BMCR 2008.05.20

Eschatology and Pain in St. Gregory the Great

, Eschatology and pain in St. Gregory the Great : the Christological synthesis of Gregory's Morals on the Book of Job. Studies in Christian history and thought. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007. xii, 155 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9781842274378 £19.99.

Gregory the Great stands virtually alone among the early medieval popes in the extent to which we are familiar with not only the events of his pontificate, but also his distinctive personality. As with Augustine of Hippo, scholars have perceived much of the man in the writings, as Gregory’s character, temperament, and concerns are revealednot only in his copious epistles but in his theological works as well. At its heart, Kevin Hester’s Eschatology and Pain in St. Gregory the Great is an attempt to clarify one particular area of the Pope’s personal Christology though a close reading of the Moralia in Iob. Specifically, Hester attempts to show how Gregory’s ideas about redemptive pain and eschatology are “connected, related, and reconciled” through the Pope’s understanding of Christ as iudex (8). Hester’s study strongly reflects the concentrated focus of the doctoral dissertation on which it is based. Readers looking for a more comprehensive introduction to Gregory’s personal theology are advised to consult Carole Straw’s masterful synthesis, whose ideas Hester draws upon in his own work.1 Along with Straw’s study, Hester also leans heavily on the earlier work of Jean Laporte, Claude Dagens and Paul Aubin, in particular their relevant discussions of Gregory’s twin-concepts of interiority and exteriority. Although his analysis is most certainly a meticulous and careful one, for the most part Hester does not look beyond the Moralia for evidence (fewer than two dozen references are made to the Pope’s other works), and so falls somewhat short in demonstrating the importance of his conclusions for a broader understanding of Gregory’s theology.

Chapter 1 very briefly introduces the Moralia in Iob and the state of Gregorian theological scholarship. Begun around 579 in Constantinople, the Moralia originated as exegetical sermons delivered by Gregory to the monks of the Monastery of St. Andrew in Romeand were only completed sometime in the final decade of the Pope’s life. Gregory’s exegesis, Hester observes, was more “psychological reflection” than systematic analysis, as the Pope devoted the bulk of his attention to the text’s moral meaning (11). In Hester’s understanding, the Moralia is a spiritual guide that “came from the heart of a pastor who desired to see spiritual growth in his brothers” (119). Hester clearly states his overarching thesis that the Moralia reconciles Gregory’s concepts of eschatology and pain through its explanation of how Christ the Judge, prior to the Day of Judgment, uses redemptive pain to force individuals to focus on both their sinfulness and their salvation. Thus, for Gregory, pain serves a pedagogical and salvific purpose.

In his second chapter, Hester examines Gregory’s eschatology within the context of traditional end-times theology, observing that the Pope was far from the first theologian to interpret events around him as signs of impending divine judgment. The first followers of Jesus anxiously awaited his second coming, and early Christian texts, in particular the so-called “Olivet Discourse” (Matthew 24:3-51), reflect this continuously-frustrated expectation. Additional signs of an imminent end appeared with the slow dismantling of Roman imperial rule in the West. For Augustine, witnessing these events from North Africa, the disappearance of empire was a reason for hope, since it meant that the final age of the world would soon be reaching its end, and God would mete out judgment. But Augustine also followed his fellow Latin theologians, Ambrose and Jerome, in “interiorizing” the millennium, whereby “eschatology [became] a lived experience as opposed to a future event” (20). Although such ideas would influence Gregory’s thoughts on eschatology, the Pope’s focus was directed less towards the internal victories of individual Christians than towards the victorious corporate body of the Church. Gregory also emphasized the apocalyptic nature of the Final Judgment, seeing evidence for an imminent end in the aged, decrepit, and corrupt world around him, the threat of heresy within the Church, and the increasing dearth of miracles. Gregory believed that these signs should serve as a wake-up call to Christians to turn to both spiritual contemplation and good works. Fear, for him, was a significant motivator. Hester neglects to reference here Gregory’s thirteenth homily in Evangelia (XIII.6), which urges tears and lamentation on those fearing God’s judgment. Despite his deeply-held belief in apocalypse, Gregory was no mere biblical literalist, as Hester rightly emphasizes. Rather, for the Pope, the millennium was the Church’s universal sovereignty over the world. The corporate Church was destined to suffer tribulations, but it would emerge in the end triumphant. In Gregory’s understanding, with the Final Judgment, the fear of true believers would be “converted into glory” (53). Hester’s lack of references to Gregory’s letters in this chapter (e.g. Ep. III.29, III.61, IV.23, VII.26, X.20, XI.37, and XIII.33) is particularly unfortunate, as they reveal, perhaps better than any of his theological works, his belief in, and preoccupation with, an imminent end.2

