Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching

Craig Alan Satterlee Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN February 1, 2002

Within decades of the establishment of the church Christian leaders faced a dilemma. Many had responded positively to the gospel message, but the church could not be sure of the converts’ theological orthodoxy. To ensure the integrity of a convert’s decision churches developed a two-stage process of incorporation that proved successful for centuries. The first stage of “catechesis” (instruction in theology and Christian living) and the catechumenate (the formal structure in which this prebaptismal teaching was given) preceded baptism. The second stage followed baptism, a period of “mystagogy” focused on the significance of baptism and the eucharist with implications for the participant’s life in the Christian community. Today catechesis has revived in many Christian traditions with a wealth of historical documents to guide the practice. Until recently, however, the period of mystagogy, has not received similar attention.

The works of Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia provide the primary source material for the study of mystagogy. Unfortunately Theodore’s works are fragmentary, Chrysostom’s are predominantly moral, and Cyril’s are exclusively mystagogical (with no comparative reference frame), leaving the works of Ambrose as the best source for this study. Satterlee, assistant professor of homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology (Chicago), has focused on these materials for his dissertation at the University of Notre Dame. Satterlee surveys Ambrose’s life, preaching role, audience, liturgical context, use of Scripture, sermonic structure, and delivery. He concludes by offering suggestions for the successful recovery of this sermonic form in order to complete successfully what was begun in the catechumenate.

Satterlee draws attention to Ambrose’s hermeneutics and mystagogical teaching strategies, noting their correspondence to that of other early bishops. Of greatest interest for modern readers is the patristic teaching on the significance of baptism. Apparently catechumens were told little or nothing of the actions to be carried out in their baptism nor of the eucharist immediately following. Fragrant oils were rubbed on the baptismal candidates as they stood in the water and as incense burned around them. Then they were each given a white robe and were served communion for the first time. In the following days they were instituted in the meaning of their participation in the ordinances.

Satterlee’s work is an excellent addition to historical studies on the practice of corporate discipleship and the preaching method in the early church. Satterlee’s work is noteworthy for its unique contribution to patristics and homiletics. It should also stimulate significant discussion over the process of spiritual pedagogy as the church seeks to develop more effective ministries for the twenty-first century.

—Timothy J. Ralston

January 1, 2004

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2004 vol. 161 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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