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Is Peter Wagner correct in his reporting of violent deaths happening around the establishing of the Trinitarian Creeds - "It produced no fewer than 25,000 deaths."

May 26th, 2014

Question: I was wondering if Peter Wagner is correct in his assessment of the violence that occurred in establishing the Trinitarian Creeds (according to Joel Hemphill), when Wagner states "It produced no fewer than 25,000 deaths." This statement is found in an article written by Hemphill, "Charisma Magazine Finally Prints The Truth." Wagner is citing a Yale historian, Ramsey MacMullen and also says, "The controversies concerning the Trinity precipitated no fewer that 15,000 church councils from AD 325-553...by majority vote." Do you have any insights/comments on this? Thanks, James

In an article appearing in Charisma, Peter Wagner makes the statement above regarding the Church Councils and Creeds of the first 4-5 centuries. Wagner is quoted by Joel Hemphill, an anti-trinitarian singer, preacher of sorts in an article on his web site. Wagner is citing historian, Ramsay MacMullen in his book, Voting About God in Early Church Councils.

I want to say up front this is outside my immediate area of expertise. I have consulted Chris Craun, CH101 Contributor with a Ph.D. in Medieval History and a Professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Craun gave me some good insight, but basically agrees with my assessment:

...there are political and social issues here. Being part of a political/social group that uses doctrinal creed as an identity marker is different than belief....Purely doctrinal persecution (which I believe DID happen) was largely a piece-meal affair, local, and poorly documented.

My formal training and my general knowledge of early Christian history immediately caused me to doubt this number of deaths as being attributed to the doctrine of the trinity...or any other doctrine for that matter.

1. Joel Hemphill does not accurately reflect Peter Wagner when he states,
"Wagner, himself a Trinitarian, says regarding the violence that occurred in establishing the Trinitarian creeds, it 'produced no fewer than 25,000 deaths!' " http://www.thehemphills.com/images/Charisma-truth.pdf

What Wagner actually said was:
"MacMullen finds that the literal physical battles involved in establishing the church's doctrinal creeds produced no fewer than 25,000 deaths!" http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/bible-study/19995-but-that-s-not-in-the-word. Wagner actually says 25,000 deaths over "doctrinal creeds."

2. Wagner is citing information from a text written by Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen, "Voting About God in Early Church Councils"
So Hemphill is quoting Wagner who is quoting MacMullen. I seriously doubt that Hemphill has looked up or read ANYTHING in MacMullen's text. Unfortunately, I doubt Wagner understands the nuance of the history he is reporting. He is trusting MacMullen who is an expert in his field.

3. MacMullen does mention 25,000 deaths, but he gives numerous caveats which, of course, neither Wagner nor Hemphill bother to mention. I initially found MacMullen's text on Google books which did not allow me to read his entire text, but one event in his death total appears to be the "Nika riots" (or "Nike") of 532 AD under Emperor Justinian, p.14. He gives a general account of this event in Chapter Two, but leaves out some very important parts of the story IF he is including this event in his total of 25,000 deaths. More on this later.

Now, MacMullen IS saying that these deaths were "victims of credal differences....the issues that were fought over were strictly theological." p.56

IF he is using the deaths from events like the Nike riots I find his statement above to be misleading. The Nike riots may have had some theological backdrop and some religious leaders/bishops may have taken sides, but the riots had more to do with ignorant, illiterate citizens unhappy with paying heavy taxes, the economy and the emperor's mismanagement of affairs. The Nike riots sound more like European soccer fans (hooligans): mostly thugs looking for an opportunity to shed a bit of blood, especially if the blood flows from the opposing side of the argument. Read a good piece on the Nike riots here: http://cliojournal.wikispaces.com/Justinian+and+the+nike+riots
Our primary source is Procopius

The ancient record states that 30,000 were killed in this riot, but most historians do not take that number seriously. The rioting started at the Hippodrome while opposing sides were watching chariot races and cheering on their side. It would not surprise me if, like now, some drinking and betting were going on...neither of these lead people to calm discussion!

I had the chance to get the MacMullen text AND to read some reviews of the text. My opinion has been confirmed: MacMullen is vague about which events he includes to get to the 25,000 deaths. Here are a few comments from a review on the MacMullen book that echo my own thoughts:

This excerpt comes from a review by Lewis Ayres, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Candler (at the time of the review) in First Things, pp.45-48 (emphasis added by RA Baker).

