We’ve come through much in our survey of the first 500 years of Church history. We must draw it to a close somehow, and so in these last two weeks we have for this series we’ll be covering how both the West and the East ended up before we launch into the dark ages, or Medieval times, Lord willing this coming January. So tonight I’ll wrap up the West, we’ll be taking next Sunday evening off for Easter, which means the week after Easter we’ll wrap up the East.

As we zone in on the West, one event comes before our view. This event wasn’t a quick one, it took many years to develop and conclude, but that it happened changed everything about the West. What is this event? The fall of Rome.

Historical Events/Setting

In the late 4thcentury, around 375 forward the Germanic tribes came under attack from the Huns, whose most famous leader was none other than Attila the Hun. To protect themselves from the Huns the Germanic tribes moved into the Roman Empire. Then slowly but surely it became more and more common to see various Germanic peoples (such as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Vandals, Lombards, Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) live out their lives within the Roman Empire. Many of them adopted Roman customs and some even joined the Roman military. A large portion of these Germanic peoples felt they should also embrace Rome’s religion which was Arian Christianity at that time. Those that rejected Rome’s Christianity continued to maintain their Germanic paganism worshipping pagan gods such as but not limited to Wodin or Oden (chief god), Thor (god of thunder), Tiwaz (god of war), Freya (god of fertility), and Saeter (god of water).[1]After many years of seeking more space between themselves and the Huns these Germanic peoples slowly but surely made their way further into the Roman Empire sacking each city as they came to it. Until, finally, on August 24, 410 what was unthinkable to many became a reality as Rome itself was sacked. Twenty years later in 430 the Vandals had progressed much further and reached the city of Hippo as Augustine lay dying. By the time the 5thcentury comes to a close the scene looked like this: the Visigoths had settled in Spain, the Ostrogoths settled in Italy, the Franks and Burgundians settled in France, and the Vandals settled in North-Africa. Of all these peoples the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and most of the Burgundians embraced Arian Christianity. While the Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes remained Pagan. But after much labor by many these pagan peoples would reject Arianism and eventually embrace the Catholic faith.

Among those who labored for this was the bishop Gregory of Tours, the philosopher/theologian Boethius (favorite of Tolkien and Lewis), scholar/monk Cassiodorus, hymn writer Venantius Fortunatus, Columba the apostle of Scotland, and Benedict of Nursia (the founder of the famous Benedictine order and monasteries). Among the list of people during this time there are two men worth taking time to pause and mention more about to wrap up our time in the West: Gregory the Great and Saint Patrick.

Gregory the Great

When these Germanic tribes would conquer a territory, though they had plenty of strength and skill at war they lacked the ability and knowledge to effectively create civilization or an ordered culture and society, so they relied heavily on the people they conquered to do this. This resulted in most of Western Europe looking like this. On one hand you had tolerant Germanic conquerors, mainly with Arian theology, who wanted to adopt Roman ways rather than destroy them…and…on the other hand a Catholic, Latin speaking native population who was eager to preserve their own traditions and customs. When it came down to it, in almost every setting it was the local Catholic bishop who saw to both the secular and spiritual needs of these new communities. The Catholic Church saw this need and therefore labored to put strong bishops into place. One of the earliest and greatest men to hold such a position was Gregory I, who would in time become known as Gregory the Great, pope and bishop of Rome.

A man named the Venerable Bede famously describes Gregory goes in the following manner: “Gregory was a native of Rome, the son of Gordian, descended from ancestors who were devout members of the nobility. Among them was Felix, who was at one time the bishop of the apostolic throne, a man of great eminence in Christ’s Church. Gregory maintained this family tradition by the excellence and devotion of his religious life. By the grace of God he consecrated his natural abilities, which would have brought him success in the world, entirely to the attainment of heavenly glory. He suddenly abandoned his secular career and entered a monastery. There he entered into a life of such perfection in grace that, later he would remember with tears how his mind had been set on higher things, rising far above all that is perishable, and how as a monk he was able to devote himself completely to thoughts of heaven. He used to be able to leave behind the limitations of his earthly body through heavenly contemplation, and he looked forward to death as the doorway to life, the reward of his labors. He would speak of these things, not to impress anyone with the way he had grown in moral and spiritual maturity, but rather in sadness over the decline he felt he had experience after taking up his pastoral responsibilities.  He once described to his deacon, Peter, what his spiritual state as a monk had been, and then sadly continued, ‘My pastoral responsibilities now force me to have dealings with worldly men, and it appears to me, after the unclouded beauty of my former peaceful life, that my mind is defiled with the mud of daily affairs. After I have wasted my time in attending to the worldly business of countless people, even though I retire within myself to meditate in spiritual things, I do so with manifestly less strength then before. So if I compare what I now endure with what I have lost, and when I consider the nature of the loss, my burdens seem heavier than ever.’”

