3 lessons worth learning on Saint Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2016

Unless you worship in a tradition marked by the calendar of saints—like many of our Lutheran and Anglican brothers and sisters—chances are you’re not sure what exactly to do with Saint Patrick’s Day. Go ahead and register me as a Protestant of the Baptist sort, one typically not committed to the liturgical calendar and feast days. But Christians, even those like me, can benefit from some good historical reflection when it comes to Saint Patrick.

What does Christian “cultural engagement” look like in a dramatically anti-Christian context? We don’t typically think of Saint Patrick, or Patricius, as an icon of cultural engagement. Instead, he is often cited for his commitment to the evangelization of Ireland. However, this fifth century bishop can teach us a lot about how Christians should understand their witness in the world. Let me propose three lessons we can learn from Patrick.

1. The Christian life is one of mission.

Perhaps this is where Patrick is best known to us. Born to a Christian family in the late fourth century in Britain, Patrick rejected the Christian faith of his parents. A number of dramatic developments and experiences of tremendous suffering were what God used to convert him. He was kidnapped as a teenager and taken to Ireland as a slave, where he remained for six years until his escape and return to Britain. However, he experienced a dramatic missionary call to return to Ireland. Years later, Patrick recounted this experience. Reminiscent of Paul’s Macedonian call, he remembered a vision in the night of a man from Ireland who had with him a set of letters. After taking one of these to read, titled “The Voice of the Irish,” Patrick remembered:

“While I was reading this I thought I heard the voice of those who dwell by the wood of Voclut near the western sea. It was as if they were crying out with a single voice: ‘Holy boy, we beg you, come back and walk among us again.’ I was struck through my heart and could read no more, then I awoke.”

Most of what we know of Patrick comes to us from a variety of accounts and stories from several generations of admirers. But we only have two of his own original writings. While the Confessions of Saint Patrick are perhaps known to some, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is less so. But it presents us with a great picture of the missionary bishop’s worldview.

By all accounts, Coroticus was a British warlord who had raided Ireland along with his troops, killing or enslaving a great many Christians, including many who had been converted recently under Patrick’s ministry. His letter was thus a strong letter of excommunication, pronouncing judgment on the aggression and, in particular, the treatment of Christians.

Did I come to Ireland without the help of God because I chose to? It was God who brought me here. I am bound by the Holy Spirit, so that I can’t even see my own family. Is it my own doing that I feel blessed mercy toward the very people who once enslaved me and killed so many male and female servants from my father’s household? I am a freeborn man by the measure of this world and the son of a decurion. But I sold my noble birth to serve others. I am not ashamed of this nor do I regret it. I am a slave of Christ for a foreign people for the sake of the indescribable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The story even goes that Patrick, upon his return to Ireland as a missionary, returned to seek out the man who had held him as a slave. What prompts someone to seek out the eternal good of those who had wronged him? This is the power of saving grace and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, for sure.

2. Christians should expect opposition.

Patrick had to deal with wicked and violent figures like Coroticus. But he also faced opposition from within the church. As Michael Haykin points out, many Christians in the West appeared “to have given little thought to evangelizing their barbarian neighbors.” The details are not entirely clear, but it seems that toward the end of his life, Patrick was accused of engaging in his work in Ireland for his own financial gain. Additionally, it seems that sins he had committed as a teenager, prior to conversion, had been disclosed publicly in an attempt to shame him. In fact, Patrick expressed particular pain that this had come from a dear friend, “the one I had entrusted with the secret of my soul.” This friend had promised to be his advocate, but had publicly and wrongly disgraced Patrick.

We expect to be opposed and criticized from those outside of the faith. But it is especially painful when our character is unjustly questioned or those who profess Christ slander us. And it’s even more so when it comes from a friend. Of course, this can happen for any number of reasons. And there is much to be said for heeding the loving rebukes of a friend who confronts us over sin. But there will be times for Christians, including those on the front lines of cultural engagement, who will find others assuming the worst of their motives or showing themselves to be patently disloyal. If that’s you, take heart. You are counted among brothers and sisters who have walked that path, whose comfort was Christ himself.

3. Christians cannot afford to “forget” the future.

The Christian faith is one built upon history—specifically, the historical claims surrounding the person and work of Christ. But it also requires us to always keep the future in mind, insofar as God has revealed, in Scripture, his promised victory and the consummation of all things in Christ.

Patrick seems to have understood this and to have drawn real hope and encouragement from it, even in great difficulties. In particular, he understood his ministry as part of a much grander story, expecting that the evangelization of Ireland portended the imminent return of Christ: “I am among those men the Lord said would come when his gospel would be preached as a witness to all nations before the end of the world. We now have seen these words are fulfilled. Behold, we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached to the edge of the inhabited world.”

Patrick could never have imagined the vastness of a world still entirely unknown to western Europeans in the fifth century. But his mindset remains instructive nonetheless. The church lives between the times, but always with an anticipation of the nearness of the age to come, expecting that Christ may indeed return at any time.

Ultimately, this hope was also in what that future reality would bring with it.

“For without a doubt we shall rise again on that day in the brightness of the sun which is the glory of Jesus Christ the redeemer. We will be sons of the living God and fellow heirs with Christ, conformed to his image. For we shall rule from him, through him, and in him.”

Maybe on Saint Patrick’s Day, that’s the thing we most desperately need to be reminded of. This “present evil age” is nearing its end and, if we keep the promised future in sight, it might just prompt us to be more hopeful, fortify our courage and strengthen our resolve.

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall was appointed as provost and senior vice president for academic administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in April 2019. Previously, Hall served as dean of Boyce College in 2016 and senior vice president of academic strategy at Southern Seminary. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24