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Excursus on the Use of the Word "Canon."





Excursus on the Use of the Word "Canon."

(Bright: Notes on the Canons, Pp. 2 and 3.)

Kanw\n, as an ecclesiastical term, has a very interesting history. See Westcott's account of it, On the New Testament Canon, p. 498 if. The original sense, "a straight rod" or "line," determines all its religious applications, which begin with St. Paul's use of it for a prescribed sphere of apostolic work (2 Cor. x. 13, 15), or a regulative principle of Christian life (Gal. vi. 16). It represents the element of definiteness in Christianity and in the order of the Christian Church. Clement of Rome uses it for the measure of Christian attainment (Ep. Cor. 7). Irenaeus calls the baptismal creed "the canon of truth" (i. 9, 4): Polycrates (Euseb. v. 24) and probably Hippolytus (ib. v. 28) calls it "the canon of faith;" the Council of Antioch in a.d. 269, referring to the same standard of orthodox belief, speaks with significant absoluteness of "the canon" (ib. vii. 30). Eusebius himself mentions "the canon of truth" in iv. 23, and "the canon of the preaching" in iii. 32; and so Basil speaks of "the transmitted canon of true religion" (Epist. 204-6). Such language, like Tertullian's "regula fidei," amounted to saying, "We Christians know what we believe: it is not a vague `idea' without substance or outline: it can be put into form, and by it we `test the spirits whether they be of God.'" Thus it was natural for Socrates to call the Nicene Creed itself a "canon," ii. 27. Clement of Alexandria uses the phrase "canon of truth" for a standard of mystic interpretation, but proceeds to call the harmony between the two Testaments "a canon for the Church," Strom. vi. 15, 124, 125. Eusebius speaks of "the ecclesiastical canon" which recognized no other Gospels than the four (vi. 25). The use of the term and its cognates in reference to the Scriptures is explained by Westcott in a passive sense so that "canonized" books, as Athanasius calls them (Fest. Ep. 39), are books expressly recognized by the Church as portions of Holy Scripture. Again, as to matters of observance, Clement of Alexandria wrote a book against Judaizers, called "The Churches Canon" (Euseb. vi. 13); and Cornelius of Rome, in his letter to Fabius, speaks of the "canon" as to what we call confirmation (Euseb. vi. 43), and Dionysius of the "canon" as to reception of converts from heresy (ib, vii. 7). The Nicene Council in this canon refers to a standing "canon" of discipline (comp. Nic. 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 18), but it does not apply the term to its own enactments, which are so described in the second canon of Constantinople (see below), and of which Socrates says "that it passed what are usually called `canons'" (i. 13); as Julius of Rome calls a decree of this Council a "canon" (Athan. Apol. c. Ari. 25); so Athanasius applies the term generally to Church laws (Encycl. 2; cp. Apol. c. Ari. 69). The use of kanw\n for the clerical body (Nic. 16, 17, 19; Chalc. 2) is explained by Westcott with reference to the rule of clerical life, but Bingham traces it to the roll or official list on which the names of clerics were enrolled (i. 5, 10); and this appears to be the more natural derivation, see "the holy canon" in the first canon of the Council of Antioch, and compare Socrates (i. 17), "the Virgins enumerated e0n tw=| tw=n e0kklhsiw=n kano/ni," and (ib. v. 19) on the addition of a penitentiary "to the canon of the church;" see also George of Laodicea in Sozomon, iv. 13. Hence any cleric might be called kanoniko/j, see Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatech. 4; so we read of "canonical singers." Laodicea, canon xv. The same notion of definiteness appears in the ritual use of the word for a series of nine "odes" in the Eastern Church service (Neale, Introd. East. Ch. if. 832), for the central and unvarying element in the Liturgy, beginning after theTersanctus (Hammond, Liturgies East and West, p. 377); or for any Church office (Ducange in v.); also in its application to a table for the calculation of Easter (Euseb. vi. 29; vii. 32); to a scheme for exhibiting the common and peculiar parts of the several Gospels (as the "Eusebian canons") and to a prescribed or ordinary payment to a church, a use which grew out of one found in Athanasius' Apol. c. Ari. 60.

