To most people, this is almost a pointless distinction to make. “Everyone knows that Saint Patrick was a Roman Catholic priest, right?” Not so. There are some wishful thinkers out there in the realm of Baptist fundamentalism who attempt to annex this 4th to 5th century missionary to Ireland into their pantheon of ancient prototypical “Baptists.” Granted, this is a minority view among Baptists, however, it is the view with which I was raised. This view of Baptist history is called by scholars “Baptist Successionism,” but among its adherents it’s usually known as “Landmarkism.”
As you know St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone two days ago. March 17th is officially recognized by Roman Catholics as the feast day of St. Patrick, commemorating the date of his death. Like most years, about a day before this holiday arrives, I think to myself, I ought to do a little homework to combat this notion that St. Patrick is a Baptist, but I usually run out of time before I can make any headway. So I drop it until about March 16th of the following year. Well, this year, I happened to read a St. Patrick’s Day devotional post by Bob Hayton at Fundamentally Reformed. I commented that I’d intended to post a view contrary to the successionist view of St. Patrick, and missed my “deadline,” but Bob encouraged me to go ahead and do it anyway, so here goes. Looks like this might turn into a series.
I’m by no means a historical scholar, just a Christian who cares to learn the truth about Baptist history, having been burned by so much bad history in the name of promoting the Baptist tradition. A few years ago, I read a book review in the Founders Journal of a book called Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History, by Dr. James Edward McGoldrick, a professor of church history at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I was encouraged by the review, ordered the book, and found that it does a very good job of examining the claims of Baptist Successionism in the light of academic historical scholarship. Chapter 4 of this book, “St. Patrick: A Baptist?” will serve as the basis of this series.
The only concession one can make about the beliefs and practices of Saint Patrick is the undocumented and therefore uncertain nature of them. This is where Baptist successionists find the wiggle room to make the claims that they make. McGoldrick writes on page 24:
All who have undertaken serious research on the life and thought of Saint Patrick have discovered early that the materials available for the reconstruction of his career are few, and some that have been employed are of dubious reliability. Scholars, both within and without the Roman Catholic Church, have recognized this problem, and, consequently, they have had to admit that their findings are tentative. Only two brief, nontheological writings of Patrick are extant, so interpreters are not in a position to make dogmatic judgments about his doctrinal position. Collateral evidence from the period of Patrick’s life is very scant and does not enlarge our knowledge of his beliefs very much. Moreover, legends abound about practically every phase of Patrick’s life, and separating fact from fiction may, at points, be impossible. The saint’s own works, The Confession and the Letter to Coroticus, are the only unimpeachable sources of information about his views. These, and Muirchu’s monograph on Patrick composed in the seventh century, provide little more than a biographical sketch [see St. Patrick: His Writings and Muirchu’s Life, ed. and tr. A. B. E. Hood (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978)].
So a little biographical material is all we can trust. His theological views, his views on the sacraments (ordinances, for my Baptist readers), his views on church government and ministry, if they are to be known at all, will have to be read carefully between the lines within the context of Patrick’s day and age. By the time this series is finished, I think Dr. McGoldrick will have helped us realize that the Baptist Successionist view is little more than wishful thinking.
Part two will examine Saint Patrick’s probable, or possible, views on revelation, and compare it with the Protestant, Reformed, Evangelical and Baptist view historically known as Sola Scriptura.
update: Dr. Russel Moore at his “Moore to the Point” blog directs us to a more constructive way to benefit from the legacy of St. Patrick (read blog here). He recommends Dr. Philip Freeman’s biography, St. Patrick of Ireland. You can also view a short television interview with Dr. Freeman about St. Patrick (view segment here).