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Apostolic Canons




APOSTOLIC CANONS. These are rules to regulate Christian life and the discipline and government of the Christian church, which, it is supposed, have come down to us from the apostles. Several collections of rules claiming apostolic origin and authority have descended to us, and of these the two most important are the canons of the Apostolic Synod of Antioch and the collection now described, which bears the title Cañones qui dicuntur Apostolorum (Kávoves rwv áyímv KOL iravcrénTiov 'ATTO<XTO\(DV). The Apostolic Canons consist of a series of eighty-five rules, of which the first fifty are held to be the most important. These rules contaii- a tolerably complete directory for the guidance of the clergy in their daily life and usual round of duties. It is somewhat remarkable that the life of the ordinary layman is for the most part left unnoticed; four Canons only deal with the laity, the rest of them speak of the clerical life and that alone. The authority of these Canons varies in the Eastern and in the Western Church. The Eastern Church, foUowing the guidance of John of Damascus, has received as authoritative the whole eighty-five, and makes them of equal authority with the Epistles of St Paul, i.e., acknowledges that they possess plenary authority. The Western Church has always hesitated to receive more than the first fifty, and has received them more on the recommendations of such distinguished popes as John II., Stephen III., and Urban II., than because of their own intrinsic value; and it was only when they were incorporated in the decretals that they obtained a real authority.

According to some authors, they are first quoted in the Acts of the Synod of Constantinople, in 394 A.D., and in those of the Synods of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in 431 and 451 A.D. Some have said that they are mentioned in the Decretum de libris recipiendis, issued by Pope Gelasius (492-496 A.D.), while others have pointed out that the name occurs in those MSS. only which have the decree of Hormisdas (514-523). Perhaps the soundest decision is, that the collection is not mentioned in history untU about the end of the 5th century; it is undoubted that it was in existence before the beginning of the 6th, for the Latin trans-lation of the first fifty Canons dates from the year 500 A.D.





A great deal of criticism has been expended upon this collection of ecclesiastical rules. It was once commonly received that the Apostolic Canons were the authoritative decisions upon church life and discipline enacted by the first council of Jerusalem, whose proceedings are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Since the 16th century juster views have prevaUed. The Canons themselves contain statements which are almost identical with many passages in Holy Scripture, and with many of the decisions of the earlier synods and councils, more especially those of Antioch, Nicaea, and Laodicea; it is also evident that much that they include is but the description of the tradi-tion and practice of the church then existing. The follow-ing questions then arise •.—(1.) Are the passages which resemble what we find in Scripture taken therefrom, or from contemporary independent oral tradition] and, (2.) Have the rules, which are almost literally identical with the decisions of the earlier councils, suggested and formed the basis of these'decisions, or are they themselves suggested by the decisions of the councils 1 When we bear in mind the fact that the historical existence of the Holy Scriptures and of the councils is well assured, and that we have no trustworthy evidence of the existence of this coUection until the end of the 5th century, the conclusion forces itself upon us that the Apostolic Canons must be based upon the Acts of the earlier councils, not these upon the Canons. Critics have differed about the precise date of the compila-tion. The Magdeburg Centuriators think that it was some time in the 3d century; while Dalleus is of opinion that it was not until the middle of the 5th century; others place it between these dates. Perhaps the best conclusion we can come to is that the so-called Apostolic Canons are a compilation of practical rules for the guidance of the clergy made from holy Scripture, the decisions of the earlier councils, and existing ecclesiastical usage, by an unknown ecclesiastic belonging to the Syrian Church, who lived in the 4th or 5th century.

See Dalleus, De Pseicdepigraphis Apostolorurn; Franciscus Turriamis, Pro Canonibus Apostolorurn, who asserts their apostolic origin; Bickrell, Geschichtedes Kirchenrechts. (T. M. L.)







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