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6. Celtic vs. Roman Christianity: A Valid Concept?

Celtic versus Roman Christianity: A Valid Concept?

When scholars of medieval history today refer to the ‘Celtic Church’ they are referring to the Roman Catholic Church in Celtic speaking areas of western Europe, i.e. Britain and Ireland.

Celtic Church, however, is sometimes used on a more popular level to refer to a romanticised idea of early Christianity in Ireland before the Catholic Church corrupted it. This is not how early Christians in Ireland understood their church’s relationship to the wider Catholic Church.

Empire and Evangelism

The view of the Christian church at the end of late antiquity as generally not emphasizing the need to organise missions to reach the unreached nations with the gospel. This was caused by a number of factors, namely: (1) The church’s self-perception as the kingdom of God on earth as seen with the union of church and state. E.g. Emperor Justinian’s ultimatum to pagans within the Empire to receive baptism. (2) Xenophobic and racist views towards the barbarians as either too savage or brutish to understand the gospel message, as well as the threat they posed to Roman order and civilization The Spanish theologian and hymn writer, Prudentius (d. 413), claimed that, “Roman and Barbarian are as far apart as the quadruped is distant from the biped.” (3) A superficial reading of certain Pauline passages that spoke in terms of the gospel having already reached the ends of the earth (Col 1:6, 23; Rom 10:18, 16:26). Theodore of Mopsuestia (d.428) said, “Not only is the faith known throughout the world, but it grows daily.” (Com on Col, 1:256-57, cited in ACCS 9:4). Severian of Gabala (fl. c. 400), a highly regarded preacher at the imperial court in Constantinople, noted, “The gospel has come not only to the Colossians, but to the whole world.” (Pauline Commentary From The Greek Church, 15:317, cited in ACCS 9:4)

Accidental Missionaries?

The church historian Sozomen (d. 450) mentioned how “religion was introduced even among the barbarians” outside the Empire. This was facilitated not through an organized missionary effort on the part of the church, but when Christians were taken captive by barbarians and subsequently led them to faith in Christ (Ecclesiastical History 2.6; NPNF2 2:262–263)

The Need to Reach Beyond the Empire

Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 – c. 455) was part of a network of Gallic and Roman theologians that stood adamantly opposed to Pelagianism. This group included Germanus of Auxerre, Palladius, and Popes Celestine and Leo. Prosper was aware that in his day there were still nations, “lost in the ungodliness and ignorance of their ancestors: on these no ray of light whether of the law or of the Gospel shines as yet.” (Epistle 225.5). However, Proposer rejected the semi-Pelagian argument that the call of all nations to salvation was delayed to some nations because God has foreseen their future refusal of that call. In other words, their refusal (potentially realized but known to God).

In 450 Prosper wrote The Call of All Nations, the first systematic treatise on the question of the salvation of the pagan nations. How could the universal salvific will of God, as revealed in 1 Tim. 2:3-4, be reconciled with the reality that for many barbarians the light of the gospel had never reached them?

Prosper argued that God had indeed called preachers to share the Gospel to all men but it was God who saved man and it was God who decided who would be saved (Prosper, Defence of St. Augustine, 32). The delay of the Gospel to some barbarians, as seen in Prosper’s own day, had a precedent in the example of when Paul was forbidden to enter Asia by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). Prosper viewed the sovereignty of God, rather than the sovereignty of the emperor as the means of spreading Christianity. “The grace of Christianity is not content with the boundaries that are Rome’s. Grace has now submitted to the scepter of the Cross of Christ many peoples whom Rome could not subject with her arms” (The Call of All Nations, 120). Finally, “God’s will,” Prosper wrote, “is the sole reason why grace is bestowed on any man, whatever be his nation or race, his stage or age. In that will does the motive of his election lie hidden.” (The Call of All Nations, 63)

Christianity in Ireland

When Christianity arrived in Ireland c.400 it encountered Western Europe’s oldest society. Many of Ireland’s social and religious traditions stretched back to a pre-historic Indo-European culture. There were no cities or towns to speak of, instead society coalesced around the Túath (tribe) under the control of local kings inhabiting small circular ring forts. An estimated 150 local kings ruled a total population of no more than half a million people.

Honour and Price in Irish Society

Irish society was heavily stratified with kings and lesser nobles, free men and slaves. Excluding slaves and captives, each group had its own particular honour price, that is, the amount of compensation it was entitled to for an offense suffered. However, one’s honour price did not extend outside of one’s Túath. The alien or stranger (deorad) did not have the same rights and privileges as the person of legal standing within the Túath, and no compensation was required if a victim was a stranger, a non-person (ambue).