As a pastor I can sympathize with some of this. Being bogged down in the muddy and messy affairs of life does wear on you. But in other ways I think the life of a monk is too far removed from the daily affairs of life in the Church. Pastors aren’t to be as removed as that but are called to agonize over the flock until Christ is formed in them (which is ironic because Gregory’s work Pastoral Care was a stout explanation of how a pastor ought to shepherd his flock. This text became a standard work for any going into ministry for a long time). But before we write off Gregory remember this. He did not labor in a pastoral office like we do today. He was both bishop and pastor to his church, and then something like the mayor of the city as well. This is why he expresses his thoughts the way he does here, growing weary of dealing with the muddy and messy world. Seen in this light, I agree wholeheartedly with this quote. Anywho, the quote is famous because it shows what kind of man he was. When it comes to Gregory we can summarize his impact into two broad categories: political and theological.

Politically, Gregory’s leadership was a strong force of peace in his day. Many of the Germanic tribes lingered in Paganism and because of that they were all to eager to keep sacking cities all around Europe. One such example of his peace is that he singlehandedly stopped with the continuing invasions of the Lombards and saw to the needs of all those who’d been made destitute from the Lombards attacks. Theologically Gregory, though a pope himself, believed no one figure anywhere could claim the title of ‘universal patriarch.’ Some in his day tried to claim such a position of authority over the Church and Gregory responded by saying, “Whoever calls himself universal priest, or desires that title, is by his pride the forerunner of Antichrist.” Sadly Gregory’s successor, Boniface III, was very eager and content to be called such, and even more sadly many more if not most of the all future popes also had this prideful bent about them. Contrasting that arrogance Gregory was known for humbly calling himself ‘the servant of the servants of God.’ 

Gregory was thoroughly Augustinian in his theology, which as we’ve seen has pros and cons about it. PROS: He taught a high view of God and low view of man and believed that only a sovereign Christ with His strong grace can rescue sinners from their bondage to sin. He also rejected the worship of Mary, and introduced singing into the worship of God’s people, which has come down through the ages to us under the label Gregorian Chant. Which is known for it’s simplicity, solemnity, unity, and beauty. CONS: But he also taught that baptism saves you, that post baptismal sins must be made up for by works of love, and that purgatory (which till then was only thought of to be something of an opinion) is a biblical doctrine all ought to embrace. Because of this he began holding special communion services to pray for the dead, believing they could move the dead from hell or purgatory to heaven, and it was during his time that the word ‘mass’ (meaning a re-sacrifice of Christ) began to be the one standard word defining the worship of the Church. 

Taking all of this together, we can say this. In a very real way Gregory’s leadership in the affairs of the state, both social and political, and his leadership in the Church over all spiritual matters, unofficially marks the beginning of a kind of norm for papal leadership that would last another 1,000 years.

Saint Patrick

During this time Ireland received their historic hero, Patrick. Born in Wales or Scotland to a Deacon of the Church, Patrick was kidnapped in his youth by a band of Irish criminals and spent six years as a slave among them shepherding sheep. During his slavery he was converted and later reflected on it saying, “After I arrived in Ireland I tended a flock each day, and often at daytime I prayed; God’s love and fear grew more and more within me, and my faith became strong. In a single day I would pray as often as a hundred times, and I prayed almost as often during the night.” In his early twenties he escaped slavery only to eventually receive a vision from God about returning to Ireland with the gospel. In this vision Patrick saw an Irish man saying, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, come and walk among us!” He returned, founded a church, and is said to have flourished amazingly so in gospel ministry baptizing thousands of people. Having just recently been in Ireland and been at the spot where Patrick is said to have begun his ministry in 432AD I must admit that before going there I didn’t realize what an important figure Patrick was. It was incredibly encouraging to see all he did among the Irish, and how so many still respect him highly. It’s also incredible to witness the varying storylines and legends that have sprung up around him as a historical figure, such that, it is difficult to know what exactly took place in his ministry. So I’ll just read a few excerpts from him so you can get a taste of his heart.

Ferguson, page 49…and from Needham, page 355-356… (see audio for quotes)

With that we come to a close to the West, only one more evening will given to Church history, the week after Easter, for now, let’s pray together before we get to any questions you may have.


[1]This is a side note but it is from these pagan gods that we derive most of our names for days. Tuesday (Tiwaz’s day), Wednesday (Wodin’s day), Thursday (Thor’s day), Friday (Freya’ day), and Saturday (Saeter’s day).

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