Rev. Stewart is a missionary in the Protestant Reformed Churches, currently working in Northern Ireland.
We have seen that Patrick was clearly not the happy-go-lucky guy of popular perception. Nor did he evangelize Ireland in the service of the Roman Church and bring it under the sway of the Roman pontiff as, for example, Boniface did for Germany three centuries later.
Nor was he an abolitionist. Thomas Cahill writes, “The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.”1 But Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus and his men does not condemn slavery per se but the kidnapping and murder of “the slaves of God and baptized handmaidens of Christ” (Letter 7). Patrick’s Letter and Confession are very different from, say, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
It would be more accurate to refer to Patrick as “Evangelical” than as “Protestant.” The distinctive Reformed doctrines were not developed in his day and it is absurd to expect them to be taught in the Confession or the Letter. Truth develops over against the lie. When the time was right, the Reformation gospel was stated sharply over against Roman sacerdotalism. But that would wait another thousand years.
Patrick held to orthodox Trinitarian and Christological theology. He had a strong faith in God’s promises and a compelling eschatology of hope. His devotion to the Word of God is seen on every page of his writings. His knowledge of salvation in Christ was the basis for his missionary zeal to the Irish. Jesus Christ “overcame” death and received “all power above every name” (Conf 4), therefore the church must go into all the world and teach and baptize (Conf 40).
The greatness of Patrick’s work and its difficulties, the glory of the gospel he preached, and his own limited education were used of the Spirit to work in him a profound humility. He was no proud prelate of the same ilk as Augustine of Canterbury, wrongly credited by some for first bringing Christianity to Britain. The honesty and purity of Patrick’s soul shine through his works. He was a simple follower of Christ laboring on behalf of His God. He is an example to us all.
Patrick does not hold a place in the history of dogma. He was not a profound thinker, never mind a speculative theologian. He did not have the intellectual skills, nor the time, nor the library, for serious dogmatic reflection. Nor did Patrick translate the Bible into the vernacular for the Irish as did Wycliffe and his followers for the English. Instead Patrick sought to diffuse a knowledge of Latin in Ireland so that the church could understand the Old Latin translation.
But Patrick did have what was needed for his missionary task: an unwavering faith and a fervent love for the truth. Several things stand out regarding Patrick as a missionary. First, he was an itinerant bishop, one of the few we know of in the post-apostolic church. Even the Arian missionary to the Goths, Ulfilas (c. 311-c. 381), was largely stationed in one place. Second, his identification with those for whom he labored would be commended by any modern school of missions. Third, his desire for a truly indigenous church reflecting the bent of the Irish is highly commendable. Fourth, a Reformed man appreciates Patrick’s creedal emphasis and concern for the future of the church.
Will Durant points out that when Patrick died “it could be said of him, as of no other, that one man had converted a nation.”2 Another peculiarity of Ireland is that it received the Christian faith without the shedding of the blood of martyrs, Patrick and his anonymous helpers evidently dying a natural death.
Patrick’s writings show a faith very different from that of the Council of Trent and Vatican I and II. Patrick knew nothing of transubstantiation, the worship of the host, or the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead; nor of mariolatry, Mary’s immaculate conception, or her bodily assumption into heaven, or her mediation; nor of papal dominion or infallibility, or of religious inquisition. The seven sacraments, auricular confession, the rosary, indulgences, worship of idols, prayers to saints, prayers for the dead, purgatory, and clerical celibacy are not part of Patrick’s faith.
Ireland, which is now one of the most devoutly Romanist nations of the world, was not reduced to the Roman yoke till the twelfth century. For more than eleven hundred years after the resurrection of Christ, Ireland was independent of the papal see. Then in 1155, Adrian IV, the only English pope, granted Ireland to the Norman King of England, Henry II.3 Sixteen years later Ireland was subdued by the English. The church that was built by Christ through the labors of Patrick and others was now claimed to be founded on Peter the rock. At the time of the Reformation, Ireland had been Roman Catholic for less than three hundred and fifty years. Non-Roman-Catholic Christianity, on the other hand, was to be found in Ireland for at least eight hundred years before the Norman invasion.
