A Celtic Christian Worldview (7)
However after preliminary discussion, in so short a space, of the Creator’s immeasurable greatness, let us look for a little while at the order of created things. In this we are not following an invention of our own purpose which is nothing of itself but – in some poor account admittedly – the footprints of holy Scripture and of our predecessors who expounded them.
- The Book of the Order of Creatures II.1
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
- Hebrews 11.1
The anonymous writer of the Liber de Ordine Creaturarum, which we are investigating, had been requested by his superior – either a bishop or, more likely, his abbot – to prepare this treatise as a synopsis of all that is to be known (see IV.13, 14). The Liber may have fulfilled a kind of propaedeutic role, an introduction to the general field of studies and learning, and a theological and philosophical overview of how all such knowledge is to be understood, arranged, and used.
If this is so, we can speculate on the use for which this work was composed. We remember that the monasteries of Celtic Ireland were schools and training centers for monks and missionaries, and that they also extended their teaching influence into the surrounding communities. Celtic Christians were ferocious learners, and they created resources such as this to make sure their learning was transmitted faithfully, and that it would be available to generations to come, such as ours.
It would have been important, therefore, that those who turned to this treatise as a primary and orienting resource for all their teaching and learning, should have confidence in it. To this end, before the writer turns to the consideration of spiritual created beings, he reminds the readers that he’s not making this up. The Liber is not theology on the fly, or theology crafted according to the spirit of the age. Our writer is a scholar, not a hagiographer, and certainly not a theological innovator. He relies on Scripture and the teaching of faithful theologians and pastors, whose works would have been available to him in the monastery’s scriptorium. Our writer is following the footsteps of Scripture and of the fathers of the Church in bringing forward this teaching about the order of created things.
He apologizes for his too-brief introduction to God; sometimes, though, the more you say about God, the closer you get to saying more than is proper or true. God, he reminds us, is immense; He cannot be comprehended, not within the scope of the vast cosmos, and much less in a summary writing about the order of all things under God. The writer’s honesty and humility are admirable.
Chapter II of the Liber discusses the order of created spiritual beings – angels. This subject was of particular interest to several ancient Christian teachers, undoubtedly because they understood that sincere and growing faith in Christ depends, for its hope and evidence, on having a compelling vision of “things not seen.” Marina Smyth explains that the writer’s primary source for the material in this chapter was a treatise by Gregory, who is called “the Great” (540-604 AD), one of only a handful of theologians throughout Church history to be given this title.
Gregory was admired by other Celtic leaders. Columbanus read and benefited from his Pastoral Handbook, and he wrote to request a copy of his commentary on Ezekiel. It was, in part, contact with Columbanus that stimulated Gregory to send an emissary to England to effect union between the Celtic and Roman Church. That emissary – a cleric named Augustine (not Augustine of Hippo) – was unable to fulfill his appointed task, because the elders of the Celtic churches who met with him were not persuaded that he was an honorable man, since he seemed to have insufficient regard for the Law of God.
In his writings, Gregory the Great was thoroughly Biblical, entirely orthodox, and immensely practical. No wonder our writer relied on him for his understanding of the unseen realm.
Celtic Christians emphasized the connection between the seen world of creation, culture, society, churches, monks, bishops, and the like, and the unseen realm of various ranks of angels, faithful and fallen. Believers were encouraged to have confidence in those unseen spiritual beings, to believe, as Scripture teaches, that they are continuously active on behalf of God’s people, both in defending them against evil and in helping them in various other ways.
This clear sense of the unseen realm played a large role in nurturing the courage, confidence, and missionary vision of Celtic Christians. We can only believe that, were we able to embrace such an understanding as the writer of the Liber outlines here – following Scripture and men like Gregory the Great – we might be more courageous, adventurous, and fruitful in our walk with and work for the Lord.
The subject was important to those who laid the foundations of the Christian movement. It should be equally important to us.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are the “things not seen” which provide the substance of your faith? How clearly do you see these things, and how much to you rely on them?
2. Typically, when contemporary Christians contemplate unseen things, they focus on the dark realm of spiritual forces of wickedness. Is this healthy? Why or why not?
Psalm 91.7-16 (Lauda Anima: Praise My Soul the King of Heaven)
Thousands at our sides may falter – it will not to us come near!
We instead shall see the end of all who at God’s mercy sneer.
Evil shall no more befall us for we hold the Lord most dear.
He shall give His angels charge to bear us up, lest we should fall;
They will guard and carry all who on the Savior’s mercy call.
Cobra, mighty lion, serpent: We shall tread upon them all!
Save us, Lord! We love You only; set us up secure on high!
You we know, on You we call in trouble: Hear us when we cry!
Show us Your salvation, let long life forever satisfy!
Thank You, Lord, for surrounding and caring for me by Your angels, so that I can…
A tour guide for seekers
If you’d like to discover more about the unseen realm, order a copy of our workbook, The Landscape of Unseen Things. These 24 studies are a great source of learning about the unseen realm. Order your copy by clicking here.
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Davies, p. 3