A Brief Introduction to the Sacred Canons

What is a Canon?

By Hieromonk Agapius and St. Nicodemus of Mt. Athos

[Note: Appears in The Rudder, Orthodox Christian Education Society, Chicago, 1983, p. LIV]  


A canon, according to Zonaras (in his interpretation of the 39th letter of Athanasius the Great), properly speaking and in the main sense of the word, is a piece of wood, commonly called a rule, which artisans use to get the wood and stone they are working on straight. For, when they place this rule (or straightedge) against their work, if this be crooked, inwards or outwards, they make it straight and right. From this, by metaphorical extension, votes and decisions are also called canons, whether they be of the Apostles, of the ecumenical and regional Councils or those of the individual Fathers, which are contained in the present Handbook [i.e., The Rudder---Ed., OrthodoxFaith.com]: for they too, like so many straight and right rules, rid men in holy orders, clergymen and laymen, of every disorder and obliquity of manners, and cause them to have every normality and equality of ecclesiastical and Christian condition and virtue.

Powers and Properties of Canons

Note, however, that in order to understand the present Canons more easily, one ought to be acquainted with these axioms which are applicable to all the Canons, namely:

1. Canons differ from definitions, from laws, from decrees, and from decretal epistles (or what are often called simply decretals). For the Canons of the Councils contain mainly, not dogmas of the faith (exceptionally, though, in rare instances they do), but the normality (or good order) and proper state of the Church. The definitions of the Councils contain mainly dogmas of the faith alone. Notwithstanding that canons are sometimes improperly called definitions, as is plain from what is said in various canons of other councils, and especially in the fifth Canon of that held at Carthage, and in the records thereof, where it is said that the twenty "definitions," i.e., the twenty Canons, of the Council held in Nicea, were read. Canons differ from laws, in that what are properly so called are the civil laws and external laws of kings and emperors. Canons, on the contrary, are internal and ecclesiastical and possess a validity superior to that of laws of all kinds that emanate from human sources, as we shall state herein below apart from the present observation. Canons differ from decrees, in that, as Gratian (an Italian authority on Canon Law) teaches (in his "Division III"), canons were adopted by a local (or partial) council (or synod) or were ordained or ratified by an ecumenical council. A decree, on the other hand, is a decision pronounced by the Patriarch together with his synod, without being intended to advise or answer anyone. They differ furthermore from decretal epistles, in that the latter are prescribed either by a Pope or by a Patriarch, or in conjunction with his synod or council, for the purpose of giving dogmatic advice.

2. One ought to know that so far as concerns canons that do not specify any penance, or penalty, for violation of them, they implicitly give the regional bishop or other prelate permission to fix a proper and suitable one dispassionately, wherever he sees fit, as Balsamon states in his interpretation in connection with the Sixth [Ecumenical Council]. See also the penances of the Faster prescribed after his Canons and not mentioned in the other Canons.

3. One ought to know that one and the same sin is penanced in some Canons for a longer time, and by others for a shorter time, because, in proportion to the amount of the repentance of a sinner, his penance is prescribed to be severer or lighter as the case may be... and in proportion to the greater or lesser growth and strength of the Church...

4. Everyone ought to know that, according to ch. 4 of Title I of Photius, canons are not promulgated by a single bishop, but by the consensus and synod or council of the bishops; as Basil's XLVII prescribes, saying: "a plurality of bishops must meet together," and Nyssa's VI, saying: "the opinion obtaining with us has not the authoritativeness of canons."

5. That when anyone is speaking out of the contents of conciliar or synodical canons, his words are authoritative, according to Nyssa's VI.

6. That whoever acts in accordance therewith, is free from danger, according to Basil's same c. XLVII.

7. That whoever transgresses a conciliar or synodical canon must do penance as directed in the canon he transgresses, according to [Canon] II of the Sixth [Ecumenical Council]. What are called conciliar or synodical canons are, respectively, those promulgated by the ecumenical councils and indeed those promulgated by the regional councils (also called synods); and, in addition thereto, those which have been written privately by certain saints. Accordingly, those promulgated by regional councils, as well as those composed by individual saints, have indeed the power of ecumenical canons. For they were examined and sanctioned b ecumenical councils--I am refering to the fourth and the sixth and the seventh--as appears in the first canon of the Fourth and of the Seventh and in c. II of the Quinisext.