In more recent times a tendency has appeared to restrict the term Canon to matters of discipline, but the Council of Treat continued the ancient use of the word, calling its doctrinal and disciplinary determinations alike "Canons."

Forasmuch as, either from necessity, or through the urgency of individuals, many things have been done contrary to the Ecclesiastical canon, so that men just converted from heathenism to the faith, and who have been instructed but a little while, are straightway brought to the spiritual layer, and as soon as they have been baptized, are advanced to the episcopate or the presbyterate, it has seemed right to us that for the time to come no such thing shall be done. For to the catechumen himself there is need of time and of a longer trial after baptism. For the apostolical saying is clear, "Not a novice; lest, being lifted up with pride, he fall into condemnation and the snare of the devil." But if, as time goes on, any sensual sin should be found out about the person, and he should be convicted by two or three witnesses, let him cease from the clerical office. And whoso shall transgress these [enactments] will imperil his own clerical position, as a person who presumes to disobey the great Synod.


Those who have come from the heathen shall not be immediately advanced to the presbyterate. For without a probation of some time a neophyte is of no advantage (kako/j). But if after ordination it be found out that he had sinned previously, let him then be expelled from the clergy.


It may be seen by the very text of this canon, that it was already forbidden to baptize, and to raise to the episcopate or to the priesthood anyone who had only been a catechumen for a short time: this injunction is in fact contained in the eightieth (seventy-ninth) apostolical canon; and according to that, it would be older than the Council of Nicaea. There have been, nevertheless, certain cases in which, for urgent reasons, an exception has been made to the rule of the Council of Nicaea-for instance, that of S. Ambrose. The canon of Nicaea does not seem to allow such an exception, but it might be justified by the apostolical canon, which says, at the close: "It is not right that any one who has not yet been proved should be a teacher of others, unless by a peculiar divine grace." The expression of the canon of Nicaea, yukiko\n ti a9ma/rthma, is not easy to explain: some render it by the Latin words animale peccatam, believing that the Council has here especially in view sins of the flesh; but as Zonaras has said, all sins are yukika\ a9marth/mata. We must then understand the passage in question to refer to a capital and very serious offence, as the penalty of deposition annexed to it points out.

These words have also given offence, ei0 de\ proi>\o/ntoj tou= xro/non; that is to say, "It is necessary henceforward," etc., understanding that it is only those who have been too quickly ordained who are threatened with deposition in case they are guilty of crime; but the canon is framed, and ought to be understood, in a general manner: it applies to all other clergymen, but it appears also to point out that greater severity should be shown toward those who have been too quickly ordained.

Others have explained the passage in this manner: "If it shall become known that any one who has been too quickly ordained was guilty before his baptism of any serious offence, he ought to be deposed." This is the interpretation given by Gratian, but it must be confessed that such a translation does violence to the text. This is, I believe, the general sense of the canon, and of this passage in particular: "Henceforward no one shall be baptized or ordained quickly. As to those already in orders (without any distinction between those who have been ordained in due course and those who have been ordained too quickly), the rule is that they shall be de posed if they commit a serious offence. Those who are guilty of disobedience to this great Synod, either by allowing themselves to be ordained or even by ordaining others prematurely, are threatened with deposition ipso facto, and for this fault alone." We consider, in short, that the last words of the canon may be understood as well of the ordained as of the ordainer.

The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.


Ancient Epitome of Canon III.

No one shall have a woman in his house except his mother, and sister, and persons altogether beyond suspicion.


Who these mulieres subintroductae were does not sufficiently appear . . . but they were neither wives nor concubines, but women of some third kind, which the clergy kept with them, not for the sake of offspring or lust, but from the desire, or certainly under the pretence, of piety.


