Chapter 3: Case Studies in Pastoral Theology

Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition
by Thomas C. Oden

Chapter 3: Case Studies in Pastoral Theology

More explicitly than anyone else in the early pastoral tradition, Gregory the Great developed the theory and practice of contextual pastoral counseling. Its oft-repeated rudiments are found in the longest and most important section of his Pastoral Care, Book Three.


Having discussed readiness for ministry in Books One and Two, Gregory now turns to the interpersonal dynamics of pastoral conversation. His central question: How is the pastor to counsel or admonish (the Greek is nouthesia, the Latin, admonitio) those in his charge? Gregory’s main premise: What is helpful to one may be hurtful to another.

In developing this thesis, he plays with these analogies: “Herbs which nourish some animals are fatal to others. . . the medicine which abates one disease aggravates another.”1 This is the overarching “principle of variability” that Gregory of Nazianzus had earlier grasped2 but which now was systematically developed for the first time by Gregory. It was destined to impact powerfully upon many subsequent interpreters of pastoral care.

A single unified core of doctrine was assumed by Gregory. He presupposed an accepted orthodoxy, a standard conception of correct ecumenical teaching of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Gregory insisted, however, that this unified teaching must always be accompanied by a variable practice of ministry that is constantly responsive to the changing personal needs and the here and now situation of the parishioner.


Gregory developed an intriguing series of paradoxical case studies of the diversities of pastoral counsel. He showed how dissimilar problems must be dealt with in subtly differentiated ways. To illustrate: The combative person cannot be approached in the same way as the meek character-type. The self-assertive spirit requires a form of pastoral treatment different from that needed by the self-effacing. Those who give resources liberally are to be counseled in a distinctly different way from those prone to covet or steal. The shy are treated differently than the loquacious.

The pastor works constantly within these polarities. The impatient person is treated differently than the person who is patient to a fault. Some so fear reprimand that they live their lives in comically compulsive correctness. They must be dealt with differently than those who have grown so hardened in aggressiveness that they can hardly even be penetrated by anyone’s reprimand. Similarly, the physically ill must be counseled in a different way than the healthy, males than females, poor than rich, employers than employees, and the overjoyed will receive different counsel than the depressed.3

Gregory’s case materials grow in complexity as he proceeds with his analysis of pastoral variables. Those who are fully conscious of their misdeeds and yet continue to do them must be pastorally dealt with differently than those who have discontinued doing misdeeds and yet remain largely unaware of their having changed. One who cannot take the first step in a change process must be dealt with pastorally in a different way than those who frequently start to make changes but never carry them through to completion. Some do good publicly and evil secretly; they must be counseled in a wholly different way than those who may be prone to conceal the good they do publicly yet allow others to think bad of them publicly. This is the principle of variability based on empathic listening to the specific situation of the parishioner.

All of these cases have one thing in common: God’s eternal corrective love must be communicated to each one amid widely varied personal circumstances. Gregory systematically examined the differences in specific care for persons in these variable circumstances. Each case is one side, or vector, of a sharply defined situational counseling wisdom. What follows is an exploration of a selection of several of these thirty-six polarities of pastoral response.4

The Timid and the Assertive

The pastor may deal at one moment with a painfully timid soul and then be met in the next moment by one who is boorishly assertive. The pastor needs to have enough skill in interpersonal analysis to be able to recognize the difference in these ploys. Each requires a distinct pastoral response.

Gregory clearly anticipated some forms of transactional analysis that were to develop fully only in the twentieth century. For example in an earlier study of interpersonal collusion in TAG: The Transaction Awareness Game,5 I described the way in which both assertiveness and timidity function within a particular grooving of interpersonal relationships which I called the “assertive channel,” in which one person has developed the excellent behavior of modest, sensitive self-criticism yet tends thereby to move excessively in the direction of self-effacement whereas the other person in the collusion may have developed the excellent behavior of self-starting independence but with temptations to arrogance. Gregory had an extraordinarily clear intuitive awareness of such dynamics in his analysis of the pastoral care of the timid and the assertive.6

