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Voting About God in Early Church Councils
by ramsay macmullen
yale university press, 192 pages, $30

What do we know about the early Christian councils? We know quite a bit about the great figures who ­normally occupy attention—an Athanasius, say, or a Cyril of Alexandria—but what about the ordinary bishops who made up the majority at all councils?

Not much, is the answer, and so, in Voting About God, the scholar Ramsay MacMullen sets himself to explain how these councils functioned and deliberated. The topic is an important one, for the body of scholarship on the topic is not extensive. We know, generally, the procedures that were followed, and surviving accounts give us a blow-by-blow account of some of the most important. But much remains for the scholar seeking to understand the details of decision making. The many volumes of the Acta Concilia Oecumenicorum, edited initially by the great historian Eduard Schwartz and published just before the outbreak of the First World War, are not as well known as they should be. And the Acta of more obscure councils remain hard to locate, known mostly to specialists in particular regional studies.

Indeed, there is also a great need for new treatments of the idea of a church council in late antiquity, a topic fundamental in both historical and theological terms for understanding the development of subsequent ecclesiologies, east and west. H.J. Sieben’s Die Konzilsidee der alten Kirche (1979) is still an important point of departure, especially in its tracing of the slow emergence of the idea of an ecumenical council.

As it happens, Sieben’s book is missing from MacMullen’s bibliography, for MacMullen’s concern is only rarely with thinking about councils. His clear focus is instead on the practice of councils. At the beginning of Voting About God, MacMullen lists the dates of 255 councils. That includes councils of two rather different types. On the one hand, there are meetings called to deal with ongoing doctrinal controversy or some other extraordinary event; on the other hand, some of those in the list are regular provincial meetings that occurred with increasing regularity in the post-Constantinian period (of which we can fairly hypothesize many more than 255).

The vast majority of MacMullen’s evidence comes from the councils in the former category—at which one might have expected the highest drama. The book, then, is most relevant to these extraordinary meetings; much of what is asserted no doubt was true of all meetings, but there is little here for the reader interested in the ordinary workings of a regular provincial meeting that was perhaps far less likely to be concerned with matters of doctrine.

Voting About God is structured by what the author considers four “shaping elements”: the democratic, the cognitive, the supernaturalist, and the violent. A chapter on each is then followed by two final chapters that attempt to trace the course of a council. Readers who are not familiar with Ramsay MacMullen’s work should be warned at the outset about his prose. He enjoys sentences without verbs - “More advertising,” for instance, or “In contrast, the Egyptians.” And then there are the random exclamation marks that litter the book: “(! Like Ossius)” or “A problem! to which this party addressed itself at the juncture now being described.”

Still, if you can look past the prose—a problem! I admit—the book has real promise, matched to real failings. A good example is the first chapter on the “democratic element.” It turns out that by democratic, MacMullen means not so much the importance of vote taking but the coordination and orchestration by the few who appear to have controlled conciliar meetings. He is also fascinated by those occasions on which surviving acta appear to show us a majority actually shouting down unpopular proposals introduced by those who thought they were in ­control.

The picture, however, remains impressionistic. MacMullen is right to focus his attentions on these complex questions of how the ordinary bishops were managed and manipulated, and on how they resisted such organization. But other than his (quite plausible) suggestions about the evidence for the existence of organized cheerleaders at some councils, we are left with as many questions as answers.

MacMullen makes little attempt, for example, to examine how this chorus-style orchestration might have related to the existence of preexisting church parties organized either by regional patronage networks or by doctrinal commitment. He makes little attempt to look closely at how cheerleading functioned in debate. Was it only at the final stage when acclamation of a document occurred, or was it an integral part even of the initial rounds of individual comment on documents proposed for discussion? I could certainly see myself using chapters 6 and 7 (on the actual workings of a council) with one of my classes, and I know the vividness of description would draw students into the topic. But I also know I would spend much time trying to mitigate the effects of MacMullen’s generalizations.

