This article is about Patrick of Ireland (ca. 389-461).

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1989. 5 pages.

In memory of Patrick of Ireland

A sixteen-hundredth anniversary🔗

Among the events to be remem­bered this year, revolutions and wars take pride of place. To mention the outstanding ones: there will be the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the fortieth anniversary of the estab­lishment of the communist regime in China, as well as the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First, and the fiftieth anniversary of that of the Second World War.

All these commemorations, while undoubtedly instructive, are also depressing. It is therefore pleasant to be able to direct our attention for once to a very different event, which took place not at the end, but at the dawn of our civilization, and at the very beginning of the establishment of the Christian church in Western Europe. I am referring to the birth of Patrick, the well-known fifth-century "Apos­tle of the Irish," whose birthday is celebrated on March 17th. This year, if the records do not deceive us, it will be exactly sixteen centuries since he was born. That, of course, is the occasion for this memorial piece.

It is possible that some readers will wonder whether a Reformed mag­azine should devote an entire article to what is generally considered to be a very Roman Catholic saint. My answer is that Roman Catholicism did not really evolve until well after Patrick's death, and that it took even longer to reach Ireland. Patrick's theology there­fore could not be and was not Roman Catholic. His situation is similar to that of other Christians in the early church, such as Augustine. They may have held doctrines that the Roman church later adopted and the Reforma­tion rejected, but the reverse is also true. There are therefore Irish Angli­cans and other Protestants, including evangelical Protestants, who claim Patrick as their own, and they are able to back up these claims with some good arguments. It is indeed possible to say that all Christians of West-Euro­pean extraction, together with those who have heard the gospel through them (and these two categories include the vast majority of our readers) may consider Patrick as one of their spir­itual ancestors. However, more about that later. First we should know some­thing about Patrick's life.

The legend🔗

I just wrote that Patrick is well-known, but this is only partly correct. It is true, St. Patrick's Day is widely celebrated, not only in Ireland itself, but in various other parts of the world. There are probably few people, espe­cially in English-speaking countries, who have never heard his name, or who do not know that he brought the gospel to Ireland and is venerated as that country's patron saint. Stories about his mighty deeds and miracles also abound. Patrick is popularly known as a man of heroic character, great moral authority, and a some­times terrible temper, who literally cowed Ireland's pagan chieftains and Druid priests into submission. He is also known as a man of astounding supernatural powers, who raised peo­ple from the dead, cured the sick, healed the blind, banished frogs and poisonous snakes from Ireland, and performed many other magical acts. On a rather different level we have the story of Patrick and the shamrock, a type of three-leaf clover, which he allegedly used to illustrate to pagans the doctrine of the Trinity. The sham­rock became Ireland's national em­blem and is worn on St. Patrick's Day.

Most of these stories, however, hide the real Patrick. They are legends that arose some centuries after his death. Patrick suffered the same fate as many other early-medieval Chris­tians, whom later "biographers" turned into semi-divine beings, the heroes of religious folk tales. Such heavily embroidered "Lives of Saints" were popular in the Middle Ages. They were written to edify the believers, con­vince pagans of the excellence of the Christian religion, and often also to serve as political tools. The monastery, diocese, or country that could claim a famous saint thereby raised its reputa­tion, and it could usually claim special rights and privileges as well. Some or all of these considerations probably inspired also the legends about Patrick.

Patrick's Britain🔗

Nobody knows for certain where Patrick was born, although the evi­dence seems to point to western or south-western Britain. His dates also are a matter of dispute, as is his entire chronology. Some historians place him in the second half of the fifth century, but the majority opinion supports the dates 389 to 461.

Assuming that these dates are cor­rect, we have to see Patrick as the younger contemporary of men like Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hip­po, Jerome of Bethlehem, and also of Pelagius, the British monk who tra­velled to Rome and there proclaimed his heresy: the denial of man's deprav­ity and of the gospel of free grace. Looking at the British context, we should place him in the period just preceding the times of the half-legendary King Arthur.

Whatever the exact dates may be, it is clear that Patrick lived in a time of turmoil and upheaval. In the course of the first century of the Christian era Britain had become part of the Roman Empire, and Roman civilization had made considerable headway in the country. However, already in the late second and the third century Roman power began to decline, and subse­quent attempts to stabilize the situation halted the process only temporarily. In 410 the city of Rome fell to the bar­barian Visigoths under Alaric — the catastrophe that would inspire Augus­tine's great work On the City of God. Unable to protect its extended empire, Rome had already before this time begun to withdraw its legions from the outlying provinces. Britain, too, was abandoned, and by 410 its relations with the empire were severed.

