A LIVING DOG OR A DEAD LION: Reformation 500 Blogs Part 2

The 16th Century controversy which engulfed Germany and Martin Luther may seem far removed from the tranquility of Lough Erne in the 6th Century. Appearances, however, are deceiving. Although 1,000 years of history separates the two locations, there is a rich vein of truth that unites 16th Century Wittenberg with Ireland and Lough Erne in the 6th Century.

Roman Catholicism has invented the myth that the order imposed by the Papacy was always in existence since the Apostles of our Lord. The narrative is perpetuated that the Bishop of Rome has presided over the Church in unbroken succession with an authority that was given by Christ to Peter. If Rome’s claim is valid then we will find evidence in early Christian witnesses that subjection to the Pope was regarded as a vital component of true and living faith. And so we look for evidence…where is the proof…?

A good place to search for this evidence is Ireland. James Ussher, the Irish scholar and Archbishop of Armagh, who did more than any other to reform the Protestant Church of Ireland, was one of the great Church historians of the 17th Century. In his constant debates with the Jesuits who flooded Ireland he researched early Irish Christianity. He discovered that what he called the Scoto-Irish Church (some call this body the Celtic Church) was, in his opinion, the best ancient example of a true Christian Church. Was this church which thrived in Ireland, Scotland and Northern England and which pre-dated Augustine, the first Papal envoy sent to England, subject to the Papacy? This is a vital question in discovering whether Papal authority has existed in an unbroken fashion since the days of the Apostles.

The most famous missionary of the Celtic Church is Patrick. The two writings of this great church planter, His Confession and Letter to Christians, make no mention of the Bishop of Rome. If the Pope was Patrick’s master, acting in the stead of Christ, one would have expected a mention in his Confession at least. This is not the case. A non mention of a fact is evidence but to the historian this is merely circumstantial.

The life and writings of Columbanus, one of Patrick’s successors is more decisive. In the 6th Century the young Columbanus was educated in one of the island schools on Lough Erne, for which Ireland was famous throughout Europe. It is difficult to imagine today as we gaze out over the expanse of water and the multitude of uninhabited islands, that this was once a Gospel cradle, a place where young men where educated, in the many Christian settlements. Here young men were taught Latin, Greek, classic Greek Literature and Theology. Patrick’s abiding legacy was the “land of saints and scholars” and Columbanus was one who benefited from this rich heritage.

This ancient Church was far from insular. Columbanus was fuelled by a desire to evangelise in continental Europe, where spiritual darkness was causing the light of Christ to recede. To the people of France, Switzerland and Italy he ministered, people who were most definitely under the authority of the Pope. From the writings of Columbanus that have been preserved we know that he was aware of the Pope and furthermore we have correspondence where he disagreed with the Roman Pontiff. The resident Bishop at that time was Gregory, later beatified and known as Gregory the Great because of his profound influence upon the future course of the Church. This makes it all the more incredible that Columbanus, the Irish Missionary, should write to Gregory disapproving of the time when the Roman Church celebrated Easter. In common with the Celtic Church Columbanus insisted on celebrating Easter at a different time, more in keeping with the Jewish Passover. To 21st Century Christians this debate may seem unimportant but in the 6th Century the timing of Easter meant a great deal. To the Christians in Ireland, Scotland and Northern England it represented authority. Would they succumb to the authority of the Pope who wished all Christendom to be under his headship. Columbanus obviously did not accept the Pope, as the representative of Christ, as he called the Roman celebration of Easter a “dark Paschal system”. Furthermore the Irish preacher, living in Europe, likened himself to a dog but a dog that was alive, while Gregory appeared as a lion that was dead:

“…better to be a living dog than a dead lion.”

Evidently the island schools of Lough Erne did not teach Columbanus that all of Christendom was under Papal authority because the Church in Ireland knew of no such headship. Therefore when Martin Luther, 1,000 years later, threw off the chains of Papal dominiondeclaring the Church to be in “Babylonian Captivity” he was articulating what Christians in an earlier purer age believed. The Church in simpler more Biblical times followed the Scriptural pattern elevating Christ alone. Luther was reforming and liberating, in returning the Church to true scriptural authority. Yes, the Protestant Reformer would have concurred with the Irish preacher; better to be the living dog than the dead lion.

Reference: “Ireland and the Celtic Church” by George T Stokes, published 1891.

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