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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 23 - Columbun Agriculture; Science and Literature; The Healing Arts

Iona was a school of letters and art as well as a college of scriptural theology. Its founder aimed at redeeming the land from the desolation, and its people from the barbarism in which the Druid from immemorial time had kept both. The men Columba sent forth were not only able teachers of Christian truth, they were skilful agriculturists, trained artisans, and cunning handicraftsmen. They could teach the poor, ignorant, indolent natives what miracles husbandry can work on the soil of a country. They would show them by actual experiment that it can change the brown moor into rich pastureland, and the bog into a cornfield, so that there shall be store of grain in the barn of the Caledonian, and abundance of bread on his table when the blasts of winter are howling round his dwelling, and neither from the frozen stream nor from the snow-clad earth can he obtain the supply of his wants. Under the reign of the Druid the seasons had run their round in sterility and dearth. The spring had come at its appointed time and the autumn had followed in due course, but ploughman came not at the one season to open the bosom of mother earth to receive the precious seed, nor reaper at the other to gather the golden sheaves with his sickle. Such was the desolation of the land. Christianity called it into life. It restored the ancient but forgotten ordinance of seed-time and harvest. The little Isle which had become the seat of the mission was an example of what could be done in the way of teaching the moorlands of Caledonia to cast off their ancient barrenness, and exchange their eternal brown for the summer's green and the autumn's gold. Under the labours of the missionaries, in all of which Columba had taken his share, Iona had become a garden. Not only did it feed the mission staff, but its produce supported its daily increasing number of students and attendants, besides yielding an over-plus, in the shape of seed corn, which Columbia bestowed upon his neighbours, that they might have the means of repeating on the mainland the experiment he had shown them within the limited area of his island.

Not only the arts and industries, the sciences strictly so called, were studied in Iona. What these exactly were it is now very difficult to say. The age of Bacon was still remote, and the inductive sciences were yet unborn. The great discoveries that heralded or accompanied the Reformation were undreamed of. But no brash of learning known to the age, no study that could discipline or enlarge the mind was overlooked in the school of Columba. It is interesting to reflect that the very first book, so far as we know, on the "Geography of the Holy Land," issued from the printing press, that is, from the experts, of Iona. A Neustrian bishop, Arculf by name, who had been on a visit to the East, was overtaken by a storm on his homeward voyage, and suffered shipwreck in the Hebrides. In return for the hospitality shown him in Iona, he related to the Fathers what he had seen in the then rarely visited lands of the Nile and the Jordan. We can imagine the overwhelming interest with which they listened to the words of one whose foot had trodden these "holy acres," and who had stood within the gates of Jerusalem. Adamnan, who was then Abbot, noted down all that fell from the lips of Arculf, and laboriously published it as a description of the Holy Land and of the countries lying around it. The book is remarkable only as being the pioneer of hundreds of volumes on the same subject which have followed it since.

Though the modern physical sciences had not yet come to the birth, a wide field lay open for the cultivation of the students in Columba's college. The history of ancient nations, the laws and constitutions of early states, the literature of classic times, the geography of storied lands, the Hebrew and Greek tongues, the knowledge of which was not yet lost in the West, and the logic of the ancients; all invited and received doubtless the study of the youth who resorted to this famed seat of learning. The Art of Healing—a very ancient science—had special prominence given it in the Columban curriculum. Theology, as we have said, came first, but medicine followed as the handmaid of a great mistress.