The ancient Irish church’s freedom from both the old Roman Empire and the Roman Church led William Henry Scott to write,
Nowhere does church history provide an example of an accomplished indigenous church of this kind equal to that of the Celtic Church which developed in Ireland in the fifth century.4
But the significance of Patrick can be seen not only in his role in establishing the Irish church but in that church’s vital role in the progress of Christianity in the early part of the Middle Ages. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the incursion of the barbarian tribes, European civilization decayed rapidly. Libraries were destroyed and educational standards plummeted. The church was in great peril. However, as Kenneth Scott Latourette remarks,
Thanks to Patrick and to his imperfectly remembered associates and contemporaries, in the declining days of the Empire in the West, Christianity was securely planted in Ireland, well beyond the farthest limits reached by the legions…. From Ireland, too, within a very few generations, Christian monks were to pour into Britain and the Continent, there to revive a faith which had decayed through the turmoil of the years and to carry it to pagan peoples.5
Mark Noll, in his book Turning Points, identifies twelve key events in the history of the church. In his introduction he mentions a dozen or so others that almost made it on his list. One of these is “the mission of Patrick to Ireland in the early fifth century.”6
The missionary passion of the post-Patrician Irish church was a continuation of Patrick’s zeal. William H. Marnell points out,
It was the St. Patrick of actuality, the slave of Christ and his follower in exile but not the wonder-worker of tradition old or new, who established the tradition in which the Irish monks who brought Christianity back to Europe in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries lived, worked and suffered.7
Similarly, Hughes Oliphant Old writes of the Irish church,
Not content to achieve their own salvation, their monasticism was an evangelistic monasticism. They knew that the Bible taught that they had to share the gospel as well as receive it. And to that sacred task they gave their lives, with all the passion that comes so naturally to the Celtic soul.8
The Irish church followed Patrick not only in their missionary fervor but also in their love of learning. Patrick, it is true, was no scholar, but in his writings it is clear that he attached a high value to knowledge. He lamented the loss of the education he would have gained in his youth but for his kidnapping (Conf 10) and yearned for “the same talent as the others had” (Conf 11). His children in the Irish church over the next few centuries took the opportunity they had to gain a good education, and they led the way in European scholarship.
Many precious manuscripts found their way to Ireland, as did many young men of the continent who sought a first-rate education at one of the famed Irish monastic schools. The Irish church labored hard in copying these precious texts and was renowned for its calligraphy. The Book of Kells, written very soon after the turn of the ninth century and on display at Trinity College, Dublin, rates as one of the world’s most famous manuscripts. Irish learning and the books they preserved flowed back to the continent with the missionary monks as did the purer form of Latin that the Irish maintained. Roland Bainton writes that while continental Latin was
corrupted by the emergent vernaculars there was no such danger in Ireland where the native speech was Gaelic. Here, Latin
continued separate and undefiled, to be brought back to the Continent, after subsequent invasions, by Irish monks.9
The Irish also led the way in the study of Greek. John T. McNeill writes, “Nora Chadwick [an expert on the Irish church] can speak of a knowledge of Greek under the Frank[ish Empire] as ‘an Irish monopoly.'”10
Another area in which the ancient Irish church followed Patrick was in her godliness. After all, Ireland was known not merely as “the Island of Scholars” but “the Island of Saints and Scholars.” Near the end of the seventh century, Aldfred, king of the Northumbrian Saxons, who was educated in an Irish monastery, penned the following lines concerning the piety of the Irish church:
I found in each great church moreo’er,
Whether on island or on shore,
Piety, learning, fond affection;
Holy welcome and kind protection.
I found the good lay monks and brothers
Ever beseeching help for others,
And in their keeping the holy word
Pure as it came from Jesus the Lord.
In the next several centuries after Patrick, the Irish church proved faithful to his legacy. She used her learning and piety in the promulgation of the gospel to Scotland, England, Iceland, France, the Lowlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and other lands farther east. The islands of Iona and Lindisfarne had famous Irish monastic settlements. Through the great missionary work of Columba, Columbanus, Gall, Killian, Virgil of Salzburg, and hordes of other Irish monks, the white horse of the gospel rode forth from the Emerald Isle.
There is much truth to the words of Thomas J. Johnston about the Irish monks:
In old chronicles and in manuscripts written by Irish hands, ample witness of their work remains; but all that Christendom in Western Europe [owes] to them is by no means fully known or realized today.11
1.Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, (USA: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1995), p. 114.
2.Will Durant, The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization—Christian, Islamic and Judaic—from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), p. 84.
3.Some Roman Catholic scholars have sought to deny Adrian IV’s papal bull but it is clearly genuine (cf. Appendix II in Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1 [USA: Hendriksen, repr. 1988], pp. 544-546). It is highly ironic that Ireland was “given” to England by the pope.
4.William Henry Scott, “St. Patrick’s Missionary Methods,” The International Review of Missions, (April, 1961), p. 137.
5.Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 1 (USA: Harper & Row, repr. 1965), pp. 222-223.
6.Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p. 13.
7.William H. Marnell, Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 25.
8.Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 111.
9.Roland Bainton, Christendom: A Short History of Christianity and its Impact on Western Civilization (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 144.
10.John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200, (Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 122-123.
11.Thomas J. Johnston, John L. Robinson and Robert Wyse Jackon, A History of the Church of Ireland (Ireland: A.P.C.K., no date), p. 92.