According to Gregory, overly assertive persons are not likely even to recognize the degree to which they are being pushy or boorish. It may require a determined counselor even to awaken them to the recognition that they are overplaying their hand. Conversely, the timid are likely to be already painfully aware of their own inadequacies, especially of the tendency to impinge on another’s territory or right. What is needed pastorally, according to Gregory, is not just supportive encouragement but also something like what we today would call assertiveness training. Gregory states this dipolar dialectic with exceptional accuracy: If assertive individualists need to recognize their tendencies to over-assertiveness, humble self-deniers need the opposite: to better grasp their low power position in order that they may offer to others more forthrightly what they are able to offer.7

Paul is viewed by Gregory as the pastoral prototype of one who could perform both types of contextual admonition in a well-integrated way. He could confront the aggressive individualist and increase the self-initiative of the overly timid without injuring the spiritual formation of either. He was quite capable of openly reprimanding the “foolish Galatians” who had become “bewitched” (Gal. 3:1, RSV), yet he responded quite empathically and supportively to the Philippians when they were already so painfully aware of their own inadequacies (Phil. 4: 10ff.). The haughty and disdainful obviously require a different sort of pastoral sensitivity from those who oppositely may be unduly despondent about their own inadequacies. This is because the former think of themselves as lacking little or nothing, while the latter think of themselves as endlessly unprepared and structurally lacking.8

Suppose you are dealing pastorally with one of the latter type, a person who is already trapped in down-dragging syndromes of self-abasement, faintheartedness, and failure of nerve. Here the pastor’s twofold procedure must be to “first praise that wherein he sees them to be strong, and afterwards, with cautious admonition, strengthen what was weak.”9 Gregory’s biblical prototype for this is Paul’s counsel to Thessalonians who were inordinately anxious about the end time: “I beg you, do not suddenly lose your heads or alarm yourselves, whether at some oracular utterance, or pronouncement” (2 Thess. 2:2). Thus, Paul’s admonition for the timid was carefully linked with an assessment of their particular need for positive reinforcement and emotive support.

The Patient and the Impatient

Impatience is a special temptation of the powerful, who are forever inclined to underestimate the limits of their power. Submissive spinelessness is the peculiar vice of the accommodative parishioner whose virtue may tend toward an excessive patience that leads to immobility. In the pastoral office we often meet these two opposite types of parishioners. One will want instant compliance, while the other will be ready to comply immediately, looking frantically to others for guidance. These two persons, said Gregory, are to be counseled very differently.

Gregory offered a penetrating portraiture of the impatient person: agitated, not moving smoothly with time, always “ahead of time.” Impetuosity often drives one toward precipitate actions. Many harmful secondary consequences come out of such impatience. When a consequent misdeed does occur, the impetuous individuals hurriedly fail to recognize its connection with their own impatience. This may cause them to undo what protracted labor had earlier accomplished, yet they hardly even recognize that it is their own impatience that has undone it.10

Such people need the kind of sensitive, straightforward pastoral care that can tactfully disclose to them precisely the moment when their impatience or agitation has precipitated undesirable secondary consequences for themselves and others. The key to the impatient character structure is that it tends inordinately to demand that everyone else comply quickly. Tempted always toward arrogance, the impatient are forever advertising themselves. They are often trying to manage an impression either of outward power or inward goodness. But they have not yet learned how to curb their self-assertive energies on behalf of others. Such persons are happy for good to be attributed to them, even if falsely.11

What kind of pastoral counsel is indicated? The scripture, with the help of the Spirit, says Gregory, can counsel best, that one had “better govern one’s temper than capture a city” (Prov. 16:32). For to conquer a city is an external achievement, but to conquer oneself is a greater victory because it occurs within the sphere of freedom rather than through outward coercion. “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19, KJV), remarked Jesus. Gregory dwelt pensively upon the pastoral relevance of this text:

Reason must possess the soul in patience if the soul is properly to guide the active life. We dispossess ourselves of ourselves when we lack patience because we disavow the rational influencing or shaping of the soul so that the body has no choice but to follow after an impatient soul, and thereby “we lose the possession of what we are.”12 We can lose ourselves out of impatience. The good counselor tries contextually to teach this to the impatient person.

Impatience draws us into a turbulent pace. Like the fool, we utter anything and everything on our mind (Prov. 29:11). We say things too quickly, without interior discipline, missing what the wise know, namely, that time is going to take care of much that elicits anxiety. The wiser individual learns to defer gratification and temporarily to curb libidinal energies in order to gain greater happiness.13 This is why the wise are less exposed to the continuing hazards to which the impatient tend to be forever exposing themselves.