Chapter 3 focuses on the Pope’s conception of pain. Gregory, according to Hester, makes no efforts in the Moralia to explain away the pain of existence, but rather views it as a basic reality that is neither good nor evil in itself, but able to be used for good by God. In Gregory’s understanding, it was the fall of man that introduced pain into the world, and it can derive from both internal and external sources. Ordinary individuals, like Job, can be prompted by pain to look beyond their worldly troubles to the eternal. But, as Hester correctly observes, Gregory made a distinction between the elect and unrepentant sinners in his understanding of the function of pain. For the elect, pain serves a redemptive function, as it leads to fear, humility, and introspection, which in turn can lead to virtue. In Hester’s words, “pain and suffering are for the elect a means of grace” (75). For the wicked, however, pain serves a castigatory purpose, and, unlike the elect, they are unable (and unwilling) to appreciate the justice in God’s actions. When the wicked are spared pain in this world, for Gregory this is merely so that they can be penalized more fully in the next. To be human, therefore, is to suffer. Christ, himself, through the incarnation, willingly chose to feel pain and experience death. His actions, therefore, should serve as an example for all humanity to accept their fate as preordained by God. Hester can be forgiven if his Gregory comes across as rather Protestant in his views on grace and predestination, since the Pope certainly followed Augustine in much of his thinking (71). Carole Straw, however, has offered a much more nuanced reading of Gregory’s thinking on these matters, noting that the Gregory emphasized the ability of the elect to attain their predestined salvation through their own efforts, as well as his view that “the human effort God foresees does not diminish man’s freedom to act.”3 Certainly, additional references by Hester to Gregory’s other writings would have helped to clarify this issue.

In Chapter 4, Hester focuses on Gregory’s Christology, which he understands to be at the root of the Pope’s integrated concepts of eschatology and pain. Christ, for Gregory, embodies both mercy and judgment, qualities present in both his initial and final advents. Although in the Final Judgment Christ will not spare the wicked, without the divine grace of his mercy even the elect would be unable to meet His standards of justice. Job represents for Gregory, as Hester explains, both Christ and His Church. There are important lessons for the Church to discern in Job’s tribulations, e.g. the salvific benefits of pain and suffering and the necessity of enduring the rebukes of both inner (i.e. heretical) and external enemies. In Gregory’s view, Christ rejoices in the suffering of Christians since he knows that it will direct the elect towards thoughts of the eternal. Hester argues that the process of “interiorization,” in which the thoughts of the elect increasingly are turned inward due to the experience of pain, culminates in the Final Judgment, when the process “will be completed by the internal judge, the intus iudex, who initiates the beatific vision” (102). The Fall signaled not only humanity’s loss of knowledge of the divine but also the erasure of inner contemplation. But sharing in Christ’s own suffering allows both of these to be partially restored. For the elect, exterior pains encourages interior reflection and judgment, and ultimately reconciliation with God. At the Final Judgment, the elect will no longer be bound by exteriority. Sinners, however, will be shown clearly prior to their damnation how their lifelong focus on the exterior has blinded them to “divine interiority” (112). A final chapter (5) rather redundantly summarizes the conclusions of the preceding pages.

Redundancy is something of a problem in the work as a whole. The concentrated nature of Hester’s stated goal necessitates a clearly-delineated argument, which he certainly provides. But while they are helpful in confirming the accuracy of his analysis, two chapter-length summaries and protracted individual chapter conclusions make this rather brief book seem longer than it need be, particularly since it aims to fill so small a niche in Gregorian studies. Nevertheless, Hester’s careful reading of the Moralia in Iob is a model of theological exposition and clarifies a number of the complicated issues inherent in this important and influential work. While it in no way supersedes more comprehensive studies of Gregory’s personal theology, future synthesizers can benefit from this book’s discussion of Gregory’s ideas on pain and eschatology, although they are encouraged to look beyond the Moralia for a more complete picture of the Pope’s thinking.


1. Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). For a masterful attempt to combine spiritual and temporal biography, see also R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

2. As noted by G. R. Evans, The Thought of Gregory the Great (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 43, when Gregory “answered letters or gave advice,” he did so on the assumption that the end of the world was near.

3. Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection 140.