Church History for Dummies: Patrick of Ireland

Patrick was born in around 389AD in Roman Britain. His family history resembles a Christian heritage, but for most of his early life he lived as a nominal Christian. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by raiders and sold as a slave in Ireland. After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped and returned home.

It was however the time of captivity that dramatically changed Patrick’s life. During this time he was converted to Christianity and after spending time in Gaul after his escape from captivity, he decided to return to Ireland as a missionary. He would spend the next thirty years ministering to the people there: preaching the Gospel, baptizing and writing at least two books that we know today as The Confession, and A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.

His ministry was marked by asceticism and involved extensive evangelization of the elite among Ireland. His evangelistic efforts would go on to inspire a generation of Celtic missionaries who evangelized Western Europe.

Patrick lived during the brink of the Fall of Rome—an event that took place for a number of reasons, many of which included the surge in Germanic tribes that began infiltrating and invading Roman territory. That being said, the presence of Christianity in Britain had been around for several centuries, producing theologians such as Pelagius and Faustus and condemning heresies such as Arianism. Patrick is in many ways a product of this period.


Patrick’s evangelistic efforts would go on to inspire a generation of Celtic missionaries who evangelized Western Europe.


Patrick’s theology, too, reflects the historical context surrounding his life. As stated above, it was during his time in captivity that God converted him. Patrick describes his conversion as a conversion from unbelief, in which the Lord had mercy on his youthful and ignorant ways. In his Confession, Patrick recounts the abundant grace given to him to pray and in his sensing of the Spirit’s presence.

The reasons surrounding his decision to move back to Ireland are not clear. What we do know is that he had a dream in which he felt called to minster to the Irish people. During this same time, Patrick undertook to serious theological training, becoming thoroughly familiar with the Latin Bible. The year 432AD saw Patrick depart for Ireland, never to return to Britain again.

Patrick describes his ministry toward the people of Ireland as an outflow of the grace he had himself first received—a mission for which he was willing to endure suffering and even death. His ministry was nothing less than successful, with thousands apparently being converted—even those belonging to royalty. Despite his momentous efforts, his work was met with severe opposition, and his Confession is in large part a defence against the criticisms he had faced.

Historically, Patrick’s mission stands out as insightful in at least two ways: first, is the reality of Patrick’s efforts as being significantly isolated, that is, it was uncommon among his own contemporaries. The goal of missions was a black and white concern for Patrick, as is evidenced by his own writing and evangelistic efforts.

Second, is the consideration—in Patrick’s mind—that his mission to the Irish was indicative of the ‘end of the world,’ so to speak.  The meaning of this is doubly pertinent: Patrick saw his efforts as both reaching the end of the known world, i.e. geographically, as well as pointing to the end of the known world, temporally, or eschatologically.


Patrick describes his ministry toward the people of Ireland as an outflow of the grace he had himself first received.


Finally, as we look back on Patrick’s life, many benefits can be seen to have followed.

First, is the evangelistic zeal, which became part and parcel of the Celtic Church. Patrick gave birth to spiritual children such as Columba, Columbanus, and Aidan. From here, the British Isles, Gaul, and as far as Italy were reached by the ever-on-the-move Celtic Church in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Second, Patrick’s efforts afforded the Celtic Church with a richness of biblical literacy that was characterized by a depth of bibliography and Trinitarian belief, so much so that Patrick’s Christianity is said to be “very much a religion of the book.”


Sources:

Robert G. Clouse, “Patrick: Missionary to the Irish” in Dowley, ed., History of Christianity, 176.

Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers, 131–148.

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