Councils, Canons, and Constitution


The growing sense of a demand for concerted action found expression at an early date in the assembling of synods, or councils. We find traces of such bodies at the middle of the second century, and during the third they were of frequent occurrence. Still, this period stands in marked contrast with the following, in that it witnessed no great representative assembly. Its councils were not above the provincial scale; none of them are classed as ecumenical.

In the membership of the councils, the bishops were the main factor. Not unfrequently, it is true, priests and deacons were present, and sometimes laymen were invited; but in most instances the decrees were signed only by the bishops.

Among the occasions for councils in these centuries were the rise of Montanism, the controversy on the time for celebrating Easter, the question respecting the validity of heretical baptism, the anti-trinitarian theories of Paul of Samosata and Beryllus, the disturbance in the Alexandrian Church over the irregular ordination of Origen, and the exigencies of church discipline, together with different views upon the subject.

The record of some of these councils is almost wholly wanting. With others, especially that held by Cyprian on the subject of re-baptism, and that of Elvira, we have quite ample means of acquaintance. From the latter, which represented the Spanish Church in the year 305 or 306, eighty-one canons have been transmitted. Most of them relate to matters of discipline. Their tone indicates, that in Spain there was at this time more than an average zeal for a strict régime. An item of special interest is a decree in behalf of clerical celibacy, --the first recorded legislation on the subject. The thirty-third canon enjoins upon bishops, presbyters, and deacons abstinence from conjugal relations. The terms used are these: Placuit in totum prohibere episcopis, presbyteris, et diaconibus vel omnibus clericis positis in ministerio, abstinere se a conjugibus suis et non generare filios; quicunque vero fecerit, ab honore clericatus exterminetur. [The design of the canon is sufficiently obvious, though it is needful to substitute for prohibere a word of opposite meaning, to bring out the sense intended, a like usage may be observed in Canon 80.] The thirty-sixth canon is also noteworthy as forbidding in the churches pictorial representations of objects of worship: Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur. In the first canon the severe principle is enjoined, that a baptized Christian of mature age, who has lapsed into idolatry, should be denied the communion even in the hour of death, as having been guilty of a capital crime.

While thus councils were developing a code for the guidance of their respective constituencies, a body of instructions, laws, and liturgical formularies was being prepared, which claimed for itself an ecumenical authority as bearing the seal of apostolic teaching and command. This was the so-called Apostolic Constitutions. The eight books of this somewhat elaborate collection no doubt contain much corresponding to actual usage in the early Church. They were written, in the main, before the Council of Nicæa. At the same time, individual statements, in the absence of confirmation from other sources, can be credited with only moderate weight; there being need of proof both that they were not interpolated at a comparatively late date, and also that they represent any thing more than a private opinion.

The Apostolic Canons, sometimes appended to the eighth book of the Constitutions, contain a list of directions for the clergy. The following are some of the more noteworthy provisions: "Let not a bishop, a priest, or a deacon cast off his own wife under pretense of piety" (Can. 6). "Let not a bishop, a priest, or deacon undertake the cares of the world" (Can. 7). "He who has been twice married after his baptism, or has had a concubine, cannot be made a bishop or presbyter or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue" (Can. 17). "If any bishop obtains that dignity by money, or even a presbyter or deacon, let him and the person that ordained him be deprived" (Can. 30). "We command that the bishop have power over the goods of the church" (Can. 41). "We do not permit servants to be ordained into the clergy without their masters' consent)" (Can. 82). The origin of this collection is not to be placed earlier than the middle of the fourth century. The Greek Church in 692 adopted as of binding force the full list of eighty-five canons. The Latin Church rejected the collection at first, but subsequently accepted a list of fifty canons. [Hefele, vol. i., Anhang.]

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