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§ 52. The Writings of Gregory.


Comp. the second part of Lau’s biography, pp. 311 sqq., and Adolf Ebert: Geschichte der Christlich-Lateinischen Literatur, bis zum Zeitalter Karls der Grossen. Leipzig, 1874 sqq., vol. I. 516 sqq.


With all the multiplicity of his cares, Gregory found time for literary labor. His books are not of great literary merit, but were eminently popular and useful for the clergy of the middle ages.

His theology was based upon the four oecumenical councils and the four Gospels, which he regarded as the immovable pillars of orthodoxy; he also accepted the condemnation of the three chapters by the fifth oecumenical council. He was a moderate Augustinian, but with an entirely practical, unspeculative, uncritical, traditional and superstitious bent of mind. His destruction of the Palatine Library, if it ever existed, is now rejected as a fable; but it reflects his contempt for secular and classical studies as beneath the dignity of a Christian bishop. Yet in ecclesiastical learning and pulpit eloquence he had no superior in his age.

Gregory is one of the great doctors or authoritative fathers of the church. His views on sin and grace are almost semi-Pelagian. He makes predestination depend on fore-knowledge; represents the fallen nature as sick only, not as dead; lays great stress on the meritoriousness of good works, and is chiefly responsible for the doctrine of a purgatorial fire, and masses for the benefit of the souls in purgatory.

His Latin style is not classical, but ecclesiastical and monkish; it abounds in barbarisms; it is prolix and chatty, but occasionally sententious and rising to a rhetorical pathos, which he borrowed from the prophets of the Old Testament.

The following are his works:

1. Magna Moralia, in thirty-five books. This large work was begun in Constantinople at the instigation of Leander, bishop of Seville, and finished in Rome. It is a three-fold exposition of the book of Job according to its historic or literal, its allegorical, and its moral meaning.228228    Ep. missoria, cap. 3 (ed. Migne I. 513): ”Primum quidem fundamenta historice ponimus; deinde per significatinem typicam in artem fidei fabricam mentis erigimus; ad extremum per moralitatus gratiam, quasi superducto aedificium colore vestimus.”

Being ignorant of the Hebrew and Greek languages, and of Oriental history and customs (although for some time a resident of Constantinople), Gregory lacked the first qualifications for a grammatical and historical interpretation.

The allegorical part is an exegetical curiosity he reads between or beneath the lines of that wonderful poem the history of Christ and a whole system of theology natural and revealed. The names of persons and things, the numbers, 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 three thousand camels the heathen and Samaritans; 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.”

The moral sense, which Gregory explains last, is an edifying homiletical expansion and application, and a sort of compend of Christian ethics.

2. Twenty-two Homilies on Ezekiel, delivered in Rome during the siege by Agilulph, and afterwards revised.

3. Forty Homilies on the Gospels for the day, preached by Gregory at various times, and afterwards edited.

4. Liber Regulae Pastoralis, in four parts. It is a pastoral theology, treating of the duties and responsibilities of the ministerial office, in justification of his reluctance to undertake the burden of the papal dignity. It is more practical than Chrysostom’s “Priesthood.” It was held in the highest esteem in the Middle Ages, translated into Greek by order of the emperor Maurice, and into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred, and given to the bishops in France at their ordination, together with the book of canons, as a guide in the discharge of their duties. Gregory, according to the spirit of his age, enjoins strict celibacy even upon sub-deacons. But otherwise he gives most excellent advice suitable to all times. He makes preaching one of the chief duties of pastors, in the discharge of which he himself set a good example. He warns them to guard against the besetting sin of pride at the very outset; for they will not easily learn humility in a high position. They should preach by their lives as well as their words. “He who, by the necessity of his position, is required to speak the highest things, is compelled by the same necessity to exemplify the highest. For that voice best penetrates the hearts of hearers which the life of the speaker commends, because what he commends in his speech he helps to practice by his example.” He advises to combine meditation and action. “Our Lord,” he says, “continued in prayer on the mountain, but wrought miracles in the cities; showing to pastors that while aspiring to the highest, they should mingle in sympathy with the necessities of the infirm. The more kindly charity descends to the lowest, the more vigorously it recurs to the highest.” The spiritual ruler should never be so absorbed in external cares as to forget the inner life of the soul, nor neglect external things in the care for his inner life. “The word of doctrine fails to penetrate the mind of the needy, unless commended by the hand of compassion.”

5. Four books of Dialogues on the lives and miracles of St. Benedict of Nursia and other Italian saints, and on the immortality of the soul (593). These dialogues between Gregory and the Roman archdeacon Peter abound in incredible marvels and visions of the state of departed souls. He acknowledges, however, that he knew these stories only from hearsay, and defends his recording them by the example of Mark and Luke, who reported the gospel from what they heard of the eye-witnesses. His veracity, therefore, is not at stake; but it is strange that a man of his intelligence and good sense should believe such grotesque and childish marvels. The Dialogues are the chief source of the mediaeval superstitions about purgatory. King Alfred ordered them to be translated into the Anglo-Saxon.

6. His Epistles (838 in all) to bishops, princes, missionaries, and other persons in all parts of Christendom, give us the best idea of his character and administration, and of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. They treat of topics of theology, morals, politics, diplomacy, monasticism, episcopal and papal administration, and give us the best insight into his manifold duties, cares, and sentiments.

7. The Gregorian Sacramentary is based upon the older Sacramentaries of Gelasius and Leo I., with some changes in the Canon of the Mass. His assertion that in the celebration of the eucharist, the apostles used the Lord’s Prayer only (solummodo), has caused considerable discussion. Probably he meant no other prayer, in addition to the words of institution, which he took for granted.

8. A collection of antiphons for mass (Liber Antiphonarius). It contains probably later additions. Several other works of doubtful authenticity, and nine Latin hymns are also attributed to Gregory. They are in the metre of St. Ambrose, without the rhyme, except the “Rex Christe, factor omnium” (which is very highly spoken of by Luther). They are simple, devout, churchly, elevated in thought and sentiment, yet without poetic fire and vigor. Some of them as “Blest Creator of the Light” (Lucis Creator optime), “O merciful Creator, hear” (Audi, beate Conditor), “Good it is to keep the fast” (Clarum decus jejunii), have recently been made familiar to English readers in free translations from the Anglo-Catholic school.229229    See “Hymns Ancient and Modem.” He was a great ritualist (hence called “Master of Ceremonies”), but with considerable talent for sacred poetry and music. The “Cantus Gregorianus” so called was probably a return from the artistic and melodious antiphonal “Cantus Ambrosianus” to the more ancient and simple mode of chanting. He founded a school of singers, which became a nursery of similar schools in other churches.230230    · Comp. Barmby, Greg. the Gr., pp. 188-190; Lau, p. 262; Ebert I. 519.

Some other writings attributed to him, as an Exposition of the First Book of Kings, and an allegorical Exposition of the Canticles, are of doubtful genuineness.



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