The modern church for the most part is suffering from amnesia about its past. Many seem to think that they are pioneering a new movement, while failing to see that they were preceded by two thousand years of church history. These churches and Christian leaders are embarking on the most dangerous of journeys without realizing a narrow path has already been blazed for future generations to follow.
The Discovery Channel has produced a reality show called Everest: Beyond the Limit. This show is the story of a few brave souls who are willing to have their attempt to conquer this terrifying mountain recorded for the world to see. However, when setting out on this rigorous journey, they don’t neglect to seek the counsel of those who have gone before them. In fact, an expert climber guides them the whole way up the mountain by radio. These climbers are not only led by a professional, but follow a trusted path to the summit of Everest.
How, the church today could learn by the example of these climbers and look back to those who have successfully climbed the mountain. Justo Gonzalez is right when he says, “Without understanding the past, we are unable to understand ourselves”. It is this self-understanding that is missing in much of modern Christianity. The church lives,
moves, and has its being in the traditions of her past or lack there of without even knowing it. But the church is not only affected by the traditions it inherits, but by a failure to realize that many of the situations the church faces today have already been weathered by previous generations, as Solomon says, “There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).”
Therefore, it is the purpose of this paper to present the life and work of Gregory the Great, in order to hear from one who has walked that narrow path, while at the same time not covering up his stumbling along the way. First, his life will be briefly sketched. Second, a sample of some of Gregory’s theological views will be addressed. Third, this paper will examine the works and writings of this saint.
Gregory was born in 540 A.D. in Rome, Italy. His family was very devout. He great-great grandfather was Pope Felix III. His father worked for the Church of Rome and his three sisters became nuns. His mother, Silvia was made a saint by the Catholic Church. When his father was on his deathbed, Gregory converted the entire house into a monastery, which he dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew. He also later on entered the monastery as a monk.
He reluctantly became bishop in 590 A.D. He was grieved and sorrowful to take on a position of such dignity. Upon hearing of his grief, John, archbishop of Ravenna rebuked him for his hesitancy. Gregory’s Pastoral Care is a response to John,
explaining to him his own understanding of the weight of the office. Even though, Gregory I did not jump at the opportunity of becoming a bishop, he evidently executed his duties with skill and character. Commenting on the significance of Gregory I and his papacy, Noll says, “The summit of early papacy was reached in the pontificate Gregory I.” Gonzalez also agrees, saying, “The next pope, Gregory, was one of the ablest men to occupy that position.”
One of the reasons that Gregory is accredited with such honors is because he was a man of integrity. Furthermore, Noll explains, “The crowing glory of Gregory’s pontificate was that somehow…he seems to have remained a humble, pious Christian.” While others gloried in the power of the papacy, Gregory wanted to retreat from the position. Even those soon after the Great, perverted their leadership and a dark cloud loomed over Rome. But throughout his papacy Gregory seems to have remained faithful.
Another reason Gregory was such an excellent leader was his love for preaching and teaching the word of God. In fact, a quick skimming of his Liber regulae pastoralis will prove his love for scripture. The work is saturated with text after text. Gregory was a preacher of the word, as Noll points out, “He was highly regarded as a preacher, especially for his ability to apply the gospel to the many tumults and disasters of his time.” His zeal for preaching led him to inspire many to rededication and missions work. Gonzalez also commends Gregory for his passion for preaching, when he says, “Gregory considered himself above all a religious leader. He preached constantly in various churches in Rome, calling the faithful to renewed commitment.” So, Gregory was truly a man mighty in word and deed.
Gregory’s theology flowed from this method of interpretation. He had a threefold method of exegesis (literal, mystical, and moral). For instance, Gregory commenting on Exodus 25:12-15, says, “What is symbolized by the ark but the Holy Church?” This would later become a standard. Gregory’s Liber regulae pastoralis is full of mystical interpretations of the Old Testament priesthood. This can especially be seen in reference to the apparel of the priests and the articles within the Tabernacle and Temple. However, the other two aspects of his hermeneutic can also can be clearly seen in this writing, making it very profitable.
