One of the most dramatic transformations of culture in the history of Western civilization was accomplished by humble, poor, foreign missionary teachers. Irish monks—C. S. Lewis’ forebears—trudged their way across Scotland, England, and the European Continent. And in their wake they left a lasting legacy of faith, of learning, and, indeed, of civilization.
Over the centuries between A.D. 550 and 1300, scores of Irish monks left their homeland and spread out across Europe, preaching the Gospel to violent, lawless pagans, teaching Scripture, literature and the arts and sciences to kings and peasants alike and establishing monastic communities which served as centers for not only evangelism and discipleship, but for education and culture. Their teaching brought God’s Word and civilization back to a Europe which had been conquered and ruined by barbarians.
These selfless, passionate, learned Irish scholars provide a model for Christian academicians transforming culture in the twenty-first century. They exemplify the role and impact Christians with advanced degrees can have, especially in cross-cultural contexts, or as we might say, when they are serving as academic missionaries—teaching and doing academic work in a culture not their own. Celtic Christianity was flawed and suffered from theological oddities, with imperfect leaders and followers, and with an inadequate understanding of grace, among many other problems. But the Irish monks provide a prime historic example of how educated Christ-followers are uniquely suited to be God’s tool for bringing Scripture and truth back to our world.
This paper will briefly review the historic backdrop and development of Celtic Christianity, describe the Irish missions movement and the two primary hallmarks of the movement, examine what motivated them and what made them successful and finally, look at some lessons we can learn from them for our day.
St. Patrick and Ireland
In A.D. 500 the state of civilization across Europe was bleak. Instability and chaos ruled. The greatest empire on earth had been looted by massive invasions of numerous tribes, including the original Vandals and the real Attila the Hun, as well as by the unrest of its own citizens. Libraries were destroyed. Thousands of books were burned. Education at all levels had declined. Even many priests, normally the most educated in the society, could barely use Latin. The foundations and superstructure of Western civilization were largely destroyed.1
But there was one corner of the globe which had neither been conquered by Rome nor devastated by the Vandals, too obscure and remote for conquering armies to bother with—the little island called Ireland.
Patrick was the definitive force in Christianizing Ireland.2 He was the first missionary since St. Paul and other apostles of the first century, and was, according to Thomas Cahill in his popular book How the Irish Saved Western Civilization, “the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law.”3 Patrick tirelessly ministered all across Ireland from 432 until his death in 461.
His ministry was marked by evangelizing, by preaching and by teaching. As the people were converted, he would begin teaching them, beginning with the basic skills of reading and writing, and moving on eventually to theological training. In this way, “the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.”4
Tens of thousands of Irish came to faith in Christ. Patrick’s evangelistic results were solidified and established through his work of founding monasteries all across the country, which shaped Ireland for centuries. These monasteries were quite different from those in Europe in that they nurtured not only devotion to God, but also a cultivation of the mind. As one scholar summarizes it: “Whilst culture was sinking in the West, each of these centers was lighting a torch…a torch whose flame would soon be carried everywhere.”5
These monasteries became the centers for education, both theological and general, in Ireland. An integral part of the Irish monastery was study and development of the mind. During the sixth century, some of the Irish monastic schools became well known for their scholarship. Some such as Clonard, established in 520, attracted thousands of students, including many foreign students, some of whom came from as far away as the Orient.6
A broad and thorough education was assumed as a requirement for service to God. John Ryan, in his classic work on Irish Monasticism, asserts that, “The danger of knowledge was well known, but the danger of ignorance was considered to be incomparably greater. To the Irish mind an illiterate monk was a contradiction in terms.”7 Latin, including reading the classical authors required for a liberal education, theology (including canon law) and Scripture, with Scripture holding the highest priority, comprised the three major divisions of an Irish monastic education.
Ireland represented the apex of learning in the Western world; across the island, “the standard of learning was much higher than with Gregory the Great and his followers.”8 Several monasteries gathered impressive collections of manuscripts of the New Testament as well as classic literature and the early Church fathers. The transcription of books, primarily Scriptures but also the classical writers, became a primary mission of most of the monasteries beginning in the sixth century.9
But the higher level of education was only one of several ways in which Celtic Christianity was quite distinct from Roman Christianity. The Irish Church openly differed from Rome in several respects. Celtic Christianity generally focused more on “the good, the true and the beautiful” than Roman Christianity which tended to focus more on systems of governance, domination and oversight.