No Shamrocks. No Pot of Gold. Michael A.G. Haykin Introduces the Real St. Patrick
The names of few, if any, “saints” are as widely recognized as the name of Saint Patrick. Yet, while many know of the legendary propagator of Celtic Christianity, few know the facts surrounding Patrick or the legacy he left behind. In Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus, 2014), Michael A. G. Haykin has cut through much of the mist surrounding the great missionary of the early church. Haykin, who serves as Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides an account of the life, theology, and legacy of Patrick that is both responsible in its use of sources and readable for all who may find themselves interested.
Haykin begins in chapter 1 by placing Patrick within his historical context, providing readers with an overview of his life and ministry. Born in the late fourth century A.D., likely south of Hadrian’s Wall on the western coast of Britain, Patrick experienced early life as a member of upper class Romano-British society. Taken from his life of luxury at the age of sixteen, Irish raiders sold Patrick into slavery in the country he would come to identify with so closely. It was while he was an Irish slave that Patrick would say, “the Lord opened the understanding of my unbelieving heart that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God.” After six years of captivity, Patrick experienced a dream that revealed he would soon return to his home of Britain. The dream’s prediction was realized as Patrick traveled 200 miles to the coast and gained safe passage on a ship traveling to Britain. After returning home, Patrick experienced another vision. This time, the highborn Brit was to return to the land of his captivity, not as a slave, but as a missionary. After gaining the necessary training for the ministry to which he had been called, Patrick set sail upon the Irish Sea, this time as Patrick, Bishop of Ireland.
Chapter 2 establishes the foundation of Patrick’s theology as explicitly trinitarian. Haykin notes that Patrick offers merely one citation other than the Latin Bible in his combined writings, leading one scholar to label him “a man unius libri”—“a man of one book.” With such limited use of sources, what Patrick does cite reveals what is clearly of importance to the missionary bishop. Near the beginning of the Confessions, Patrick includes a creedal statement focused on God’s triune being. Haykin concludes, “the reason for Patrick’s inclusion of the creed is not because his orthodoxy has been questioned . . . Rather, it has to do with Patrick’s desire to praise his Triune Lord” (46). Haykin examines Patrick’s creedal statement, highlighting its specifically trinitarian wording in light of fourth century attacks on Orthodoxy from Arius and others. For Patrick, the Trinity was to be both confessed and adored. Furthermore, he knew the gospel he took to Ireland to be trinitarian in every respect.
Shifting from Patrick’s theology to his missionary labors in chapter 3, Haykin begins by pointing to Patrick’s legacy. As the modern missionary movement began to gain traction in the eighteenth century, men such as William Carey looked to Patrick as an example of one who possessed a praiseworthy missionary spirit. According to his own testimony, Patrick saw thousands converted, including family members of Irish kings. Commenting on his fruitfulness, Haykin states, “his missionary labours firmly planted the Christian faith in Irish soil, and left a deep imprint on the Celtic church that would grow up from this soil” (61). His efforts involved confronting Celtic paganism and local practices that he found antithetical to the gospel. Also, the traveling bishop ordained other gospel ministers in order to extend his missionary reach. While Patrick’s labors are applauded in retrospect, he faced a great deal of opposition from both pagans in Ireland and other Christians within the church. Yet, Patrick would not be stopped. Haykin comments on several of Patrick’s motivations, but none proved as powerful as Patrick’s own conversion, which “gave him a deep sense of gratitude to God, and out of thanks to God he felt bound to go back to Ireland and preach the good news of saving grace in Christ” (74). Like Paul in Acts 20:22, Patrick felt himself “bound by the Spirit” to preach the gospel to the Irish (76).
Chapter 4 moves from Patrick’s missionary enterprise to his personal piety, which centered on the Scriptures. From Patrick’s writings, one discerns a man who is intimately familiar with the Bible. “We cannot be sure of any other books that Patrick had read,” Haykin emphasizes, “But one thing we do know, Patrick knew his Bible” (79). For the missionary, the Scriptures were unequivocally the very words of God. The word did not stand alone as central to Patrick’s piety. Haykin notes the Holy Spirit also played a central role in Patrick’s understanding and practice of prayer, mission work, and leadership as bishop. He explains, “The Holy Spirit, then, plays an absolutely vital role in enabling Patrick to stay faithful to the call of missions. The Spirit enables him to persevere in prayer, to remain faithful despite his feelings of utter inadequacy, and to stay in Ireland no matter what cost” (91).
