Which Comes First? Truth, or the Church?

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I had occasion some years ago while writing a large paper on Medieval resistance theory to read portions of Dante’s Monarchia, a vigorously logical treatise defending the idea, contrary to the spirit of the times, that temporal rulership is not derived from the decree of the pope, but directly from Christ.  Of late I’ve been revisiting the Monarchia, and wanted to share the following reasoning about the locus of spiritual authority, a discussion which opens Dante’s treatment in Book III of the origin of the temporal power.

Not one to mince words throughout the treatise, Dante boldly states early in this Book the principle that sometimes even men who want to be guided by reason allow disordered passions to distort their reason:

…the truth concerning this third question [the origin of the temporal power] is so fiercely disputed that, just as in other matters it is ignorance which gives rise to dispute, so here it is rather the dispute which is the cause of ignorance.  For it often happens that men who guide their will by the light of reason, should they be swayed by misguided impulses, put the light of reason behind them and are dragged by passion like blind men, and yet obstinately deny their own blindness.  And it so happens very often that many stray beyond their own borders and make incursions into the territory of others, where, understanding nothing, they quite fail to make themselves understood; and thus they provoke some people to anger, others to disdain, and many to mirth. - Dante, Monarchy, trans. Prue Shaw (Cambridge University Press, ninth printing, 2006), pg. 66

Moving on to three classes of people who deny that the temporal power is directly instituted by Christ, Dante writes of certain commentators on papal legal statements (people known as the Decretalists), that, “I once heard one of them say and stubbornly insist that the traditions of the church are the foundation of faith.  Let this wicked belief be removed from the minds of mortals, before the traditions of the church, believed in Christ the Son of God…” (ibid., pg. 67).

To prove his strong statement that it is wicked to believe that the traditions of the church are the foundations of the faith, Dante next discusses three types of “scriptures” (here meaning just “written works”): one that preceded the church, another that is contemporaneous with the church, and a third that follows after the church.  In the first category are the Old and New Testaments.  In the second are the decrees of the first four ecumenical councils and the writings of the doctors of the church.  In the third class are the learned commentaries on the Decretals (papal legal statements).  Dante likens this third class, especially, to the traditions held up by the priests of Christ’s day, whom He rebuked, “‘Why do ye also transgress the commandments of God by your tradition?’ By this he gave to understand clearly enough that tradition takes second place.” (ibid., pp. 67-68).

But as if this were not enough, Dante then invokes the commonplace legal principle that no one can be a judge in his own case, lest justice be perverted, and the equally commonplace philosophical principle of his day that to understand an issue one must start with first principles, not derivatives from them:

Now if the traditions of the church come after the church, as has been shown, it must be the case that the church does not derive its authority from the traditions but that the traditions derive their authority from the church.  And so those who rely only on traditions must be excluded from the arena, as we said; for those who seek to grasp this truth [of the disputed matter of the origin of temporal authority] must conduct their investigation by starting from those things from which the church’s authority comes. - (ibid., pg. 68)

Bear in mind that this treatise was written in the early years of the 14th century, long before anything remotely able to be called “Protestant” was even a gleam in anyone’s eye.

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“May You Flee, Fugitive World; Let Us Always Love Christ”

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The following exhortation to remember what is of prime importance in life comes from the Carolingian scholar Alcuin’s poem “My Little Cell.”  After lamenting the loss, in his old age, of the monkish cell of his youth, Alcuin writes more generally:

And so all the beauty of the world is quickly upturned,
And all things in their time are transformed.

For nothing remains forever and nothing is immutable,
Dark night obscures even the clear[est] day.

A freezing winter cold strikes down gorgeous flowers,
And a bitter wind unsettles calm seas.

On fields where the pious boy once hunted deer,
A tired old man now stoops with his walking stick.

Why do we wretched ones love you, O fleeing world?
Always crashing down, you still flee from us.