A very different type of pastoral counsel is needed for the person who may be patient to a fault. Patience is indeed a virtue, but all virtues are capable of being corrupted into vice. Patient people have their own hidden dilemmas. Having been patient under outward circumstances, they may be tempted inordinately to grieve over what they have suffered or missed. The limitation with which they have outwardly dealt patiently may have inwardly embittered them by the slow growth of suppressed indignation and resentment. They may become silently inflamed with bitterness.

Suppose the pastor is encountering just such a parishioner whose outward life has borne patiently with severe limitations, having often adjusted and accommodated to others’ necessities. Suppose the pastor’s attentive listening, however, picks up underneath this extraordinary accommodation a tone of grief over some unspecified loss. Such a parishioner needs to face that grief. In time, and precisely through a conversational process, says Gregory, such an individual may come to hear through scripture the Spirit’s address that love is not only patient but, as Paul immediately adds, also kind (1 Cor. 13). The superpatient individual may become inwardly festered with an interior malice which Gregory can only call “the mother of vices,” because it is so much the opposite of that agape which is the root of all behavioral excellences. This is why Paul pastorally instructed the Ephesians, not just toward patience as if that were the only virtue, but also to work and talk and pray in order to be able to put away bitterness, indignation, and malice (Eph. 4:12).

Gregory set forth a psychologically complex and subtle analysis of the way in which demonic temptation functions in the consciousness of the excessively patient person. The temptations of fallen freedom are working simultaneously on two different fronts: first, to inflame insult and, second, to repay insult with insult.14 The inordinately patient person has already conquered the first enemy, having borne with limitation. Yet temptation is not yet over, for it continues to work within the consciousness of the patient person by harassment, by secret suggestion, by laying hidden snares, by constantly reminding one of one’s loss and of the insults one has suffered. These in time may tend to become grossly exaggerated so that they come to symbolize the way in which all of life has become insufferably insulting. In this way the mind of the overly patient person becomes vexed and disturbed.

Here Gregory develops two ironic analogies. The superpatient person is like one who has a very serious illness, who has come through the most dangerous phase of the illness yet later unexpectedly dies from a sudden relapse of fever; the fever was finally the cause of death.15 Again, the superpatient person is like a soldier who has had a great victory in the field — the main battle is over; going into the city thinking the victory already secured, the negligent soldier is stupidly captured by a small, insignificant force within the gates.

The winner of patience has in a sense won the greater external victory and yet lost the struggle with quietly festering resentment. The spiritual gifts received through patience can be spoiled by malice. This inward battle of the patient individual is “visible under the divine scrutiny, and will become the worse, in proportion as they claim a show of virtue in the sight of men.”16


It is instructive to see how deeply Gregory intuited much of the interpersonal analysis that was later to be developed in the modern behaviorist tradition of vector analysis by G. Homans, R. Carson, T. Leary, J. Thibaut, and H. Kelley.17 According to this modern behaviorist analysis, human interaction patterns can be graphed on the vectors of two poles: a horizontal emotive axis that registers resistance versus affection, and a vertical pole that registers superordination and subordination, or relative power or influence in relationships. In every interaction two parties relate to each other in terms of some positive or negative affect and some perceived upper and lower status, or relative power or acquiescence. Thus the two basic axes of interaction analysis are the resistance/warmth pole and the power/acquiescence pole.18 Gregory had an uncanny intuitive sense of how interactions work along these two axes, even though the empirical research on them came fourteen centuries later.

