Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Though Gregory was born from wealthy and noble parents, he renounced the world with its luxuries and became a monk in a monastic order which he himself had set up. Because of his learning, his expertise in government diplomacy, his great piety, and his apparent humility he was chosen as pope by popular acclaim.
He was the first real pope in the history of Roman Catholicism; and from his chair in the papal see at Rome he extended his influence over all of the Western Mediterranean world, over all of Europe and North Africa, and, although to a lesser extent, over the Easternchurch. He was one of the most influential popes of all history, and his influence shaped the entire medieval papacy. It is not an exaggeration to say that every aspect of the church’s life bears the imprint of Gregory.
Gregory’s accomplishments were many, some good, most bad. We shall take a look at both kinds.
Gregory’s Influence in Worship
Gregory took an interest in the worship of the church. To a certain extent, worship, especially in the West had developed extensively over the centuries and had assumed some fixed form. But Gregory, a skilled liturgist who was sensitive to the nuances of worship, made some changes, fixed for all time some aspects of worship, and added some elements heretofore ignored.
He introduced into the church the chant; and to this day those chants, known as Gregorian chants, are popular and common. The technical aspects of the music are beyond my understanding, but it is clear that Gregory introduced these chants, in part at least, in an effort to introduce music into the lives of the monks, but also to give the singing to choirs within the church and take it away from the congregation.
Gregory was also a preacher. In fact, he was a very popular preacher, who loved to preach and who, through preaching, influenced the thinking of the people in Rome.
One aspect of his preaching requires special notice. Although allegorical preaching was characteristic in certain parts of the church for many centuries, Gregory perfected and codified the art. Gregory did not know Hebrew and Greek and could not work with the original languages. Nor did he have any training in grammatical and historical interpretation. His allegorizing is an exegetical curiosity.
Gregory was able to find, either between or beneath the lines of Scripture, the whole history of Jesus Christ and a whole natural and revealed theology.
The names of persons and things, the number, and even the syllables, are filled with mystic meaning. Job represents Christ; his wife the carnal nature; his seven sons (seven being the number of perfection) represent the apostles, and hence the clergy; his three daughters the three classes of the faithful laity who are to worship the Trinity; his friends the heretics; the seven thousand sheep the perfect Christians; the five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred she-asses again the heathen, because the prophet Isaiah says: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”
Gregory, in a way, canonized this form of interpretation. Because of his influence and because of his success as a preacher, this type of exegesis became a kind of norm for preaching. It even developed into a form of exegesis which required the exegete to find a four-fold meaning in the text.
This type of exegesis was utilized by the RC church to take the Scriptures away from the people of God. Who can understand the Scriptures except those trained, when these Scriptures have such strange and deep meanings? The Reformation, and particularly Luther, brought the church back to the literal interpretation of Scripture, for it is the literal interpretation which allows God’s people to understand those Scriptures whether they be young or old, educated or uneducated, wise or simple. God writes Scripture for all His people.
Allegorical interpretation remains the curse of much exegesis in the church to the present.
Of even greater importance is Gregory’s development of the doctrine of the mass and of transubstantiation.
It is true that much controversy would continue to swirl around these questions for several centuries, and it is true that the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation would not be fixed as dogma for several more centuries; but Gregory began its real development. He taught that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, though a completed sacrifice, nevertheless continues in the mass. When the priest celebrates the mass, therefore, he reenacts the atonement on Calvary. To do this, the priest changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. And, because of that change in the substance, the church, through the mass, is able to bring various influences to bear on God in connection with the sins of the people. Gregory is, in fact, known as the father of masses and transubstantiation.
Because of the importance of the mass, the entire liturgy was organized around the mass. While preaching continued in the church, the mass became more and more the important thing. As the ages rolled by, preaching was gradually to go into total eclipse and the mass alone, with all its rituals and ceremonies, constituted the worship service. This practice too did not end until the Reformation.
Gregory the Monk
Gregory was the first monk to sit on the throne of the see of Rome. He became a monk early and never forsook his monastic ways. In fact, Gregory was partly instrumental in giving form and shape to medieval monasticism.