May you flee, fugitive world, let us always love Christ.
May the love of God always grip our hearts.

May kind Christ defend his servants from a dreaded enemy,
Carrying our hearts upwards to the heavens.

Let us praise and love him, fully with our hearts,
He, ever kind, is our glory, our life, our salvation.1

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Sacral Kingship and Obedience to the Unjust Ruler- Ambrosiaster’s Curious Ambiguity

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In my first post, What Is Societas Christiana (Part I), I noted the diversity of patristic views on the nature and location of authority in the societas Christiana.  One of the views so noted was “the Church is in the Empire,” which means that of the two orders that make up Christian society, the spiritual order is ordained by God to be in civil subjection to the temporal order.  This is one possible spin on the more general patristic theme, based on both Scripture and Greco-Roman political theory, that the civil order is divinely-ordained and that the character of civil rule is therefore not to be lightly cast aside.

Following the literature on this subject, I will frequently use the term “sacral kingship” to denote this view.  Like all things Medieval, this position turns out to be quite complex in terms of themes that different thinkers working in different times and circumstances latch onto and develop into carefully-nuanced sub-positions.  In this post, I would like to present a few citations from Ambrosiaster, a fourth century commentator on Paul’s Epistles, that taken together show an intriguing ambiguity on the question of the extent to which reverence and obedience are owed to a sacral civil ruler.  First, he writes of David’s behavior towards King Saul, “the Lord’s anointed,” that the king is not to be disobeyed because he has the image of God just as the bishop has the image of Christ:1

Is it for this reason that after God has withdrawn from Saul, David calls upon Christ and offers honor to Saul?  David, who is not ignorant of the divine tradition regarding the royal office and valuing him in accordance with that tradition, therefore still does honor to the same Saul, lest he seem to do injury to God, who established the dignity of his rank.  For the king indeed has the image of God, just as the bishop has the image of Christ.  Therefore, as long as he [the ruler] is in accord with the tradition he is to be honored—if not on his own account, then on account of his rank.  Whence the Apostle said, “Be in submission to the higher powers, for there is no power except it is from God: whatever powers exist are ordained by God.”  Hence it is that we may do honor to the Gentiles, who, granted that in themselves they are unworthy, are nevertheless placed in power and ordained of God to hold back the evil one.  That is to say, force is to be considered, because it has earned respect.  For instance, therefore, it was revealed to Pharaoh in a dream that there would be a famine: and Nebuchadnezzar (who wished himself to be adored in the image), saw the unique son of God in the fiery furnace not by the use of what was proper to himself, but by the use of what was proper to his royal order.2

In a passage a few chapters later (ch. 91), Ambrosiaster continues even more provocatively: “Indeed, the king is adored on earth as the vicar of God.  Also, Christ is adored in the heavens and on earth behind his subsitute by a completed dispensation.3

These passages seem clear that the authority of the king is not to be gainsaid lightly.  The only hint of an exception comes with the phrase “Therefore, as long as he [the ruler] is in accord with the tradition he is to be honored—if not on his own account, then on account of his rank” (emphasis mine).   Almost twenty chapters later (ch. 110), Ambrosiaster gives us a discussion which is provocatively capable of multiple trajectories of interpretation.  Again, here is my translation:

