Gregory “the Great”
by Tom Nettles
A candid review of the accomplishments of Gregory, known as “the Great,” gives pause to an evangelical Protestant about such an exalted attribution. That he was a conservator of orthodoxy, an effective missiologist, and a zealous and clever churchman cannot be denied. While he disciplined and corrected heretics in one category of doctrine, however, he just as surely baptized a gospel that was no gospel.
Born around 540 in Rome, Gregory was reared as a “saint among saints.” His father was a devout Christian while his mother, Silvia (in her widowhood), and two paternal aunts lived austere cloistral lives. Gregory pursued a secular occupation under appointment by Emperor Justin II and dressed appropriately in silk, sparkling gems, and a purple striped trabea. Even then he sought to live for God, but found it hard. At his father’s death, he decided to devote himself to a religious life. He used his inherited wealth for the relief of the poor and the establishment of several cloisters. He gave himself to prayer and contemplation, the study of Latin Scripture, and read thoroughly the writings of Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose. His austerities debilitated him and generated life-long suffering from gout, indigestion, and a general malaise.
Gregory’s legal training and proven administrative talents foiled his plans for personal seclusion. Benedict I constrained him to be one of the seven Roman deacons. Pelagius II, needing imperial confirmation of his selection as bishop as well as military aid against the Lombards, sent Gregory to Constantinople. In the first Gregory succeeded, in the second, garnering help against the Lombards, he could gain no aid. While there, he occupied himself and his amenuenses in writing Moralia, a “commentary” on Job, a succession of moral and spiritual meditations elaborated by ingenious allegory.
Upon his return to Rome in 585, Gregory retired to his monastery, St. Andrew’s, where he spent the most tranquil and joyful five years of his life. On the death of Pelagius II in 590, Gregory was elected bishop. His sincere preference for the contemplative life and his belief that reticence born of pious fear showed a qualifying humility led Gregory to shrink from the position until the populace of Rome forced him to it. The difficulties facing the church and all of Western culture might have inundated a man of lesser talents with a series of tragic failures; Gregory turned the situation into a triumph for the church of Rome.
Gregory laid the foundation for an expanding Romanism in several ways. First, his missionary vision and practical methodology virtually guaranteed the submission of Europe to Rome. Stephen Neill opines, “His action was fresh and remarkable, since in contrast to the haphazard way in which churches had generally grown up, this was almost the first example since the days of Paul of a carefully planned and calculated mission.” In 596 Gregory sent a Benedictine monk, Augustine, along with about thirty others, to England to convert the Angles. They lost heart; Augustine returned to Rome seeking relief from the assignment. Gregory, undaunted, sent him back with a letter of admonition: “Since it had been better not to have begun what is good than to return back from it when begun, you must, most beloved sons, fulfil the good work which with the help of the Lord you have begun.” He also loaded him with letters that guaranteed the strategic help he needed. Having sent Augustine “for the winning of souls,” Gregory confidently assumed succor and aid for any necessity the missionaries had to insure success. Any who did so would certainly share their spiritual glory. The subsequent letters to Augustine formed a missiology for future endeavors. England eventually, at the Synod of Whitby in 662, entered into the orbit of Roman ecclesiastical authority (until the 1530s).
Second, Gregory contributed to the dominance of the Benedictine Rule for monastic life. As the first monk to become a pope, Gregory nurtured and encouraged the contemplative life. He found Benedict’s form the most practical and energetic. Gregory’s Dialogues preserves the hagiography of Benedict. Monks, disrupted from Monte Cassino, brought the Rule and the lore to Rome where Gregory began using the Rule in St. Andrew’s. Augustine’s mission spread it to Canterbury. Subsequent mission endeavors under Benedictines, notably Boniface, guaranteed the spread of the Benedictine Rule and the submission of converts to Rome.
Third, Gregory’s skill and zeal in administrative, political, and charitable work laid the foundation for the Papal States. As the work of imperial agents receded, the work of the church, in particular the Roman bishop, increased. As the empire in the West crumbled, the rocks that fell were remolded by Rome into Christendom. The bishop repaired the aqueducts, guaranteed the corn supply, waged war, struck treaties and compromises, ransomed captives, fed the poor, and arranged tributes in order to relieve the ravaged city from further outrage from the rapacious Lombards. Church funds, garnered from the expanding properties of the Roman church, financed all these projects. Gregory had no choice but to take over.
Fourth, in like manner he asserted his authority over churches. Opposition did not deter his assumption of authority. Though he despised the ostentatious title claimed by the bishop of Constantinople, Universal Priest, and worked feverishly to have the emperor denounce it, Gregory’s rejection of the title saw no corresponding rejection of its power for himself. The ascription was a “proud and profane title,” a “foolish title,” a “frivolous name,” the “precursor of Antichrist.” The one who claimed it, though doctrinally orthodox, nevertheless committed the “sin of elation.” But just as surely, he sought to bring all who resisted his authority, by any means within his reach, to a point of repentance for their pride and rebellion. Through more than 850 extant letters, Gregory gave instructions in moral, ecclesiastical, pastoral, monastic, administrative, and doctrinal issues to princes, bishops, deacons, monks, and abbots. The Archbishop of Dalmatia, after an extended controversy, repented by lying prone on the paving stones in Ravenna for three hours crying, “I have sinned against God and the most blessed Pope Gregory.”
To his credit, and the happiness of Christians everywhere, Gregory maintained a strict orthodoxy. He affirmed in the clearest and most aggressive way the theology of the first four ecumenical councils and condemned unequivocally all the errors that they condemned.
In addition, Gregory loved Scripture, had committed large portions of it to memory, and urged others, including the laity to read, yea, saturate themselves with its words. He warned a physician, Theodorus, not to be so dominated by secular pursuits that he failed “to read daily the words of his Redeemer.” On these he should meditate daily to learn the heart of his Creator and “sigh more ardently for the things that are eternal, that your soul may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys.” He refused the ordination of a bishop because he was “ignorant of the Psalms.”
Gregory also exhibited great wisdom in matters of pastoral theology and showed remarkable discrimination in his understanding of human character and motivation. His book Pastoral Rule has many fine insights into pastoral qualifications and ministry, informed by a thorough knowledge of the four gospels, Paul’s letters, the prophets, and many strange allegorical interpretations of historical material. His suggestions about admonishing different classes in the church are priceless and should be studied by every minister. A minister must teach so as “to suit all and each for their several needs, and yet never deviate from the art of common edification.” The teacher should “edify all in the one virtue of charity” and should “touch the hearts of his hearers out of one doctrine, but not with one and the same exhortation.”
Much, however, in Gregory fouls the sweetness of his instruction and his orthodoxy. As indicated, his allegory at time passes the bounds of outrageousness. Medieval interpretation suffered; formalization of his method closed Scripture to the laity. His credulous acceptance of stories of miracles performed by relics of the saints, sometimes of comical proportions and sometimes like the horror gimmicks of a slasher movie, helped create the massive burden of the medieval penitential system. Add to this his acceptance of the intercession of departed saints, his belief in the efficacy of masses for the dead, his anecdotal exposition of a state of purgatory, and his belief in the merits of pious works and a concoction alien to the biblical Gospel emerges. If for centuries Augustine of Hippo was read through the eyes of Gregory, it is no wonder that rediscoveries of the evangelical Augustine created such consternation in the sixteenth century.