Presbyterians of the Past

Patrick, Missionary to Ireland

March 17 is remembered as St. Patrick’s Day by the Irish of Ireland and those scattered abroad. The day will likely be celebrated with revelry and little concern for Patrick’s ministry. There are only two extant writings by him, Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The first is an autobiographic defense of his integrity as a minister in the face of accusations to the contrary, and the second rebukes a military commander named Coroticus for kidnapping and killing Christians. These two writings provide a more accurate picture of Patrick than do the myths about him and miracles attributed to him. Michael A. G. Haykin observed in Patrick of Ireland: His Life & Impact that the real Patrick is more interesting than the one created over the centuries by tales and fables. When one reads Patrick’s Confession it is obvious that he knew Scripture and used it to teach the Irish about the Triune God and the gracious atonement accomplished by the Son. His emphases on theology proper and Christology were needed because of the challenges faced communicating the doctrines of the Trinity and the Son to those that worshipped multiple gods because they tended to interpret the Trinity as three deities. The authenticity of the tradition is debated as with much information about Patrick, but it is said he used clover with its three leaves united in one sprig to illustrate the three persons of the Trinity united in one God. As with any illustration of the Trinity, it breaks down at some point, but it likely worked well for Patrick’s purposes.

Patrick was born in 390 in Banavem Taberniæ the son of Calpurnius, who was the son of Potitus. Calpurnius was a public official and a “deacon” (diaconum). Patrick’s grandfather was a “presbyter” (presbyteri, translated also “priest” or “elder”). Haykin notes that the precise location of his birthplace is unknown but is believed to be somewhere along the west coast of England or possibly Scotland. Patrick grew up in the church, but the message of Christ came to ears that were not yet ears to hear. He lived with his Roman-British family until the age of sixteen when he was abducted and enslaved in the land that came to be named Ireland. At the time, the Romans called the island Hibernia or Scotia. Patrick shepherded sheep as a slave but was released from enslavement to sin by faith in Christ through the ministry of local Christians. While watching flocks he prayed without ceasing and found the Psalms beneficial for petitioning and praising God. He had something in common with another lover of psalms and shepherd, King David. After about six years, Patrick managed to escape his captors, made his way to a ship, and left Ireland.

In Confession, Patrick said that he was not only a physical slave but he also “went into captivity in language.” He added that “today I blush and am exceedingly afraid to lay bare my lack of education” (paragraph 10). Patrick’s self-assessment is consistent with what Haykin observed regarding his limited facility with the Latin language. In the following quote Patrick recounts his experience as he wrestled with whether or not he should return to Ireland as a missionary. Note the bracketed words were inserted by the translator, J.D. White, to help the text flow better.

It was not any grace in me, but God who overcometh in me; and he withstood them all, so that I came to the heathen Irish to preach the Gospel, and to endure insults from unbelievers, so as to hear the reproach of my going abroad, and [endure] many persecutions even unto bonds, and that I should give up my free condition for the profit of others. And if I should be worthy, I am ready [to give] even my life for his name’s sake unhesitatingly and very gladly; and there I desire to spend it even unto death, if the Lord would grant it to me. (p. 37)

The translator followed Patrick’s Latin composition and brought into English its irregularity. John Skinner, referring to the work of David Howlett, notes that both of Patrick’s works have a chiastic literary structure which when realized contributes to better understanding of the text. Whether Patrick’s writing is structured with chiasm or not, his critical assessment of his limited education would still stand. Writing must have been tedious for Patrick, which explains why there are only two short works from his hand. Regardless of his limitations, he ministered in Ireland thirty years challenging the paganism of the land with the Christ of the cross. He was threatened by kings and pagan priests and feared for his life, but he died in 461 having lived the three-score-and-ten years of Psalm 90:10. He said of his work and legacy that he “baptized in the Lord many thousands of persons” (p. 14).

Does Patrick have anything to offer those who are neither Catholic nor Irish? He is associated with Catholicism as a saint and Ireland as the most important personality for national identity. One could likewise ask whether Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was active a generation before Patrick, has anything to offer non-Catholics. The Reformers answered the question regarding Augustine. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others laid the foundation of the solas with many stones cut from the abundant quarry of Augustine’s works. Theology proper, pneumatology, anthropology, soteriology, and other doctrines from Augustine were found to be beneficial, but the Reformation rejected his monasticism, allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and ecclesiology, among other subjects. Patrick’s limited studies and Latin-challenged literacy cannot be compared to the massive intellect and copious education of the scholarly Augustine, but just as lessons can be learned from Augustine so benefits can be harvested from the few words of Patrick’s works. Professor Haykin observed that Patrick can be appreciated for his emphases on the Trinity, Scripture, and missions, but as with Augustine, his monasticism cannot be accepted.