We say that this seat of the pestilent which is ordained outside of God, which certainly was founded for this, that from it unjust judgments might go out: therefore this has been called the seat of pestilence, which is corrupt, which begets death, just as even the wicked [beget] damnation.  Therefore, it is not from God, this which is the seat of death.  For Moses received the seat of life.  For this [reason] also it has been given that the authority in it may be of the just judge, even of God the creator.  Whence the Lord says, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses,” and the Apostle says, “There is no power except from God: those which exist are ordained by God.  Whence he [the Apostle] says to the prince of the people: “You, indeed, sit judging according to the law and against the law you judge me, having beaten me.”  Insofar as he said, “according to the law,” he signified a just and beneficial authority of the seat.  Moreover, that which he said, “against the law you judge me, having beaten me,” he showed that that itself was an unjust judgment, so that sitting in the seat of God he [the prince] judged unjustly.  Hence it is from there even Daniel said “The kingdom is of God, and he gives it to whom he wishes.”  Therefore, just as the authority of the earthly emperor proceeds through all things, so that awe of him may be in all thing; thus God instituted that the authority of God begins from the king himself and proceeds through the whole: although the world frequently does not understand this, and he subjects others themselves in the power which [his] position obliges, yet the institution [of the seat of life?] is not, [for] there the seat of the pestilent is discovered…

4

Ambrosiaster’s precise meaning is, as Carlyle carefully admits, “obscure.”  On the one hand, the foundation of the kingship, his “seat,” is said explicitly to be from God and to be due reverence because the very authority of God Himself on earth begins from the king.  On the other hand, Ambrosiaster is quite clear that unjust judgments can issue from the king’s seat, and that this results in the paradox of injustice coming from the cathedra Dei itself.  Apparently Ambrosiaster goes no further than this, but later Medieval writers will make much of this obvious counterpoint to an otherwise absolutist-type theory of kingship.  And, to be sure, discerning readers will see in these citations material that is strikingly relevant to our times.

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What is “Societas Christiana”? (Part 2): A Survey of Medieval Diversity

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In Part 1, I examined some terminological difficulties surrounding the terms “Christian,” “society,” and the composite “Christian society.  To begin this post, I must reiterate the governing premise of this blog, that there is no better place to engage with the ideological and practical fundamentals of disagreements about societas Christiana than the Middle Ages – particularly in the West.1

To begin with, we must understand that the societas Christiana of the Middle Ages was, root and branches, the legacy of a fusion between Christian faith and the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world.  The dominant concept and practice of Christian society in the Middle Ages had been inherited from the Roman Empire of the Late Antique period, and underwent several centuries of substantial modification due to the collapse of that Empire in the West.  Between the 11th and 12th centuries, a major overhaul of the legal system took place on the basis of a reassessment of Roman law codes, and in the 13th the works of Aristotle, lost to the West for centuries, were reacquired and began a great revolution in Christian political thought.

If we were to sum up the thought world that governed the Medieval societas Christiana in its variety of forms, the word Romanitas – “Romanness” – would be most apt.  Romanitas was, of course, reformulated for compatibility with Christianity, but it retained enough of its ancient character to make the task of understanding Medieval Christendom so as to learn from it a difficult task for we who live in a Modern world constructed on purpose to be fundamentally unlike all that would have made sense to our ancestors.  Medieval historian Walter Ullmann explains:

Historians, I believe, pay insufficient attention to the overpowering and enduring influence which the Latinized Bible had upon the shaping of public organization.  For one must bear in mind that the Vulgate was the one book with which every literate person was familiar, and this applies with particular force to the personnel staffing the chanceries.  When due consideration is given to the ideological-governmental substance of the Bible, especially the stress on the law, on the derivation of power from divinity, on the relative position of the superior and the inferior, on the function of the ruler standing above the people, on the sub / ditus, and so on, and to the linguistic element, namely the Latin language which evoked so many mental associations with the Roman law and Roman jurisprudence, one will perhaps appreciate the overwhelming impact which this conflation of the divine word with the legal word of the Roman jurists made upon the fallow Western soil.  A moment’s reflection will show how easy in fact it was for this closely knitted system to start on its triumphant career: was there anything, in the West, which could conceivably have impeded the progress of this biblical Romanism?  Perhaps at no other time in European history had an ideology so little to contend with in its path of progress as when Christianity was received both as a religion and as a very specific governmental system.2

