Northumbrian Local Theology

I have recently been reading Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology, and his discussion of Celtic theology as a local theology, not a separate theology, seems spot on to me. O’Loughlin is not a fan of much of the neo-Celtic works that are at best misleadingly selective and at worse historically careless. As Bede ceaselessly asserted, the Irish were not Pelagians! O’Loughlin notes that the Irish (and Britons/Bretons) always had more in common with the rest of Christendom than that which differentiated them. Celtic theology is a local flavor, not a new creation.

All insular peoples, including the Irish, were always thirsty for knowledge from the continent. Recall that one of the works of Adomnan of Iona was De Locis Sanctus (On the Holy Places) where he describes the Holy Land and part of the Eastern Empire (including probably the first description of St. George in Britain). Bede’s abbreviation of it, his ‘On the Holy Places’, was one of his earliest works, and he discusses it in his History. Unfortunately, most people only know it through Bede’s summaries. Adomnan’s Life of Columba uses Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Constantanius’ Life of Germanus of Auxerre, the Life of Anthony and the Life of Martin, sometimes explicitly and sometimes as role models. Famously for Oengus the Culdee, Germanus of Auxerre, the anti-Pelagian champion, was the ‘Sun of our elders, the tutor of Patrick of Armagh’. Adomnan draws a direct parallel between Germanus and Columba (book II chapter 35 ).

Celtic Christianity to me, in my present context, is filtered through the lens of the local theology of the Anglo-Celtic church of Northumbria as it crystallized around the life and legacy of St. Cuthbert and the works of Bede. Even in the time of Bede, Columba, Oswald, and Aidan were constructs – part history, part theology, and part legend. I call this local theology Anglo-Celtic or Hiberno-Roman because it is a blending of the legacy of Iona with the rules of Rome. In my usage, Anglo-Celtic most specifically refers to the first and second generation after the synod of Whitby. In the broad scope of history, the Anglo-Celtic period was short, roughly from 634/664-793, but its legacy lasts until today. We have to look no further than the greatest Anglican treasures (ex. Lindisfarne Gospels), artistic motifs (Celtic cross), and theological impact (Bede’s works) to see its legacy.

I absolutely believe that Bede was Anglo-Celtic. He was surely a devout Roman and Benedictine, but we need only look at his ecclesiastical heroes in his History to see where his heart lies.

  • Aidan, his model bishop, who brings Irish theology and its monastic practice to England.
  • Cuthbert who makes Aidan’s lifestyle acceptable to Rome.
  • Boisil who teaches Cuthbert and prods Egbert (via a vision to an associate) to begin his mission to Iona. (perhaps Bede’s personal role model)
  • Egbert who converts Iona to Rome. With this accomplishment Bede brings his History to a climatic conclusion. It is worth noting that Egbert provides evidence that Bede was in contact, directly or indirectly, with Iona within his last 5-6 years. In his Greater Chronicle of 725, Bede records Egbert’s mission without calling him a saint, as he does in the summary of his History written in 731. Bede seems to know of Egbert’s recent translation (ie like canonization) in the intervening years.

To be sure, Bede also had Roman heroes: Gregory the Great and Theodore being the most significant; this blending of Roman and Irish was a hallmark of Northumbrian theology. Bede’s world was full of such blended influence. The Rule at Wearmouth-Jarrow seems to have been primarily Benedictine, but not completely. In his History of the Abbots, Bede tells us that Benedict Biscop compiled their Rule from the 17 monasteries he had lived in and that Biscop spent his formative years at Lérins in southern Gaul. He had also been abbot of the monastery of St. Peter and St Paul in Canterbury (later renamed St. Augustine’s) for two years, before founding St Peters at Wearmouth and St Pauls at Jarrow.

Northumbria had its own local theology, specific to a time and place. I can study it, I can appreciate it, I can inform my own theology by it, but I can’t be a practitioner of it, my knowledge is too incomplete and always will be. We are fortunate to have a wealth of Northumbrian material. In addition to the works of Bede, we have anonymous Life of Cuthbert (Lindisfarne), Anon Life of Gregory the Great (Whitby), Anon Life of Coelfrith (Jarrow), Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid (Romanist Ripon), Miracles of Nynia (Whithorn), Calendar of Willibrord, and potentially the works of Alcuin. If we want to study and appreciate Northumbrian local theology and history, we must begin with these primary sources. Most of the Northumbrian works are available in translation; many of them are online at least in part. The Age of Bede contains translations of a wide variety of Northumbrian material for a reasonable price. There are also reasonably priced editions of Bede’s History and Adomnan’s Life of Columba.

[Note: If you are not familiar with the geography of early medieval Northumbria, it is essentially co-extent with the territory of the modern Anglican Archbishop of York.]

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