Gregory recognized the need for different types of pastoral counsel for persons who come from opposite quarters of this spectrum of interpersonal preferences. Discordant and hostile persons are to be treated in a different way than pacific and intimacy-seeking persons. Those who are prone always to give aggressive resistance come from a different interaction posture than those who are prone to friendly ploys and encounters. In Gregory’s terms the quarrelsome and the sowers of discord must be pastorally counseled in a different way than the affectionate and peaceful.19

What sort of pastoral care is indicated for the quarrelsome? They need above all to be addressed inwardly by the word of scripture that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace (Gal. 5:22). This can be spoken credibly only by one who does indeed keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). It is hoped that the perpetually discordant parishioner could be moved by gentle pastoral interaction to better grasp the disastrous social consequences of contentiousness. The reason unconstrained aggression is so potentially destructive to human relationships is that often it does not permit those subsequent goods to emerge which otherwise could have taken root if they had not been withered by the heat of aggression. Excessive discord breaks off relationships so that other interpersonal values cannot even be attempted. This is why Jesus insisted that if you come to the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift on the altar and first be reconciled to your brother. Seriousness about interpersonal reconciliation is a precondition of seriousness about reconciliation with God.20

One may have acquired many other excellent interpersonal habits, yet lose their good effect because of this one disastrous tendency toward vituperative anger. You may have admirable courage, fidelity, discipline, and hope, but if you are prone to vindictive quarrelsomeness, the potential goods of those hard-won virtues may tend to become lost because of the antagonisms that have been unnecessarily elicited. The person of high intelligence is not thereby exempt from this temptation. Those who acquire power in the form of knowledge may find that it “separates them from the society of others, and the greater the knowledge, the less wise they are in the virtue of concord.”21

Some are not just occasionally quarrelsome, but seem constantly, almost compulsively, to be looking for fights. Either deliberately or unawarely they create discord. The pastoral task is to help them grasp how potentially demonic and dysfunctional this habit formation may become. Gregory was convinced that “the enemy,” a transpersonal demonic influence, was involved in this syndrome. Prov. 6:12 describes the behavior pattern of one who sows discord, who devised evil, who has a perverse mouth. Its spiritual root is an alienated will that has not learned how properly to order human loves. In this way charity, the mother of virtues, is extinguished. “Since nothing is more esteemed by God than the virtue of charity, nothing is more desired by the Devil than its extinction.”22 Pastoral counsel must then become a deliberate training ground in the possibility and value of sustained covenant relationships.

On the other hand, the pastor is destined to deal often with persons who are inordinately drawn to excessively quiescent, pacified, nonconflictive relations. Such persons will be prone always to sympathize with others, so as not to recognize the need for corrective candor or critical feedback. They are compulsively tempted toward tranquility. They are inordinately prone to flee to temporary peacefulness while failing to love well enough the peace of God which can challenge and disturb human tranquilities. The eternal shalom of God may interrupt and upset our outward forms of peace.23

This is why peace must be both loved and condemned. It is to be condemned insofar as worldly stability is immoderately loved. The parishioner who inordinately loves peace needs a pastor who will show a better way to meet conflict. The capacity for candor, confrontation, and encounter may be grossly truncated in one who has an inordinate fear and avoidance of human conflicts.24 It is fitting to learn to provide resistance and critical negation to that which stands in enmity to the peace of God (Ps. 138:21). This is the ironic sense in which Jesus “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). There is in Jesus’ message a healthy capacity for conflict and resistance. It is not simply naive love or costless reconciliation. The person who inordinately loves love, who in an excessive way desires to live in absolute peace, will need a mode of pastoral care that will foster growth in critical judgment.

The proper balance is again struck by Paul, who wrote: “So far as it is within your power, live peaceably with everyone” (Rom. 12:18, NIV). But this is a guarded statement with a qualifying clause: “so far as it is possible.” This balance is what the counseling pastor must learn to grasp situationally, so as to recognize the difference between the need of the parishioner who is overly aggressive and the need of the parishioner who is trapped in a compulsive search for tranquility.25

The Powerful and the Acquiescent

In every interaction with another person there is some dimension of power, status, superordination or subordination, influence or acquiescence that enters into the relationship (unless the relation can somehow be maintained in a continuing equilibrium as precisely equal). In any given social organization there are differences of function in which some persons ordinarily exercise greater power and influence than others, while others are relatively more recipients of influence. The pastor deals with both the persons of power and the persons without power, persons with influence and persons without influence. Gregory argued that the pastor must learn how to deal resourcefully with both types without being either intimidated or insensitive.26

Persons who are relatively powerful, who are in charge of processes, organizations, or structures of influence may need pastoral counsel that will guide them away from the egocentric abuse of power and toward a more morally accountable use of power. Those who are relatively powerless or less influential may need to be counseled in a different way, so as not to allow themselves to be run over or demoralized. They need to learn the art of possibility, discovering what is possible precisely within the constraints of their time and place, and to do whatever can be done creatively within an intractably limited context.27