Gregory did much to formulate rules governing monasteries; but he also used his enormous influence to regulate monasteries throughout the Western church and to enforce the rules that had been made. Monasticism, in its very nature, can be conducive to a very ascetic life which is given over to many outward forms of piety. Monasteries can also become, by their very nature, cesspools of corruption. The efforts to observe the vows of poverty and celibacy can (and did) result in drunkenness, gluttony, and fornication. Gregory imposed strict discipline upon wayward monasteries and ordered wicked monks thrown out of the movement—and, if necessary, the church.
In order to achieve his goal, Gregory made clerical celibacy the rule in the church. It had been widely practiced; it had been extolled as particularly virtuous; it had been enforced in some parts of the church. But many married priests could be found. That is, until Gregory. Celibacy was, from Gregory’s time, required. In more evil times, concubinage was tolerated, but marriage was forbidden.
More than these things, Gregory, in his favor towards monasticism, gave to the monks the status of a kind of quasi-clergy. They were not exactly clergyman, but they were not laymen either. They hung somewhere in between. But, because all monastic movements and orders were directly authorized by the pope, and because these monastic orders were directly responsible to the pope and had to answer to no one other than the pope, they became a kind of pope’s army. Future popes knew how to manipulate these monks to serve their own purposes. Monks became a plague on the church. Europe was full of them. They often wandered around, interfered in the affairs of others, preached, administered the sacraments, enforced papal decrees, defended the by-the-pope-defined doctrines, and generally made a colossal nuisance of themselves. It was Gregory who began this practice.
Gregory the Theologian
Although not original, Gregory numbered among his extensive gifts the abilities of a theologian. In fact, his writings became standard textbooks in theological schools for several centuries.
Yet his theology was sadly deficient. Gregory maintained, of course, the decrees of the great councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon; he was orthodox in all matters for which these councils stood. But he nevertheless was a Semi-Pelagian. This is particularly distressing, for Gregory was in a position to do otherwise. It is true that the compromising synod of Orange (529) had adopted a kind of Semi-Pelagianism, and it is true that Benedict II had fixed these decisions for the church as dogma. But the question was still being discussed, and Gregory could have used his influence for good.
Gregory was a monk. And, as we noticed in an earlier article, monasticism and the doctrine of merit are two sides of the same coin. Augustine had no room for merit in his theology, for all was of God. Semi-Pelagianism did have room for human merit. Gregory led the church into this devilish error.
Gregory was a vigorous defender of ecclesiastical orthodoxy—in some instances. He fought tooth and nail against the Donatists in North Africa. Would to God he had been as courageous in his battle against the Pelagians. But Gregory wanted the doctrine of merit. He wanted it for his precious monks to make their life of self-sacrifice worthwhile. He wanted it for all the people of the church. And so he spoke of the value of good works because of their meritorious nature. By virtue of the merit earned through good works and penance, one could atone for the sins which a person committed and so earn favor with God.
It is not strange that this idea led Gregory to two other ideas. The first was the doctrine of purgatory, for a place had to be invented for those people who had done insufficient good works to atone for their deficiencies in life. The second was the doctrine of works of supererogation, for there were some who did so many good works that they did not need them all to atone for their moral lapses and falls. Hence a bank of good works was built up, the assets of which could be used for others.
Everyone who knows anything about the Reformation knows what a lucrative business this became for Rome, which raked in much of the wealth of Europe by its preposterous and blasphemous doctrine of indulgences.
Thus also Gregory was not averse to denying the doctrines of sovereign grace. He taught freely a conditional predestination, a love of God for all men, a universal cross of Christ.
Gregory the Pope
Gregory always appeared in public as a humble man. He cultivated humility. He attempted to avoid becoming pope at all. He constantly referred to himself as Servant of servants. He refused the title of Universal Bishop. He protested every effort to be ruler in the church and among the nations.
But his protestations shall remain forever suspect, for his actions belied his words.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the medieval papacy was its insistence that the pope was not only the head of the church, but also the vicar of Christ in the political arena, and thus the king of kings. While it took centuries for the popes to realize this dream, there can be no question about it that Gregory began it.
