Voting About God in Early Church Councils

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In this study, Ramsay MacMullen steps aside from the well-worn path that previous scholars have trod to explore exactly how early Christian doctrines became official. Drawing on extensive verbatim stenographic records, he analyzes the ecumenical councils from A.D. 325 to 553, in which participants gave authority to doctrinal choices by majority vote.

The author investigates the sometimes astonishing bloodshed and violence that marked the background to church council proceedings, and from there goes on to describe the planning and staging of councils, the emperors' role, the routines of debate, the participants’ understanding of the issues, and their views on God’s intervention in their activities. He concludes with a look at the significance of the councils and their doctrinal decisions within the history of Christendom. 

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Editorial Reviews

BYU Studies
A wonderfully fresh look at the early Christian councils . . . both scholar and lay reader will find this volume a treasure trove to be savored and enjoyed.—Gaye Strathearn, BYU Studies

— Gaye Strathearn

Averil Cameron
"Ramsay MacMullen has written another provocative and highly original book. He shows how Christian doctrine came to be decided by the democratic votes of bishops, and how the passions that this aroused all too often led to actual violence."—Averil Cameron, Keble College, Oxford University
David Brakke
"In MacMullen’s highly original book we get a sense of what it was like to be at an early church council, how arguments ebbed and flowed, how power was wielded, how participants were intimidated and inspired."—David Brakke, Indiana University
Garry Wills
"By fine literary detective work, MacMullen reassembles the mobs of bishops who debated, voted, and rioted in the fifteen thousand or so early church councils, tracing the progress of Christianity from a raucous democracy to a harnessed hierarchy."—Garry Wills, Northwestern University
James J. O'Donnell
"Bloodthirsty bishops raining curses on their enemies storm through these pages, then step aside, humbled, allowing MacMullen's cool, sane, and immensely learned analysis to enrich our understanding of the making and fragmenting of Roman imperial Christianity."—James J. O'Donnell, author of Augustine: A New Biography
BYU Studies - Gaye Strathearn
"A wonderfully fresh look at the early Christian councils . . . both scholar and lay reader will find this volume a treasure trove to be savored and enjoyed."—Gaye Strathearn, BYU Studies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115963
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/10/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ramsay MacMullen is emeritus professor in the Department of History at Yale University and lives in New Haven, CT. Among his many previous books are Christianizing the Roman Empire, Corruption and the Decline of Rome, and Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, all published by Yale University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Voting About God in Early Church Councils


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11596-3

Chapter One


Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out-if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness-we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay-and no one more detached can be imagined-might he not need to be told the most obvious things? First, to situate the matter in time, we would want to declare a convenient starting point, a certain year. The 325th according to our most usual convention would suit very well. As to space: our focus would fix on lands encircling a great sea, and their resident population of fifty or sixty million human beings, most of whom lived on or near the eastern shores.

Now, among these residents (we would explain) prevailed a universal belief in the existence of an equal or even greater population of other beings-all invisible, superhuman, greater or smaller, malign or (mostly) benign, able to shapelife in every detail and so requiring to be obeyed and conciliated.

To one of these and to one only a special title "God" was fiercely reserved by a minority calling themselves "Christians". All other superhuman beings (except their own God's angels) they declared to be enemies, and evil, or lacking any reality at all. They drew sharp boundaries around themselves, at first around only their individual scattered tiny groups but increasingly, also, around all of their groups thought of as one whole. Definition of this whole which we call "Christianity" they sought in turn through definition of their "God". He was the reason for their being. This much, they determined by consensus.

But just how was the Christian consensus arrived at? The answer, well known, is: by majority vote of group leaders in occasional assemblies.

The Martian visitor, a space traveler and a scientific type in the habit of thinking quantitatively, would no doubt have more questions to propose of a quantitative sort. As to these assemblies, now, just how many were they? With how many persons attending? At what intervals? And where in the social grid did the participants come from?

From the two and a quarter centuries post-325, surviving evidence allows the location of 255 councils on the map and in time (on the locations, see Figs. 1-2). Two or three might better be called conferences; and, besides, the great majority of the rest were not focused on theology; rather, on internal government: as, what were the rights of deacons against presbyters? or what office should determine the rites of baptism? Yet their procedures and participation were no different than in those assemblages focused on credal questions. To understand one sort is to understand all.

The list that follows, beyond date and site of assemblages, sometimes adds in parentheses the number of bishops attending. Where this is known, participating clerics of a lower rank are not counted and the frequent uncertainties in the count are not spelt out; for sometimes a number given in one historical source doesn't agree with another, and there's no choosing between them; or often, the names of later signatories to the resolutions of a council may have been wrongly counted as if they had been present. More will need to be said elsewhere about such confusions and the reasons for them; more, too, about the designation of five councils as "ecumenical". They are shown in bold face with Roman numerals in parentheses; and they are underlined along with other councils which were called or authorized by emperors (below, Chap. 6).

