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


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.”

1. It is not that apologetics and polemics are inherently wrong; it is that I am no longer primarily interested in these activities, and so the results of my research can be – and will be – presented in a very different manner.
2. That is, qualities such as being born a citizen, being baptized as an infant, or being drafted into the military.
3. In other words, my quest on this new version of the blog, then, is not to develop and defend a very finely-nuanced, normative concept of “Christian,” and thus to greatly restrict what may count as a “Christian society,” but to use the disciplines of historical and philosophical research to highlight significant questions from the Christian past that remain relevant in the Christian present.
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