Voting about God in Early Church Councils

In his latest monograph, Ramsay MacMullen, emeritus professor of history at Yale University, takes a wonderfully fresh look at the early Christian councils. At the beginning of his study, MacMullen recognizes the primacy of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) whose definition of the Supreme Being forms the basis of the majority Christian view on the nature of God. The Nicene Creed was “made formal and given weight by majority vote and supported after much struggle by later assemblies, notably at Chalcedon (451)—likewise by majority vote. Such was the determining process. Thus agreement was arrived at, and became dogma widely accepted down to our own day.” Although MacMullen recognizes that this process has been “studied to death,” in this work his approach is to “focus on those persons who made up the great mass of any council”; “it is the whole contributing mass that I like to understand—how people, lots of people, really behaved. . . . In the making of any event such as emerged from Nicaea or Chalcedon, figures great and small, high and low, had all to contribute. . . . It is for readers of history then to decide who counted the most, or perhaps whom they find most interesting.”

Before analyzing the councils, the author includes five introductory chapters. The Introduction proper encourages readers to imagine that they are visiting from Mars and come to the subject at hand from an objective distance, “taking nothing for granted.” MacMullen provides a useful table identifying the councils that were convened during the three centuries between ad 253 and 553. The table includes dates and locations and attempts, where possible, to indicate in parentheses the number of bishops in attendance. The bishops who attended came from a variety of social, educational, and economic backgrounds. Some, like Ambrose, could count imperial senators among their acquaintances. Others (a small percentage) could not even sign their names. Some were extravagant in their displays of wealth and power. Some were well schooled in rhetoric or philosophy and used their training in their formal speeches. However, the records also reveal that there was also “a great deal of common speech” on display.

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