Letter to Studius (Letter XXV)

Author: St. Ambrose

This letter of St. Ambrose to Studius, written in the 360s, is addressed to what scholars take to be a lay Christian who was conflicted about his office as a judge in a capital case, and his duty as a Christian. Prior to the end of the persecutions in 313 with the Edict of Milan, Christians did not undertake such offices, though St. Ambrose alludes to a distinction between how the Church and heretical groups treated Christian judges who did. 

I recognize in your application to me a pure intention of mind, zeal for the faith, and fear of our Lord Jesus Christ. And indeed I should fear to reply to it, being checked on the one hand by the obligation of the trust committed to you for the maintenance of the laws, and on the other by claims of mercy and clemency, had you not in this matter the Apostle’s authority that he who judgeth beareth not the sword in vain,* for he is the avenger of God, upon him that doeth evil.

2. But although you knew this, it was not without reason that you have thought fit to make the enquiry. For some there are, although out of the pale of the Church, who will not admit to the divine Mysteries those who have deemed it right to pass sentence of death on any man. Many too abstain of their own accord, and are commended, nor can we ourselves but praise them, although we so far observe the Apostle’s rule as not to dare to refuse them Communion.

3. You see therefore both what power your commission gives you, and also whither mercy would lead you; you will be excused if you do it, and praised if you do it not, Should you feel unable to do it, and are unwilling to afflict the criminal by the horrors of a dungeon, I shall, as a priest, the more commend you. For it may well be that when the cause is heard, the criminal may be reserved for judgment, who afterwards may ask for pardon for himself, or at any rate may suffer what is called mild confinement in prison. Even heathen are, I know, wont to boast that they have borne back their axes from their provincial government unstained by blood. And if heathen do this what ought Christians to do?

4. But in all these matters let our Saviour’s answer suffice for you. The Jews apprehended an adultress and brought her to the Saviour, with the insidious intent that if He were to acquit her He might seem to destroy the law, though He had said, I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law, and on the other hand, were He to condemn her, He might seem to be acting against the purpose of His coming. Wherefore the Lord Jesus, foreseeing this, stooped down and wrote upon the earth. And what did He write but that word of the prophet, O Earth, Earth, Write these men deposed, which is spoken of Jeconiah in the prophet Jeremiah.

5. When the Jews interrupt Him, their names are written in the earth, when the Christians draw near, the names of the faithful are written not on the earth but in heaven. For they who tempt their Father, and heap insult on the Author of salvation, are written on the earth as cast off by their Father. When the Jews interrupt Him, Jesus stoops His head, but not having where to lay His head, He raises it again, is about to give sentence, and says, Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her. And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

6. When they heard this they began to go out one by one beginning at the eldest, and this either because they who had lived longest had committed most sins, or because, as being most sagacious, they were the first to comprehend the force of His sentence, and though they had come as the accusers of another’s sins, began rather to lament their own.

7. So when they departed Jesus was left alone, and lifting up His head, He said to the woman, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee, go, and sin no more. Being the Redemption, He refuses to condemn her, being the Life He restores her, being the Fountain He washes her. And since Jesus, when He stoops down stoops that He may raise up the fallen, He says, as the Absolver of sins, Neither do I condemn thee.

8. Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he be yet unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!

9. This is why our ancestors thought it better to be indulgent towards Judges; that by the terror of their sword the madness of crime should be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to Judges, it would seem like a retribution on their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors wished then that their clemency should proceed from their own free-will and forbearance, rather than from any legal necessity. Farewell, and love us, as we on our part love you.