8. That what is not explicitly state must be judged and inferred from similar things stated in the canons. In this connection... consul the writings of individual Fathers, or rely on the discernment afforded by right reason.

9. That as for all rare and accomodative and necessitous or nefarious acts, and, in sum, all things done contrary to the canons, they are not to be construed as a law or canon or example of the Church... Note, too, that once this matter of accomodation or necessity has passed, the canons are again in force...

10. That the most penances ordained by the canons, being of a third person, there being no one present to impose them, necessarily need the presence of a second person (which is the council or synod), in order to be enforced...

11. That the canons and laws were made with regard to common matters, and not to individual affairs, and for the most part with regard to eventualities, and not to cases that rarely follow.

12. That canons of ecumenical councils override those of regional, and those of regional override those of individual Fathers, especially when the latter have not been confirmed by an ecumenical council. In this connection read the dictum of most holy Photius concerning this point...

13. That whenever there is no canon or written law, good custom is to be followed when it has been sanctioned by right reason and many years' prevalence, and is not contrary to any written canon or law, so that it takes the rank of a canon or law...

14. That neither a canon, nor a law, nor time, nor custom will sanction whatever has been wrongly decided and printed, according to jurists.

Patristic References to the Canons

"That the divine Canons must be kept rigidly by all. For those who fail to keep them are made liable to horrible penances."

"These instructions regarding the Canons have been enjoined upon you by us, O Bishops. If you adhere to them, you shall be saved, and shall have peace; but if you disobey them, you shall be sorely punished, and shall have perpetual war with one another, thus paying the penalty deserved for heedlessness." (The Apostles in their epilogue to the Canons.)

"We have decided that it is right and just that the canons promulgated by the holy Fathers at each council hitherto should remain in force." (c. I of the Fourth.)

"It has seemed best to this holy Council that the 85 Canons accepted and validated by the holy and blissful Fathers before us, and handed down to us, moreover, in the name of the holy and glorious Apostles, should remain henceforth certified and secured for the correction of souls and cure of diseases. Of the four ecumenical councils according to name. Of the regional councils by name, and of the individual Fathers by name. And that no one should be allowed to counterfeit or tamper with the aforementioned Canons or to set them aside."

"If anyone be caught innovating or undertaking to subvert any of the said Canons, he shall be responsible with respect to such Canons and undergo the penance therein specified in order to be corrected thereby of that very thing in which he is at fault." (c. II of the Second.)

"Rejoicing in them like one who has found a lot of spoils, we gladly enbosom the divine Canons, and we uphold their entire tenor and strengthen them all the more, so far as concerns those promulgated by the trumpets of the Spirit of the renowned Apostles, of the holy ecumenical councils, and of those convened regionally... And of our holy Fathers... And as for those whom they consign to anathema, we anathematize them, too; as for those whom they consign to deposition or degradation, we too depose or degrade them; as for those whom they consign to excommunications, we too excommunicate them; and as for those whom they condemn to a penance, we too subject them thereto likewise." (c. I of the Seventh.)

"We therefore decree that the ecclesiastical Canons which have been promulgated or confirmed by the four holy councils, namely, that held in Nicea, and that held in Constantinople, and the first one held in Ephesus, and that held in Chalcedon, shall take the rank of the laws." (Novel 131 of Justinian.)

"We therefore decree that the ecclesiastical Canons which have been promulgated or confirmed by the seven holy councils shall take the rank of the laws." (Note: The word "confirmed" alludes to the canons of the regional councils and of the individual Fathers which had been confirmed by the ecumenical councils, according to Balsamon.) "For we accept the dogmas of the aforesaid holy councils precisely as we do the divine Scriptures, and we keep their Canons as laws." (Basilica, book 5, Title III, ch. 2, in Photius Title I, ch. 2.)

"The third provision of Title II of the Novels commands the Canons of the seven councils and their dogmas to remain in force, in the same way as the divine Scriptures." (In Photius, Title I, ch. 2.)

"Leo the Wise (in book 5 of the Basilica, Title III, ch. 1) says: 'I accept the seven holy ecumenical councils as I do the holy Gospel'."