An illustration from our own thought and practice may help make the issue clearer. Consider how few Americans reflect on what “American” means in relation to others. We take it for granted that Americanitas, the state of “being American,” is intellectually, socially, politically, and culturally superior to anything else. As Americans, we speak of “making the world safe for democracy,” by which we mean spreading the  obviously superior American form of government and culture as far and wide as we can so that as many people as possible can enjoy the same “freedoms” that we do. After all, what could be more desirable than being American? What, really, are the alternatives? Dark Ages-style monarchy? Communism? Dictatorship? Socialism? The cultural backwardness of undeveloped Africa, where, with minor exceptions the standard of living is like something out of  Gilligan’s Island: “no phone, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury”?  With perhaps only a little hyperbole, do we not say as Americans that outside of Americanitas there is only a graded spectrum of cultural degradation that no civilized person should want to live under? Of course, some non-American states might be relatively better than others, but none of them are as good as Americanitas! How could they be? To ask the question is to answer it.

Assuming the foregoing has helped encourage an attitude of sympathy toward Christians laboring to create a societas Christiana within an inherited matrix of “obviousness” called Romanitas, we should eschew the skepticism that parodies things Greco-Roman in the name of the conceit that unlike our ancestors, we base our Christian society solely on the clear teachings of the Bible.  This is untrue, and we will be unable to learn much of enduring value from the past if we allow present superstitions to blind us.  If we choose to judge the foibles of the Middle Ages by the things we, measuring ourselves by ourselves, take to be the goods of our own, we will not attain understanding of their take on Christian society.  Moreover, we will deprive ourselves of the opportunity to take the wisdom that is there and, following their example, adapt it to our own changed circumstances.

A second crucial qualifier we must observe, especially because confessional uses of history as a polemical tool are all the rage today, is that the societas Christiana of the Middle Ages manifested itself not in one obviously, objectively self-verifying divinely-authorized form, but in multiple forms which spent many centuries arguing with each other and refining their respective positions.  Which one was the real thing?  If that is even a legitimate question to ask, it can only have the answer that we are all of us still grappling with it today. 3

Let us briefly look at some of the diverse Medieval concepts of societas Christiana.  A good place to begin is in the root of the Middle Ages, the patristic period, in which apologists and theologians formulated four distinct positions on the locus of authority in Christian society.  The four positions held then were: (1) “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?,” (2) “The Church is in the Empire,” (3) “The Empire is in the Church,” and (4) “The Church and Empire are separate, but cooperative.”4  Patristic writers extensively debated these four positions, and the debates continued vigorously in the Middle Ages.  Despite the rhetoric of adherents of each position – who, of course, all believed that their position was the obvious truth, and all others obvious falsehood – no consensus was ever reached.  Christians never achieved resolution as to what the societas Christiana could and should look like.  Governmentally, not uniformity but multiformity is the watchword of Medieval Christendom.  Even what appears to the casual or the mainly polemical student of history as a single dominant concept – papalism – was itself riddled with internal ambiguity that allowed for variant views to persist side by side in uneasy, but never suppressed, tension.

Medieval theorists did labor to reduce the four patristic options down, and they were partly successful.  To give a convenient gloss on their work, they reformulated Option (1), “What has the emperor to do with the Church?” as “What is the relationship of the empire and the Church?”, which then could function as a header for the last three options.   Gelasius, the Bishop of Rome, in A.D. 494, attempted to resolve the tension between options (2) and (3) by developing (4) into a position often called “Gelasian dualism.”  This view held that Christian society was made up of two orders, one spiritual and the other temporal.  Each order was theoretically independent in its own sphere of operation, and forbidden to interfere in the operations of the other, but both were required to make up the single societas Christiana.5  Here are Gelasius’ words:

