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Voting About God in Early Church Councils Hardcover – October 10, 2006

4.2 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"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

(Averil Cameron)

"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

(David Brakke)

"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

(Garry Wills)

"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

(James J. O'Donnell)

"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 BYU Studies)

About 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.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300115962
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300115963
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,045,218 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jay Young on April 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Ramsay MacMullen has written one of the best introductions to church history that I have come across. He focuses on how church councils in the period between 325-550 voted on and defined the doctrine of God. So in the Christian patristic era, truth was determined by majority vote, the assertions of traditionalists to the contrary notwithstanding. Of course, minority bishops at councils were threatened with exile if they refused to sign the creed that had been adopted. "After the ensuing debate, the emperor's High Panjandrum, by name (in Greek) `Beloved', then personally carried round the creed the emperor had approved for everyone to sign if they wished to be spared the penalty of exile; which, needless to say, most did- to be condemned later as hypocrites. There were 17 (or 22?) of these latter. With a little reflection, they were reduced to four; and, as they had no doubt foreseen, those four were carted off to some part of the Roman Gulag, some obscure corner of the semi-desert away west or far south, there to repent." (pp. 19-20)

One thing that really helps is MacMullen's ability to make a thoroughly-covered subject seem new again. He begins the book by asking the reader to imagine a visitor from Mars visiting Earth in the 4th century, viewing Christians in the empire voting about 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, is: by majority vote of group leaders in occasional assemblies." (pp. 1-2) Here are some things I learned in the book that I didn't know before:

* The Episcopal hierarchy was modeled on the Roman Senate. Most bishops were part of the aristocracy, though they were elected to their positions by popular vote.
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I first read Ramsey MacMullen's "Christianizing the Roman Empire" some twenty years ago. This is written very much in the same style and the same approach: fresh and insightful. Yes, there is blood and gore breaking out at church councils, but there is much more to this book than sensationalism. The human element is portrayed, but so too are the very difficult metaphysical questions with which the council fathers wrestled as well as the human element involved in the conciliar process. After all, Ramsey MacMullen is a sociologist of religion and not a theologian or a church historian. He is interested in the human element in all of this.

Ramsey MacMullen is trying to get inside the head of an "ordinary bishop" to see how he was shaped and formed and how he would react during the actual council. The "ordinary bishop" would be at least fifty years of age and well read in the Bible. He may or may not be learned and will probably not have the political connections of the bishops of the largest and most influential cities that had close ties to the emperor. The "ordinary bishop" is a deeply religious man and superstitious by modern standads. Such a man is deeply passionate about his religion and is willing to suffer for it. He is so passionate about his religion and his particular version of orthodoxy that he is also willing to inflict suffering on those who oppose the "true" faith. Thus, one sees bishops at their most ceremonious and most reverent during the councils that decided who Jesus was in relation to the other persons of the trinity and other such theological complexities. One also sees them at their most passionate with tears and outbursts and waving of their hands and supplicating the president of the council on their hands and knees.
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Format: Hardcover
One thing you can always expect out of Ramsay MacMullen is a finely written scholarly work that is eminently readable yet highly informative. He manages to take a great deal of information from a wide variety of sources and put it together without the result being tedious, and he does it with a sense of humor. This is not, as is Michael Gaddis' "There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire," another recent work which touches on the same subject, a study of violence, but an examination of how belief about God came to be determined by popular vote. My first thought was of the much maligned Jesus Seminar, frowned upon by apologists for determining what Jesus really said by using the same process Christians themselves used centuries before. Apparently what was acceptable a millennium ago is acceptable no longer.

MacMullen purposely does not focus on such luminaries as Ambrose but on, in his words, "those persons who made up the graet mass of any council" who were who were neither superhuman nor prominent. The format of the book itself examines four "shaping elements": democratic, cognitive, supernaturalist and violent. He then takes us through scenes from some of the church councils "to show the four elements at work."

Brought into focus for the reader is a world that is not talked about in Church of Sunday school and probably not even in the home: how belief in God was determined by consensus, a consensus arrived at only after long and often bitter debate, and not infrequently, violence. The belief in God that came to be handed down in the wake of Constantine's reign was imposed. It did not flow naturally out of the mythical world created by the author of Acts of the Apostles and then flow with smooth continuity into the present.
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