Largely unprotected now, Britain would, especially later in the century, attract ever-increasing hordes of bar­barian tribes to its own shores, notably Angles, Saxons and Jutes. It is in these times of trouble, in the late fifth and the sixth century, that we have to place British heroes like the Christian King Arthur, who tried to expel the inva­ders. Ultimately the attempts to save Britain failed, and by about 600 we see the replacement of Christian, Roman­ized, Celtic Britain by pagan, barbari­an, Anglo-Saxon England. The inva­ders had by that time either enslaved the original Celtic inhabitants or driven them out to the mountainous areas of Western Britain or across the Channel to Brittany in Gaul (present-day France). Christianity, which had come to Britain under the Romans, was driven underground, except in outly­ing areas like Wales and Cornwall.

Although Patrick appears to have been born before the withdrawal of the Roman legions, Britain was far from secure even at that time. Already in the Roman period the country was fre­quently attacked by barbarians, espe­cially by Scottish Picts from the north, and by Irishmen (who were also called Scots) from across the western sea. It was one of these Irish raids that first brought Patrick to Ireland. But before relating that story we should say some­thing about the evidence on which it is based.

The story of his life🔗

Modern historians have been able to reconstruct Patrick's life largely because of the existence of two small manuscripts that are attributed to Patrick himself. One of these is a let­ter to a British chieftain; the other is a kind of spiritual autobiography, the so-called Confession. Although there is no absolute certainty about the authorship, scholars generally accept both as genuine.

In the Confession Patrick in­troduces himself as the son of Chris­tian parents. His grandfather had been a presbyter, and his father was a dea­con, but apparently also a wealthy landowner. Patrick (or Patricius, to use his Roman name) probably re­ceived the education that was normal for a young man of upper class back­ground in Roman Britain, but before his sixteenth birthday, and before he had completed his schooling, he was captured by Irish raiders, together with several of his father's servants. They were shipped to Ireland and sold as slaves. Young Patrick would serve there for six years as a farm hand, guarding his master's cattle.

Although nominally a Christian at the time of his capture, Patrick was not "a believer in the true God." His cap­tivity changed that. It was during these terrible years of loneliness and depriva­tion that, as he himself writes, "the love of God and fear of him increased more and more ... and my faith be­gan to grow and my spirit to be stirred up..." His life became a life of prayer, and it was now the desire of his heart to serve God and bring the gospel to others.

After six years of servitude Patrick managed to escape. While back in Britain (or perhaps in Gaul), he had a dream wherein he heard the Irish among whom he had lived call­ing out to him, "Holy boy, we are ask­ing you to come and walk among us again." Several years later, after many obstacles had been overcome, he re­turned to Ireland — this time to stay.

The early Irish church🔗

When Patrick arrived in Ireland, the country was no longer completely pagan; there were beginnings of Chris­tianity in some areas. However, it was Patrick who spread the faith over large parts of the island, and who appears to have so put his stamp upon the church that the Irish came to associate his name with the origins of Christi­anity in their land.

Patrick was no scholar. His schooling had been interrupted at age fifteen, and throughout his life he was painfully aware of the deficiencies in his education. In the two manuscripts left us he constantly bewails his lack of learning and apologizes for it. But what he lacked in scholarship he pos­sessed in missionary zeal, organiza­tional talent, and, apparently, a love and admiration for the learning that he himself did not have.

All three characteristics are found back in the early Irish church. Al­though Patrick himself seems to have introduced some kind of diocesan sys­tem, his immediate successors adapted it to the Irish situation and organized the church on a semi-monastic basis; and the outstanding achievements of early Irish monasticism were its works of mission and of scholarship. It was Irish monks who in the sixth and sev­enth centuries evangelized much of Scotland, the northern parts of pagan Anglo-Saxon England, and several areas in western and south-western Europe. And it was the Irish monas­teries that in these same centuries became the custodians and promoters of scholarship, beacons of light in a time when the darkness of barbarism had descended upon the rest of Europe.

Patrick: the man and his vision🔗

Much more could be said about these golden centuries of post-Patri­cian Ireland, and about the debts which England and continental Europe owe it, but it would lead us too far afield. The little space that is left must be devoted to the two topics that I touched upon at the beginning: Pa­trick's character and his teachings.

The main sources here are again the two documents mentioned earlier, and especially the Confession. That work shows Patrick as a humble and vulnerable man, very different from the imperial and ever-successful giant of the legends. It also shows that his career in Ireland was not one of easy success. True, Patrick saw much fruit on his work: thousands of people were converted and baptized, many clergy were ordained, and the church was organized in large parts of Ireland. But the sowing and planting took place amidst suffering and tears. Patrick and his converts were subjected to disgrace, danger, and imprisonment, and even at the end of his life, when he wrote the Confession, he daily expected assassination, enslavement, or some other kind of martyrdom.

