As a full time evangelist, I am always interested in learning about successful missionary endeavors. I love to find out what other people have done (or not done) to reach the lost so that I may learn and possibly incorporate new principles into my own ministry. That is why I find the story of St. Patrick and early Celtic Christian monasticism so interesting. At a time when the gospel was struggling to advance in the West, God used Patrick and subsequent Celtic monastics to turn people to Jesus. Click here for a paper I wrote that briefly reviews this episode in the history of the Church and discuss some characteristics of Patrician Celtic Christianity that seem to have helped it thrive in an otherwise dark time.
If you don’t have time for the whole thing, here is a excerpt:
Why did Patrick’s mission go so well? We will discuss several factors that helped Celtic Christianity thrive, focusing primarily on those related to Patrick’s view of Christianity and culture.
Culture and Christianity
One key to Patrick’s success was his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and culture. Patrick did not equate Christianity with any particular ethnic or political culture. More specifically for our concerns, he did not directly associate the story of God with the story of Rome. Rather, he understood the Christ ian narrative to be the story of the world as a whole. Christianity could not be equated with any one culture because it encompassed all cultures. To be Roman was not necessarily to be Christian and to be Christian was not necessarily to be Roman.
This insight was not entirely unique to Patrick, of course, but it was rare at the time and I believe it was crucial to the success of his missionary efforts in that it offered him freedom in several key areas of ministry that would have been otherwise unavailable. These areas of ministry proved very fruitful and we will examine a few of them as examples.
Freedom to Evangelize
First, Patrick’s theology of culture gave him a reason to believe that pagans could be reached with the gospel and mature as Christians without becoming civilized Romans. Patrick was not constrained by first having to change the social mores of the Celts before evangelizing them or to change all of those mores once the people were converted. He had the freedom to start evangelizing the culture as he found it as well as leave certain aspects of the culture as he found them because he was convinced that Christianity was compatible with these conditions and could take hold and thrive in them.
This view was not widely held during Patrick’s age.
As George Hunter argues, ancient Roman Christian leaders assumed that “some degree of civilization was a prerequisite to Christianization” and that “once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected in time to read and speak Latin [and] adopt other Roman customs” (Hunter, 17).
Barbarians simply could not be expected to understand the gospel and become good Christians without becoming good Romans. This philosophy had actually served the church quite well before the demise of the Roman Empire because Roman culture was largely something that “Barbarians” found desirable.
While Rome was a power, the “unwashed masses” did not have much difficulty accepting Roman civilization and Christianity as a package deal. Indeed, as Thomas Cahill notes, from the time of Constantine, becoming a Christian was to become part of the dominant Roman culture and for many, that was a step up that they gladly took (Cahill, 125). However, with the fall of Rome, the incentive to accept Romanization as part of the Christian package was lost, and evangelization suffered.
Patrick was not hindered by this development because he did not see the need to make Barbarians Roman. He was able to take the gospel to the Celts without the added burden of having to try to change their culture first. This must have been incredibly liberating and, I believe, very helpful in making his mission successful. To come into Ireland and ask the proud and courageous Celts to accept foreign social mores would have been difficult enough, but to ask them to accept the culture of a weak and defeated former empire would have been impossible. Patrick’s understanding of the relationship between Christianity and culture freed him of those constraints.
Freedom to Affirm, Not Just Tear Down
Patrick’s theology also freed him to build a bridge to the Celtic culture by celebrating and emphasizing the aspects of that culture that he found good and righteous. He did not have to tear down everything about the culture and start over. Because Christianity transcends culture, it can affirm the true and the beautiful aspects of specific cultures wherever it finds them and build on those.
The key to Patrick’s approach, according to Cahill, was his ability to tell the Celtic story better than the Celts could. He offered them a more complete explanation of their history, showing how it finds its fulfillment in Jesus (Cahill, 148). This flowed from Patrick’s understanding of Christianity and culture. Because he saw the Irish story as something within God’s broader story, he was able to take what they already knew, affirm it, and then explain it more fully.
For example, the monastics “affirmed the Celtic people’s religious aspirations, their sense of divinity’s closeness, their belief in an afterlife [and] their love for creation” (Hunter, 92). They then explained these characteristics of their existence according to the Bible, showing how they find their fulfillment in God’s revelation, culminating in the person of Jesus. This principle worked itself out even in more concrete aspects of the culture such as architecture. Rather than try to replace all the spiritual and religious monuments and buildings with a Roman Christian style, the Celts cleansed and adapted the existing structures for Christian use. For example, the pagan Celts worshiped around tall “standing stones,” which symbolized a link between heaven and earth (Hunter, 92). When they became Christians, the Celts often “Christianized” their stones by carving or painting Christian images such as a fish or a cross on them.
It should be noted that this attitude toward the use of previously pagan places was not unique in the early Middle Ages. John Lauz, citing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, points out that Gregory the Great directed English missionaries notto destroy temples of the idols, but only the idols therein. The temples could be consecrated as churches because “the people may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed” (Laux, 169). Yao notes that Celtic Christianity also “took over many of the sacred spots to build churches, and saints instead of deities were then linked with healing springs and the like (Yao). James Mackey writes, “We know from their earliest art that the wandering Celts (Christian monks) had the inherent ability to assimilate and to enrich whatever the peoples they encountered had to offer, while leaving all essential differences intact. They could make quite distinctively their own forms borrowed from others, and contribute to the richness of the cultures of others without attempting to suppress these” (Mackey, 19).
Read the rest here.
Donald Johnson is the author of How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics