Michael Stuart Williams. The Politics of Heresy in Ambrose of Milan: Community and Consensus in Late Antique Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Scholarship on “heresy” has undergone a quiet revolution over the last thirty years. In the wake of work by Alain Le Boulluec (1985) and Averil Cameron (1991), and in line with poststructuralist theory, scholars increasingly explore how texts dealing with ideas, individuals, or groups labelled “heretical” claim power over the objects of their rhetoric, rather than treating heresiological texts as repositories of submerged data about lost alternative Christianities. Drawing on this scholarly paradigm shift, Williams argues that understanding Christianity in the Milan of Ambrose’s time requires manoeuvring around an object, “heresy,” successfully conjured into existence by Ambrose’s rhetoric. Williams contends that ordinary Christian communities formed not because of elaborate doctrinal debates over “essential identity” (12), but by means of broader strategies effecting consensus.
One influential interpretation of late ancient Milan has understood the city as “irrevocably divided” by doctrine, in accordance with the frantic rhetoric of our sources. Chapter one presents an alternative model for how to understand “ordinary Christians” and their relationship to communal identity Williams depicts Christians in “complex engagement with their own religion,” building on robust explanatory models of communities shaped by consensus, domesticity, and social coalition deployed also by Eric Rebillard, Thomas Sizgorich, and Isabella Sandwell. The impression of doctrinal division was an act of “framing,” deployed by leaders to mobilize a community (44). Thus, commonality relied on an array of factors among which, as Rebillard has previously argued, a Christian identity might not always be most salient. Therefore “Christianity,” as Williams writes, “might not be the centre of an individual’s existence” (27).
In chapter two, Williams applies this model of communal identity to the events leading up to Ambrose’s election as bishop in 374CE. A necessary condition for episcopal success, he suggests, was one’s ability to promote community compromises while retaining private beliefs as articulated at councils and in debate with other bishops (71). Williams argues that doctrinal dissent was less important for community cohesion than previous scholarship has often argued. Instead, the success of Ambrose depended on a persuasive “ability to keep the ordinary Christians of Milan united behind him” (110). Chapter three suggests that by articulating the stakes in episcopal elections in terms of communal belonging, Ambrose successfully established a rhetorical strategy which marked “opposition to his own views” as “suspicious in itself” (164).
Chapter four scrutinises how Ambrose maintained authority by the rhetorical construction of external opposition. It argues that the treatise De fide, as well as the Council of Aquileia, targeted not “real indigenous heretics” but “a distant enemy beyond the borders of Ambrose’s own congregation” (170). Ambrose’s attacks on “Arians” and “Arianism” were prompted not by contact with Arians, but by threats to authority, like the presence of the foreign bishop Julius Valens in Milan in 381 (180-81), and the so-called “first basilica crisis,” which Williams represents as a successful attempt by Ambrose to control the optics of emperor Gratian’s commandeering of his basilica to observe Easter in 381 (195-207).
Finally, Williams tackles the better-known “Second Basilica Crisis,” in chapter five. During this crisis, Ambrose incurred the wrath of Valentinian II by refusing to permit the use of his basilica in 385 and 386 by “Arian” bishops favoured by the imperial court for Easter celebrations. Countering modern accounts that frame Ambrose’s “recasting” in terms of a battle between heresy and orthodoxy (220), Williams offers an alternative account of this crisis. During this crisis, he suggests, Ambrose successfully transformed a debate over public worship into a show-down about orthodoxy. He justified his resistance to the emperor by the impression of “unanimous support” amongst the people (270).
Williams concludes that Ambrose manufactured the impression of factions in Milan for rhetorical effect (284-6). Ambrose’s rhetoric aimed to “integrate a community with a variety of different commitments” by framing their world as one in which variously configured heretics lurked outside the boundaries of the community, while those within their familiar ecclesial community remained safe and secure (298-99). Regardless of the presence or absence of “Arian” heretics, the heretics were a foil for building solidarity and consensus by constructing its unity and constancy while consistently limiting deviance to those outside (310).
The clarity of Williams’ account of Ambrose’s Milanese politicking, and the transparency with which he presents his method, gives an opportunity to think about larger challenges to the approach he so usefully deploys. Flexible Christian identity is de facto limited throughout Politics of Heresy to “ordinary” Christians, whether in a popular or domestic context. Does an emphasis on the single-mindedness of bishops, for example, risk re-inscribing the idea that for at least some people, doctrine was all that mattered for being Christian? Furthermore, the sheer plausibility of Williams’ reading, moreover, makes me wonder how far his readings could stand on their own, even without his theory of communal belonging. Could Williams have done the reconstructive work that dominates the book without his theory and method? Perhaps not. But does his reconstruction need that theoretical work to stand? No. It stands on its own merits, because it’s a terrific reading. When we burrow into texts to tell alternative stories, like Williams does, how do we bring those alternative narratives back into contact with our theories, to critique and adjust them?
Nevertheless, that Williams’ account prompts questions about method signals the success of Politics of Heresy in reconfiguring scholarly conversations about Ambrose in Milan, as well as about late antique Christian community regulation. Williams’ book confidently represents, therefore, more than a successful alternative reconstruction of Milanese matters in the time of Ambrose. It also embodies the potential of a rhetorically-focused approach for generating research questions and reflexive critiques of our readings of late antique Christian texts.
Matt Chalmers is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Week in Review editor at Ancient Jew Review. He tweets with only occasionally alarming regularity from @Matt_J_Chalmers