The Confession portrays Patrick also as a man of dedication. There is a sense of urgency throughout. Patrick lived in what he considered eschato­logical times. He was no exception in that regard: the barbarian invasions and the collapse of Christian Rome — which Christians often tended virtual­ly to identify with Christianity — con­vinced many believers that the end of the world was near. Patrick believed that Christ would soon return, and he looked forward to that event with eager expectation. Knowing that first the gospel had to be preached "to the ends of the earth," he was anxious to help fulfil that mandate, and he ap­pears to have believed that the gath­ering-in of the Irish was among the church's last tasks. For was not Ireland (as all people believed at the time) situated at the very end of the earth, since beyond it was nothing but endless ocean? Time and again this notion that the second Advent was near, and that the gospel was now being brought to the world's extremities, recurs in the Confession.

Patrick's teachings🔗

About Patrick's reputation as a Roman Catholic saint I can be brief. He did favor monasticism and celi­bacy, but such attitudes were common among fourth- and fifth-century Chris­tians. Augustine of Hippo is again a case in point. In any event, there is no indication that Patrick considered asceticism as meritorious or that for him it was anything more than part of the life of gratitude.

For the rest, all the evidence sug­gests that while he had contacts with the British church, which had sent him to Ireland, he worked independently from Rome. In his writings he does not appeal to the pope or to other human authority. Neither is any reference made to indulgences, relics, or saints; not even Mary is mentioned. Although he never refers to Pelagius, he obvious­ly opposed his heresy, and it would seem that he rejected semi-pelagianism as well. The entire Confession is a song of praise to God that Patrick, a sinner, had received forgiveness and was con­sidered worthy of the great task of evangelizing Ireland; and Patrick makes it clear that any success in this work is because of God's mercy alone.

It is true that in his manuscripts he does not stress redemption to any great extent. He confesses himself to be a forgiven sinner, speaks of Christ as "He who died for me," and as his Redeemer, and boasts of the eternal life that the believer has in Christ Jesus, but the emphasis is more on Christ' lordship than on His work as Mediator. In that respect there is a dif­ference with Augustine's Confessions. But to suggest that it signifies a major difference in theology would probably be too rash a conclusion. In paragraph 57 of his Confession, for example, after he has referred to Psalm 116:12 (in modern translation: what shall I render to the LORD for all His boun­ty to me?) he adds the very Augustini­an comment: But what shall I say or what promise shall I make to my Lord, because I have no power unless He will give it to me?

Two other points. Firstly, Patrick was a Nicene Christian. The story of the shamrock is a legend, but it does symbolize Patrick's faith in the doc­trine of the Trinity, a faith that time and again he confesses in his auto­biography. And secondly, Patrick was a man of the Bible. He knew the Scriptures, those of both the Old and the New Testament, and his works abound with biblical references, biblical vocabulary and biblical phrases. His exegesis is not always strong, he sometimes uses Scripture in an ex­emplarist fashion, on occasion he mis­quotes, and he also quotes out of season, but clearly the Bible, and the Bible alone, was his norm for faith and life. And he tried to get to the heart of the gospel and to take it literally: there is none of the allegory that so mars the work of Augustine and other fifth-century scholars. What strikes the reader is Patrick's unquestioning trust in God's providence and God's prom­ises as revealed in the gospel, and his desire to respond to these promises with a life of faith and holiness.

"The gift of God"🔗

This, then, was the man whom God used in the work of planting His church — in Ireland, but indirectly also in Scotland, England, and con­tinental Europe. "A sinner, most un­cultivated and least of all the faithful," as Patrick introduces himself in his Confession, but nevertheless a good instrument in the hands of his Lord, and therefore a man whose work we grate­fully remember. Not because of Pa­trick's merits, but because — and here I quote the conclusion of his Confes­sion"it was the gift of God."

Reformed people do not usually wear the shamrock on March 17th, and I am not suggesting that we start doing so. Hebrews 13 mentions a bet­ter way of remembering our leaders, those who spoke to us the Word of God: to imitate their faith.

Patrick's breastplate🔗

"I bind unto myself today


The strong name of the Trinity,

Against the knowledge that defiles,

By invocation of the same,

Against the heart's idolatry,

The Three in One, and One in Three.

Against the wizard's evil craft,


Against the death-wound and the burning,

I bind this day to me for ever,

The choking wave, the poison'd shaft,

By power of faith, Christ's incarnation;

Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.

His baptism in the Jordan river;


His death on cross for my salvation.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

His bursting from the spiced tomb;

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

His riding up the heav'nly way;

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

His coming at the day of doom;

Christ to comfort and restore me,

I bind unto myself today.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,


Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

I bind unto myself today

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

The power of God to hold and lead,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

His eye to watch, his might to stay,


His ear to hearken to my need;

I bind unto myself the name,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

The strong name of the Trinity,

His hand to guide, his shield to ward,

By invocation of the same,

The word of God to give me speech,

The Three in One, and One in Three,

His heav'nly host to be my guard.

Of whom all nature bath creation,


Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.

Against all Satan's spells and wiles,

Praise to the Lord of my salvation:

Against false words of heresy,

Salvation is of Christ the Lord."

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