The half-barbarian Lombards were a constant threat to Italy, and Gregory was the one most involved in defeating them. He fought the Lombards by obtaining troops and sending them against the barbarians; he engaged in negotiations with them and signed a peace treaty. He assumed responsibility for the political peace of the land.
I know that it can be argued that when the barbarians sacked Rome and destroyed the Roman empire in the West, the church was the only surviving institution. I know that the pope was the most influential man in the Western church. I know that the pope was in the best possible position to deal with these barbarian threats. But one cannot stretch Scripture so far that one finds in it the right of the pope to exercise political power. This remains a papal claim, and if it were possible, the pope would once again claim rule of the nations. It is not impossible that this also happens.
One other fact underscores what I say. Through various events in earlier centuries the church owned vast tracts of land throughout all Italy, in Sicily, Dalmatia, Gaul (France), and North Africa. As the pope became increasingly powerful, he became the overseer and ruler of all these possessions. The government of these areas fell upon the pope, the revenues entered his coffers, the problems came to his desk, the decisions had to be made in his study. And the result was that he became a sort of king over a private kingdom of his own. One has said, “In a word, the temporal sovereignty of the papacy then had its beginning.” The kingdom became known as the patrimonium petri, i.e., the patrimony of Peter.
And that brings me to another point. Already the pope was claiming his enormous powers on the basis of the Lord’s words, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). In other words, Gregory was claiming to be the successor of Peter, and was teaching that Peter was the head of all the apostles and of all the church.
For many years conflict and controversy had raged between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople concerning the question of who had preeminence in church matters. At Gregory’s time, the patriarch of Constantinople was claiming to be universal bishop. Gregory hated that and did all in his power to stop Constantinople’s head primate from calling himself by a title which indicated the patriarch’s claim to universal rule.
Gregory always railed against this practice of his rival in the East with many professions of humility and assurances that he wanted no part of such arrogance and blasphemy. But at the same time, his very ferocity revealed that Gregory considered himself to be what he was condemning in another.
And here Gregory acquired one of the worst stains upon his character. In order to get Constantinople’s patriarch to cease calling himself universal bishop, Gregory enlisted the aid of a certain Phocus. This man was an absolute monster of sin and evil. He had murdered the previous emperor, his wife, and his six children, and had set himself on the throne. Phocus so debauched the throne and the palace that the people rose in rebellion against him, dragged him from his throne, mutilated him, and cut off his head. But Gregory, during Phocus’ reign, enlisted the aid of such a monster by calling him high and lofty names, giving to him honorable titles, and fawning over him.
On another occasion Gregory did something similar. When the church in Gaul seemed unwilling to surrender its independence to papal control, Gregory enlisted the help of Brunhilda, a notoriously wicked woman, but one of considerable power. His theory was that the good she could (and did) do for the church merited sufficient forgiveness to cover her many and monstrous sins.
Popes after Gregory followed the same ethical rule: The end justifies the means. As long as something was good for the church, it mattered not what means were used to attain that goal.
Gregory the Missionary
It is better to end on a more positive note, although also here things take a sour turn.
We noticed earlier that Gregory was deeply interested in missions, especially in Great Britain. He pursued his missionary labors after he became pope and did much to promote the Christianizing of barbarian Europe.
Two mission policies were adopted by Gregory which were to affect all future mission work.
The first was that missionaries were instructed to adapt themselves as much as possible to pagan practices, while giving these practices a Christian meaning and Christian facade. I suppose today that would be called cultural or cross-cultural adaptation in missions.
The second principle was to instruct the missionaries to convert, if possible, the ruler of a land and work through the ruler to make the entire country Christian. This was, as a matter of fact, done in England. King Ethelbert married a Christian wife, was himself converted and baptized, and gradually influenced his entire nation to become Christian. It was a successful policy.
Gregory died on March 12, 604, at the age of 64, after being pope for only 14 years. But Rome and Europe were never the same.
Only at the Reformation did God deliver His church from Rome’s tyranny.