Gregory focuses on the relationship of parents to children. This is the arena in which scripture deals most prototypically with the right relation of power and powerlessness. The key New Testament injunction has two interrelated parts: Children are called to obey parents; parents are called not to “exasperate your children” (Col. 3:20-21). The relation of parents and children stands as a broad paradigm of the possibilities and temptations accompanying all relationships of relative power and relative dependency. Scripture calls children to submit to legitimate guidance, but it is hoped that the guidance will be so wisely conceived as not to provoke children to anger.28

By analogy, if a parishioner is given power, or charged with leading an organization, or stands in a position of relative in fluence, then the greater is the weight and dimension of moral accountability. The employer for example, who fails even to try to correct manifest abuses eventually “comes to that state which his negligence deserves,29 eventually becoming unable even to recognize the foibles and misjudgments of business associates. If you fail to give corrective admonition motivated by love, then not only will those in your charge remain uncorrected — you will therefore have failed in your duty to them — but things may drift into a worse state and you will fail even to grasp what has gone awry. When a leader disavows leadership, the whole body politic suffers.

Those with less influence need to be counseled in a different way. Precisely because they are in a privileged position of being less responsible for others, they are called to be more responsible for themselves!

What if power is abused? Gregory relates an amusing biblical story that illustrates a better way to challenge the abuses of power. Saul, who had unjustly treated David and was now pursuing him in the wilderness of En-gedi, had gone into a cave for the purpose of relieving himself. Hidden in this cave were David and his soldiers. The soldiers thought that David should attack Saul in his moment of inconvenience. David answered that one ought not to lay hands on the Lord’s anointed, the legitimate ruler to whom obedience is due, the one who is called to preserve order. So while Saul was relieving himself David silently, stealthily crept up and symbolically cut off a noticeable piece out of the king’s cloak (1 Sam. 24:4ff.). Far from being an act of rebellion or an open attempt outwardly to overthrow abused power, it was a quiet, constrained, symbolic act that ironically caught the person of highest power in the midst of a most ordinary human activity. All this occurred harmlessly and unobserved, without Saul even knowing it. Saul’s power was not overtly challenged in violent ambush, but its moral credibility was pointedly challenged and revealed as limited and vulnerable. For Saul later realized that David could have killed him then and there in the cave. David’s restraint of power was grounded in his awareness of God’s incomparable power. David and his soldiers could easily have seized power, but he chose a better way.

Gregory thought that this was an exemplary statement of the way to protest the abuse of coercive authority — not by overt, destructive, risk-laden rebellion, but by a symbolic demonstrative act revealing the vulnerable moral credibility of abused power. Yet even in this case, Gregory noted that shortly thereafter David was himself struck with grief merely because he had cut the hem of the king’s robe. Even that, thought Gregory, was exemplary because it showed the sensitivity of David — the low influence partner — to the importance of maintaining order in society, that very order which had been abused but nonetheless remained necessary and tolerable even in its abuse.30 The parishioner who has relatively less influence may need similar counsel: Do not prematurely seek to grab more influence, as if that were the only solution. Rather, acquiesce to legitimate authority. Exercise patience and tolerance. Continue to pray with serenity, even in the midst of the abuse of power. God is the Lord of both — those who have relatively more power and those who have relatively less (Eph. 6:9).

The Rich and the Poor

The pastor deals with all kinds of people, some of whom have relatively more economic power and prestige of ownership, some relatively less. Some people have extraordinarily great resources, while others are destitute of resources and even of the capacity to earn them. Pastoral responses to these varied cases cannot be the same. Those who have greater resources are to be counseled against pride and arrogance, while those with limited resources may pastorally need more the “solace of encouragement against tribulation”.31

Gregory’s ministry showed great concern not only for the practical, temporal, bodily care of the poor, as we have previously indicated, but also for the moral development of the poor. His central point: the poor deserve to hear the word of scripture, and the pastor has a duty to deliver that word to them. It is first of all a word of consolation. The poor are not to fear: “Fear not, you shall not be put to shame” (Isa. 54:4). But this counsel is linked with an eschatological promise that their descendants shall “people the desolate cities.”32 Out of a well-conceived pastoral theodicy, the pastor will help the oppressed to understand that their affliction may be a meaningful test of faith: “See how I tested you, not as silver is tested, but in the furnace of affliction; there I purified you” (Isa. 48:10).

