Patrick and Early Irish Christianity

The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again by George G. Hunter III traces Celtic Christianity in Ireland during the 5th century. In this very readable book, Hunter points out the true genius of this ancient form of Christianity which was one of the most successful expressions of the church in history. The Celtic church converted Ireland from paganism to Christianity in a remarkably short period of time and then proceeded to send workers throughout Europe.

The essential theme of this book is contained in the sub-title. It is Hunter’s belief that we can effectively reach the post-Christian world of the West. This is achievable by applying the principles used with the pre-Christian Celts as we engage the “epidemic numbers of secular, postmodern, neo-barbarians outside (and inside) our churches.”

Hunter develops his ideas by focusing on how the approach of Patrick, Columba and Aidan differed from the church of the day. Some of the differences were: –

  • In the world of the 5th century to Christianize meant to civilize and to bring converts into conformity to church norms. Patrick and the apostles to the Celts sought instead to indigenize the faith, using the language, customs and stories of the people, both to reach them and to help them give expression to a growing faith.
  • Faith was not taught and experienced privately and intellectually but relationally, in community, with a focus on the whole of God’s creation. Celtic Christianity was rooted more in the imagination than the intellect, more in experience than knowledge, more in relationship than individualism.
  • Quoting the work of Paul Hiebert, Hunter outlines the three levels at which communities live life. The bottom level deals with the empirical experienced through the senses, the basic survival level of life. The top level deals with the transcendent or sacred, embracing God and the ultimate issues of life. The Celtic apostles put the greatest emphasis on the middle level of life where people encounter uncertainty, sudden change, health issues and misfortune. By bringing God into the everyday experiences and relationships of life, Patrick presented Christian growth and lifestyle in a more holistic way.

The principle-driven methodology of the Celtic approach can work in the West today. Contemporary examples in the west which are applying the same kind of strategies to a post-modern setting are having a good measure of success. However, Hunter points out that only a very small percentage of Western churches are willing to step outside the current model and intentionally enter the community of the uncivilized to bring them to faith.

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