How odd to post this brief report after our first post today (see below this one). Ramsay Macmullen is probably the finest social historian of earliest Christianity, and in a book just a couple years old he sketches how the whole “council” approach to developing a consensus orthodox theology developed. His book is called, rather provocatively, Voting About God in Early Church Councils
The story is not pretty; but it’s real and Macmullen’s sketch will be the standard perception of how those councils actually came about. St Sophia of Nicea is pictured above, but the original site of the First Nicene council is now under water; St Sophia was the site for the Second Council of Nicea (787).
This book is an absolute must-read for theologians, especially anyone who wants to speak intelligently about Nicea and the Creeds.
I’m not sure about the best question, but this seems to be lurking: What do you think of this process? What does it do for you about our orthodox faith?
Macmullen traces four themes that shape how the councils worked, but before I say that, on pp. 2-4 he lists all the councils about which we know: there were over 15,000 councils (most quite minor and perfunctory). Orthodox theology resulted from majority vote, of group leaders (mostly bishops), in occasional assemblies.
Now the four themes:
1. Democratic vote: my voice, aloud, in public assemblies, sometimes chanting, sometimes and often boisterous voices, often shouting down the alternative sides.
2. Cognitive element: there was serious thought; prepared statements; careful exegesis; technical discussion of special terms (homoousios); the inability for many — even bishops — to follow the intricate discussions and philosophical terms, let alone the inability of many lay folks.
3. Supernaturalist element: when it was by major consensus, the credit was given to God. God was seen in the process; the results were God-directed. Thus, many means good; the more means the better. In fact, many and the majority is God’s voice.
4. Violence: Macmullen says that the 225 yrs after Nicea led to 25,000 deaths because of disagreement over the orthodox lines of thinking. Sick.
Macmullen then, and you’ll have to read it because it’s impossible to summarize on a blog, sketches what it was like when all of these factors, to one degree or another, came into play for a council.