Columba, we know, was himself "well skilled in physic," and was not likely to neglect to urge upon his pupils the study of a science which he himself had been at pains to master, and which, by alleviating the sufferings to which humanity is liable, and drawing forth the gratitude of those who are benefited by it, is so powerful an auxiliary of the missionary. The door of many a hut had been opened to Columba in his character of physician which would have been closed against him as the simple teacher of Christianity. The Druids enjoyed a high reputation as proficient in the medicinal art. They were believed to know the mysteries of all herbs, and to be able to cure all diseases. It behooved the Columban missionaries to be able to meet them on equal terms. The pharmacopŠia of those days was simple indeed. He who knew the virtues of plants was reckoned a skilled physician. Not an herb was there on their island, or on the adjoining shores of the mainland, the function of which in the cure of disease was unknown to the Columban missionary. In this, as in many other points, we trace a resemblance between the evangelists which issued from the college of Iona in the seventh and eighth centuries, and those who issued from the college of the Prata della Torre in the thirteenth and fourteenth. Not a plant was there on all his mountains which the Waldensian barbe did not make himself acquainted with, and armed with the knowledge of its secret virtues he descended into the plains of Italy and met a welcome at palatial doors as a healer of the body, where, had he come as a physician of the soul, he would have encountered a repulse. "The Olla Ileach and Olla Muileach the ancient and famous line of physicians in Islay and in Mull, must, no doubt, have derived their first knowledge from this seminary," [1] that is, from Iona.

But a question of greater moment than any of the preceding ones, in fact, the question vital beyond all others touching Iona, is, what was the doctrine taught in it? If we look for a theology arranged in system, and fitted with a nomenclature, we shall hardly find such in the great missionary college of the north. The one symbolic book in that seminary was the Bible. It was with theology in the first age of the Church, as it was with astronomy in early times. The only symbolic book of the early astronomer was the open face of the heavens, whereon he saw written the path of each star, and the times and seasons of its appearing. It was only after long observation and study that he was able to compile his tables, and formulate his knowledge of the orbs of heaven into a system of astronomical science. So was it with the early theologian. His first glance was directed to the open page of the Bible, where the great truths of revelation lay scattered about just as they had dropped from the pen of inspiration. It is only when he begins to study the laws of truth, and the relations and interdependencies of its several parts, that the theologian feels the necessity of gathering together what lies scattered in histories, epistles, prophecies, and psalms, and constructing it into system, that thus he must have before his own mind, and present to that of others, a comprehensive view of truth as a whole. This process was at this time being more zealously than wisely prosecuted on the south of the Alps. The ecclesiastical world of Rome had been shaken by violent controversies, and parted into schools. The decrees of councils were beginning to claim a higher authority than the precepts of apostles, and theological creeds had begun to be imposed upon the Church, in which truths were missing, which held a conspicuous place in Holy Writ, or tenets avowed, which were not to be read at all on the page of inspiration, much as if an astronomer should construct a map of the heavens with certain of their brightest constellations left out, and their place supplied with stars new and strange, and which were unknown to the most careful observer of the sky.

These controversies had not yet travailed so far north as the quiet world of Iona. Occupied in the study of the Scriptures, the men of that remote region heard the din only from afar. The Bible, as we shall see, was the text book of Icolmkill.

While their brethren in the south were contending with one another for jurisdictions and precedence, the elders of Iona, gathered round the open Scriptures, were drawing water from the well, "holy and undefiled." This is, decisive as regards both the letter and the spirit of their theology. To the youth who crowded to their ocean rock in quest of instruction, we hear them say, "The Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith." [2] In these words the presbyters of Iona in the sixth century, enunciate the great formal Principle of the Reformation, while the Reformation itself was still a thousand years distant.

Even their enemies have borne them this testimony, that they made the Bible the fountain-head of their theology. "For dwelling far without the habitable globe," says Bede, "and consequently beyond the reach of the decrees of synods, . . . they could learn only those thing contained in the writings of the Prophets, the Evangelists, and the Apostles."[3] And speaking of Aidan, who was sent to Lindisfarne from Iona, he says, "he took care to omit nothing of all the things in the evangelical, apostolical, and prophetical writings which he knew ought to be done." And yet the venerable man cannot refrain from mildly bewailing the lot of these benighted men who had only the light of the Bible to guide them, when he says again, "They had a zeal for God, but not altogether according to knowledge." Had Bede lived in our day he might have seen reason to acknowledge that, as with the man who attempts to serve two masters, so with him who thinks to walk by two lights: if he would keep in the straight path he must put out one of the two and guide himself by the other. It was the light of the Bible, not of the Church, that shone on the Rock of Iona; and by this, light did the elders walk.

