Missiological Reflections on Celtic Christianity

Whether one thinks of western culture as secular (Bruce 1996, 2002; see Stark 1999), ultramodern (Netland 2001; see Grenz 1996; Oden 2001), or postmodern (Oden 1990), it has long been thought of as post- Christian. Increasingly, western Christianity is unable to answer the questions confronting the western mind. Lesslie Newbigin (1987) asked the provocative and still relevant question, “Can the West be converted?” David Cornick suggests that the answer might be found in the Celtic Church:

We who are the heirs of pollution and the misuse of creation long for an intimate closeness with the natural world. We who are the heirs of post-Enlightenment dualism and its demeaning of the spiritual long for an integrative experience of sacred and secular…. We who are the heirs of the “cheap grace” of a Christian establishment… long for a faith which costs. We who are the heirs of ecclesiastical division and the bureaucratic structures of the modern church long for the pure air of days when Aidan tramped the Northumbrian hills gossiping the gospel. All this and more we see in the Celtic Church (1997:47)

The Celtic Christians, growing out of a cultural context of Paganism, were passionate for sharing the gospel. They provide models of acculturation and examples of contextualization, while maintaining what was believed everywhere, always and by all. They did all this without the backing of a formal religious hierarchy or state finances (Latourette 1965: 331), but with an egalitarian view of humanity (see Markus 1997: 45-55) and an environmental consciousness that what God had created was good. It was a movement of regular people who desired “Christ in the eye of all who see me, Christ in the ear of all who hear me”(Davies, trans. 1999a: 120).

The purpose of this article is to examine the missiological methods of Celtic Christianity. Upon examination application will be made to the current climate of western culture. The thesis of the article is that Celtic Christianity might provide answers to the questions on the minds of those living in a post-Christian context.

Celtic Lands and People

Much debate lies around the origin of the Celtic peoples, but it is evident that an ethnically identifiable people existed a century before their migration. The Celts migrated from central Europe at the end of the fifth century B.C. to the south, crossing the Alpine passes into the Po valley and to the east into Transdanubia and Transylvania. The histories of Polybius and Livy record that the Celts destroyed much of Rome in 390 BC. They were known to have inhabited a track of land from western Europe in Iberia to the Upper Danube. It is widely accepted that as early as the sixth century BC the Celtic language, Indo-European in nature, was spoken in Iberia, Ireland and around the Italian Lakes (Cunliffe 1997: 18-22; Jones and Pennick 1995: 79). Known as the Keltoi (Celts) to the Greeks, the Galli (Gauls) by the Romans and later as the Galatae (Galatians) to both Greek and Roman writers, they were a formidable force that settled most of central and southern Europe until their defeat by Julius Caesar (Chadwick 1971: 54-55).

As a result of their defeat they were forced to retreat to what was considered the edge of the world (modern day England, Scotland and Ireland). While Caesar made two reconnaissance missions to southern Britain, no attempt was made to occupy the area. It was not until under Claudius in 43 AD that there was a permanent Roman presence that ultimately reached southern Scotland prior to 410 AD when the Roman law was rescinded and the army pulled out due in part to the collapsing empire. Overall, according to Nora Chadwick, Roman civilization made little impact on the islands (Ibid.: 68-72).

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