The Canons – an Interpretation

from Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Also, read the canons directly at The Canons of the Eastern Orthodox Church

“In the area of church discipline, the work of the first four ecumenical councils (during) 325 to 451 … constitute the core of Church Law in the Christian East, even today (and) an important part of the Western Church’s law during the first millennium … . … Although it was not the intention of the Fathers gathered at Nicea to substitute a written, universal law for the already existing customary law with its local variants, many factors since then have turned the scales in favor of written law. …”

“During the first centuries of Christianity, the consciousness of a permanent disciplinary tradition was very strong in each local Church. In the fourth century, many new dioceses were created due to missionary expansion on the one hand and to the reinforcement of one or another theological trend during the Arian crisis on the other. … Under these conditions, it was no longer possible to appeal solely to ancient customs; it was necessary to issue regulations intended to apply to the whole Church. … Appealing to custom remains limited, as we can clearly see in reading the Nomocanon in XIV Titles and the commentaries of Balsamon on this work. …”

“After the eleventh century, Byzantium more and more felt the need to have authorized commentaries on the canons. … But we have to wait until the twelfth century to see the first systematic work on this subject. Between 1118 and 1143, Alexis Aristenos, … at the request of the Emperor … wrote some concise annotations on the Synopsis … . Not very long after 1159, no doubt, John Zonaras wrote his commentary ( Έξήγησις) on the canons, a work which has always been well-received and rightly so. Zonaras classified the canonical documents of the Syntagma in XIV Titles according to an order of the weightiness of the sources. He placed the Canons of the Holy Apostles first; then came those of the ecumenical councils and the general councils of 861 and 879-880. Zonaras put the canons of the local councils and of the Holy Fathers last. Although this classification had already been used previously, he made it, henceforth, the accepted order. Zonaras was above all concerned to set out the exact meaning of the texts, also giving necessary clarifications. When required, he compared canons on the same subject and proposed a reasoned reconciliation.”

“Theodore Balsamon, at the request of the Emperor … and the Ecumenical Patriarch … elaborated his commentaries on the Nomocanon in XIV Titles. In his interpretation of the canons he showed little originality (and) often followed Zonaras to the letter … .”

“In Byzantium, the interpretations of these three canonists had a quasi-official position and have continued in subsequent periods to be given great weight. Consequently they have influenced the canonical praxis of the whole Orthodox Church. For the historian of institutions, these commentaries are especially interesting in that they show how their authors understood the ancient canons and also how they applied them. Furthermore, references in Balsamon’s commentaries to decisions of the patriarchal synod in Constantinople are very valuable for the study of jurisprudence in Byzantium. These works, however, have only a limited use in trying to determine the real thinking of the Fathers who issued these ancient canons.”

“We must not neglect the anonymous scholia (explanatory notes) found in the manuscripts (but) it is fitting to underline the fact that these notes are strictly the private opinions of their authors.”

“The ‘Syntagma arranged in alphabetical order according to subject’ (Σύνταγμα κατά στοιχεϊον) by hieromonk Matthew Blastares occupies a singular place. This work, written in Thessalonica around 1335, is a collection of canons, civil laws, synodical decrees and commentaries.18 Because of its convenient ordering and the richness of its content, this work was a great success not only among the Greeks but also among the southern Slavs and later among the Russians and Romanians.”

(and much more here)

The Freedom of Morality, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984

1. The Church and the Law

“No casuistic subjection of man to objective provisions in laws or canons of life can exhaust the distinctiveness of the name given him by the Church within the communion and relationship of love. … Yet the Church herself in ecumenical and local councils, through the wisdom of her fathers and saints, has ordained a host of canons and provisions which regulate her life. … The existence of canons and legal regulations in the Church’s life must be interpreted correctly, because otherwise it undermines the very truth of the Church. …

“From New Testament times onwards, the problem of the Church’s freedom from every law, even the Law appointed by God for the historical education of Israel, has been a particularly acute one. It is enough to call to mind St Paul’s struggle with the “Judaizers” who wanted the Law to be preserved… . Paul does not react by rejecting the Law and its educative character;1 he only opposes the precedence of law over faith… . It is plain that for St Paul, the Law … defines and manifests the reality of sin… .

“Christ showed that love is above the Law when He made Himself subject to the Law and
to death, and showed that the Law was powerless to kill the life which is love and
acceptance of death. … (In Christ) sin and death are ‘swallowed up by life’ (1Co 15:54,
2Co 5:4). ‘Wherefore, my brethren,’ writes St Paul, ‘ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised
from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God’ (Rom 7:4). … Salvation is an organic entry into the communion of saints, the body of the Church, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord’ (Ep 2:20-21).” (Chapter 10, pp.173-178)

2. The canon of martyrdom and the witness of the canons

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