For want of a proper English word to render it by, I translate "to retain any woman in their houses under pretence of her being a disciple to them."

Van Espen

Translates: And his sisters and aunts cannot remain unless they be free from all suspicion.

Fuchs in his Bibliothek der kirchenver sammlungen confesses that this canon shews that the practice of clerical celibacy had already spread widely. In connexion with this whole subject of the subintroductae the text of St. Paul should be carefully considered. 1 Cor. ix. 5.


It is very terrain that the canon of Nice forbids such spiritual unions, but the context shows moreover that the Fathers had not these particular cases in view alone; and the expression sunei/saktoj should be understood of every woman who is introduced (sunei/saktoj) into the house of a clergyman for the purpose of living there. If by the word sunei/saktoj was only intended the wife in this spiritual marriage, the Council would not have said, any sunei/saktoj, except his mother, etc.; for neither his mother nor his sister could have formed this spiritual union with the cleric. The injunction, then, does net merely forbid the sunei/saktoj in the specific sense, but orders that "no woman must live in the house of a cleric, unless she be his mother," etc.

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian's Decretum, Pars I., Distinc. XXXII., C. xvj.

It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent [bishops] also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.


A bishop is to be chosen by all the bishops of the province, or at least by three, the rest giving by letter their assent ; but this choice must be confirmed by the Metropolitan.


The present Canon might seem to be opposed to the first canon of the Holy Apostles, for the latter enjoins that a bishop ordained by two or three bishops, but this by three, the absent also agreeing and testifying their assent by writing. But they are not contradictory; for the Apostolical canon by ordination (xeirotoni/an) means consecration and imposition of hands, but the present canon by constitution (kata/stasin) and ordination means the election, and enjoins that the election of a bishop do not take place unless three assemble, having the consent also of the absent by letter, or a declaration that they also will acquiesce in the election (or vote, (yh/fw|) made by the three who have assembled. But after the election it gives the ratification or completion of the matter-the imposition of hands and consecration-to the metropolitan of the province, so that the election is to be ratified by him. He does so when with two or three bishops, according to the apostolical canon, he consecrates with imposition of hands the one of the elected persons whom he himself selects.


Also understands kaqi/stasqai to mean election by vote.


The Greek canonists are certainly in error when they interpret xeirotoni/a of election. The canon is akin to the 1st Apostolic canon which, as the canonists admit, must refer to the consecration of a new bishop, and it was cited in that sense at the Council of Chalcedon-Session xiii. (Mansi., vii. 307). We must follow Rufinus and the old Latin translators, who speak of "ordinari" "ordinatio" and "manus impositionem."


The Council of Nice thought it necessary to define by precise rules the duties of the bishops who took part in these episcopal elections. It decided (a) that a single bishop of the province was not sufficient for the appointment of another; (b) three at least should meet, and (c) they were not to proceed to election without the written permission of the absent bishops; it was necessary (d) to obtain afterward the approval of the metropolitan. The Council thus confirms the ordinary metropolitan division in its two most important points, namely, the nomination and ordination of bishops, and the superior position of the metropolitan. The third point connected with this division-namely, the provincial synod-will be considered under the next canon.

Meletius was probably the occasion of this canon. It may be remembered that he had nominated bishops without the concurrence of the other bishops of the province, and without the approval of the metropolitan of Alexandria, and had thus occasioned a schism. This canon was intended to prevent the recurrence of such abuses. The question has been raised as to whether the fourth canon speaks only of the choice of the bishop, or whether it also treats of the consecration of the newly elected. We think, with Van Espen, that it treats equally of both,-as well of the part which the bishops of the province should take in an episcopal election, as of the consecration which completes it.

