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Photo of fresco representing the first Council of Nicaea on Wikimedia Commons

Voting about God at the Council of Nicaea

Ramsay MacMullen

At Nicaea in AD 325 some 200 bishops assembled. The total is not certain: perhaps a little below that figure, probably a little above it. Not all who attended signed, as was not unusual at the end of councils nor surprising at this one, given its special difficulties. The exact number doesn’t matter. It was soon inflated, to 270, to 300, and so to 318 within a generation. In the Greek system of numeration by letters of the alphabet, it was noticed that a tau, iota, and eta standing for 318 began with a cross ‘T’, went on to “Jesus” (IE . . .), and also recalled the number of Abraham’s servants at Genesis 14.14. In this, Hilary and others saw the significance. So at 318 the total was stabilized and became a sort of shorthand for the council and its published creed. It is often referred to in that fashion in subsequent councils: Chalcedon, for one. Similarly “The 150” (rho-nu in Greek numbers) attending the second ecumenical council served as a designation.

To ourselves, the active interest shown in the Nicene attendance figure, or at least the wish to inflate it, would seem a natural part of those habits of voting and other forms of popular expression that bishops were familiar with in the world around them, in town councils and so forth. Wherever there is debate, there must be force in a majority. Not only physical force is in the balance, by which one side could ultimately be tested against the other; there is the more civilized respect for a preponderance of minds. Democracy teaches the equation, many = good; therefore, more = better. Yet a truer understanding of the Christian community suggests instead, or also, the equation, many = God. In voting a power beyond the human might assert itself.

Certainly bishops in conflict with each other insisted, if it were the case, that there were more of them than of their antagonists. This was a constant refrain; so a bishop long before Nicaea defended the rightness of his views because they had been agreed to “among churches with the very largest congregations”; so, later, the synodal letter of Tyana gloried in the number of their friends at Lampsacus in 364/5 being greater than of their enemies at Ariminum in 359; again, at Aquileia one party pointed out (quite untruthfully) that they represented almost all the bishops from almost all the provinces of the west; while at Carthage in AD 411 the competing parties vying for numerical superiority even counted off by pairs in public. More trumped less: there was in the end “validation from numbers,” as a council president reminded a minority who were slow to give in. Consequently the deposing of a bishop remained in effect if re-instatement had been voted only by a smaller synod; appeal from a conciliar decision could only be to a council with a larger number attending. Majority mattered; everyone must agree to an opinion “of so very many bishops in attendance.” But to these words the speaker added, “in attendance with the Holy Spirit, too.”

His reminder sheds light on accepted reasoning among the bishops as they tried to settle their differences. They were convinced of a divine force present and at work to assure a preponderance in the first place; it was divinity that prevailed, or at least not a total by mere mathematics; hence, the choice of Pentecost for the convocation of the council at Chalcedon. The Spirit, the Breath, the Pneuma would be there.

From Voting about God in Early Church Councils by Ramsay MacMullen. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Ramsay MacMullen is emeritus professor in the Department of History at Yale University. 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.

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