One of the more famous of the Culdee missionaries, Columbanus to wit, we find, in the famous dispute respecting Easter, confronting the authority of Rome with the simple but mightier authority of the Scripture which he calls "those true and singular canons of our Lord Jesus Christ." And after stating that the western (British) churches grounded their Pash on the Scriptures, he exclaims, "For our canons are the commands of our Lord and his apostles: these are our faith: lo! here are our arms, shield, and sword: these are our defense: in these we desire to persevere unto death, as we have seen our elders also do." [4] The rule which Columbanus laid down for his disciples on the Continent was expressed in these words, "Let your riches be the doctrines of the Divine Law." [5] There is no divided allegiance here: no attempt to follow two guides.

Not less did the Presbyters of Iona hold the Material Principle of the Reformation, even Salvation through faith alone in Christ's righteousness. This brief formula, intelligently held, necessarily implies the recognition of the leading doctrines of Christianity. It presupposes the eternal appointment of the second Person of the Trinity as the substitute of the sinner; His work of obedience and suffering on earth in the sinner's room; the offer of a free salvation on the ground of that work, and faith as the hand by which we lay hold on that offer: all this, with the attendant doctrines, the fall, man's helplessness, renewal by the Spirit, and admission through Christ's mediation into the eternal mansions, are necessarily bound up in the brief summary of doctrine, "Justification through faith alone." Hence, it is termed the material principle, that is, the body and substance of the Reformation, even as the Bible is called its formal principle, being the rule by which it is shaped and molded. We find these two great doctrines—the two heads of the Reformation theology—in the school of Columba as really as we afterwards find then in the school of Luther and Calvin. The Reformation was in Iona before it was in Wittenberg and Geneva. The Scottish theology is not of recent times. Its sons have no reason to be ashamed of it as a novelty. It is older than the days of Knox. It flourished on the Rock of Iona a thousand years before the Reformer was born. It was waxing dim at Rome, but in proportion as the doctrine of justification by faith was being forgotten in the city where Paul had preached it in the first age, it was rising in our poor barbarous country, and after illuminating our northern land and the surrounding regions of Europe during some centuries, it lingered here all through the darkness that succeeded, and broke forth with fresh splendour in the morning of the sixteenth century.

In the absence of written creed—for written symbol there was not at Iona save the Bible—we must have recourse for proof of what we have said touching the theology of Columba, and the missionaries he trained, to the sermons, commentaries, and letters which have come down to us from the evangelists which this school sent forth. We wish our space for quotation had been larger, that it might be seen how full and clear a Gospel it was which these men preached at that early day. If they were behind the moderns in respect or the appliances they possessed for criticism and explication, which the advance of knowledge has since multiplied, they were quiet abreast of their successors as regards the grand essentials of God's revelation. Their views lacked neither depth nor breadth. The Christianity preached in the Scotland of that day was the same full-orbed system, the same galaxy of glorious truths, plain yet profound, simple yet surpassingly sublime, which constitutes the Christianity of this hour. Geneva shakes hand with Iona across the gulf of a thousand years.