All in all, MacMullen leaves us with many questions about the organization of the councils. It seems to be the case that Christian conciliar practice followed from the procedure of secular councils from the first few centuries A.D. (and to understand what this means we would need to see how those councils, in provinces and towns throughout the empire, adapted practices from the Roman Senate and in previous deliberative bodies around the Mediterranean). But MacMullen does not really offer us much of this kind of historical scene setting. He seems not to know the excellent discussion of Hess’ much-revised second edition of The Early Development of Canon Law (2003), and though Fergus Millar’s wonderful A Greek Roman Empire came out too late for MacMullen to discuss it, anyone interested in relations between councils and the imperial government will learn much from that book.

Throughout Voting About God, MacMullen gives ample evidence of his fascination with superstition and religious violence. The oddest illustration in the book is the portrait of A.H.M. Jones, the classical historian who died in 1970. The photograph appears amid MacMullen’s repeated assertion of the obviousness of a decline into superstition during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, a decline brought on by too much theology and too many monks. The shape of the assertion takes the form of an extended encomium on Jones’ reading ability: Jones had “an awestruck student to supply him there with a quantity of books to go through every few days . . . . In his own dogged way, he thus got through something above a hundred thousand two column folio pages of Greek and Latin relevant to the ­period of my study and a bit beyond too - quite enough to support ­general conclusions.” (A footnote confesses that “my quantification of his feat is obviously a guess.”)

MacMullen goes on to indicate that he is not a little miffed that recent scholarship has been less than keen to follow Jones (and MacMullen’s own 1997 version in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries), but he does not really make much effort to consider why recent scholarship has been wary of assuming simple narratives of the rise of superstition. (Oddly, he makes no use of what is certainly one of the most elegant attempts to describe these shifts in new ways, Robert Markus’ The End of Ancient Christianity.)

MacMullen’s treatment of religious violence has a similarly stark quality. Never one to miss the chance for a general claim, he writes: “Indeed, in the cities, which were the very heart of the ancient world, the phenomenon [of religious violence] as a whole surpasses any other one can think of for historical significance over the course of the empire’s latter centuries. No aspect of economic history, of family, or class or labor relations or mortality rates - nothing brought such changes into people’s lives.”

One might well ask whether the plague of the 540s, the regular failure of harvests, the wars with the Persians of the early seventh century, the end of Roman rule in the West during the fifth century, or the rise of Islam in the eighth century brought significant changes. The archaeological record seems to show that the ­latter two events especially brought significant economic and social change. But MacMullen does not define “historical significance” or what he means by “such changes”: surely death and birth, personal failure and success, brought huge changes into “people’s lives” then as now. The rhetoric is wildly overdone.

In case we need statistics on all this religious violence, chapter 5 begins, “Our sources for the two and a quarter centuries following Nicaea allow a very rough count of the victims of creedal differences: not less than twenty-five thousand deaths.” The accompanying footnote is long and varied: The vast majority of its citations offer no numerical evidence and much rather obvious polemical rhetoric.

My point is not to argue that we can somehow be certain that far fewer died, or that religious violence was not a significant feature of life in the ancient world, but that MacMullen’s rhetoric all too often takes the place of any careful assessment of sources, or of the ways in which religious violence was interwoven with violence attributable to a range of contributory causes. This is especially so, for instance, in such diverse cities as Alexandria. Christopher Haas’ Alexandria in Late Antiquity is a good point of departure here.

Voting About God is not one of MacMullen’s better books, and I read it with a strong sense of disappointment. In many ways, the book might be viewed as much a sketch for a book as it is a finished product. The idea behind this putative book, and some of its main lines, are clear, compelling, and interesting. What we actually have is, however, too much like a proposal for a book. It is clear that MacMullen has thought about some of the perennial problems in understanding these meetings and come up with some helpful and plausible suggestions. But much remains to be worked out, and his frequent generalizations demand a great deal more nuance.

Lewis Ayres is associate professor of historical theology at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and author of Nicea and Its Legacy (Oxford).

Photo of fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.