.  Augustine’s more scaled-back approach would also be influenced by the more rustic and less-sophisticated nature of Hippo itself, in contrast to Milan.

As a Baptist Christian, the details of the baptismal practices of both men challenged me in many ways.  On the one hand, the seriousness with which they approached the preparatory rites for the catechumens has caused me to think long and hard about the amount of care we take in preparing people for baptism today.  While Ambrose’s approach was more exhaustive on the front end, he also held to an inappropriate (if I dare say it) degree of progressive revelation concerning the mysteries of the faith, many of which were only revealed in more detail after the act.  Augstine’s pre-baptism activities were less detailed overall but more forthright and, in this sense, preferable to Ambrose’s.  I was also appreciative of Augustine’s freedom of thought in not tying the act of baptism so stridently to Easter and being willing to baptize whenever it was needed.  In short, there was, I think, I kind of helpful reductionism in Augustine’s approach to baptism whereby he honed the act more succintly and more strategically (a relative term, I know) than Ambrose’s more flamboyant approach.

The relationship between the two men was very interesting, as Wills demonstrates with great effect.  In fact, it is legitimate to ask whether or not there really was a “relationship” per se between Ambrose and Augustine at all.  The younger Augustine found Ambrose to be an admirable, imposing but somewhat aloof character as he prepared for his own baptism at the Milanese bishop’s hands.  One can feel the frustration in Augustine’s complaint that all he wanted was a few minutes with the bishop to ask some important questions, but also the admiration in Augustine that the bishop was so busy and so focused in handling the behemoth amount of tasks before him that he could not grant such coveted one-on-one time.  Augustine appears to have shaped some of his ecclesiastical practices in contrast to Ambrose, but there is no real hint that this is done vapidly or merely to make a point.  Again, Augustine’s circumstances and the nature of North African Christianity played their own parts here.

In the end, Augustine is driven back to an appreciation for Ambrose and employs the man’s name and writings effectively in his battle with the Pelagians.  While a skeptical reading of this may suggest that Augustine simply needed Ambrose’s name, it seems evident enough that, despite their differences, Ambrose did indeed leave a significant mark on Augustine that lasted throughout Augustine’s life.

This is a wonderful and very insightful book on a fascinating period in Christian history.  Check it out.

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