There are two orders, O August Emperor, by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of the pontiffs, and royal power [auctoritas sacrata pontificum, et regalis potestas]. But the burden laid upon the priests in this matter is the heavier, for it is they who are to render an account at the Divine judgment even for the kings of men. Know, O most clement Son, that although you take precedence over the human race in dignity, nonetheless you bend your neck in devout submission to those who preside over things Divine, and look to them for the means of your salvation. In partaking of the heavenly sacraments, when they are properly dispensed, you acknowledge that you ought to be subject to the order of religion rather than ruling it…For if the ministers of religion, acknowledging that your rule, insofar as it pertains to the keeping of public discipline, has been given to you by Divine disposition, obey your laws, lest they seem to obstruct the proper course of worldly affairs: with what good will, I pray, ought you to obey those who have been charged with the dispensation of the holy mysteries?6

Unfortunately, a variety of complex circumstances (many of which will be explored in future entries here) brought about the slurring of dualism toward an extreme that is sometimes called clerical monism.  This view was based upon the assumption of the ontologically-superior status of the spiritual order, held to be above the temporal as the soul was above the body.  Priests holding this view asserted that “civil power was delegated to secular rulers indirectly through the spiritual offices of the clergy.”  Civil power was, in other words, merely derivative from the Church, and could be regulated at will by the agents of the Church.7  A representative example of this view may be found in these words from Giles of Rome in the 13th century:

We intend to show…that all temporal things are brought together under the dominion and power of the Church.  Now we do not intend to detract from earthly power and secular princes and their rights by taking this position, but rather to preserve them.

“…our souls, our bodies, and all our temporal goods are under the control of Peter and consequently under the control and governance of the pope, who is known to have succeeded Peter in the position of power and control in the Church.8

On the contrary, and in reaction to clerical monism, royal monism held that “the temporal ruler performed quasi-episcopal as well as royal offices in the Church; indeed, he was a “pontifical” king, “the head of the Church.”9  Applications of this view varied with region, but to take a particularly striking example, in Anglo-Saxon England kings were held to belong to a stirps regia, a “royal race,” in which political and religious functions were indissolubly entwined.  Kings either possessed or lacked a “sacral luck” with the gods that was proportional to the temporal fate of their tribe. Adapted to Christianity, such a view would inevitably result in viewing the king as the head of the Church, the most important member of the societas Christiana, the one upon whom the fortunes of the whole depended. 10

For centuries these two rival conceptions of societas Christiana carried on their ideological – and sometimes physical – conflict, leaving precious little room for compromise to the other.  The flashpoints are famous: Gregory VII vs. Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1076; Pope Alexander III vs. Frederick Barbarossa in the mid-1150s; Thomas Becket vs. King Henry II in the 1060s; Pope Innocent III vs. various secular rulers in the 1190s; Pope Boniface VIII vs. Philip IV “the Fair” of France in the early 1300s; Pope John XXII vs. Emperor Louis IV in the 1320s, etc.   The issues in these conflicts continued to animate Christian thinkers into and beyond the Reformation.  Indeed, in modified forms the issues are alive today. 11

Clerical monism and royal monism, both distortions of the notion of dualism, were the dominant streams of Medieval societas Christiana.   There was, however, a third option which occupied the cultural fringes of the world, an option based on a principle of radical dissent from established orthodoxy.  This option is a complex one, for it produced a welter of micro-societates, some of which remained more or less comfortably within the mainstream societas and others of which consciously held themselves outside it, and so drew down upon themselves violent persecution.  Examples of the first radicalism would be the Franciscans, who advocated a radical standard of poverty, and other monastic groups which advocated great reduction of ecclesiastical power in secular politics.  Examples of the second would be groups such as the Petrobrusians, the Waldenses, the Albigensians, and the Cathars in the 12th -13th centuries, the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the 13th and 14th, the Lollards in the 14th, and the Hussites in the 15th century.  Still others, such as the Devotio Moderna in the 15th century occupied more ambiguous positions relative to mainstream orthodoxy.12  Yet another thread, an apocalyptic one, ran through these centuries, including figures such as Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan Spirituals, and Savonarola.13

