Rev. Stewart is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches, presently working in Northern Ireland.
We saw last time (Standard Bearer, May 1, 2003) that Patrick believed and preached the grace of the triune God in Christ. Patrick’s understanding of grace is demonstrated yet further in that he repeatedly refers to his call to preach the gospel in Ireland as a “gift” of God to him (e.g., Conf 16, 33, 62). God, not Patrick himself, called him to his mission (Conf 56), for he received his office from God’s hand (Letter 1). Patrick humbly confesses that he was not worthy of the high calling of the bishopric (Conf 32). “I truly am a debtor to God,” he affirms (Conf 38). With a sense of the greatness of God’s blessings to him, he cries out, “Who am I, Lord?” (Conf 34; cf. 55-56; II Sam. 7:18). These are the words of a man who believed and preached the gospel of grace.
Perhaps most striking is the fact that Patrick realizes that he was “called and predestined to proclaim the Gospel” (Letter 6). He knows that he, and all true ministers of Jesus Christ, were eternally appointed to their glorious task. It is no wonder that God should deliver him from all his perils. After all, God is the one “who knows everything even before it takes place” (Conf 35). When on one occasion during his ministry in Ireland he was “put in irons,” it was not his Irish captors but the Lord who struck his chains (Conf 52).
Patrick speaks of his desire to return to his “country and kinsfolk” in Britain and to see the saints in Gaul, but knows that he dare not do so. He would be sinning against the Lord for he is “bound in the Spirit” to his Irish calling (Conf 43). His life, he tells us, is one of service to “Christ my God, on whose behalf I am fulfilling a mission” (Letter 5; cf. Conf 56). John T. McNeill rightly speaks of Patrick’s “intense consciousness of divine authorization.”1
His hard labors were the fruit of God’s grace also (Conf 51, 53), and only in the Lord was he able to persevere (Conf 58). Similarly the results of Patrick’s labors are in the Lord’s hands. Patrick knows that the Lord has His children whom He gathers from the ends of the earth (Letter 9; Conf 39). In one passage Patrick speaks of the believers in Ireland as “a people who had recently come to belief whom the Lord chose from the ends of the earth” (Conf 38). The natural understanding of this is that those whom God chooses before the foundation of the earth come to faith at the appointed time.
For Patrick, nothing is merited; it is all gift and all grace. One who knows the “great grace” of God in the forgiveness of his own sins (Conf 3) can preach salvation even to wicked idolaters like the Irish. God saved him, a rebellious child of the church, so why cannot He convert the pagans? Even Coroticus and his men, who, while professing the faith of Jesus Christ, killed and kidnapped many of Patrick’s Irish converts, are exhorted to repentance so that they may “be made whole here and in eternity” (Letter 21).
Patrick, however, is not soft on sin. Nor is he a man to mince his words. He speaks of the soldiers of Coroticus as “fellow citizens of the devils” living “in death in an atmosphere of enmity” (Letter 2). “They shall inherit Hell equally with [Satan] in eternal punishment, because, of course, he who commits sin is a slave and is called a son of the devil” (Letter 4). Patrick urged that these recalcitrant robbers be excommunicated and forbidden fellowship by all Christians (Letter 6-7).
It would be a theological anachronism to claim that Patrick set forth the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Another millennium would pass before that dogma would be clearly set forth over against the full-blown heresy of justification by faith and works that was the death knell of the Roman Church. Hanson is correct, however, that Patrick had a “good practical grasp of what justification by faith means.”2
Patrick’s own conversion experience points us in the direction of his “good practical grasp” of justification, as does the comfort that he received in believing the promises of God:
I daily expect either assassination or trickery or reduction to slavery or some accident or other, but I fear none of these things on account of the promises of heaven because I have thrown myself into the hands of Almighty God who reigns everywhere as the prophet says, Cast your care upon the Lord and he will nourish you (Conf 55).
Patrick speaks often and boldly of his steadfast trust in God:
I believe most confidently that [should my body be torn limb from limb or devoured by birds] I have gained my soul along with my body, because, without a shadow of doubt, on that Day we shall arise in the radiance of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as children of the living God and coheirs with Christ and destined to be conformed to his image, because we shall reign from him and through him and in him (Conf 59).
Patrick had an eschatology of hope. He had no doubt about his eternal destiny. He would partake in the resurrection of the just and live and reign with Christ forever. Patrick had the certainty of eternal life because the Lord Jesus “died and was crucified” for the “slaves of God and the baptized maidservants of Christ” (Letter 7). Patrick “awaited” the final fulfillment of God’s promise of the salvation of the nations when forever believers “will sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Conf 39; Matt. 8:11). This steadfast and fearless gaze into eternity distinguishes Patrick from much of the medieval church, for wherever the doctrine of justification by faith and works enters, confidence in one’s eternal salvation vanishes. After all, how can one ever be sure of acquittal at Christ’s judgment bar if even the smallest part of our salvation depends on us?
