quoted none of the church fathers
and never mentions
any of the cannons of the church councils
was uniquely apostolic
by Warren C.
Among the world's most widely
celebrated national heroes, St. Patrick of Ireland must be rated near
the top. Yet his life is hidden in obscurity. He is as universally
associated with Ireland as are the shamrock and the shillelagh, but
practically nothing is known about the essential details of his life.
Scholars hold a wide range of opinions about him.
romanticized his career and colored his teachings far beyond the
evidence of the facts, while others have denied his very existence.
The truth must lie somewhere between these extremes. Let us consider
what we do know about Patrick from writings that are generally
accepted as his own, and from other apparently authentic material. (1)
Patrick was born about A.D. 388 (2)
somewhere in Britain. (3) No one knows where exactly - except that it
was not in Ireland! Probably England and Wales. According to Patrick,
his father was a provincial landholder, suggesting a comfortable,
though not wealthy, background. Furthermore, his father was a deacon
and his grandfather a priest, though Patrick himself was evidently not
a practicing Christian while a youth at home. He characterized himself
during this time as being "ignorant of God." (4)
When he was 16
years old, Patrick was captured by a band of raiders and, with others,
carried off to Ireland. There, as a slave, he tended sheep for six
years. Apparently his early Christian training, unproductive at first,
became the foundation for his zealous quest for salvation during this
difficult period. He later recalled the experience in these words,
"More and more the love and fear of God burned, and my faith and my
spirit were strengthened."
Patrick had many
dreams that affected his life. While still a slave he dreamed that he
should attempt to escape from his Irish master. He acted accordingly
and found a ship captain who took him to France. After several years
of unknown activities, he returned to his family in Britain. There he
had his most important dream. He saw a man from Ireland named
Victoricus who gave him some letters. As he read one entitled "The
Voice of Ireland" he heard voices crying. "We beseech thee, holy
youth, to come and walk with us once more." (5) To this experience
Patrick attributed the origin of his mission to Ireland.
The Apostle to Ireland
We have little
certain information concerning the details of Patrick's Irish mission.
It commenced about 415. He described his work to win village
chieftains to Christ and through them to influence their people.
Evidently he was consecrated as a bishop by his home clerics. In
Ireland he established churches and appointed bishops to oversee them.
Despite some exaggerated accounts, his work, while successful, did not
achieve spectacular proportions.
Patrick was not the
first Christian in Ireland. He appears to have found some Christian
priests already there when he arrived. They pledged him their
congregations. Before this time Pope Celestine (d. 432) had sent the
bishop Palladius to Ireland. His mission had met with little success
and ended after a year. Palladius reported that he had found the Irish
already believing in Christ but unwilling to support the Roman type of
After a long
ministry that influenced not only their religious but also their
social and legal history, Patrick, the apostle to the Irish, died
about 460. (6) He was followed by a succession of Irish Christian
leaders who, for several centuries, preserved his distinctive type of
Patrick has been
called “father of teaching and faith for Irishmen.” He himself
recognized his responsibility to guide the formulation of Christian
teaching. He declared, “According to the role of faith in the Trinity,
I should define doctrine, and make known the gift of God and
everlasting consolation, without being held back by danger, and spread
everywhere the name of God without fear, confidently.”
Bible, Not the Fathers
doctrine of authority, Patrick leaves no doubt. “The words are not
mine, but of God and the apostles and prophets, who have never lied.”
This was not just a theory, for his writings, though few and short,
are soaked with the dew of biblical language. In abrupt contrast, he
never quotes the teachings of the fathers, and he never mentions the
cannons of the church councils.
Patrick believed in
a triune God. He taught that Christ "above existed with the Father"
and was "begotten before the beginning of anything." He saw Christ as
man's mediator with God - a role he nowhere assigns to angel, saint,
or priest. In this silence he is followed by Irish Christians for
three centuries after him. For Patrick, the Holy Spirit was divine,
being given by Christ to the believers as a first installment of
salvation. He believed that the Spirit dwelt in his heart and had
changed his life. In Patrick's view, God was the origin of all things.
His successors show clear evidence of their literal acceptance of the
Genesis account of creation.
The Nature of Humans
Patrick's view of
man does not appear to include a radical dualism between an evil,
temporal body and a good, eternal soul. We learn of his regard for the
body of Secundus' Hymn where Patrick is said to have prepared his
flesh "as a temple for the Holy Spirit; by whom, in pure activities,
it is continually possessed; and he doth offer it to God as a living
and acceptable sacrifice." But with typical Pauline realism, Patrick
himself cautioned, "I do not trust myself as long as I am in the body
of this death, because he is strong who daily endeavours to turn me
away from the faith." (7)
We see further
evidence of Patrick's view of man when he speaks of the resurrection.
"Most surely I deem that if this [death] should happen to me, I have
gained my soul as well as my body, because without any doubt we shall
rise on that day, in the clear shinning of the sun, that is, in the
glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God, and
joint heirs with Christ, and conformed to his image, that will be;
since of him and through him and in him we shall reign." For Patrick
this resurrection leads to eternal life where all who believe in
Christ will live and reign with God forever.
Salvation, according to Patrick, was
from beginning to end the result of God's grace. "Most surely I deem
that from God I have received what I am." "I am only worth what he
himself has given me." In his emphasis on grace and faith, Patrick
echoed the teachings of Paul and anticipated the doctrine of the
Reformers of the sixteenth century. He confessed, "The Lord opened the
understanding of my unbelief that, even though late, I might call my
faults to remembrance, and that I might turn with all my heart to the
Lord my God."
It is thus that God
"makes those who believe and obey to become children of God the Father
and joint heirs with Christ."