It is important here not to immediately accept Medieval judgments about the “heretical” status of such groups, for the identification and prosecution of heresy was often wrapped up closely with the need to justify existing political concerns by physically protecting them from dissent.14  When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D., there occurred a fusion of spiritual and temporal concerns Unlike for we Moderns, for Medievals religion was a fundamental part of the civic order itself.  To hold any nontraditional belief in open, sustained opposition to the established authorities was equivalent to opposing the entire culture. 15  Further, to propagate a heresy to other people was usually considered “soul murder.”  Differing theological beliefs were for the Medievals what the “culture war” over moral issues is for us – except that we do not pursue our cultural opponents to the death.

Nevertheless, again, we must avoid simplistic assessments.  Dissent was a complex affair in the Middle Ages.  Close studies of actual instances of it, such as the multiple, conflicting reforming movements that radically polarized Christendom in the 11th and 15th centuries, shows that often the lines between truth and error were not so clear as those involved at the time thought.  And since always in the backdrop was the inherited matrix of Greco-Roman notions about the nature of society, “heresies” must be evaluated carefully to discern to what extent they were judged erroneous less because of their doctrinal stances and more because they incarnated alternative, threatening modes of Christian society.  It is arguable, for instance, that the reforms of Pope Gregory VII in the 1070s were not merely about “the Gospel,” as Gregory himself proclaimed, but about a way of life that moralistic Christians found appalling – the way of allowing priests to marry and treating Church offices as heritable property.16  Likewise, it is arguable that John Huss was executed by the Council of Constance in 1415 less for his specific doctrinal positions than for his radical insistence that no one could possess legitimate authority if he were guilty of a mortal sin – a view that would have undermined many occupants of offices in both church and state, causing social revolution.17

Above I said that I discern four main varieties of Medieval societas Christiana, but to this point I only described three.  The fourth, true societal dualism, hovered in the background of royal and clerical monism for centuries.  It was championed by such thinkers as Hincmar of Rheims in the 9th century, Dante and John of Paris in the 13th, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham in the 14th, and certain strains of conciliarism in the 15th.18  Itself containing a variety of sub-positions, this true dualism, which might be called the fulfillment of Gelasius’ fifth century statement, purged of the erroneous monistic interpretations, attempted to balance the “sacred authority” of the clerics with the “power to command” of the civic rulers.  Admittedly, also, sometimes the balance is difficult to discern, since many of these authors were directly reacting to extremes of clerical monism, such as those of Giles of Rome and Augustinus Triumphus.19

According to some students of history, true dualism only began to come into its own during the Reformation of the 16th century, and was developed by various Protestant jurists and Protestant-influenced philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries into a position of “secularity” (not the same thing as “secularism”).  This position, it is said, stands the best chance of balancing the spiritual and temporal aspects of societas Christiana in fidelity primarily to Scripture and secondarily to the best elements of the Western theological-political tradition, avoiding the extremes to which both Roman Catholics and Protestants are often prone.  At some point in the future I may engage this intriguing reading of history, with which I am sympathetic, but for now I can only note its existence.

This post has been altogether too short, and has exhibited the character less of analysis than of bibliographic summary.  While this format has its shortcomings, I hope it serves to demonstrate the key point that Medieval thought about societas Christiana was fantastically diverse, and that there is likely much we can learn from it for our own attempts to think about and live out the societal implications of the Christian gospel.

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What is “Societas Christiana”? (Part 1): Some Basic Terminology

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Welcome to the all-new (yet in some ways all-old) Societas Christiana.  The first iteration of this blog, which ran from 2002 to 2009, began as a forum for posting my researches on Medieval Christendom as part of various projects I was doing for my undergraduate work.  Given my then ongoing training in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, I soon began using the forum more expansively, to cover all manner of cultural issues both past and present.  This new iteration of the blog will be dedicated exclusively to re-engagement with issues of Medieval history and culture, with an eye towards what we as Modern Christians can learn from our brethren in the past. I plan to revisit my old research and both clarify and expand upon it in the light of subsequent (and currently ongoing) studies.  I hope, for instance, to here cover some parts of Medieval Christendom that I largely neglected the first time around, such as the great heretical movements and the fascinating creative energies unleashed in the West by its encounters with philosophical varieties of both Islam and Judaism.

