I’ve been tapped to teach my Sunday school class two weeks running. Last week I served as a place holder after Dr. Rick Wilson’s excellent study of the Minor Prophets. This week I’m a fill-in for Mercer colleague Dr. Bryan Whitfield, who was going to start a new series on Celtic Christianity. Fortunately, I was able to dig up some old lecture notes from a Church History course I taught way back in the twentieth century and compare that with some things I’ve learned since then to put together a hodgepodge of introductory matter. For what it’s worth, here is some of it:
(1) Origins. The Celts were present in ancient Europe since the Iron Age (c. 1200 BC). In Classical times, the Celts occupied vast areas of central and western Europe. With the rise of the Roman empire, they were eventually squeezed to the fringes of the Atlantic coast.
(2) The Modern “Celtic Nations” (roughly from North to South):
- Isle of Man
(3) Pre-Christian Celtic Culture
- Celtic culture was based on class and kingship. Tribes were led by kings (who were sometimes chosen by election rather than primogeniture). Like other Indo-European peoples, society was divided into three tiers: the warrior aristocracy, the intellectual class (jurists, druids, bards), and everyone else.
- Tribal warfare was a regular feature of society. Classical writers describe the Celts as fighting like “wild beasts.” They even had a reputation as head hunters.
- There was a fair bit of gender equality. There were female warriors and rulers, although they were in the minority. Under the Brehon Law of Ireland, a woman had the right to divorce her husband and gain his property. In the first century AD, British Queen Boudicca led a revolt against Roman occupation.
- Settlement patterns varied, but in our period the Celts they were predominantly rural and even semi-nomadic.
Not all Celts who were Christians embraced Celtic Christianity. The Galatians Paul wrote to may have been Celts (according to the “North Galatia Theory”), but they weren’t proponents of “Celtic Christianity.” When we speak today of “Celtic Christianity,” what we are really talking about is a particular religious synthesis that only first developed during the fifth century and waned after the eighth century. This synthesis included:
(1) Romano-British Christianity. Christians had been in England from Roman times. Tertullian and Origen spoke of British believers around AD 200. Pelagius was a British monk, and British bishops attended the Ecumenical Church Councils of the fourth-fifth centuries. Circa 410, Rome withdrew the legions to face the invading Germanic tribes on the continent. Saxon invasions drove most British Christians into the West country.
The Roman Empire fell in the west in AD 476. What was left of the Romano-British church was in rapid decline, and Saxon invaders were pushing the native Britons into the remaining Celtic lands of the west.
(2) Primitive Middle Eastern Christianity. Trade routes connected the British Isles with the rest of the world. Cornwall in particular was the hub of an international tin trade. There is evidence of contact with all parts of the Mediterranean, including North Africa and Asia Minor. Evidence of an early monastic tradition in Cornwall suggests Christianity may have reached there from Egypt.
(3) Early Continental Monasticism. Christian monasticism has roots in the Old Testament and Jewish asceticism. The first monastic Christian community can be dated to AD 271 with Anthony of Egypt. (Although there may well have been an unbroken tradition of solitary monks from the first century onwards.)
After Constantine, the monastic impulse became a kind of counter-culture movement against what was perceived as “watered-down” discipleship. Eastern monasticism emphasized poverty, chastity, strict obedience, an austere diet, daily recitation of the Psalms, heavy manual labor, and severely ascetic self-discipline. The ascetic extremes were eventually moderated in the monastic communities of Syria and Egypt.
Martin of Tours and John Cassian popularized eastern monasticism in the West (c. 400). Around the same time and influenced by Martin, Ninian (d. 432) brought European monasticism to Scotland.
(4) Indigenous Celtic Culture. Unlike Roman Britain, the older druidic religion was still very active in the far West. As we shall see, Celtic Christianity strove to affirm as much of this culture as their theology would allow.
Properly so called, “Celtic Christianity” therefore only arises when all these factors come into play, approximately the middle to end of the fifth century AD. Furthermore, it could only flourish when Roman influence was in decline. As Roman church authority rose throughout the Middle Ages, Celtic Christianity began to wane.