The Holy Canons

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The Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church are the plumb line by which the bishops have historically responded to pastoral and theological difficulties in the Church. Beginning very early in Church history, Church leaders responded to pastoral challenges by drawing up guidelines for Church life. These canons were written during important councils of assembled bishops.

Many canons cover conduct of clergy or specify areas of authority for certain episcopal sees, placing constraints on Church leadership to mitigate potential for abuse or scandal. Many canons also apply to non-clerics in the Church. Canons speak on matters as varied as sexuality and marriage, sacraments, excommunication, reception of converts, how clergy are to behave in public, and even matters of personal violence.

It is helpful to think of the Canons as the “house rules.” They are the standard for daily activity, but they are not necessarily strictly applied in every instance. That should not lead us to be dismissive of them, though. Just as good parents consider how to apply their own house rules with their children, so it is the bishop’s (and by proxy, a priest’s) job to determine when and how to apply applicable canons to particular pastoral situations.

Canons are not all created equal—some local canons never reached beyond a particular region, and were eventually phased out, while other canons went on to enjoy universal acceptance in the Church. Other canons were more specifically focused on the situations and cultural concerns of their time, finding application to a lesser extent in the Church today. It is not that these canons are ignored or abrogated, it is more that the very specific contexts in which they were introduced are absent, and should some similar context emerge again in the future, those canons would be relevant again. Until then, many simply don’t apply.

The manner of applying the Canons is typically categorized as akravia or oikonomia in popular Orthodox teaching. Akravia refers to a strict, to-the-T application of a rule. Oikonomia literally refers to the management of a household (Greek: oikos = household; nomos = law; or “economy” in English). It is used commonly to describe adjusting canonical requirements for pastoral considerations, with an individual’s salvation in mind.

St. Nicodemos the Hagorite (1749-1809) explains:

One kind of judgment is called strictness (akrivia); the other kind is called economy (oikonomia) with which the economists—the Greek meaning herein is “management of the household of the Spirit” to promote the salvation of souls—at times [go] with the one, and at times with the other.

The definitions and applications of oikonomia and akravia have varied through the centuries. The current usage is consistent with the harmonizing synthesis described by St. Nikodemos, and may refer to a departure from the norm for pastoral reasons for the salvation of those involved—this departure may more lenient or even more strict. St. Nikodemos is only one voice among many, but he is at least the most prominent voice when it comes to  canonical commentaries in English.

Access to the Canons by the laity in the age of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. Some modern Orthodox people have been openly critical of the Canons, and have used certain canons to mock Orthodoxy; others, who are more rigorist have used strict application of the Canons to criticize clergy of the Church (ironically, forbidden by the very Holy Canons they are seeking to preserve and defend) for not strictly applying certain canons. As we move toward greater administrative unity in Europe and America (and more in line with canonical norms), it is important that our bishops and clergy familiarize themselves with the Holy Canons, and that laity support them in this endeavor as we all grow into the future of the ancient Orthodox Faith.

There is always a danger of misapplying the Canons in a zeal to embrace the Canons. It may be something of a cliché to call this Pharisaical, but isn’t this what the spirit of the Pharisees was? They took legitimately enacted regulations of religious life and turned them into ends in themselves.

Certainly, the Canons should not be ignored willy-nilly, but the canonical corpus itself demonstrates that canons may be altered over time for various (good) reasons that don’t have anything to do with compromise. After all, the Church was not made for the Canons, but the Canons were made for the Church.

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Theology in Orthodoxy

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It is not uncommon for the teaching ministry of the Orthodox Church to be described variously as dogma, doctrine, or theology. These words are occasionally used interchangeably, but there are specific differences between the words.

Theology is the broadest category, which refers to “the study of God” in general, based on divine revelation. Doctrine literally means “teaching,” but refers specifically to propositional teachings. Dogma originally meant “opinion,” but now is used to denote beliefs based firmly in divine revelation and taught as necessary to be believed by all Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox Church finds divine revelation in several sources, and sorts carefully through these sources of revelation to instruct the people of God.

Imagine the Church’s Tradition as a symphony orchestra with Jesus Christ as the Conductor. When we hear all the sections of the orchestra playing in proper tune and with the appropriate dynamics we will rightly appreciate the melody of faith and the harmony of hope. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes theological inquiry and how we may sort through sources of Tradition to find the appropriate balance.

The Holy Scriptures are an unconditional and indisputable authority. All Orthodox Christians accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unified messengers of Christ. The Old Testament is “a herald of the New Testament,” and the New Testament saturates the Tradition of the Church. The Scriptures are essential to the motif of Tradition.

Our liturgical tradition is an indispensible part of the orchestral motif of the Church’s Tradition. Liturgical texts have been refined over many centuries, led by the Holy Spirit, and are an indisputable source of teaching in our Church. We must distinguish between newer texts that have not been tested by time, and those texts which have led the Church for hundreds or thousands of years. These liturgies are a close second to Scripture.

The Ecumenical Creeds and Councils of the Church rank high with the canonical liturgical texts and Scriptures. The Councils deal with incredibly difficult matters, both of a pastoral nature and a doctrinal nature, articulated in creeds and carefully worded dogmatic definitions. The dogmatic statements of the Ecumenical Councils are paramount, and the canonical guidelines—while varied in their local application—share a similar authority. The Church retains the right to return to the decision of the Councils and modify them.

Doctrinal questions find further clarification in the testimony of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are an integral part of the symphonic harmony of the Orthodox Church. We are the heirs of the Fathers and should follow their consensus in all things. It is important to distinguish between personal opinions of the Fathers and those texts “which express general Church teaching.” Opinions that are not dogma, and are not condemned ecumenically, may be considered as personal opinions, but not pressed upon others as necessary to be believed.

Other ancient “teachers” of the Church are important, in a qualified way. It is important to consider the writings of other ancient teachers of the Church, but to make a distinction between these teachers and those the Church has designated as “Fathers.” For example, