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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!