On the other hand, the letter to Timothy suggested a different pattern of pastoral care of the rich:

Instruct those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be proud, and not to fix their hopes on so uncertain a thing as money, but upon God, who endows us richly with all things to enjoy. Tell them to do good and to grow rich in noble actions, to be ready to give away and to share, and so acquire treasure which will form a good foundation for the future. Thus they will grasp the life which is life indeed (I Tim. 6:17-19).

The text does not say that we are to beg the rich, but rather that we are to instruct and charge them on apostolic authority that they not be “puffed up.” They need this pastoral admonition if they are to understand that they cannot retain their wealth forever, and that they did not create the conditions for wealth. Otherwise the words of Jesus apply: “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:24, RSV). The rich have completely missed the consolation of God if they simply consider this world their final consolation.33

Gregory’s approach to pastoral care of the rich has exceptional subtlety, hinging importantly upon the biblical paradigms of Nathan before David and of David’s care for Saul.34 When pastors come before the wealthy as spiritual guides, they do well to remember what Nathan did in the case of the poor man whom the rich man had abused. The poor man had nothing of his own except one little ewe lamb that he had reared himself. It had eaten from his dish and drunk from his cup; it had nestled in his arms and was like a daughter to him. When a traveler came by and a local rich man wanted to display his conspicuous consumption but was too stingy to take something from his own store, he seized the ewe from the poor man and offered it to the traveler. That was the case study that Nathan presented to David, asking David what should be done. David answered angrily that the rich man deserved to die, and the poor man should be paid four times over for the stolen lamb. Nathan then said, “You are the man.” Only then was Nathan in a sound position to confront David with his own sin in the case of his adultery with Bathsheba and the death of Uriah (2 Sam. 12: 1-14).

Gregory found in Nathan’s example a powerful model of how to proceed in a teaching ministry of pastoral care to the rich, who may be blind to their own pride and power and unaware of their own collusion with economic misery. The pastor proceeds by analogy so that the person being challenged will come up with a self-judgment based on the person’s own conscience. The next crucial step is to help the person see clearly that judgment of conscience. Enabling one’s conscience to become transparent to oneself constitutes a more significant pastoral service than harangue or castigation.

Gregory’s corollary biblical paradigm comes from the complex relation between Saul and David. It is said that at times the only thing that would console Saul’s depression was young David playing his harp. Whenever a “frenzied spirit” seized Saul, “David would take his harp and play on it, so that Saul found relief; he recovered and the evil spirit left him alone” (1 Sam. 16:23). Saul therefore made David his armor-bearer, and kept David with him constantly. From this interpersonal example, Gregory draws a broad analogy to illuminate the paradoxical relation of poverty and riches. There is a greater spiritual hazard in being wealthy and powerful than in being poor and powerless. The caretaker owes a duty to the rich to challenge them to use their resources responsibly, so as not to trust in the uncertainty of riches. Yet this may need to be done in the form of a harp, to soothe the madness of unchecked power gently by sweet tones. For riches intensify pride. Wealth gets itself locked into illusions that tend to block any form of corrective reproof. Therefore the harp must be used tenderly to stroke away the madness. But that is done only in order to come later to the point of a clearer pastoral attempt to nurture attitudes of mercy and justice as opposed to pride and inordinate trust in riches.35

The Intimidated and the Arrogant

Those who think of assertiveness training as an incomparably modern and recent innovation do well to examine some of Gregory’s admonitions to the excessively humble. Some persons become so addicted to low status positions that they drift into winless dependency relationships. Others become oppositely addicted to excessive independence and haughtiness. These two polar types require different sorts of pastoral response.36

The easily intimidated are counseled “not to be more submissive than is becoming.”37 Gregory is aware of the proneness to self-deception amid seeming humility. The care of their souls requires helping them to see how they may be unnecessarily living out “a faulty timidity under the guise of humility.”38