The tabulation offered here doesn't aim at any perfect combing through of the surviving sources; no more than is needed to satisfy a Martian curiosity-but also, to help in understanding a bishop's ordinary life experience. That is my target.

For the resulting list, the evidence is evidently incomplete. It can be roughly corrected, however, through quantifying the existing sees = bishops. Their total in the western provinces rises across time. We can count, then, in Gaul a mere 16 in AD 314, but 70 by the end of the century and well above a hundred in the mid-fifth century; in north Africa from modern Tunisia westwards, above 450, reflecting a regional tradition of placing bishops in charge of even quite small centers. In contrast, Italy: here, there were up to roughly 110 sees in the mid-fifth century, although population centers of one to five thousand residents numbered perhaps 400, while the larger towns and cities would add another 30 to that total. Thus Africa was over-episcopalized, we might say, while Italy was the opposite. It is worth noting, too, how urbanized the peninsula really was.

It is, however, the Greek-speaking provinces which count for most, by far, in the conciliar story. Sources provide good figures for the total of bishoprics in Egypt. They numbered just under a hundred. For other parts of the East there is unfortunately no comparable evidence. The fact might seem to rule out any over-all estimate; but at least an approximation is possible. The reasoning in its support can be left to a long note, but the yield is a grand eastern-empire total of seven or eight hundred, as my best guess.

Some duplication of bishops must be mentioned: a full century of it in north Africa, where there were as many Caecilianists as Donatists sharing towns more or less angrily; a decade and more of duplication in the east when Arian bishops outnumbered the Nicene, and often competed with them in the same city; and many other scenes and periods of rivalry on a lesser scale, which increased the episcopal ranks. But to my knowledge competitors didn't turn up at councils in antagonistic pairs, except only at Carthage in 411.

All the bishops of a province were supposed to meet together twice a year, spring and fall. This was commanded by the Nicene council (can. 5), repeated at Antioch (AD 363, can. 20) and at Chalcedon (can. 9) and elsewhere, and observed in Cappadocia in the mid-fourth century as in Gaul in the mid-fifth (but there, only once per year). We happen to know this from Basil's and Hilary's letters. We hear of complaints that compliance was burdensome; but also, that such councils might be called back for successive sessions, as in Bithynia in AD 325-26. So, some compliance or provinces fell below the average, some above.

Multiplying by 120 provinces, where the actual number of them was a little lower in AD 325 but higher in 553, the councils over this time-span cannot have totalled less than 15,000. As one whole phenomenon, they must be of general interest to historians of the later empire. For one thing, they must have encouraged a common way of life through the bringing together of people in situations both social and governmental. But my own concern is only with the degree of involvement of individual bishops, experienced in most sees as something at least frequent; more often, as annual or semiannual. Council-attendance was certainly a completely familiar fact of life.

So much in answer to those questions that a visitor from space might ask: How many assemblies? How frequent? As to the numbers of participants, the council-list given above provides a generous sample of what is known at both provincial and so-called ecumenical assemblies. Attendance by clergy of all ranks ran from 12 up to 1,000 and more. We can't say how nearly complete the response to a summons may have been, except that it was generally very full. Clearly a large majority of bishops of a given province or region were often assembled, as it is manifest also that only a handful can have escaped all experience of participation over the term of their service to their sees.

To confess the gaps in our evidence, in reply to a Martian inquirer, is to arouse further curiosity about the record as a whole; for if so much information has been lost-if we can name only a little more than 250 councils out of 15,000-how on the other hand did any information at all survive from so long ago?

Knowledge was originally very full and widely dispersed, as will appear in a later page; for conciliar proceedings (acta) were all taken down verbatim in short-hand, transcribed, often translated at the time from Greek to Latin or vice versa, and duplicated for preservation in both ecclesiastical and sometimes civil archives. The whole process was carefully seen to.

But here again, much more of the record has been lost than preserved. Reasonably complete acta from only a dozen or so meetings can be read today. Most of them can be found in the first nine (of 54!) gigantic volumes, collected with other relevant bits and pieces and with no sparing of vellum and elegant typography, by Gian Domenico Mansi. His was a work of the eighteenth century. In the earlier twentieth, Eduard Schwartz drew on this and on other manuscripts and editions for a much better version of acta and attendant documents. The spoken parts even without the attendant documents run to well over a half million words. Schwartz, however, offered only the so-called ecumenical councils I-V. Subsequently, and still more narrowly, these councils' canons or decrees were published in careful editions of both the Greek and Latin text or of the Latin alone.

In explanation of the steady narrowing of our window on the subject, over the centuries and even into modern times: it should be remembered that councils of any sort met over controversial business; and it is the rule across time that the record of controversies will survive or not at the pleasure of the winners. It should be no surprise, therefore, that some of what we know of Aquileia (AD 381), deplored today as unedifying, survived only as marginalia to one single manuscript, brought to light in the 1980s; or that a meeting that gave a voice to both sides of a certain theological argument lay hid only in a Syriac manuscript, published also in the 1980s; that acta of a third meeting dominated by persons later judged losers, at Ephesus II, survived only in the same language, off in a corner of the empire; similarly preserved, some of the letters of a loser; and not preserved beyond a few fragments, the letters of another such figure; while a church historian representing the ostracized today speaks to us only through excerpts made from his lost work, excerpts in which he is, for each passage, introduced to the casual reader as "the impious."

