Two Key Men

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Gregory “The Great”


The Middle Ages, or Medieval Christianity, gave rise to some significant men. A reader of Church History might find any number of individuals that suit their fancy. I have chosen to give two names that contributed to the rise of Christianity in unique ways. As I previously mentioned, the early Middle Ages saw the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, and the rise of the Bishop of Rome to a prominent position. Some of the earliest Bishops of Rome captured various positions of authority. Some helped slow the barbarian invasions through political tactics, others used their authority to push ecclesiastical mandates throughout the empire. The first man I want to discuss was not any different. I will discuss the second man in the next post.

Gregory “The Great,” or Gregory I, was born around 540, nearly 70 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory was raised in a senatorial family. For a Roman, this meant a life of luxury and leisure. He would have had all the privileges and provisions that came to the highest class of citizens. By the age of 37 he was elected governor of Rome, but later left to pursue the monastic lifestyle of the Benedictine sort. At the time of Gregory’s move to monasticism, Pelagius II was Pope. Pelagius saw promising qualities in Gregory and appointed him as the ambassador to Constantinople. Gregory spent six years immersed in theological controversy in Constantinople. Soon after his move toward monasticism he met a man named Augustine, not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo. Augustine would eventually be sent to England to start a monastic work under the leadership of Gregory. Justo Gonzalez recounts the initiating work of God on Gregory’s life leading up to the appointment of Augustine. Gonzalez says,

“A biographer of Gregory the Great . . . records an incident in which young Gregory, who was then living as a monk in Rome, saw some blond men who were to be sold as slaves. ‘What is the nationality of these lads?’ Gregory asked. ‘They are Angles,’ he was told. ‘Angles they are in truth, for their faces look like such. Where is their country?’ ‘In Deiri.’ ‘De ira [from wrath] they are indeed, for they have been called from wrath to God’s mercy. Who is their king?’ ‘Aella.’ ‘Alleluia! In that land must the name of God be praised’” (275).

It would be a short time later that the Lombards sacked Rome and Pelagius II was killed, and in 590 Gregory was be elected Pope, the Bishop of Rome. By this time in the “empire” no one took leadership. There was not an Emperor to govern the people, so Gregory as the new Pope took it upon himself to lead. One might define his leadership in different ways, but no one can argue his zeal for the role.

What were some of his contributions?

He consolidated political and ecclesiastical authority. Since Rome was falling apart, he stepped in and took control. This meant he helped in the collection of taxes, distribution of food to the poor, foreign trade, rebuilding Rome’s defense, as well as leading the Church. We may not truly be able to ascertain the importance of these acts.

He also had religious contributions. Gregory would send his friend, Augustine, to England, a difficult land, yet over time they would be very successful in spreading Christianity. In Spain, he assisted in the Nicene Christian conversion of the Visigoth’s. He promoted clerical celibacy, a rapidly growing idea. His hymn writing later became known as “Gregorian chants” that are still used today. He was also a prolific writer. Gonzalez says, “In his writings he did not seek to be creative or original” (287). He popularized the speculative thoughts of Saint Augustine, this time the one from the 400’s. We must be clear; Gregory did not invent these thoughts, but took them from the contemplative thoughts of Augustine. I for one would debate the validity of even the conjecture of Augustine’s ideas.

What are some of the speculative thoughts Gregory popularized?

Gregory took the doctrine of salvation promoted by Augustine and mitigated it, laying aside Augustine’s predestination and irresistible grace, desiring to see how we offer satisfaction to God for sins committed. Through this process Gregory helped to push forward the teaching of penance with a regular process one goes through to alleviate the penalty for the sin. With that thought in mind, Gregory popularized the teaching of purgatory, a holding place for God’s children who needed to pay some sin debt. He increased the thought of transubstantiation, or the doctrine of the mass converting to the literal body and blood of Christ, as the priest blessed. Prayers to the saints and use of holy relics are just some of the practices Gregory expanded during his reign as Bishop of Rome.

Pope Gregory I was not the most intellectual of men; however, his impact upon Medieval Christianity is still felt today. As with every man in history, there are positive and negative thoughts. What we can say without a question, God used him, lead him, and ordained that which he did. God was sparing the sparks of the Gospel even through these trying times, all leading to an eventual “rediscovery” of the fullness of the Gospel!


