Church History and Modern Worship (Part Four)

Ambrose, Congregational Song, and Doctrinal Formation

In the conclusion of our 4-part series, I would like to focus on the life and contribution of Ambrose. To summarize our series thus far, in part 1 we discussed the life of Constantine and the idea that we are currently in a Constantinian Age of worship, where our Church’s gatherings function similarly to an aristocracy – elite leaders seem to dominate the liturgy, while the role of the congregation has been diminished. In part 2, we examined the life of John Wycliffe and how I believe our gatherings need to move away from an aristocratic leadership and return to a priesthood of all believers. Lastly, in part 3 we explored the life of Hildegard von Bingen and considered whether or not women worship leaders have truly been empowered. 

One of the pivotal initiatives that would need to take place in order for the Church to return to a priesthood of all believers is an emphasis on discipleship. I believe the Church needs to become a collaborative community again, but can only do so once each believer has been properly equipped and empowered. If our congregants are going to join into the worship as participators and not just spectators, they must be mature and informed in the faith. 

For this reason, worship leaders need to go deeper and wider. Whether we like it or not, worship leaders are theologians. They are shaping the theology of every believer with every song they sing. This is a terrifying reality and responsibility. Many of us in the 10,000 Fathers community say it this way: we need a generation of worship leaders who aren’t just leaders of songs, but leaders of people. Please! No more worship leaders who are high in competency but low in character! We need to think harder about the songs we’re singing in the Church, understanding they are either affirming or abandoning the very doctrines we stand on. In order to study this thought further, we will look at the life of Ambrose and how he used music to instruct believers and combat a prevalent heresy in his day: Arianism. 

Ambrose and the “Weapon” of Hymnody 

Although hymns had been used since New Testament times, the struggle that arose between Arian and Nicene Christians in the fourth century C.E. gave new purpose for hymnody. As Jill S. Burnett states, “it [hymnody] became a ‘weapon’…a weapon that was wielded both polemically to refute opponents’ teaching and didactically to promote one’s own.” In actuality, we owe early hymnody to those who recognized the power of “popular” congregational songs and were not afraid to use that power to transfer their ideas and teachings. 

A first-rate example of how this played out can be found in the life of Ambrose and his struggle against the Arian imperial court. According to Augustine, it was because of this very struggle that Ambrose introduced antiphonal singing (the eastern way). Augustine writes: 

Not long since had the church of Milan begun this mode of consolation and exhortation, with the brethren singing zealously together with voice and heart. It was just a year, or not much more, since Justina, mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, persecuted your servant Ambrose on behalf of her heresy, into which she had been seduced by the Arians…At that time the custom began that hymns and psalms be sung after the manner of the eastern regions lest the people be worn out with the tedium of sorrow. The practice has been retained from that time until today and imitated by many, indeed, by almost all your congregations throughout the rest of the world.

The event that Augustine seems to be speaking to is the Holy Week crisis of 386, where a dispute broke out between Valentinian (and his Arian court) and Ambrose (and his congregation). During the dispute, Ambrose used antiphonal singing to encourage and instruct his congregation. Amazingly, it looks as if the power of song rallied his congregation in such a way that they prevailed victoriously. 

When taking a closer look at Ambrose’s songs, one can see what made them so “catchy” and effective. First of all, he used iambic diameter. He wrote hymns in which each line has eight syllables, each stanza has four lines, and all hymns include eight stanzas. The entire poem would end up being 256 syllables. Wisely, Ambrose used the last stanza as a Trinitarian doxology. The meter was traditional, but the form was an innovation of Ambrose’s. It would look something like this: 

O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace,
Thou brightness of thy Father’s face,
Thou fountain of eternal light
Whose beams disperse the shades of night.

Simply put, Ambrose wrote songs that were easy for the congregation to catch on to. Not just that, but lyrically he filled the songs with a robust theology. With the combination of an infectious rhythm and a profound lyric, Ambrose was effectively instructing his congregation in the way they should go and simultaneously foiling the Arian camp. 

The Songs We Sing

    I believe we should take a lesson from Ambrose, understanding the power behind the songs we sing. Too often we are careless with our theology, oblivious to all that lies in the lyrics of our congregational songs. Sadly, it seems we’re satisfied with songs that have great melodies or impressive production, but shallow content. Stop and think for a moment about the songs you sing on a regular basis in your gatherings. What are they communicating? Are they encapsulating a full range of the theology we should be imparting to believers, or are they just covering a fraction of the doctrine we should be transferring? Or even worse, are they heretical in nature? If you’re a worship leader, are you thinking hard enough about the songs you’re teaching to your congregation? Remember, with every song you sing you’re communicating something. Yes, let’s make our songs beautiful and teeming with creativity, but let’s also make sure we’re leading with integrity, humbly communicating truth. 

Resources used in the completion of this bog: 

  • Burnett, Jill S. “Congregational song and doctrinal formation: the role of hymnody in the Arian/Nicene controversy.” Liturgical Ministry, pg. 83-92, 10 September 2001. 
  • The lectures of Dr. Sam Hamstra, Affiliate Professor of Church History and Worship at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.