Based on Augustine’s speculation about a place where people might be purged of their sin before going to heaven, Gregory “gave impetus to the development of the doctrine of purgatory.” In fact, Gregory’s writings were heavily influenced by St. Augustine, although he should have differed with the bishop at this point. Additionally, on the impact of Augustine, Gonzalez comments, “His greatest pride was not to say anything that had not been held by the great teachers…particularly Saint Augustine. To him, it sufficed to be a disciple of the great bishop of Hippo, a teacher of his teachings.”
While furthering Augustine’s speculations about purgatory, Gregory I rejected Augustine’s understanding of predestination and irresistible grace. Gregory “was more concerned with the question of how we are to offer satisfaction to God for sins committed.” He saw this as being done through penance, which consisted of contrition, confession, and actual punishment or satisfaction. He believed that the living could help those who had died out of purgatory by offering masses on their behalf. In conducting these masses for people who had died, Gregory believed “that in mass or communion Christ was sacrificed anew.” While the there are many wonderful doctrines and practices where Gregory should be followed, the above are a few where it would be unbiblical to agree with.
Gregory’s Works and Writings
Gregory the Great, after becoming Pope, did not seek merely to retain the monastic lifestyle he had previously lived, but was rigorous in fulfilling his office as bishop. Moreover, Noll expounds, “The list of Gregory’s energetic accomplishments as pope is breathtaking.” He is one of those men whom it may be unreasonable for most to imitate, because of the sheer vastness of his accomplishments.
Here is only a sampling of this ‘Great’ man’s undertakings. When the Lombards attacked, Gregory oversaw the Roman defense. He aided with negotiations with the Roman emperor in Constantinople. He transformed the finances of the church. Concerning the boundaries and responsibilities of the Western dioceses, Gregory reorganized them.
He was a zealous student of the word. He also sought to reform worship. He was serious about promoting music in the church. To top it all off, Gregory gave oversight to the churches changes in missionary strategy. He sent missionaries North and West to important European locations. The missionary advances spearheaded by Gregory led to the conversion of the Arian Visigoths in Spain to orthodoxy. They sent Augustine (Not the North African) to England, which brought about the conversion of the Angles and the Saxons. During a time of disease and extreme poverty, in Rome, Gregory spearheaded the distribution of food to the poor.
He wrote many expositions on scripture. Particularly, Gregory wrote a commentary on Job, which Noll says, “Became staples of study throughout the entire middle ages and beyond.” In 590, Gregory the Great wrote Liber regulae pastoralis. Concerning this work, Noll says, “For nearly a thousand years, it was the Western Churches principle guide in pastoral counseling.”
This writing, which has been translated into English and given the title Pastoral Care, was to many a sure guide in unforgiving terrain, just like the expert climber on the other end of the radio for those on Everest: Beyond the Limit. The purpose of the book was to show that “the care of souls as the key activity for all pastors.” The book is divided into four sections: 1) “one should carefully consider the way in which the position of supreme rule ought to be approached,” 2) “how life should be spent in it” or the life of the pastor, 3) “one should teach others,” and 4) “with what vigilance one should realize each day one’s weakness.”
Part one deals with the one who is considering the office of pastor. Gregory uses the title “one should carefully consider the way in which the position of supreme rule ought to be approached,” as mentioned above. In this section, he examines several criteria that one should seriously contemplate if a man is even thinking about pursing this high calling.
In chapter one, Gregory begins by saying, “No one ventures to teach any art unless he has learned it after deep thought.” He is saying that the pastoral ministry should not be entered into lightly. Gregory warned those carelessly and also prudently wanting to become pastors to think deeply about it, just as Jesus warned those who were seeking to follow him in discipleship to count the cost. In this case of the negligent, he warns, “People who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of pressing themselves to be physicians of the heart.” However, the opposite should be the case, but being unaware of the warnings to those who instruct people from the word of God, some people fly into the position without being qualified. This should not be for those who are aware the magnitude of pastoral ministry.
Chapter three of part one is given the title The burden of government. Every adversity is to be disregarded, and prosperity feared. Speaking of Jesus, Gregory says,
“He fled from the exalted glory offered Him and chose the pain of an ignominious death, that His members might learn to flee from the favours of the world, not to fear its terrors, to love adversity for the sake of the truth, to shrink in fear from prosperity, for this latter thing often defiles the heart by vainglory, but the other cleanses it by sorrow.” Rarely if ever will young ministers hear in the churches in which they are being discipled “to shrink in fear from prosperity”. However, as Gregory points out, this is the burden of government which is laid upon all who truly come after Christ in this manner. Pastors should expect similar temptations as were presented to Jesus, when he was offered the kingdoms of this world in exchange for worship of Satan. In addition, their response should be the same.