Since this blog has a history that some reading it now will be aware of, I need to mention a matter connected with that.  When I started Societas Christiana the first time, I was heavily invested in the Protestant vs. Catholic apologetics movement.  This gave most of the posts on the original blog a decidedly polemical tone, as I sought to use historical analysis to tear down some confessional positions and support others.  As well, certain theological assumptions of mine brought me quickly into often very acrimonious conflicts not just with Roman Catholics, but also with other Protestants.  Nothing needs to be said about these conflicts other than that this time around, I am committed to avoiding such “blog wars” and instead doing positive, constructive exploration of some perennial themes of great importance to all Christians today.1

Having set the historical context for my work here, I’d like now to do something I didn’t adequately do from the start with the original blog: define the key terms.

Even if one does not know Latin, it is easy to see that the words societas Christiana must mean “Christian society.”  Upon seeing this phrase, it may be wondered precisely of what “Christian society” consists and in what modes or manners it may be exhibited to the world.  To answer these inquiries, it is first necessary to obtain a working definition of the term “Christian society.”  It would seem easy enough to do this: a “Christian society” is just a social arrangement of Christians, a culture shaped and developed and preserved by Christians.  But it is not this simple, because Christians, being human beings, inevitably disagree with each other on all kinds of supposedly “simple” things.  Since great argumentative mischief can arise from unclarity of terms, it is best to be as clear as possible from the outset.

To start with, what is a “Christian”?  The term can be used as either a noun or an adjective, but unfortunately, defining that to which it properly refers has, in my experience, proven quite controversial.  Some believe, for instance, that a “Christian” can only be someone who accepts “the Gospel” – which they define as coterminous with the Protestant Reformation’s soteriology.   On this view, the definition of the first term depends upon the definition of a second term.  Others believe that a “Christian” is essentially someone who bears the outward mark of Christ, baptism.  This may seem simple at first, but questions immediately arise about the standards by which a baptism that is truly of Christ may be identified, thus also pushing the definition of the first term back to that of a second term. Still others try to simplify matters by saying that a “Christian” is merely a “follower of Christ,” but the same ambiguity attends this definition as well.  Do Arians fit this criterion?  Monophysites?  Mormons?  Disciples of Christ?  Jehovah’s Witnesses?  Masons?  Many Protestants wonder whether Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox fit the criterion.

All of this shows that antecedent to the definition of “Christian” is the definition of “Christ” and also perhaps even of the nature, scope, and extent of His saving work.  Apparently, the theological debate over the very meaning of “Christian” will admit of no easy resolution.  On any and all of the criteria given, someone may ask whether a person or group that claims to be “Christian” really is, and their questions are likely to be good, thoughtful ones deserving of good, thoughtful answers.  I am the first to say that prolegomena is generally speaking of great importance, yet we cannot do prolegomena forever.  It seems that if one is to move on to use the term “Christian” in either its noun or adjective form one must pick a starting point that seems reasonable to oneself and then work hard to respectfully engage contrary views, hoping at some point to bring clarity and agreement.  Near the end of this post, I will state mine.