Columba speaks through his successors. Let us listen to a few of the utterances of these men. It is Gallus who speaks, the fellow-labourer of Columbanus, and the founder of the monastery of St. Gall. "The apostle says, 'God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world," that is, by his eternal predestination, his free calling, and his grace which was due to none.'' [6] They teach the sovereignty not less than the eternity of God's purposes. "God," says Sedulius, " Hath mercy with great goodness, and hardeneth without any iniquity; so that neither can he who is saved glory of his own merits, nor he that is lost complain but of his own merits. For grace only it is that makes a difference between the redeemed and the lost, both having been framed together into one mass of perdition by a cause derived from their common original. He (God) sees all mankind condemned with so just and divine a judgment in their apostatical root." [7]

The keenness with which the subject of free will was discussed at the period of the Reformation is well known. It is, perhaps, the deepest question in the science of supernatural theology, as both the fall and redemption hang upon it. For if the state of man's will be such that he is able to save himself, where is the need of One to redeem him? The utterances of the Columban missionaries from the sixth to the ninth century are in entire harmony with the opinions of the Reformers on this great question. Let us listen to Sedulius. "Man, by making an ill use of his Free-will, lost both himself and it. For, like a man who kills himself, is able, of course, to kill himself, because he lives, but by killing himself becomes unable to live, neither can raise himself again from the dead after he has killed himself; so when sin was committed by means of free-will, then, sin being the conqueror, free-will itself also was lost, for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he also brought into bondage. But to a man thus brought into bondage and sold, whence can there be the liberty of doing good, unless He shall redeem him whose voice this is, 'if the Son make you free ye shall be free indeed." [8] And Claudius Scotus, in the ninth century, says: "God is the author of all that is good in man; that is to say, both of good-nature and goodwill, which, unless God do work in him, man cannot do, because this good-will is prepared by the Lord in man, that, by the gift of God he may do that which by himself he could not do of his own free-will." [9] Equally clear are these evangelists on the uses of the Law to man fallen, "By the law," says Sedulius, "cometh neither the remission nor the removal, but the knowledge of sin." The law worketh wrath to the sinner, because it forgiveth not his sins, but condemneth them; it shuts up all under sin to the end, that men, being humbled, might understand that salvation is not in their own hand, but in the hand of a mediator." [10] The Law," says Claudius Scotus, "only shows us our sins, but does not take them away." [11]

On the subject of the new birth, the following exposition, among others, of Sedulius, is not a little striking. "Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death," quoting first the words of the apostle, and then proceeding, " Observe carefully the order and sequence of these words; for the apostle having compared the death that was by Adam, to the life which is by Christ, here answers an objection, and says, "How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein, teaching us hereby, that if any one has first died to sin, he has necessarily been buried together with Christ. But if one first (i.e., before baptism), dies not to sin, he cannot be buried with Christ, for no one is ever buried while yet living. Die thou first to sin that thou mayest be able to be buried with Christ, seeing that it is to the dead only we give sepulture.''[12] In this teaching, which is that of a death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness, we can discover no trace of the opus operatum of a sacrament. On the doctrine of Faith as the alone instrument of Justification, Sedulius thus expresses himself:—" Ye are saved by grace through faith, not through works—through faith, that is, not through works; and, lest any careless one should arrogate to himself salvation by his faith, the apostle has added, "and that not of yourselves, because faith is not from ourselves, but from Him who hath called us." Ye are made nigh by the blood of Christ, that is, by believing that ye are saved by His blood and passion." Again, "I live by the faith of the Son of God, that is, by faith alone, as owing nothing to the law. Grace is abject and vain if it alone is not sufficient for me." Christ is the end of the law to every one that believeth, that is to say, he has the perfection of the law who believes in Christ." [13] Similar is the teaching of Claudius Scotus: "By believing in the Son of God, we are made the sons of God by adoption." "Nothing taketh away sins but the grace of faith, which worketh by love." [14] These utterances must satisfy us that "justification by faith alone" was not a theology invented by Luther, and unheard of till the sixteenth century. It was preached to the nations of northern Europe in the sixth century, even as it had been in the churches of Asia and Africa, and the cities of Italy in the apostolic age.