Gregory titles chapter ten The character required of a man who comes to rule. One of the main character traits, required of a pastor is that “He must die to all passions of the flesh and by now lead a spiritual life. He must put aside worldly prosperity; he must fear no adversity, desire only what is interior.” The one approaching this ministry must “by now lead a spiritual life”. In other words, this should already be something as normal as breathing to the prospect. He must already be an example to the flock. Gregory goes on to say, “He so studies to live as to be able to water the dry hearts of others with the streams of instruction imparted.” This is how important the pastors own personal sanctification is to his hearers; it is life giving water. For by watching his life, he is able to point them to spring from which he is already drinking.
Part two is given the heading How life should be spent in it, which means the life of the pastor. So, Gregory moves on from what to consider before taking the office to what the pastor’s life should look like once in that station. The first chapter in this section is called The conduct required of one who has in due order reached the position of ruler. Gregory says, “The conduct of the prelate should so far surpass the conduct of the people, as the life of a pastor sets him apart from his flock.” It is a sad thing in this day, when the character of the flock succeeds that of the pastor and when the flock is leading the shepherd. Chapter one outlines the rest of this part of the book.
In chapter four, Gregory deals with the topic of speech, giving it the title The ruler should be discreet in keeping silence and profitable in speech. In it, he says,
“Often, indeed, incautious rulers, being afraid of loosing human favor, fear to speak freely of what is right, and, in the words of truth, do not exercise zeal of shepherds caring for the flock, but serve the role of mercenaries; for when the wolf appears, they flee and hide themselves in silence.” How true are these words, when the air of much modern preaching is so clouded with the fear of men that the word of God is eclipsed. When this happens, pastors prove that they “do not exercise zeal of shepherds caring for the flock”. They show where their true allegiance lies which is with themselves and their own foolish pride.
The seventh chapter in this section is given the title In his preoccupation with external matters the ruler should not relax his care for the inner life, nor should his solicitude for the inner life cause neglect of the external. Expounding upon this idea, Gregory insightfully says, “For often some persons, forgetting that they are superiors of their brethren for the sake of their souls, devote themselves with all concentration of heart to secular affairs.” Here the heart of Gregory’s work is clearly seen, when he says, “for the sake of their souls”. It is the duty of the pastor to look after the souls of his people, but how can he do this when he is wrapped up in civilian affairs. The result of this type if desertion is “Consequently, the life of their subjects undoubtedly grows languid, because, though these wish to make spiritual progress, they are confronted with the stumbling block, as it were, of the example of their superior.”
Part four only contains one chapter with the caption With what vigilance one should realize each day one’s weakness. This chapter deals with the minister’s self-watch. One of the greatest dangers in ministry is that while “restoring others to health by healing their wounds, he must not disregard his own health and develop tumors of pride.” This is the paradoxical trap of ministry that in seeking the good of others, one neglects the good of their own soul. If the physician is unable to work, how can he attend to his patients? Furthermore, Gregory says, “In many instances, indeed, the greatness of certain men’s virtues has been an occasion of their perdition.” How many countless men have failed to see this crevice in the glacier of pride and have fallen to their death?
The life of Gregory the Great is truly one that is remarkable for many reasons as have already been mentioned. In a day, when one rarely hears of a minister leaving a larger church for a smaller one, Gregory was extremely hesitant to accept the role of bishop. This is a great insight into the humility of this man. He was also a fervent lover of scripture and pastoral ministry. However, his teaching was not free from error, noting his views on purgatory and his rejection of the Augustinian idea of salvation.
Nevertheless, his life’s work is vast. He achieved many great things, which are worthy of emulation. One of which was his love for the people of God. This love is clearly seen in his Pastoral Care which survived for a thousand years in the Western Church. Rightly so it endured, since it is a safe path up the Everest of pastoral ministry. It may not be the principle text of pastors today, but the truths in it are timeless, touching even this generation staggering from historical amnesia!