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Canons Are Not Arbitrary Rules

by Anastasios Hudson on September 17th, 2003

The following is a seminary mini-essay I wrote in the form of a letter for an assignment; it is not an actual piece of correspondence. The goal is to elucidate the nature of the canons. In this case, a man was denied ordination because of an impediment (certain sins bar a man from being ordained in the Orthodox Church, despite his having repented of them), and why such a concept exists.

Dear N,

I’m so sorry that the Church decided against ordaining Peter! I want to try and help you understand why. The canons are not about rules and regulations, but about Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, Jesus frequently referred to Himself as “the Truth.” He is the embodiment of what is real and authentic for human life, because He lived it perfectly. As Truth, we can say that Christ is the rule of our faith; He is that against which we measure ourselves and our deeds. “Rule” in Greek is kanon, which we describe in canonical discourse as the Canon, or the general tradition of the Church, and canons are the particular applications of the Canon; a particular way of gauging problems against the Rule developed, and each generation of the Church has received this methodology and accepted it, then applied it to its unique problems.

As such, the canonical tradition is not something which comes out of thin air but rather is something that is passed down to us and which we receive and accept as our own. Chalcedon Canon 1 states, “we have deemed it right that the canons hitherto issued by the saintly fathers at each and every synod should remain in force.” Canons ultimately reflect on the Canon, and as such “they remain unshakeable and immoveable…to these there is no addition, from these there is no subtraction” (II Nicea 1). Some of the canons come from the written texts of Scripture, and some of them come from the unwritten traditions of the Church, which are both from one source: the Word of God. St. Basil argues this in the 27th Chapter of his work, On the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate goal of having canons is salvation. The Canon is the Christian way of life, transformed through an encounter with Christ, and the canons are the results of reflecting on this and applying it to life. For example, Canon 2 of the Council of Trullo states that the Apostolic canons, “should henceforth remain firm and secure, for the healing of souls and curing of passions.” By having canons, we are not left to do whatever, but are given practical advice about what works and what does not. Christ is the eternal God-Man who is eternally the same. The experiences of mankind are also quite similar throughout the ages; this is partially an answer to your statement that “none of this applies to us today!” The Fathers of the Council of Carthage in Canon 1 approve the canons of Nicea and then argued that “keeping this forum, let these things which follow…be kept firm,” showing that they are in the same mind to speak the truth and pass down applications of the Canon.

In order to understand the process by which the Church decided as it did in regards to your husband, we need to look at the methodology of the canonical tradition. First, it is necessary to understand the “Canon particular” about the issue, in other words the teaching that exists behind the canons. If we are dealing with a marriage impediment, we need to first understand what Christian marriage is, for instance. Then the problem is examined, looking for what aspect in the situation falls short from the norm. Next, the canonical literature is consulted, which are the canons of various councils and Fathers which are given ecumenical authority in the Church (usually by other synods; c.f. Trullo Canon 2). Canons which seem unrelated may be extended to our situation as well. Finally, the Church determines whether the remedy found in the canon is an appropriate solution to the problem; sometimes the full prescription is not applied. The Church “must consider the peculiar nature of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for amendment, and thus apply a suitable remedy to the illness…” (Trullo 102). Basil Canon 3 also says that there are some matters which “do not admit of the strictest interpretation.”

The canons also exist for good order. Certain people are not ordained because of impediments which might cause scandal, or may cause the candidate spiritual harm if he were ordained. Even if your husband is a nice guy, something could return to haunt him and the Church might suffer; hence, the Church uses the canons to guide its selection of priestly candidates, as well, for good order and in order to have good models of the Christian life for others to follow. The canons are prophetic and speak against the ways of the world; I encourage you and your husband to prayerfully reflect on this and allow Christ to transform this problem into an opportunity.

In Christ,


From → Seminary

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