But this faith was not a barren one; it was a root on which grew many a lovely blossom, and rich fruit. Let us hear the evangelists from Iona on this point also. "The ungodly man, believing in Christ his faith is imputed to him for righteousness, as to Abraham also,"says Sedulius; but there ends the old life of the man, and now begins the new, "This faith when it has been justified," adds Sedulius, "sticketh in the soil of the soul, like a root after having received the shower, so that when it hath begun to be cultured by the law of God, those boughs spring up upon it which bear the fruit of works. Therefore the root of righteousness grows not from works, but the fruit of works grows from the root of righteousness, namely, that root of righteousness which God doth reckon to our account for righteousness without works.'' [15] "It is not," says Claudius, "that the faithful man lives by his righteousness, but the justified man lives by his faith." [16] Luther could not have said it better.

One of the grandest attributes of Christianity, as seen in history, is its unchangeableness and indestructibility. But this unchangeableness and indestructibility belong only to Christianity in its evangelical form, that is, to a Christianity that gives to men entrance into life not by working, but by believing. Ever as Christianity revives and becomes again a power on the earth, it is in this form that it returns. We sometimes meet the thought that what satisfied our fathers ought not to satisfy us, and that we need a Christianity more in accordance with the "advanced thought" of the age. The past history of Christianity gives no countenance to this idea. When it would surprise and bless the world with some fresh demonstration of its heavenly influence, it prepares for the task by disencumbering itself of the accretions with which philosophy and ceremonialism are continually labouring to encrust it, that it may return to the simplicity of its first estate. With Christianity "a thousand years are as one day." Thus it challenges our confidence by giving us assurance that it is on no speculation of a day, on no mere opinion of an age that our faith is placed, but on "The Word of our God, which endures for ever."

To restore the Spring it is not necessary that we have a creation of new flowers year by year; it is enough if the old ones come up out of the darkness of the earth, where they have been lying hidden yet living in their root, during the months of winter. The Spring times that have gladdened the church and the world have come round, by the shining forth of old truths at the command of that almighty Spirit, whose prerogative it is to "bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion." It was an old theology, bursting out from Jewish type and symbol, that produced the morning of the Gospel day. It was the same old theology installed on the rock of Iona, from which came the early Celtic illumination that shone on Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries. It was the theology of the Christian fathers and the Culdees, coming forth from the tomb of mediŠlism, that created the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It is this same old theology which the missionary at this hour is carrying to China and Africa, and all round the globe. The same will form the foundations of that kingdom of righteousness and peace that is to be set up on the earth in the latter days. The constellations of the spiritual firmament, like those of the natural heavens, are for all time. They do not pass away to be succeeded by new and brighter lights. Occasionally, indeed, it happens that a comet blazes forth in the sky, or a nebulosity, broad and huge, and without determinate limits, looms overhead, awakening the wonder, and dazzling the eyes of the gazers, and threatening, it may be, the orbs of the firmament with eclipse. But the blaze of its bewildering effulgence is soon spent, and it sinks in the blackness of darkness. These prodigies are for a month or a year; the stars are for ever.


1.Iona, by the Rev. W. Lindsay Alexander, D.D., chap. iv. p. 125. London.

2. Adam. Life, i. 22

3. Bede, iii., iv.

4. Coumban. Epist. ad patres Synodi Gallicanae in Biblioth. per Gulland.

5. Epist. ad Hunald.

6. Sermon at Constance, in Gallandius, vol xii.

7. Videt enim universum genes humanum tam justo judicio in apostatico radice damnatum," Sedul. in Rom., c. 9

8. Sedul. on Romans.c. 9.

9. Claude Scot. on Matthew, apud Usher.

10. Sedul. on Rom., c. 4 and c. 7; Gal., c. 3.

11. Claud. Com. on Gal., c. 2.

12. Sedul. on Rom., c. 6.

13. Sedul. on Eph., c. ii., and Rom., c. iii.

14. Claudius on Math., BK. i., and Gal. Pref.

15. Sedul. on Rom. c. iv. "Non ergo ex operibus radix justitiŠ, sed ex radice justitiŠ fructus operum, crescit."

16. Claud. on Gal. c. iii. "Non fidelem vivere ex justitia sed justum ex fide."



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