Interestingly, the Irish believers slain by Coroticus’ men (Letter 2-3, 15) are described by Patrick as being in “Paradise” (Letter 17) and in “the kingdom of heaven” (Letter 18). On the other hand, the wicked have “their part in the lake of everlasting fire” (Letter 18). Patrick’s writings leave no place for purgatory, and James Bulloch points out that “No reference to purgatory is found in … any … Irish writing prior to the tenth century.”3
Underlying all of Patrick’s faith and hope is his unshakable trust in the Word of God. He can go as a missionary to a hostile land because he is armed with the Word. He can face fierce opposition “on account of the promises of heaven” (Conf 55). He can rebuke the powerful Coroticus and his bloodthirsty soldiers because he knows that the message he brings is not his but the Lord’s. As he says near the end of his Letter,
That which I have set out in Latin is not my words but the words of God and of apostles and prophets, who of course have never lied. He who believes shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be damned. God has spoken (Letter 20).
That last sentence, “God has spoken,” has a deathly ring of finality about it. Here is Patrick’s authority: the Triune God speaking in Holy Scripture.
According to Edward T. Stimson’s analysis,
[Patrick] quotes the Bible 54 times in his Letter to Coroticus and 135 times in the Confession, often unconsciously, quoting from 23 out of the 27 books of the New Testament, 12 books of the Old Testament, and 3 of the Apocrypha. He quoted most from the Psalms, Romans, Acts, Corinthians and Matthew, in that order.4
Sometimes Patrick quotes Bible text after Bible text as if he would bury his readers in Scripture (e.g., Conf 38, 40; Letter 2, 18). At other times his use of the Bible is less overt and more subconscious. Christine Mohrmann puts it well:
In every sentence, in every thought which he formulates, there are traces of Biblical language. And not only his language but also his way of thinking is determined by the Bible. But there is also in his writings a constant flow of Biblical words and phrases, which seem to belong to his normal vocabulary.
She speaks of “a sort of omnipresence of Holy Scripture” in Patrick’s writings, for Patrick was a man saturated with the Bible.5 His sober exegesis also deserves recognition. Hanson states that Patrick’s “biblical interpretation is remarkably sound and sensible,” and notes that after reading the “far-fetched allegorizing” of many of the church fathers, both of the East and of the West, “one turns with relief to the straightforward and simple use which Patrick makes of the Bible.”6
Patrick was a man of one book, and the Bible that he read and from which he quoted was the Old Latin translation, not the later Vulgate of Jerome. We find no quotations or references to the church fathers in Patrick. This is probably due, at least in part, to the fact that he had received only a limited education as a boy. His studies were incomplete when he was kidnapped by marauding Irishmen, and he was never able to make up for this.
Thus when he writes, in the 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 is not feigning humility, as some contemporary scholars would have it. What he said was true. His learning was meager, his Latin grammar was very poor, and he knew it. Often in his Confession he bemoans his “lack of education” (Conf 46; cf. 2, 9-12, 49, 62), and the same note is found in his Letter (e.g., Letter 1, 20).
Though scholars struggle in places to decipher Patrick’s Latin, Patrick’s lack of learning enhances the value of his work in one important respect. His lack of knowledge of rhetoric renders him incapable of writing for effect. Thus we gain a clearer and surer light into the inner thoughts of this man of God.
We should note, however, that although Patrick does not cite the church fathers, he does quote the Apocrypha. Hanson identifies eleven quotations from Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Song of the Three Holy Children, and I Maccabees.7 Nor does Patrick merely quote them as books “which the church may read and take instruction from,” as our Belgic Confession puts it (chapter VI). In Confession 11, he quotes from Ecclesiasticus 7 with the words “in another place the Spirit testifies.” In this, however, Patrick was no further astray than the church of his day. Only with the struggle regarding Scripture versus church tradition at the time of the Reformation did the church make a final, clear proclamation on the canon and sufficiency of Scripture.
Perhaps more objectionable are his seven or eight references to his dreams. Two of these dreams occurred at significant junctures in Patrick’s life: the message he received as a slave to depart from Ireland by ship (Conf 17) and his call as a missionary to Ireland by Victoricus (Conf 23), both mentioned earlier. The former, no doubt, merely presents to his mind the desire of his heart to escape from the land of his captivity. The latter is best explained, not as a supernatural revelation, but merely as the product of his burden to reach the Irish with the gospel of Christ. This was on his mind and he ended up dreaming about it one night. The other dreams are more trivial and can be understood along the same lines.
Most striking is the fact that Patrick introduces two of his dreams with the words “I saw in a vision of the night,” evidently taken from Daniel 7:13(Conf 23, 29). From this it would appear that Patrick, in his devout faith in the Scriptures, did not understand that revelatory dreams from God terminated with the apostolic witness in the first century. In this error, as in his view of the Apocrypha, Patrick was merely a man of his times.
1. John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200 (Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 53.
2. R.P.C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick (New York: The Seabury Press), 1983, p. 39; italics mine.
3. James Bulloch, The Life of the Celtic Church (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press), 1963, p. 126.
4. Edward T. Stimson, Renewal in Christ As the Celtic Church Led “The Way” (New York: Vantage Press), 1979, p. 159.
5. Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin University Press), 1961, p. 43.
6. Hanson, op. cit., p. 45.
7. Hanson, op. cit., p. 130.