The Worship Quote of the Week for (03/15/2005):

The Trinity in "St. Patrick's Breastplate"
In today’s WORSHIP QUOTE, Alister McGrath shows us how the ancient Gaelic hymn “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” tutors the worshiper in the important biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity summarizes the greatness of God, partly by reminding us of all that God has done. It encourages us to broaden our vision of God. Above all, it demands that we do not falsely limit God by insisting that he fits into our limited understanding. The Greek philosopher Protagoras argued that “humanity is the measure of all things.” Yet how can we allow God to be limited by the vagaries of a frail and finite human reason?

Patrick, the patron saint of my native Ireland, sets out a vision of God in the great hymn generally known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” This hymn sets out the richness and the depth of the Christian understanding of God. The hymn begins by surveying the vast panorama of the works of God in creation—one of the great themes of Celtic Christianity. The wonders of nature are reminders that God’s presence and power undergirds the world of nature:

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the star-lit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

The hymn then turns its attention to the work of God in redemption. It declares that the same God who created the world—the earth, the sea, the sun, moon and stars—acted in Jesus Christ to redeem us:

I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
his baptism in Jordan river;
his death on Cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spiced tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

We are thus invited to reflect upon the history of Jesus Christ: his incarnation, baptism, death, resurrection, ascension and final coming on the last day. These powerful ideas do not displace the belief that God created the world, and may be discerned in its wonders; it supplements this, by focusing on another area of the power and activity of God. All these, Patrick affirms, are the actions of the same God who created us and redeems us through Jesus Christ.

Yet the hymn has not quite finished; there is another aspect of the activity and presence of God to be surveyed. Again, this is not to be seen as an alternative or substitute for what is already believed; it rounds off the full and authentic Christian vision of the character and power of God. The same God who called the universe into being and redeemed us through Jesus Christ is also the God who is present with here and now:

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

The hymn thus affirms that the one and the same God created the world, entered into our work and redeemed us in Christ, and is present as a living reality this present moment. No other account of the nature and activity of God is adequate to do justice to the Christian witness to God, and no other doctrine of God can therefore be thought of as “Christian.”

— Alister McGrath, GLIMPSING THE FACE OF GOD: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING IN THE UNIVERSE. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. pp. 106-08. ISBN 0-8028-3980-0. “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is an ancient Gaelic poem, attributed to Saint Patrick of Ireland, c. 430.

[Here is another WQOTW that deals with “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”:

For an even longer version of this fifth-century text and a chance to hear a musical setting, go to:]

Have a great week.

Chip Stam
Director, Institute for Christian Worship
School of Church Music and Worship
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

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