The term “society” is easier to give an essential definition.  Related to the Latin word socius, “ally, associate, companion,” a societas is, broadly speaking, a group of allies, associates, or companions united by pursuit of a common end.  Many disagreements have arisen in history as to what forms a societas may legitimately take, what ends it may legitimately pursue, and how best it may be preserved in the face of attacks. But few people would find the basic definition above questionable using the same examples as raised for “Christian.”  Clearly, even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not “Christian,” they are a “society.”  So are the others.  Moreover, corporations, civic clubs, military forces, school faculties, even street gangs, are societies.  No one raises questions about whether they are “societies,” but only about their lawfulness and healthiness as societies.  Sometimes sharp disagreement exists over whether a society is constituted by qualities outside the control of its individual members,2 or only by the voluntary submission of people to be its members.  Aside from this sort of disagreement, though, the term “society” seems fairly easy to define.

Having noted the initial difficulties of defining the key terms “Christian” and “society,” we may now return to the question about the composite term: “What is societas Christiana?”  Clearly, no one-size-fits-all definition can be given.  But again, we cannot do prolegomena forever.  We must have somewhere to start, somewhere to stand in order to get any inquiry going.  My starting point is to define “Christian” in an analogous way to that of “society.”  Since no one questions whether the examples given above are societies, but only asks whether they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, I will use the same standard for “Christian” during the Middle Ages. I will not be overly theologically strict about what constitutes a “Christian” definitionally, but, within a few boundaries, confine any questions that arise to the relative health of societies of such people as we see them in the historical records.3

That said, I do have some very basic theological boundaries that must be clearly stated.  “Christian” cannot mean just anything whatever so long as it bears some kind of relation to the term “Christ” that itself means just anything whatever.  Some nuance is indispensable.  My personal theological convictions remain what they were on the first iteration of this blog: a “Christian” outwardly is someone who bears the mark of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as defined by the ecumenical creeds of the first four centuries. A “Christian” inwardly is someone who puts his or her personal trust in the Christ revealed in the Scriptures for salvation, and in nothing else.  I prefer not to spend much time trying to parse the details of a person’s subjective confession to discern whether they are a “Christian” in the internal sense; for historical research, the external sense is sufficient.

A corollary of this view is that these boundaries acknowledged, a wide variety of additional beliefs and practices may be present, but presence of these does not define “Christian” nor lack of them exclude one from “Christian.”  Consequently, the forms that societas Christiana may lawfully take are many, and the only question of real importance concerns the relative health of such forms.  Having said that I intend to avoid a polemical stance, I must of course acknowledge that in stating my belief that societas Christiana can take many forms, I am necessarily committing myself to opposing the more exclusive concepts of social normativity held by some Christians today.  I cannot avoid this, since as already stated I must be standing somewhere to move anywhere at all.  What I can avoid is a primarily polemical orientation in what I write.  Rigorist interpretations of truth abound in Christianity, but it is not necessary to validate their rigorism with an equally combative approach.

Lastly, a few words about why I use the Middle Ages as the focal point of my research on this blog.  As a Humanities major I am intensely interested in deep, enduring questions about what it means to be human and what it means to live in society with other humans.  Exploring the idea (and the reality) of societas Christiana is a very natural way for me to channel my intellectual interests.  Moreover, aside from the fact that I love the Middle Ages as a historical period, it was a period of time in which the term societas Christiana itself was widely used and exposed to many centuries of intensive debate and refinement. Where else better is there to examine the concept than this?  Regardless of what one thinks about the identity and prospects of Christian society today, all of us share the historical record, and none of us are what we are apart from it.  Some of us follow some strands of the history, others of us other strands.  Some indeed pretend to follow no historical strands at all, but only to follow the Bible – but even that (unsurprisingly) turns out to be a strand found in the history.  Whatever we think about societas Christiana today, whatever we may think of its prospects in the future, we are all of us indebted to the prototype of it found in the past.  Medieval Christendom is our story, and for that reason alone we should be intensely interested in it.

The second and final part of this introductory series kicking off the new blog will look at several of the rival conceptions of societas Christiana in the Medieval period in the West.  To move forward in our explorations of what the Christian society of the past may have to say to the Christian society of the present, we need to know the lay of the land – or, as a former professor of mine likes to say, “can’t know the players without a scorecard.”

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