The ‘ultimate representative of ancient Rome’

Gregory the Great (540 – 604)

ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT FIGURES in the history of the Western Church at the dawn of the Middle Ages is Pope Gregory the Great. Born of wealthy parents belonging to the senatorial nobility, he received the best of the classical education of his day.

However, the young Gregory grew up in tumultuous times as the great ancient world began to crumble, ushering in an uncertain future. Historians have rightly described him as the ultimate representative of ancient Rome. His immense contributions to the development of the Latin Church as its pope have led posterity to accord him the title “the Great”.

As Charles Kannengiesser puts it, Gregory’s “individual embodiment of the spirit which for centuries had secured the prestige of the main capital city in post-classical antiquity opened for Rome the unthinkable possibility of a new universal leadership beyond its own collapse”. Pope Gregory was not simply a spectator of the great political and cultural drama of his time. Rather, as Kannengiesser points out, he “remained centre-stage on a scene of worldwide relationships for all his 14 years in the papal office”.

When Gregory was elected pope in 590, the Church that he was destined to provide leadership for was in ruins. Regarding himself as the Patriarch of the West, the new pontiff was determined to rejuvenate the Church with a series of reforms and expansionist initiatives.

He introduced measures to promote clerical celibacy and was instrumental in the conversion of the Visigothic King to Nicene orthodoxy. He brought Catholicism to the British Isles by initiating several successful missions, most notable of which was Augustine’s mission (Augustine was a 6th century Benedictine monk, who was acknowledged as the “Apostle to the English” and who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury). Readers should not confuse him with Augustine of Hippo (the great theologian of the fifth century). Gregory even tried to gain more autonomy for the Church in the Frankish territories, although he was unsuccessful. By such efforts Gregory the Great managed to secure a new future for the Roman Church.

Not only was Gregory an effective religious leader, he was also a prolific writer who wanted to preserve the great theological traditions of the Church, especially those associated with his beloved Augustine. roughout his tenure as pope, Gregory sought to promote the thoughts of the great 5th century theologian and Bishop of Hippo.

Gregory believed himself to be a faithful interpreter of Augustine even as he realised that the Augustinian tradition must be incarnated in a very different historical and cultural context. Gregory tried to preserve the chief Augustinian doctrines, including the incorporeal nature of the soul and his famous conceptualisation of the Trinity. But beyond Augustine, Gregory also embraced the orthodoxy of the great ecumenical councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon. By preserving Nicene orthodoxy and Augustinian theology, he has made an important contribution to the Church in a period of political turmoil and intellectual decline.

Gregory’s preservation and promotion of what has been described as the Augustinian spirit was anything but slavish. is is seen especially in his doctrine of grace, predestination and salvation. Here, Gregory preferred to mine the earlier writings of Augustine before the latter’s encounter with Pelagius. Gregory saw that Augustine’s early theology of grace was much closer to that of the other patristic theologians than his later conceptualisations found in the anti-Pelagian writings.

Thus, Gregory taught that God has predestined to salvation those whom “he calls elect because he knows that they will persevere in faith and in good works”.

In other words, predestination is not based on God’s eternal decree by which he foreordained some to salvation and not others, as the later Augustine had taught. In concert with the early Fathers of the Church, Gregory taught that predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge of the sinner’s response to his saving grace. Consequently, Gregory rejected Augustine’s doctrine of irresistible grace.

GREGORY ALSO REVIVED the practice of penance that was found in some churches during the Patristic era. His theology of penance, however, led him to place an inordinate emphasis on the concept of purgatory. Sinners, according to Gregory, must come before God in repentance through the mediation of the priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Gregory’s understanding of penance therefore includes all the traditional elements: contrition, confession and satisfaction.

After hearing the confession of the sinner, the priest pronounces the absolution. By this act, the priest does not forgive the sins of the confessor, but merely confirms the forgiveness that God has already granted. But following Augustine and other writers, Gregory taught that satisfaction for sin does not only take place in this life. Christians who die with minor sins for which satisfaction has not been obtained will be purified in purgatory before they are allowed entry into heaven.

The doctrine of purgatory, which continues to be part of the Roman Catholic theology of salvation, was emphatically rejected by the 16th century Reformers.

Be that as it may, Gregory’s contributions to the Western Church are truly remarkable. rough his efforts, reasonable peace and order was restored, and the conditions for the great theological and liturgical traditions of the Church to flourish once again were put in place.

Scholars like Bengt Hägglund are therefore correct to say that “Gregory the Great must be ranked without question among the most important of those who laid the foundation for medieval theology and for medieval culture in general”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.