Haykin concludes in chapter 5 with a brief reflection on the life and ministry of Patrick as an evangelical. In this positive, but sober assessment, Haykin recognizes evangelicals will not find themselves in wholesale agreement with the great missionary, but may still learn much from this giant of the faith.
Haykin’s work is short (coming in under 100 pages), but has the potential to make a major impact on the way evangelicals think about Patrick of Ireland. For many, Patrick is associated with little more than four-leaf clovers and leprechauns. The vision of Patrick Haykin presents, however, is that of a missionary saint, an ancient exemplar of piety and zeal. In and of itself, this successful recasting of Patrick makes Haykin’s work a worthy read. Yet there are a few strengths and weaknesses worthy of mention.
A major strength of Patrick of Ireland is its accessibility. Haykin provides contextual background of Patrick’s world, as well as breakout boxes that inform the reader of related information. For example, in a discussion on Patrick’s trinitarianism, the reader will find a breakout box filled with relevant information on the teaching of Arius. One needs no prior knowledge of the period to benefit from Haykin’s work. Haykin also uses the breakout boxes to treat interesting tidbits associated with Patrick. A few pages later, Haykin includes an insert on the famous Breastplate of Patrick and how it shows the effect of Patrick’s trinitarian piety within the Irish church.
The level of scholarship undergirding Haykin’s work is yet another strength. While the book aims for the popular-level reader, Haykin interacts with leading scholars in the field. The result is a book that can be read by anyone, with footnotes and references that could prove helpful to a doctoral student. At times, however, this can prove a weakness. Haykin’s familiarity with the historiography surrounding Patrick makes its way into the narrative at points, providing most readers with more historiographical discussion than desired.
Other than reforming common misconceptions surrounding Patrick, perhaps Haykin’s most helpful contribution is his discussion of Patrick’s ministerial practice and personal piety. Two examples will suffice. First, in regard to Patrick’s ministry, Haykin points out that Patrick took the time to pursue ministerial preparation and theological training between receiving his call and traveling to Ireland. Patrick sensed his specific calling was not in and of itself sufficient; he would need to learn to handle God’s Word accurately and effectively if his mission work was to prosper.
Second, in reference to Patrick’s receiving direct instruction through the Holy Spirit via dreams, Haykin highlights Patrick’s cautious appropriation. He states, “All of Patrick’s dreams relate to either issues of personal guidance, such as his call to mission in Ireland, or personal encouragement; none of them are employed to determine or set forth doctrine” (87). In this respect, Patrick sets himself apart from other medieval Christians who allowed dreams and visions to supplant God’s Word and proves instructive for evangelicals discerning the work of the Spirit today.
In Patrick of Ireland, Haykin has written an engaging and accessible work that recovers the missionary saint who bravely took the gospel to the land of his former captivity. Read this book and you will not find a shamrock or a pot of gold, but a forgiven Brit who effectively became Irish that he might follow the Lord’s command to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Dustin Bruce, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
View other book reviews and articles in the new issue of Credo Magazine!
View the magazine as a PDF (Click Here)
How well do you know your Bible? Now that is a scary question, even if you have been a Christian for a long time. Between church events, little league games, and a full-time job, finding time to read and study Scripture is a herculean task. To make matters worse, when you finally do escape to read the Bible you struggle to understand what it means. At times you can relate with the Ethiopian eunuch who said to Philip when asked if he understood what he was reading, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
In this issue of Credo Magazine we are here to help! If you feel tired and frustrated, this issue will give you that shot of adrenaline you need to keep going. And if you feel like you just don’t have the tools in your belt to interpret the Bible properly, then you are in good hands. Consider this an exercise in going to the hardware store to find those tools you need to comprehend the Bible. Obviously this issue of the magazine won’t give you all the tools you need, but we hope to get you started, even provide you with the motivation you need to study the Bible on your own. Sure, it’s hard work. But hard work pays off. And maybe one day you will be able to say, “Hey, I do know the Bible, and I think I can help someone else understand it too.”
Contributors include: Robert Plummer, Ardel Caneday, Michael Kruger, Deven K. MacDonald, Paul D. Wegner, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Kevin DeYoung, Douglas Moo, and Thomas Schreiner.