Rev. Stewart is a Protestant Reformed minister, presently working in Northern Ireland.
But what was the message that Patrick preached to the Irish? Patrick leaves us in no doubt here, giving us a simple Rule of Faith near the beginning of his Confession:
There is no other God nor was there ever in the past nor will there be in the future except God the Father ingenerate, without beginning, from whom all beginning flows, who controls all things, as our formula runs: and his Son Jesus Christ whom we profess to have always existed with the Father, begotten spiritually before the origin of the world in an inexpressible way by the Father before all beginning, and through him were made things both visible and invisible; he was made man; when death had been overcome he was received into Heaven by the Father, and he gave to him all power above every name of things heavenly and earthly and subterranean and that every tongue should confess to him that Jesus Christ is Lord and God; and we believe in him and await his Advent which will happen soon, as judge of the living and the dead, and he will deal with everybody according to their deeds and he poured out upon us richly the Holy Spirit the gift and pledge of immortality, who makes those who believe and obey to be sons of God and coheirs with Christ and we confess and adore him, one God in the Trinity of sacred name (Conf 4).
Several things must be emphasized from this confession. First, Patrick was not a Unitarian; he was a full-blooded Trinitarian. His creed is structured according to the three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Later he refers to the above creed as “the rule of faith of the Trinity” (Conf 14). Near the end of his Confession, Patrick writes, “We believe in and adore … Christ who reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit before ages and now and for all ages of ages. Amen” (Conf 60; cf. Conf 40; Letter 21). It is this great God “who controls all things” (Conf 4), as Patrick was to learn time and time again (e.g., Conf 17, 37).
Second, and in keeping with this, Patrick was not an Arian. The great confession of every tongue on the great Judgment Day is “Jesus Christ is Lord and God” (Conf 4). Notably, however, the creed shows no awareness of the controversy concerning the person and natures of Christ. It betrays no knowledge of the Creed of Chalcedon (451).
The Christocentric character of the Rule of Faith is reflected in Patrick’s writing. Patrick sees Christ as the true sun (Conf 20, 59-60). He speaks of his whole life as nothing other than a “sacrifice … to Christ my Lord” (Conf 34), for Christ was the One who gave His life for him (Conf 24). Nowhere does Patrick mention the Virgin Mary. Patrick preached a message of “Christ alone,” not “Christ and Mary.”
Third, Patrick was a confessional Christian. Hanson observes that the Latin style of the creed in Confession 4 is “markedly different from the rest of the Confession.”1 It was not his own production. Given that Patrick was a British Christian, and that his Confession was written for a British audience, and that he introduces his creed with the phrase “as our formula runs,” it is highly likely that we have in Confession 4 the Rule of Faith of the British Church in the fifth century. Patrick was not some theological lone-ranger. As a member of the British branch of the universal church of Christ, he confessed his faith in the creed of his church. Like the Belgic Confession, the Rule of Faith is intensely personal: “we profess,” “we believe … and await,” and “we confess and adore” (Conf 4).
The arch-heretic Pelagius (c.360-c.420), like Patrick, was probably born in Britain. Moreover, they both lived around the same time, with Pelagius being the earlier figure. This has drawn forth comparisons. M. Forthomme Nicholson, in a contribution to a recent work on Celtic Christianity, has written that “Pelagius and Patrick share a similar concept of grace.”2 This is a very serious charge against Patrick.
Nicholson produces, for her assertion, only two pieces of evidence that even merit consideration. First, she states, “Neither [Pelagius nor Patrick] believes in a confrontation between God’s grace and human freedom.” This is strange language and indicates that she does not properly understand the doctrines of grace. Augustine and all advocates of sovereign grace deny that grace “confronts” human freedom, as if grace reduced man’s freedom of choice to some shadowy power of acquiescence or made him a mere automaton. The Canons of Dordt declare that the Lord
opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable (III/IV:11).
Nicholson’s second argument is that, “There does not seem to be any clear concept of created grace in [Patrick’s] Confession. All is gift, but there is no special gift that can be called ‘grace’ in the Augustinian sense.” But ought we to expect Patrick to use words in their “Augustinian sense”? Especially is this not to be expected if Patrick, as appears most likely, never read Augustine. And if Patrick does not use words in an “Augustinian sense,” does this mean that his view of grace is Pelagian?
