Patrick of Ireland — Theologian, Missionary, Social Activist

Let me also provocatively say this before you start reading the rest: Patrick was not Roman Catholic. Not even close. There.

This post is adapted from a paper I wrote for a world missions class.

A short survey of Patrick’s writings reveals a character that frankly is is in very close imitation to Paul.  Although Patrick’s beginnings were very different from Paul’s — having been “a most simple countryman” who was kidnapped by pirates at age 16.[1]— his writings reveal a humbled sinner, a deep theologian, a heart for the lost people of Ireland, a sound understanding of scripture’s admonitions against evil, a prayer warrior, a heavy fear of God, and a passion for the Gospel.  Though now seemingly lost in the cultural smoke of drunken revelry, the historic Patrick was a true theologian, evangelist, and missionary.

Fearful Sinner

In parallel with the Apostle Paul, Patrick introduces himself in his Confessio as “a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many.”[2]   He later speaks concerning his sins that “Thus, I should give thanks unceasingly to God, who frequently forgave my folly and my negligence.”[3]  In his walk with Christ, he also acknowledges the role of the flesh.

So I hope that I did as I ought, but I do not trust myself as long as I am in this mortal body, for he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith and true holiness to which I aspire until the end of my life for Christ my Lord, but the hostile flesh is always dragging one down to death, that is, to unlawful attractions.[4]

Patrick’s understanding of God’s justice leads him into right fear.

So it is that I should mightily fear, with terror and trembling, this judgment on the day when no one shall be able to steal away or hide, but each and all shall render account for even our smallest sins before the judgment seat of Christ the Lord.  Knowing this, he properly takes this to his “labor of mercy on a people who once captured me when they wrecked my father’s house and carried off his servants.”[5]

He is a saved sinner on a mission to deliver the glorious Gospel to sinners.

Theologian

Certainly, the most popular theological construct associated with Patrick is the shamrock as an illustration of the Trinity, which may simply be legend[6], and, if one wants to be picky, presents the negative potential of presenting the heresy of partialism.[7]

Patrick’s own words, however, show him to be unapologetically and deeply trinitarian, coming very close to better-known creeds in its depth of understanding and majesty.  It is worth quoting at length.

For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name.[8]

Accompanying this is Patrick’s deep understanding of the Gospel.  He insists, branching from this understanding of the Trinity, that “one should proceed without holding back from danger to make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, to spread God’s name everywhere with confidence and without fear.”[9]

Devoted spiritual warrior

Patrick notes in his Confessio that he came to the point of praying about a hundred times a day and “in the night a like number.”  The cold Irish weather was no deterrent.  “I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”[10]  Ward observes that “[Patrick’s] lack of training became a strength.  When he came up against Druidic shaman and pagan kings, it was Patrick’s prayer life that impressed them and not his rhetorical skill.”[11]

Neither was the pain Patrick endured under kidnapping a deterrent for him as his motive was not “the kindness of my heart” but rather he was “a slave in Christ to this faraway people for the indescribable glory of ‘everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.’”  In contrast, he defends the people to whom he witnessed for Christ against the soldiers of Coroticus, wielding the sword of God’s word all the way to its very real threat of condemnation:

I bear witness before God and his angels that this will come about, just as he has revealed my lack of learning. To repeat: these are not my words, but God’s own words-and the apostle’s and the prophets’, which I have merely chiseled out in Latin: and they have never lied. “He who is found to have believed will be saved; but he who did not believe will be condemned, God has spoken.”[12]

Patrick’s impact

It is well-known that Patrick’s witness ultimately turned Ireland from its Druidism to Christianity.  Though we ought to dismiss with legends, we also do have some additional historical implications.  Ward observes Patrick as both a “practical theologian” and a “social activist,” citing Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus as strong evidence of the latter.  Moreover, “During Patrick’s lifetime (or shortly after), the slave trade in Ireland stopped.”[13]

In one particular instance of Patrick’s own Confessio, the crew of the ship with which he was traveling had journeyed into the uninhabited country.  A crew member confronted Patrick’s God to relieve their hunger, to which “a herd of swine appeared on the road before our eyes.”[14]  And Ward observes overall that “His lack of training became a strength.  When he came up against Druidic shaman and pagan kings, it was Patrick’s prayer life that impressed them and not his rhetorical skill.”[15]  The meeting of a physical need as well as Patrick’s endless prayers were means of his ministry that had tangible impacts upon the nation he served.

Conclusion

Rather than to “put on giant green-foam hats, get righteously drunk, and vomit in the Chicago River to celebrate our conversion,”[16] we ought to look at Patrick and imitate him in the ways where he imitates Paul and ultimately Christ.  There was no “seminary mindset” in Patrick whereby Western seminarians are tempted to confine their theologies to academic study and commentary, nor was he a functionally-agnostic social activist with ‘Christian’ flavor.  The full force of the Trinity, the Gospel, and the Missio Dei were present in the reliable historical record of Patrick.

 

[1] St. Patrick, The “Confessio” of Saint Patrick, n.d., 2, accessed February 25, 2015, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.pdf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Tarlach O’Raifeartaigh, “Saint Patrick | Bishop and Patron Saint of Ireland,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed March 10, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Patrick.

[7] Hans Fiene, St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies, Lutheran Satire, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw.

[8] St. Patrick, The “Confessio” of Saint Patrick, 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 7,” 1561, 6.

[11] Stanley J. Ward, “Saint Patrick: Practical Theologian, Social Activist,” Crosswalk.com, March 8, 2011, http://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/saint-patrick/saint-patrick-practical-theologian-social-activist.html.

[12] St. Patrick, “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” trans. John Skinner, n.d., Celtic Literature Collective, accessed February 25, 2015, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/p02.html.

[13] Ward, “Saint Patrick: Practical Theologian, Social Activist.”

[14] St. Patrick, The “Confessio” of Saint Patrick.

[15] Ward, “Saint Patrick: Practical Theologian, Social Activist.”

[16] Fiene, St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.

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