Patrick believed in
prayer. After he was converted as a young slave, he prayed dozens of
times a day. To the end of his life, prayer was his constant strength.
However, he saw no value in praying for the dead. He taught, "For he
who did not in his life deserve to receive the sacrifice, how shall it
be able to help him after death?"
The Coming of Christ
Patrick also held definite ideas on the
doctrine of last-day events. Regarding the second coming of Christ, he
testified, "We look for his coming soon as the Judge of the quick and
the dead." He taught that at this judgment all must give an account of
every sin, large or small. However, he did not dismiss this event to
the remote future but expected it soon. The signs had been fulfilled.
He viewed his own
mission to Ireland in the light of the final proclamation, "Behold, we
are witness that the Gospel has been preached to the limit beyond
which no man dwells."
In practice, as
well as doctrine, Patrick represented a type of Christianity that was
unique in his day. The church at Rome taught by this time that the
sanctity of the Sabbath had been fully transferred from the seventh
day of the week to the first day, Sunday. However, Patrick and the
Irish Church continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Even where
the Irish conducted services on Sunday in honor of the resurrection of
Jesus, they did not consider the day equal in sanctity to the seventh
day. On Sunday a worshiper was taught that he could return to his work
following the service. But on the seventh day Christians must do no
work, for this was the Sabbath.
One of Patrick's
early biographers reflects on Patrick's special relationship to the
seventh day. "The angel was wont to come to him on every seventh day
of the week, and, as one man talks with another, so Patrick enjoyed
the angel's counsel and conversation." The same writer also mentions
that the parents of a girl, who, against their wishes, wanted to
remain unmarried, sought out Patrick "having taken advice given to
them by God, heard of Patrick as a man who was visited by the
everlasting God every seventh day."
Baptism by Immersion
The early Irish
Church practiced baptism for immersion by adults who had received
instruction in the faith. Patrick is said to have baptized many people
in wells, where the water was deep enough to allow for total
immersion. One anecdote relates how he conducted a baptism in a river,
"Thereafter Patrick went in his chariot, so that every one might see
him, and that they might hear from him his voice, and the preaching of
God's word by him. And then they believed in God and in Patrick. So
Patrick repeats the order of baptism to them on the river, which was
near them, and all the hosts are baptized therein." Other accounts
show that he instructed adults before their baptism. There is no
indication that he baptized infants.
Foot Washing and Lord's Supper
indicate that foot washing was a regular practice of the church.
Normally foot washing and Communion followed baptism. Foot washing
also signified a gesture of hospitality and an act of penitence. One
legend mentions a certain bishop who washed Patrick's feet, and even
the feet of his horses, after wronging the saint. Irish Christians
practiced foot washing on Maunday Thursday in preparation for Easter
and seemed also to have regularly used it in connection with
Patrick one "who draws heavenly wine in heavenly cups, and gives drink
to the people of God from a spiritual chalice." To the daughters of
Loegaire, Patrick is said to have counseled, "Ye cannot see Christ
unless ye first taste death, and unless ye receive Christ's Body and
his Blood." Together these suggest that Patrick conducted Communion
services in which the worshipers received both bread and wine.
Like Paul, Patrick
had a high regard for the Christian ministry and seemed to have based
his order and regulations on the instruction of the great New
Testament apostle. He appears to have placed a bishop or overseer at
the head of each church he organized. This leader was simply the
priest or pastor of the congregation with no particular authority
beyond his parish. A catalog of Irish saints mentions 350 bishops at
the time of Patrick, all founders of churches with one head, Christ,
and one chief, Patrick. No one outside Ireland is identified as a
Irish clerics did
not follow the Roman practice of celibacy. Patrick openly and without
embarrassment mentioned that his grandfather was a priest and his
father a deacon. He himself may have been married. A later homily
refers to Patrick's offspring by blood, by faith, by baptism and by
doctrine. Several legends speak of his marriage but try to show that
it was not consummated. Nevertheless, the idea that he was married
persisted in the traditions and is probably genuine. Later Irish
writers noted that a bishop should have no more than one wife. Bishops
in Ireland continued to marry until the tenth century.
For Patrick and his
fellow Irish ministers preaching was the principle vehicle for
transmitting the gospel. The evidence suggests that their preaching
was conducted in the language of the people and was characterized by
clarity and simplicity with no dogmatic mold.
An Independent Church
We have seen that
the early Celtic Church of Ireland, with Patrick as it main founder,
was for several centuries independent of the universal church of Rome.
In its doctrine and practices it remained quite close to the earliest
Christianity described in the New Testament. Eventually it was
absorbed into conformity with the Roman See, but only after a long and
A veil of obscurity
still conceals most of Patrick's life. Yet enough of his teachings and
practices seeps through to permit a rather different picture of him
from that assumed by his most devoted celebrants today. During the
season when he is most remembered let us consider well who he really
was and follow his example of biblical faith and practice.
Used by Permission
of the author. Dr. Warren C. Trenchard is provost of LaSierra
University in LaSierra, California.
principle source of information on Patrick is Leslie Hardinge, The
Celtic Church, Church Historical Society Series, No. 91 (London:
S.P.C.K. for the Church Historical Society, 1972). Quotations from
Patrick and other primary source material about him are cited from
Hardinge, unless otherwise noted.
Dates suggested for his birth range from A. D. 370 to 390.
Patrick gives his birthplace as Bannaven of Tabernia - a place that
can no longer be identified. Cited by Philip Schaff, History of the
Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1950), 4: 48.
Cited by Schaff, Ibid.
Cited by Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of
Christianity, 7 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers,
Dates suggested for his death range from 460 to 495.
Romans 7: 24.