This canon has been interpreted in two ways. The Greeks had learnt by bitter experience to distrust the interference of princes and earthly potentates in episcopal elections. Accordingly, they tried to prove that this canon of Nice took away from the people the right of voting at the nomination of a bishop, and confined the nomination exclusively to the bishops of the province.

The Greek Commentators, Balsamon and others, therefore, only followed the example of the Seventh and [so-called] Eighth (Ecu-menical Councils in affirming that this fourth canon of Nice takes away from the people the right previously possessed of voting in the choice of bishops and makes the election depend entirely on the decision of the bishops of the province.

The Latin Church acted otherwise. It is true that with it also the people have been removed from episcopal elections, but this did not happen till later, about the eleventh century; and it was not the people only who were removed, but the bishops of the province as well, and the election was conducted entirely by the clergy of the Cathedral Church. The Latins then interpreted the canon of Nice as though it said nothing of the rights of the bishops of the province in the election of their future colleague (and it does not speak of it in a very explicit manner), and as though it determined these two points only; (a) that for the ordination of a bishop three bishops at least are necessary; (b) that the right of confirmation rests with the metropolitan.

The whole subject of episcopal elections is treated fully by Van Espen and by Thomassin, in Ancienne et Nouvelle Discipline de l' Église, P. II. 1. 2.

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian's Decretum, Pars I. Dist. LXIV. c. j.

Concerning those, whether of the clergy or of the laity, who have been excommunicated in the several provinces, let the provision of the canon be observed by the bishops which provides that persons cast out by some be not readmitted by others. Nevertheless, inquiry should be made whether they have been excommunicated through captiousness, or contentiousness, or any such like ungracious disposition in the bishop. And, that this matter may have due investigation, it is decreed that in every province synods shall be held twice a year, in order that when all the bishops of the province are assembled together, such questions may by them be thoroughly examined, that so those who have confessedly offended against their bishop, may be seen by all to be for just cause excommunicated, until it shall seem fit to a general meeting of the bishops to pronounce a milder sentence upon them. And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.


Such as have been excommunicated by certain bishops shall not be restored by others, unless the excommunication was the result of pusillanimity, or strife, or some other similar cause. And that this may be duly attended to, there shall be in each year two synods in every province-the one before Lent, the other toward autumn.

There has always been found the greatest difficulty in securing the regular meetings of provincial and diocesan synods, and despite the very explicit canonical legislation upon the subject, and the severe penalties attached to those not answering the summons, in large parts of the Church for centuries these councils have been of the rarest occurrence. Zonaras complains that in his time "these synods were everywhere treated with great contempt," and that they had actually ceased to be held.

Possibly the opinion of St. Gregory Nazianzen had grown common, for it will be remembered that in refusing to go to the latter sessions of the Second Ecumenical he wrote, "I am resolved to avoid every meeting of bishops, for I have never seen any synod end well, nor assuage rather than aggravate disorders."1


Gelasius has given in his history of the Council of Nice, the text of the canons passed by the Council; and it must be noticed that there is here a slight difference between his text and ours. Our reading is as follows: "The excommunication continues to be in force until it seem good to the assembly of bishops (tw| koinw=|) to soften it." Gelasius, on the other hand, writes: me/krij a!n tw=| koinw=| h! tw=| e0pisko/pw|, k.t.l., that is to say, "until it seem good to the assembly of bishops, or to the bishop (who has passed the sentence)," etc.

...Dionysius the Less has also followed this vacation, as his translation of the canon shows. It does not change the essential meaning of the passage; for it may be well understood that the bishop who has passed the sentence of excommunication has also the right to mitigate it. But the variation adopted by the Prisca alters, on the contrary, the whole sense of the canon: the Prisca has not tw| koinw=|, but only e0pisko/pw|: it is in this erroneous form that the canon has passed into the Corpus jurisc an.

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratian's Decretum, Pars II., Causa XI, Quaest. III., Canon lxxiij., and the latter part in Pars I., Distinc. XVIII., c. iij.

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