"It has been prescribed by the holy Fathers that even after death those men must be anathematized who have sinned against the faith or against the Canons" (Fifth Ecumenical Council in the epistle of Justinian, page 392 of the second volume of the conciliars)...

"Anathema on those who hold in scorn the sacred and divine Canons of our sacred Fathers, who prop up the holy Church and adorn all the Christian polity, and guide men to divine reverence." (c. held in Constantinople after Constantine Porphyrogenitus, page 977 of the second volume of the conciliars, or, in other words, the Volume of the union.)

"That the divine Canons override the imperial laws."

"In act IV of C. IV it is written; and most glorious rulers have said: It pleased the most divine Despot of the inhabited earth (i.e., Marcian) not to proceed in accordance with the divine letters or pragmatic forms of the most devout bishops, but in accordance with the Canons laid down as laws by the holy Fathers. The council said: 'As against the Canons, no pragmatic sanction is effective. Let the Canons of the Fathers remain in force.' And again: 'We pray that the pragmatic sanctions enacted for some in every province to the detriment of the Canons may be held in abeyance incontrovertibly; and that the Canons may come into force though all... all of us say the same things/ All the pragmatic sanctions shall be held in abeyance/ Let the Canons come into force... In accordance with the vote of the holy council, let the injunctions of Canons come into force also in all the other provinces'."

"It has seemed best to all the holy ecumenical councils that if anyone offers any form conflicting with those now prescribed, let that form be void." (c. VIII of the Third.)

"Pragmatic forms opposed to the Canons are void/" (Book I, Title II, ordinance 12. Photius, Title I, ch. 2.)

"For those Canons which have been promulgated, and supported, that is to say, by emperors and holy Fathers, are accepted like the divine Scriptures/ But the laws have been accepted or composed only by the emperors; and for this reason they do not prevail over and against the divine Scriptures nor the Canons." (Balsamon, comment on the above ch. 2 of Photius.)

"Do not talk to me of external laws/ For even the publican fulfills the outer law, yet nevertheless he is sorely punished." (Chrysostom, Sermon LVII, on the Gospel of St. Matthew); and again: "For emperors often fail to adapt all the laws to advantage." (Sermon VI, on the statues.)

"Blastares says, however, that laws that tend to favor piety lend a great impulse (i.e., aid or help) to the divine Canons, on the one hand, by concurring with them and affording them support, and, on the other hand, by supplying things that they may be lacking in some place or other." (ch. 5 of canto XX.)

"That the divine Canons override even the Rituals, when the latter happen to be at variance with them, especially if individual or regional."

For Blastares says: "From the Novel 131 of Justinian you can tell that rituals made by the [founders] in the monasteries are to be tolerated or welcomed unless they are opposed to the Canons somewhere." (ch. 16 of canto XXX.)...

Of St. Gregory the Theologian

"How absurd is it not that one is not permitted to be ignorant of any law of the Romans, not even if he be exceedingly boorish and unlearned, nor that there is any law to help one who does anything because of his ignorance: whereas, on the other hand, mystagogues may be ignorant of salvation, of the principles of salvation, notwithstanding that in other respects they are among the more simple and possess no deep intellect?" (Discourse addressed t Athanasius the Great.)

Of St. John Chrysostom

"I heard and failed to observe... You failed to observe? Why, then, you have condemned yourself! Though you observe not, yet if you but say, 'I failed to observe,' you have kept a half part. For anyone who has condemned himself for not observing, is earnestly trying to observe." (Sermon IV on Repentance, page 785 of volume 6 of the Etonian editions.)

Of St. Cyril of Alexandria

"Therefore let all of us listen who neglect to read the Scriptures, and learn what great injury we are suffering, what great poverty; for we can never have any actual experience in matters of statecraft unless we know at leas the laws in accordance with which we ought to conduct ourselves both publicly and privately." See his commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, ch. 13, verse 52, interpreting the words "Therefore every scribe," etc.

Of St. Maximus the Confessor

"There are many of us who say, but few who do. Yet no one ought to garble the word of God because of his own negligence; on the contrary, he ought to confess his own weakness, and not try to hid the truth from God--lest we be brought to trial on charges of misexplaining the word of God besides transgressing His commandments" (ch. 85 of the fourth cent. of things concerning love, page 329 of the Philocalia).

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