Nicholson does not bother to quote even so much as one line from the Confession or from the Letter to the effect that Patrick was weak in his understanding of the grace of God. Nowhere in either of his writings does Patrick praise man’s native powers or ascribe any goodness to man. Nowhere does he glory in man’s free will or present salvation as the result of our not resisting God’s grace. Nowhere does he speak of the possibility of sinless perfection or of the Fall of Adam as a bad example. Admittedly, he does speak highly of monasticism (e.g., Conf 42ff.), but this does not make him Pelagian either. Practically all the church leaders of Patrick’s day advocated the monastic life in one form or another, including Augustine, the champion of sovereign grace.
Patrick’s Confession is a declaration of the mercy and faithfulness of God to him in Jesus Christ. Always and throughout his writings Patrick speaks of himself as only a lowly sinner who was pitied of the Lord. We see his humility in the immortal first line of his Confession: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many” (Conf 1). He speaks of the sins of his youth and he presents them as being committed against God. He knew that “We shall all certainly render an account even for the smallest sins before the judgment seat of the Lord Christ” (Conf 8). In his waywardness, he had deserted the God of his fathers and disobeyed His commandments and neglected the church’s message of salvation, but the Lord was gracious to him (Conf 1).
And it was [in Ireland] that the Lord opened the understanding of my unbelieving heart, so that I should recall my sins even though it was late and I should turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he took notice of my humble state and pitied my youth and my ignorance and protected me before I knew him and before I had sense or could distinguish between good and bad and strengthened me and comforted me as a father comforts his son (Conf 2).
Note that in Patrick’s salvation the Lord is active. The Lord “opened” Patrick’s heart. The Lord “noticed,” “pitied,” “protected,” “strengthened,” and “comforted” Patrick. It is true that Patrick tells us that he “recalled” his sins and “turned” with all his heart to the Lord, but this was the result of the Lord’s work upon his heart. “The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelieving heart, so that I should recall my sins … [and] turn with all my heart to the Lord my God,” he writes (cf.Acts 16:14).
“So that is why I cannot keep silent,” he begins his next sentence. He thanks the Lord for His “great acts of kindness” and His “great grace” and speaks of his desire to “praise and confess his wonderful works among every nation that is under the sky” (Conf 3). Many years later Patrick still marvels at the grace of the God who saved him:
Consequently I am strictly bound to cry out so as to make some repayment to the Lord for those benefits of his which were so great here and in eternity which the mind of man cannot calculate (Conf 12).
Such fulsome praise issues only from a heart that knows the great mercy of the Lord.
Perhaps the clearest—and the most earthy—presentation of the sovereignty of God in Patrick’s salvation is found in his simile of the stone in deep mud.3
Before I was humiliated I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and he who is mighty came and in his compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on the top of the wall (Conf 12).
It is hard to conceive of imagery which more sharply conceives of the passivity of the sinner and the glorious saving power of the Almighty. It is also significant that this language came from Patrick’s heart and experience. Elsewhere, his writing indicates his great dependence on scriptural language, but here he tells us what his salvation was to him in his own words. “I was like a stone in deep mud,” he tells us, “but the mighty God reached down and lifted me up.”Christine Mohrmann is nearer the mark than Nicholson in her assessment of Patrick: “The doctrines of grace are one of the few theological elements which are mentioned several times [in Patrick’s writings], and there is a clear anti-Pelagian trend in his work.”4 However, this does not mean that Patrick consciously wrote against Pelagianism in either the Confession or the Letter. Nothing he says supports Pelagianism, and everything that he says is contrary to it. This is as far as we can go with regard to a possible influence of the Pelagian controversy on Patrick.5 We can, however, affirm that Patrick’s understanding of grace is much more biblical and forceful than the majority of the pre-Augustine church fathers (if not them all). Patrick had grasped clearly that salvation is a “gift of God” (Conf 14) and this is the message that this simple missionary to the Irish preached.
1.R.P.C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick [New York: The Seabury Press, 1983], p. 81.
2.M. Forthomme Nicholson, “Celtic Theology: Pelagius,” in James P. Mackey (ed.), An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), p. 404.
3.Mud, of course, requires rain. Apparently the Irish climate has not changed much over the last 1,500 years.
4.Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin University Press, 1961), p. 25.
5.Cf. Hanson: “Efforts to support the argument that Patrick was influenced either by Pelagianism or anti-Pelagianism do not seem to me to have been successful” (op. cit., p. 43).