The Importance of the Sacred Canons of Ecclesiastical and Canon Law in the Life of the Church

4 February 2020

In Christian terminology, the word ‘canon’ is technical and has three meanings: a) it decides the authentic and genuine books of Holy Scripture (The Canon of Scripture); b) it determines the order in which Church hymns are sung (The Resurrection Canon, for example); and c) it defines the legislative content of the Ordinances of the Church. It should be understood at the outset that ‘canon’ is to be distinguished from the concept of the civil term ‘law’. Moreover, it is also to be distinguished from the word ‘term’, which essentially and to be precise refers to the dogmatic content of the decisions of the Holy Synods.

In Eastern Orthodox theology, dogmas are not abstract notions or expressions but actual, living truths which are recognized in the life of the Church and of Orthodox Christians. In reality, therefore, the evolution and application of dogmatic teaching constitutes the truth of faith, as this is lived in the Orthodox Church. Dogma is not an abstract teaching nor an axiomatic truth, but an experience of life which is realized and embodied in life and history.

One of the fundamental ways in which dogma is expressed and implemented in the life of the Church is the Sacred Canons. It is obvious that there is a direct and substantial relationship between dogmas and canons, one which may be characterized as flowing ab intra ad extra. The canons are not merely the external, visual and historical presentation of dogma, but are at the same time the potentially changeable expression of immutable dogmas. This means that, since dogma cannot be altered, the way it is expressed can be changed in the canons, so that dogma is sustained and constantly adjusted to the living reality of the Church. This does not alter dogma, however. In other words, the aim of the canon is to express, in the most complete way possible, the content and substance of the Church, so that the faithful can be provided with the chance to absorb in practice the meaning inherent in the dogma [referred to by the canon].

The expression of the way the essence of the Church is put into practical experience is always realized within the framework of particular historical conditions and specific historical circumstances, in the context of a precise historical moment. With this as the basis, it can be readily understood that the canons can be altered, so long as the Church, in the pursuit of its mission, bears in mind the historical necessities and circumstances in which the canons were written in the first place. Given that historical requirements and conditions alter, the Church, in its wisdom, can make relevant adjustments to the canons. It must be stressed, however, that any such alteration is to be made in the realm of the letter of the canon, not in its spirit.

The evolution and alteration of the external conditions affecting the sacred canons, in essence produces development and expansion of the life of the Church in any new conditions. In a complementary fashion, the presence of ecclesiastical ordinances, within the context of legislation, also acts upon the function of the canons, so that the Church’s life can run smoothly, from every point of view. The genesis of the canons is a contributing factor in this. The canons were not adopted at the same time as the Church made its appearance in history, but came about gradually, as part of its later development over the course of its history. This slowly has become apparent as the external factors which shaped the canons have been revealed to research. On the one hand, this has allowed us to see the necessity for the entrenchment of the truth of the faith and, on the other, the requirement for good organization and administration to ensure the prosperity of the Church.

In the Gospels, Christ Himself gives canonical definitions, determining the rough outlines of the structure and arrangement of the Church as a historical entity. Within the context of the New Testament in general, canons appear from as early as Apostolic times and are aimed at the organization of the Church. Thereafter, the various problems which arose in the newly-founded Church were dealt with by the bishops, who, via a synod or even a common understanding through correspondence, attempted to arrive at a just solution to the complications they faced. Later, local and ecumenical synods laid out the complete organization of the Church, adopting canons to meet the various challenges facing the body of the Church and the events which affected its life.

Research shows that the adoption of the sacred canons is in complete alignment with the needs of Christians, which needs the Church attempts to meet. In other words, taking these needs into account, the Church is both able and duty bound to adapt the canons to new requirements by either amending or even abolishing canons which are judged to be no longer applicable or of benefit to the faithful or the body of the Church. Equally, the Church has the right to formulate new canons within the framework of the contemporary needs of the faithful, and if it is judged to be necessary to do so.