  1. dr. james willingham says

    I ain’t too impressed by Gregory the Great. After all, he is considered to be one of the first popes to really assert himself as head of the church, a claim which was opposed then and even earlier. He sent Augustine the missionary to England, and there, virtually, they began the work of displacing Keltic Christianity which, interestingly enough, had maintained contact with the churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, churches which did not by Rome’s assertion of authority over all the other churches. In fact, one of the great forgeries of history is connected with the supposed donation of the Roman Empire by a Caesar, a claim later exposed by a Renaissance scholar in the 13-400s. All during the time of Gregory and other popes, there were the people of the valleys in Northern Italy and other areas of the Alps who were maintaining a more biblical form of Christianity. Just consider the Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Priscillianists, and others who did not submit to Rome’s authority and the rise of a terrible institution which promoted religious wars and the Inquisition, an inquisition, not limited to Spain by any means. While the Albigensians or Cathers of Southern France were, very likely, heretics, the rage of Rome over their failure to submit led to a crusade in Southern France in the 1200s, the Albigensian Crusade. One city was destroyed, and the crusaders came to the Catholic church where many had fled, claiming to be Catholic. When the soldiers asked the Inquisitor and representative of Rome what to do, his answer was: “Kill them all. God knows His own.”

    As to holy relics, a lot of them were manufactured. Someone once made an estimate of how many tons of the original cross there was in Europe. It was, in one sense, quite comical, and, in another sense, sad beyond words to see how the masses were held in servile ignorance and superstition.

  2. Christiane says

    from Trevin Wax’s blog,
    a prayer from Gregory:

    ‘”You Came to Taste Death, Yet You Were the Life”

    O Lord, You received affronts
    without number from Your blasphemers,
    yet each day You free captive souls
    from the grip of the ancient enemy.

    You did not avert Your face
    from the spittle of perfidy,
    yet You wash souls in saving waters.

    You accepted Your scourging without murmur,
    yet through Your meditation
    You deliver us from endless chastisements.

    You endured ill-treatment of all kinds,
    yet You want to give us a share
    in the choirs of angels in glory everlasting.

    You did not refuse to be crowned with thorns,
    yet You save us from the wounds of sin.

    In Your thirst You accepted the bitterness of gall,
    yet You prepare Yourself to fill us with eternal delights.

    You kept silence under the derisive homage
    rendered You by Your executioners,
    yet You petition the Father for us

    although You are His equal in Divinity.
    You came to taste death,
    yet You were the Life and had come to bring it to the dead.”

    – Gregory the Great, 540-604 A.D.’

    • Andy says

      As you have additionally shown, there is something to learn and appreciate from all of these men. Thanks for posting this!

  3. says

    Dr. James,
    Please don’t take my article as a whole sale endorsement of Gregory. I have a desire to make many aware of history. Thank you for your insights, I do plan to show the eventual corruption of the papacy that you mention. By the 1100’s it is in full swing. I will say some of the groups you mentioned as not submitting to Rome’s authority were considered heretical, and would still be so today.

    the study of history is essential, and we should seek to help others know it!

      • Christiane says

        Southern Baptists have sung to a tune from Gregorian chant since the 1800’s
        . . . the beautiful hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

        no, I’m sure they weren’t aware of the melody’s Gregorian beginnings, but I think part of the hymn’s beauty IS the simplicity of the melody . . . the few notes, five or so I think, plain sung, compliments the words of lyricist Isaac Watt’s hymn so that the beautiful words are not overwhelmed by its simple tune

        • Christiane says

          and, come to think it, the ‘scales’ derived from Gregorian chant show up in
          ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles,
          ‘Scarborough Fair’ (English folk song),
          ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson

          I guess Gregory the Great’s ‘chant’ is an enduring inspirational phenomenon in music, people often aren’t aware of what they are hearing when those ancient chant scales show up in modern music

  4. Andy says

    And to be honest, out history is directly tied to this heritage. They only way you wouldn’t agree to that is if you are a successionist (landmarker).

  5. Job Dalomba says

    I always enjoy your posts and this one was really good. Thanks for the history thread. For history lovers, this is always enjoyable.