On the other hand, Gregory viewed persistent arrogance as having a primordially mysterious and transhistorical root in the demonic rebellion of the devil and his angels against the goodness of God because of their wish to be superior to God. This pattern was the mirror opposite of the redeemer who became as nothing in order to minister to humanity. “What, then, is baser than haughtiness, which, by overreaching itself, removes itself from the stature of true eminence? And what is more sublime than humility, which, in debasing itself to the lowest, joins itself to its Maker who remains above the highest?”39

The dynamics of arrogance have as much potential self-deception in them as do the dynamics of humility. Arrogance may firmly believe itself to be just while remaining quite ignorant of its own ploys. What is required pastorally in such a case? Gregory applies this analogy: The arrogant person is something like an unbroken horse, a wild, unruly animal that first must be stroked gently and only later controlled with aversive reinforcement. Pastoral care in this case is something like the treatment of a physician who provides a potent but distasteful drug to a highly resistant patient by mixing it with a generous amount of sweet honey. This is required for pastoral care of the arrogant, who otherwise would never take the medicine.40

Imagine an intensely egocentric individual who remains stubbornly resistant to all reasonable counsel. Ironically, such a person is more likely to change some behavior patterns if the amendment that is requested seems more a favor to someone else than a matter of self-profit. For self-centered persons judge everything in relation to its profit to themselves. If the pastor can initially convince the egocentric that the needed change is not for self-benefit but for the convenience of someone else, that is more likely to have greater appeal. The egocentric will quickly grasp that self-interest can then parade as altruism.

Gregory dutifully illustrates this with a Biblical type: When Hobab wanted to abandon the tribe of Israel and return to his home country, Moses had the practical problem of persuading him to continue in the covenant community; otherwise there would be no possibility of redemption. Moses, who already knew the way ahead, deliberately feigned an appeal to Hobab not to leave, citing as grounds the fact that Hobab knew the territory of the wilderness and could serve as the people’s guide (Num. 10:29-3 1). The interaction is filled with irony: The self-centered man is being counseled by the wiser soul guide who already knows the way but who asks him anyway to be the leader, not because his leadership was necessary but in order that Hobab might be more profoundly led.41

The Fickle and the Obstinate

Some parishioners are prone to what Gregory calls “lightheadedness.” They are too easily influenced and therefore always changing their direction. Paul had recognized such persons in his congregations..people who were “whirled about by every fresh gust of teaching” (Eph. 4:14). Like Kierkegaard’s aesthete, whose life is tyrannized by irresolution, such persons are always looking outside themselves to find a cure for their despair.

Their deeper dilemma, in Gregory’s view, is that they tend to “undervalue and disregard themselves too much, and so are turned aside from their own judgment in successive moments of time.”42 When a whirlwind of opinion flies about them, they lose their identity because they refuse to choose, having never learned effectively to bind time with choice.

How is such a person to be dealt with pastorally? Gregory recognized that this individual is having difficulty in developing what we today would call increased ego strength and personal identity. Gregory’s way of putting it carried the same meaning: It is as if one’s soul or personal center is a leaf being blown around, so light that it does not have any substance. What one needs is, metaphorically speaking, an increased self-weight or heaviness, in the sense of a palpably defined selfhood as opposed to an identity lightness. When Gregory speaks here of “levity,” he does not mean humor or wit, but technically a lack of substance to one’s choosing and being, and therefore a lack of self-definition, self-understanding, and self-identity. So this person needs to be pastorally shepherded toward greater capacity for cutting through either/or decisions. If the central problem is irresolution which forever looks for someone else to give one direction, then the remedy is to grow in the capacity for decisive resolution. Gregory anticipates Kierkegaard’s description of certain types of aesthetic nonchoosers who are habitually resistant to deciding anything.43

This pattern can be better grasped by comparison with its opposite, the assertive individualist, or as Gregory says, “The obstinate individual.” There are people who overestimate their own capacity to make hard choices and who discount everybody else’s judgment. Paul firmly counseled such characters to “be not wise in your own conceits” (Rom. 12:16, KJV). The conceit hinges on the fact that one cannot listen clearly to anyone else’s view. One obstinately thinks that one’s own opinion is weightier than anybody or everybody else’s.