Obviously there was a screening process separating us today from the abundance of antiquity. How it worked in detail, others may say who know more about manuscript transmission. My small sampling is enough to show, however, that the chief treasure to be preserved from conciliar acta was thought to be the final, agreed-on legislation, not the lead-up argumentation. Outcome counted, not process. Indeed, it was best not to revisit the process, for reasons only a Martian would need to have explained. So, for example, Nicaea's proceedings were duly taken down at the time and duly published; but they were allowed to perish, all but the creed and canons. These of course were much copied.

Selection has continued to operate in its own way. In Mansi's day you could still widen your readership for Greek documents if you provided a parallel translation into Latin. That was done in his volumes. But translation stopped there, for a majority of the surviving acta. They remain little visited in the ancient tongues. Fortunately, a substantial minority is available in French, with some editing and abbreviation; some in English; a little, in German; and a still smaller quantity, once in Syriac, now in French or German.

As to the last question raised from outer space, Who were the participants? or, in more scientific terms, where on the social grid would the council participants fit?-a safe answer would place them generally in the upper ten per cent but not quite at the top, as measured by their families' estate-value, their occupation before joining the clergy, their command of wealth as bishops and their place then in the public eye. Information is of course very incomplete. The upper and lower extremes of the group are, however, worth indicating to define it.

A description by one of the most privileged tells us about the bishops he found floating loose in the eastern capital in the 380s:

Some, sprung from the change-tables and the icons you find there; some from the plow, blackened by the sun; some from the never-ending toil of the mattock and hoe; others, off the galleys or the army list, still smelling of bilge-water or with the scourge-marks on their backs ...; still others who have not yet cleaned off the soot of their fiery trade [as smiths], fit only for a beating or the work-mill ... now on their upward path, dung-beetles headed for the skies ... babbling stupid phrases while not up to counting their own fingers or toes.

Other sources indicate a small percentage who couldn't even sign their names; some from the most obscure hamlets or callings.

But these were few. And few, also, at the other extreme, bishops who could count imperial senators among their acquaintance. Ambrose is the example that will be most often offered.

There were others not too far beneath him. Episcopal rank, after all, in towns of any size brought not only renown and respect but some degree of luxury, too: a staff of slaves and secretaries in an ample, perhaps gigantic residence (containing at Ephesus one public room able to receive more than a hundred persons); pay at least for a metropolitan bishop above a provincial governor's; at least in Rome, pay equal to that of the lower clergy of all the see put together, equal to the whole of the monies set aside for the poor; access to big fees, up to twenty pounds of gold for participating in an ordination; access to big fees also as an invited preacher; and at least in the largest of sees, Alexandria, a treasury able at need to provide a strategic gift of more than a ton of gold along with a huge value of various exotica.

In consequence, and quite in keeping with the practices of their world, bishops sometimes acted out their wealth with extravagant behavior and pomp in their public appearances. As one of them said of their place in the world, "Prefects and city magistrates do not enjoy such honor as the magistrate of the church; for if he enters the palace, who ranks the highest, or among the matrons, or among the houses of the great? No one is honored before him." The posturing and wealth suitable to a really great see, making celebrities of its successive occupants, of course were on a scale all of their own. In small sees, however, relative to their small size, the rank of bishops was still that of a principal citizen, still in the top tenth.

An apparently significant number of bishops had had what we might call post-graduate training in rhetoric with the idea of a career as a professor of rhetoric or as a lawyer. Among these were included some who had actually begun such a career before ordination, such as Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Others, or the same, had studied philosophy. Advanced schooling was valuable. To be able to argue forcefully was a great help in getting up in the church; so was that way of speaking and writing that set apart the privileged from the common lot, so as to command instant respect from those lower in society, and recognition as an equal from the privileged.

Yet it is one of the rewards of reading the acta, that a great deal of common speech is on display, because of the stenographic quality of the text. Nowhere else in the written record of antiquity is there a match for this. All sorts of grammatical constructions, word choices, meanings of words, and departures from a careful, educated style turn up in both the Greek and Latin. The explanation is a reminder of how human beings speak, whatever their schooling, when they have not specially prepared their thoughts. Unselfconscious expression proceeds in short chunks and limited word-choice, even today among academics where it can be scientifically studied; similarly among the ancient bishops.


Excerpted from Voting About God in Early Church Councils by RAMSAY MacMULLEN Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 The democratic element 12
3 The cognitive element 24
4 The "supernaturalist" element 41
5 The violent element 56
6 Preliminaries 67
7 Councils in action 78
The stage 78
Dioscorus 84
Management 95
Exact words 105
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