Saturday, March 16, 2013

Who was the real St. Patrick?

When most people think of St. Patrick's Day, they think about one of two things. 1. An excuse to drink a lot of beer, or 2. Legends about Patrick driving away snakes from Ireland, and using the shamrock to describe the Trinity.

Well, neither of those two things have anything to do with the actual, historical St. Patrick. But the real story is much better than legend. Patrick was a fifth century Christian, missionary, and bishop. We have three surviving works from his pen including a letter, a hymn, and most importantly his autobiography known as the Confessions of St. Patrick.

In this small autobiography, Patrick tells the remarkable story of how he was called by God to spread the gospel among the Irish. Patrick grew up in England, and as a child was captured as a slave by men from Ireland. Growing up, Patrick was familiar with the Christian faith but was not personally devoted to it. In captivity, Patrick began to think about the Christian faith, and was converted. He had a dream one night, telling him to go to a certain area where he would find a boat. Patrick looked for this boat the next day, found it, and escaped. He eventually made it back to his homeland.

While in Britain, Patrick became a deacon, and eventually a bishop. As a bishop he had a desire to go back to those who had captured him years before and bring them the gospel. He was almost hindered from this task by certain people who challenged Patrick's validity as a bishop due to some sin that he committed as a boy. (Legalists have been around for a long time!) Eventually this issue was settled, and Patrick was sent to the Irish people. He allowed himself to be captured, and preached the gospel to his captors, and eventually, throughout Ireland. Because of the gospel that Patrick preached, the nation was converted to the Christian faith.

Patrick's faith is summarized in his own works with a creed. This may be a personal creed, or it may have been used liturgically in the Irish church. Here is the creed:

Because there is no other God
nor ever was nor will be in future days,
other than God who is unbegotten Father,
without beginning,
yet from whom is all beginning
and who holds all things in being
as we have come to learn;
and his Son Jesus Christ
Whom together with his Father
we bear witness, has most surely always existed
even before time began,
Begotten spiritually and present with the Father
in a manner beyond human words;
before all time began.
And through him have all things, seen and unseen,
been made,
then he himself was made man,
and once death had been overcome, he was received
into the heavens with his Father.
"And he has given him full power over every name
in the heavens, on earth
and in the depths beneath
so that every tongue shall confess to him
that Jesus Christ is our Lord and God."
It is he whom we believe
and we hope he will soon come again,
to be "judge of the living and dead
who will render each man according to his deeds."
And "he has poured out abundantly his Holy Spirit upon us,"
given as a pledge of our immortality.
Which the Holy Spirit makes us both believers,
obedient "children of God and equal heirs with Christ":
whom we confess and adore,
one God in the most holy named Trinity.

There are a few things we can learn from St. Patrick, and none of it has to do with bad analogies for the Trinity. First, we see the importance of a Trinitarian confession of faith. It was this Trinitarian confession which constituted the essence of Patrick's message which was proclaimed to the Irish people. Second, it shows us how God uses preaching to spread the gospel. So often the church is distracted, trying to act like the world to win converts. But Patrick, one man, simply proclaimed the gospel, and the word was efficacious. If we only preach the word, the Spirit will work through it. There is no need to make the gospel "attractive" with some kind of flashy show. The third thing the story of Patrick teaches us is that the office of the Papacy is not of the essence of the church, and was not viewed that way at this time. Since the founding of the Irish church in the 5th century, and about the 9th century, the Irish church had no connection to the Roman Church.

So why not take this St. Patrick's day to think about the message that Patrick preached? Instead of drinking, think about the glory of the Holy Trinity.


Martin Yee said...

Hi Jordan,

Thanks for the write up. There is much to learn from St Patrick indeed.


Steve Martin said...

I heard recently that before St. Patrick, there NO actual snakes in Ireland.

But that the snakes he drove out were pagans and other idol worshipers.

Great post!


Nicholas said...

I found St. Patrick's Confessions here:

When did the churches in Britain and Ireland finally come under the control of Rome?