...the book has real promise, matched to real failings...I could certainly see myself using chapters 6 and 7...with one of my classes...But I also know I would spend much time trying to mitigate the effects of MacMullen's generalizations...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...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..."
[Here Ayres offers a scathing critique to show the overblown emotional nature of such a statement. He ends this critique with this summary:] The rhetoric is wildly overdone.
[Now Ayres goes straight to the point of my own criticism of this work:]
In case we need statistics on all this religious violence... [quoting MacMullen] "Our sources for the two and a quarter centuries following Nicaea allow a very rough count of the victims...not less than twenty-five thousand deaths."
Ayres again:
The accompanying footnote is long and varied: The vast majority of its citations offer no numerical evidence and much rather obvious polemical rhetoric...MacMullen's rhetoric all too often takes the place of any careful assessment of sources, or the ways in which religious violence was interwoven with violence attributable to a range of contributory causes.

Ayres is right in my opinion. MacMullen gives a brief summary of the Nike riots in the first chapter, but then in his fifth chapter he lists his sources for the deaths in a footnote. Many of these sources are secondary/scholarly works, many of them from his own works. Included in this footnote,
"thousands of victims of General Narses in AD 536" p.137n1

The Nike riots were in 532, so either MacMullen has a typo or he is now referring to the Gothic War and the battle to take Rome when Narses led some troops. There a few problems here:
1. MacMullen is vague - is he referring to the Nike riots in this 25,000 death count, or is he including the Gothic War?
2. For MacMullen to use either of these events to come up with a death toll due to "credal differences" is misleading.
When a scholar uses an historical event like the Nike riots or even the Gothic War and writes, "the issues that were fought over were strictly theological," it causes me to doubt his other examples. I would have to read his entire text to give a solid response, but the Nike riots alone probably accounted for the majority of the cited 25,000 deaths. For MacMullen to build his argument on this number without making it clear WHICH events he is talking about IN THE MAIN TEXT is sensationalism. To claim such a large number of deaths and then to back it up with vague references (or simple page numbers in other studies) in a lengthy footnote is not good scholarship.

For me to give a full critique I would have to read his other works. The reader deserves a better presentation (and verification of data) IN THE MAIN TEXT when a scholar makes a claim of 25,000 deaths.

The more I read MacMullen, the more I think he is a good scholar who tends to give overly generalized comments without offering enough data/details. In the Preface to his text Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A.D. 100-400) (Yale Univ. Press, 1984) he writes, [Note how complicated and lengthy this first sentence becomes!]

Because information reaches us in such unsatisfactory (at points, quite unusable) quantity and texture, and because it is drawn from such a great time span and such great numbers of lives and settings, I have not been able to arrange it all in a simple, straightforward story line. Simplicity could only have been bought at a great price in accuracy.

I think this statement gives us a sense of MacMullen's style, mentioned in the above review by Ayres. MacMullen has tons of data in his brain and sometimes has difficulty presenting small pieces of data in a way which is easy to follow. And he is correct when he says that our historical data is not always clear. But when I read other scholars with tons of data in their brains (F.F. Bruce quickly comes to mind) I do not encounter such meandering pathways.

I seriously doubt Wagner or Hemphill are even aware of this fuzzy number. I doubt either of them has read much (if anything) about the Nike riots. This is the problem for pastors who attempt to make too many comments on Christian history. They do not know enough to be more careful and nuanced with their comments. Overall, I do not have a problem with Wagner's article on Charisma. But any thinking pastor should at least pause and think..."Could it really be true that over 25,000 people were killed over doctrinal differences in this period? IF true, why is it that I have NEVER heard ANYTHING specific about this?"

I blame MacMullen here. He is a scholar and he has overemphasized this point. The Nike riots (or using the Gothic War) and probably most of the other deaths MacMullen is referring to, happened during a period of Christian history when things were somewhat out of control - when the Church IS the State you are going to get problems. I am NOT justifying the use of troops and force to push religion, but like the Crusades, one must discern the nuances. This is not the only period of the "Church" being complicated. MacMullen should do a better job if/when he decides to throw out a number like 25,000 deaths.

Al Baker, Ph.D.

Please note Mr. Wagner's involvement in the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR, a heretical movement of self-appointed "prophets" completely lacking credibility. Also note Charisma magazine's gross lack of editorial and journalistic integrity.     - Michael
My Response:
I am not real familiar with the organization you have mentioned, but your comment has done the job you asked for. My concern is typically focused on the use (or misuse) of early Christian history. I am familiar with Charisma and it has never struck me as a good source for intellectual reading. Good stories and personal testimonials - yes.

I have been advised by Charles Odahl that Ramsey MacMullen is, in his opinion, an excellent scholar. I have deep respect for Prof. Odahl, thus I am posting this comment. If I am wrong about this assessment, I will post my correction/retraction. For now I leave my initial thoughts - I just do not believe this number of people died from creedal disagreements unless one counts riots or battles which, in my opinion, should not be counted since most social unrest and battles were the result of a combination of social, economic and religious concerns.

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
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