Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome
George E. Demacopoulos
Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. 236 pages. $28.00.
Reviewed by James G. Bushur on 02/06/2018
Contemporary studies of patristic theology focus on the intellectual contributions of ancient theologians. Lost in this emphasis on intellectual proficiency is the practical dimension of pastoral care and spiritual life. The biography of Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome from 590 AD until 604 AD, has especially suffered in the modern academy. Intellectually, Gregory’s writings appear insignificant presenting little that is provocative or innovative; most characterize Gregory as a derivative thinker lost in the lengthening shadow of Augustine. Thus, Gregory’s main value is reduced to his political contribution to papal power; yet, here again his contribution is of no great import since he does not represent the beginning, the end, or even an interesting turning point in the momentum of papal ascendency.
However, George Demacopoulos, who occupies the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University, offers a theological biography of Gregory the Great that promises to challenge conventional scholarship. Rather than emphasizing Gregory’s intellectual or political contributions, Demacopoulos sees Gregory as an important genealogical root for the Christian tradition common to both East and West. Demacopoulos recognizes that Christian identity has been communicated through the flesh and blood lives of bishops and laity. Gregory the Great, therefore, is not merely a theologian articulating an ideology, but a spiritual father whose life embodies the genealogical source of his own faith and gives shape to the Christian identity of succeeding generations.
Thus, for Demacopoulos, the heart of Gregory’s life is not an intellectual concept or an ideological interest, but an “ascetic commitment.” Demacopoulos argues that, for Gregory, asceticism is not merely an external action or a foreign discipline imposed on Christians; rather, asceticism constitutes a mode of being essential to Christian life and identity. Demacopoulos does an admirable job demonstrating that there is an “ascetic idiom” permeating Gregory’s sermons. Yet, asceticism not only shapes his reading of scripture, it also gives concrete form to his life in the world. This emphasis is especially intriguing since asceticism is normally assumed to promote a monastic withdrawal from worldly life. However, Demacopoulos shows that, for Gregory, asceticism has its true end, not in the individual’s spiritual ascent, but in humble service of one’s neighbor. The true Christian ascetic refrains from material things so that he can use them to provide for the needy.
One disappointing shortfall of this book is the silence concerning the connection between Gregory’s “ascetic commitment” and his Christology. Does Gregory articulate Christ’s person and work within the same “ascetic idiom”? This question seems profoundly important, but remains unbroached in this work. Nevertheless, the many theological insights offered in this biography provide fertile ground for pastors, deaconesses, and theologically interested laity to consider the shape of their lives in the world and to grow in their appreciation for the lively roots of the Christian faith.