Gospel & Culture blog
About the only thing people know Saint Patrick anymore is that he drove off all the snakes from the island. That was an easy feat for him, because there weren't any to begin with. I can relate to this, because I lived on another green island where there were no snakes-- it would be kind of hard for the snakes to make it across the channel from Europe. But Patrick's accomplishments were actually far more significant than that (and maybe even harder to believe).
Saint Patrick's life played out like an action film, and in fact, his life story was told in a major motion picture by Fox family films; and you can watch for free on youtube. Patrick was born around the year 389 in Britain. Patrick reports in his Confessions that as a teenager, he was capture by Celts and sold into slavery to an Irish farmer. Later, he was sent on a ship to France to take up work feeding dogs. He given his freedom there and returned to Britain. Back in Britain, Patrick had a call in his dreams to return to Ireland and proclaim the gospel, much like the Apostle Paul experienced the Macedonians calling him to come to their land (Acts 16:6-10).
Once in Ireland, Patrick began focusing on reaching tribal leaders first. This became a long-standing missiological strategy of focusing on elites (though other missionaries deliberately focused on the masses). Patrick's mission strategy was incarnational, attending to issues of justice. He freed numerous slaves. He planted around 200 churches, and baptized between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Many of these folks remained animistic after conversion. So in a twist of irony, the Celts who dragged Patrick to Ireland as a slave were actually forging the way for the conversion of the island. As Joseph later told his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen 50:20, NIV).
—Some of these Celts became monks (then separate from Roman Catholicism). These monks went out as missionaries over the next few centuries to Britain, whose churches had been destroyed by Saxons after the Roman Empire disintegrated. Eventually they turned the island of Iona into a missionary sending base. So Celtic Christianity became a hub of literacy, Christian thought, and education. Patrick's missiology was not a "mission station" mentality; it was a strategy of raising up leaders from the start, who would multiply church growth.
Did Patrick really use the three leaf shamrock to illustrate the Trinity? Does that sort of analogy lead to heresy? Or are shamrocks a "redemptive analogy" that God place specially in Ireland to reflect his Triune nature? I don't know- but the legend of Patrick's shamrock illustration does bring to light how missionaries have been contextualizing the gospel for centuries.
For the best scholarly treatment of St Patrick, I would direct you to Ed Smither's paper on Patrick: Bishop, Missionary, Monk, or All of the above?
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor