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Unfriendly persuasion behind the scenes

07 November 2006


Voting about God in Early Church Councils
Ramsay MacMullen
Yale University Press £22.50
Church Times Bookshop £20.25

Early churchmen did not always behave like gentlemen, as Mark Edwards learns

This book is a contribution to the social rather than the doctrinal history of early Christian thought; it describes not the official delibera-tions of the great councils, but the processes of coercion and seduction that determined the final vote.

It adopts the pointilliste method of citing only concrete facts in atomic sentences, and the result is a succession of turbulent episodes, resembling a cameraman’s view of a street demonstration rather than the minutes of a parliamentary session. Ignorant or venal bishops, shepherded into blocs by their metropolitans, are enveloped in turn by larger coalitions; and the few who decline to give up their convictions yield at last to the irresistible persuasions of the Emperor.

Decisions, as in secular assem-blies, are sealed by popular acclama-tion, which, of course, may be orchestrated from above. The scrip-tures are in evidence, but count for less with many than the suffrage of some charismatic figure whose illiteracy makes room for the visible working of the Spirit.

Adversaries are stigmatised with the names of acknowledged heretics; and it may be an embarrassment to supporters of a council if its decrees are signed by men who are judged heretical by a subsequent consensus.

Thus, in 448, Bishop Flavian of Con-stantinople browbeats Eutyches into a hollow confession; this is revoked with violence at the second Council of Ephesus (449) under the Alex-andrian Patriarch Dioscorus; two years later, after a change of Emper-or, the Council of Chalcedon de-thrones the impenitent Patriarch, and compels the leaderless bishops of Egypt to sign the Tome of Leo.

Macmullen’s narrative is always vivid, and generally accurate, except where he underestimates the strength of Cyril’s following at Ephesus in 431, and invents a southern gulag for the dissidents at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Dr Edwards is Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Oxford, and Tutor in Theology at Christ Church.

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