In this dipolar case study, Gregory enunciated a pivotal maxim that may be taken to be a major principle of his pastoral care: “certain faults beget others.”44 If you already have the fault of indecisiveness, you are therefore prone to becoming fickle. One fault begets another. If, on the other hand, you are already trapped in egocentric self-assertiveness, that is prone to beget obstinacy. Pastoral wisdom must grasp the difference between these two polarities, and wisely treat them in different ways. You do not want to cause the indecisive person to become even more weightless and pliable. You do not want to elicit in the assertive person greater obstinacy. What is needed is a finely tuned balance. Gregory sought to bring these virtues into an equilibrium so that neither exists in deficit or in excess.45

The Habitually Angry and the Meek

Returning to the emotive axis of interpersonal analysis, Gregory deals with two opposite types of pastoral challenges: the perennially outraged person and the excessively meek person.46 How does the pastor wisely deal with the one who is always feeling offended, forever hankering for a fight? This is an interpersonal posture that the classical tradition has termed “choleric” — passionately angry, easily set off in confrontations, always ready to be provoked and to provoke others, irascible, tending toward malice and at times violence. All of these aggressive behaviors, as we might guess, eagerly seek to parade outwardly as the laudable virtues of justice, candor, and righteousness.47

Gregory was keenly aware of the complex psychological dynamics of anger. One who perennially wants to fight may unawarely be looking for someone to fight with. Thus there is a tendency to provoke responses of anger and thereby to “succeed” in eliciting aggression. Most persons would prefer not to have to deal with the hazards of anger, but those of choleric temperament may feel better when they are “hooking” or eliciting anger from others, as it were, to test out their own strength. “The choleric pursue even those who shun them, stirring up occasions of strife, rejoicing in the trouble caused by contention.”48

Gregory then takes the opposite case of the overly friendly individual who does not have a developed capacity to confront others. Such a person is intimidated by the slightest show of hostility. Softened by the lack of ego-strength and critical capacity, this person is quickly immobilized by aggressive ploys, needing to learn to express resistance more actively and assertively.

The wise counselor will search for a balanced equilibrium between conflict capability and the capacity for intimacy. Gregory’s unique way of pointing to this balance comes in his discussion of the Holy Spirit, who combines these qualities in exemplary proportion. For the Holy Spirit is paradoxically symbolized by two seemingly contrary symbols — dove and fire. Pastoral counsel needs both. The wise counselor learns through dialogical experience to add to meekness zeal and to temper zeal with compassion.

Paul is Gregory’s primary model of this equilibrium, especially in Paul’s exceptionally different vocational counsels to Timothy and Titus.49 To Timothy he said: Admonish others in all patience (2 Tim. 4:2). To Titus he said: Admonish others with all authority (Titus 2:15). Gregory thought that the difference of emphasis was not accidental, but responsive to the varied predispositions of the two young men. His interpretation brings to a fitting conclusion this chapter on contextual pastoral counsel:

Is it not that he sees Titus endowed with too meek a spirit, and Timothy with a little too zealous one? He enflames the one with zeal, and the other he restrains with a gentleness of patience. He gives to one what is lacking, he takes away from the other what is excessive. He aims at urging on the one with a spear; he checks the other with a bridle. Being the great husbandman that he is, having taken the church under his care, he waters some shoots that they may grow, but prunes others when he perceives their excessive growth.50



1. PC 3, Prologue.

2. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations and Letters, NPNF, 2d series, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976) “Second Oration,” 210ff.

3. PC 3, Prologue.

4. Ibid., 3.1.

5. Cf. Oden, TAG, 3-26.

6. PC 3.7.

7. Ibid.

8. PC 3.8.

9. BPR 2.8.

10. PC 3.9.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. BPR 3.9.

14. PC 3.9.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. For a fuller bibliography of this literature, see my TAG, 116ff.

18. Oden, TAG, 1-17.

19. PC 3.22.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. PC 3.23.

23. BPR 3.22.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Oden, TAG, 3-10.

27. PC 3.4.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. PC 3.5.

31. PC 3.2.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. BPR 3.2.

35. PC 3.2.

36. PC 3.17.

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. PC 3.18.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.; cf. 2.2ff.

46. PC 3.16; cf. Oden, TAG, 3ff.

47. PC 3.16; cf. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1959).

48. PC 3.16.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.