Haykin makes the case that Patrick was presbyterian. Note the lower case “p.” He was presbyterian in that he believed in rule by elders. Some Presbyterians of the past agree with Haykin’s perspective, such as Thomas Smyth (1808-1873). He was the minister of Second Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina for a number of years and was born in Ireland. His father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Smyth presents his case for Patrick’s presbyterianism in Presbytery and Not Prelacy the Scriptural and Primitive Polity in vol. 2 of his works by examining the Scripture passages relevant to polity, then he moved on to contend historically that the Irish were first converted by the missionary efforts of eastern Christianity and not western. The missionaries were associates or disciples of the Apostle John who believed in rule by elders as taught in Acts and the pastoral epistles. Even though Smyth uses the word prelacy in the title of his book, his concern is not only episcopal government as existed in the Church of Ireland or England but also Roman Catholicism. See the section beginning on page 460 titled, “The Primitive Churches in Ireland were Presbyterian,” where Smyth makes his case for rule by elders polity instead of episcopacy, then he presents the case for Patrick the presbyterian.

Another perspective on the polity of the ancient church in Ireland was presented by James Ussher two-hundred years before Smyth. Theologically, Ussher and Smyth would have agreed on a great amount of doctrine because Ussher’s Irish Articles, 1615, and his Body of Divinity provided abundant content for the Westminster Standards. There are portions of the Shorter Catechism that appear to have been lifted from Body (see explanatory note below). But the two Irishmen did not approach the church polity of their homeland from precisely the same perspective. Ussher was Archbishop of Armagh, the bishop of the Church of Ireland. As Smyth made his case that Patrick and Ireland were originally presbyterian, so Ussher defended the nation’s episcopal origins in A Discourse of the Religion Anciently Professed by the Irish and British (Works 4). Ussher, as Smyth, directs his polemics against the papacy, but then he defends a modified episcopal government for the Irish church. His Discourse then goes beyond an apologetic for episcopacy to interact with key doctrinal differences with Catholicism. Ussher and Smyth could agree that Patrick was not Catholic, but they disagreed whether he embraced presbyterian or episcopal church polity. These questions of church government should not interfere with appreciating Patrick as an interesting and dedicated servant of God.

It is good to remember Patrick of Ireland and his contribution to church history, but he should not be remembered through the “carousing and drunkenness” often associated with March 17. Instead, “the Lord Jesus Christ” should be put on in faith with “no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” These words from Romans 13:13,14 confronted Patrick’s contemporary, Augustine, with his own sin when he responded to Christ in faith. Patrick of Ireland is best remembered through worshipping and serving the Triune God through faith in Christ.

Barry Waugh


Notes— The header image is of the Trinity College quad in Dublin where Ussher taught. The map section shows Ireland at the time of Patrick and is from Wikimedia, “The Roman Empire About 395.” Haykin’s book is Patrick of Ireland: His Life & Impact, 2014, published by Christian Focus, Fern, Ross-shire, Scotland. If interested in the life of an Irish Presbyterian educator, read on this site the biography of Thomas Witherow (1824-1890). B.B. Warfield interacts with Witherow in the review article on this site, B. B. Warfield, Thomas Witherow, and Presbyterian Polity.” Regarding Ussher’s Body of Divinity, some contend that Ussher did not write it, after all he is not on the title page as author. It was published in London in 1645 which was an opportune location and date for the Westminster Assembly’s deliberations in the Jerusalem Chamber. Body of Divinity would have been available from the printer as a source for composition of the Shorter Catechism which was approved August 22, 1648 (Chad VanDixhoorn’s Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 4:780). Ussher was invited to the Assembly, but it is believed he did not attend. Ussher was likely sympathetic theologically to what the divines wanted to accomplish doctrinally at Westminster, but he could not physically be present as Archbishop of Ireland under the authority of the Church of England. In 1645, the Civil War was going poorly for King Charles I, but there was the possibility he could maintain his rule. The Latin edition used for this article is Libri Sancti Patricii, number 4 in the series, Texts for Students, ed. Newport J. D. White and published in London by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918. The English version was translated by White and is titled, St. Patrick, His Writings and Life, which is in Translations of Christian Literature, Series V, Lives of the Celtic Saints, and it too was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1920. John Skinner’s translations are in The Confession of Saint Patrick, New York: Doubleday, 1998, and David Howlett’s book is titled, The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop, published in Dublin by Four Courts Press, 1994.

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