Another segment of Irish society that had no honour price was the ‘cimbid’. A cimbid was a prisoner condemned to die. They were usually kept bound until they were handed over to be killed by the party whom they had offended. People could do what they wanted to a captive cimbid without any legal consequences. There was no honour price to pay for a cimbid. A cimbid was both a social pariah and an object of wrath.

Note: The Wurzburg codex in Romans 9.3 where Paul mentions being “accursed and cut off”, an Irish scribe wrote under these words, ‘cimbid’. Our scribe could think of no better way to explain someone accursed and cut off than the cimbid, a man with no honour price.

Another type of outsider was referred to as the ‘grey wolf’ (cú glas). These were exiles from overseas that resided in Ireland. With no blood ties to the tribe they had no honour price or protection.

For these reasons, an Irishman rarely travelled outside his own Túath, except in times of war or when attending a gathering of an overlord. The sentence of exile was regarded in early Irish society as a severe punishment reserved for terrible crimes such as kin slaying. Once the guilty party was banished from his Túath, he was at the mercy of neighbouring tribes, and the exile (deorad) would have no choice but to seek indentured servitude in another Túath.

Ireland’s First Missionary Bishop

In 431 Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine to Ireland as the first bishop of the Irish and also with the task to make the “barbarian island Christian.” (Prosper of Aquitaine, Contra Collatorem, 21). In the fifth century Christian communities requested a bishop before one was dispatched, showing us that a small but significant community of Irish Christians was present in Ireland by 400 (Charles-Edwards, 205). The Roman mission of Palladius was probably most significant in Leinster and was still remembered in the time of Columbanus a native of Leinster (cf. Ep. 5.3 written in 613 to Pope Boniface, “the Catholic Faith, as it was delivered by you first [i.e. the Papacy], who are the successors of the holy Apostles is maintained unbroken”).

The Mission of Bishop Patrick

The dating of Patrick’s mission in Ireland is notoriously difficult. No dates or datable persons appear in Patrick’s writings. The Irish Annals have the traditional date of his mission at 432 and his death in 467 and 493! The Irish annals chose 432 for Patrick’s mission in order to place him as close as possible to Palladius, the first bishop of the Irish. The consensus of most scholars is that Patrick’s mission in Ireland was after 450 and he probably died around 493. His feast day of March 17 was celebrated probably by the end of the seventh century and is noted in the Calendar of St. Willibrord (658-739)

Themes in Patrick’s Writings

Patrick stresses his ordination as Bishop several times. His status of Bishop gives him authority in his mission and God’s unique calling in his life is also appealed to as validating his mission. Patrick himself ordains clerics, and young men and women taking vows of celibacy and entering the monastic life (Confession, 38, 41, 42, 49, 50).

The Monastic Life was for Patrick a radical imitation of Christ and a call to poverty, celibacy, and service. This was not unique to Irish Christianity but was a widespread conception of the Christian life stretching from Egypt and Syria to France and Britain.

Scripture played a central role in Patrick’s spirituality and mission. He quotes extensively from Scripture (including the Apocrypha), and saw his ministry in Ireland as the fulfilment of God’s promise to shine the light of revelation on the gentiles. This in turn fed into Patricks’ view that the end times were fast approaching. He saw his mission as reaching the ends of the earth before the Day of the Lord.

Alienation is a theme that comes through in Patrick’s writings on several occasions. He mentions the dangers facing a foreigner without social status in Ireland. Alienated in Ireland and from the church in Britain for the sake of the Gospel Patrick faced many difficulties and hardships.

The Grey Wolf

Many of the descriptions Patrick gives us concerning the difficulties he faced in Ireland as a British missionary are only fully appreciated when we remember that Patrick was a grey wolf, an exile from overseas, with no honour price. “I came to the Irish heathens,” Patrick writes, “to preach the good news and to put up with insults from unbelievers. I heard my mission abused; I encountered many persecutions even to the extent of chains; I gave up my freeborn status for the good of others” (Confessio 37). Patrick describes his mission to Ireland several times as a peregrinatio (exile). Patrick describes himself as living among barbarians as a stranger and an “exile for the love of God” (Ep. Ad Milites Corotici 1).

Christianity in Ireland was established through the work of such men as Palladius and Patrick, exiles for the sake of the Gospel. They were the earliest examples in Ireland of what the Irish Church later termed Deorad Dé (exiles of God). Patrick was a freeborn Roman citizen. “I am the son of a Decurion” (Ep. Ad Milites Corotici 10), he reminded the soldiers of Coroticus, but that status and title carried no weight outside of the Roman Empire in Ireland. The example of foreign missionaries coming as grey wolves for the sake of the Gospel in Ireland lay the beginnings of the Irish understanding of peregrinatio.


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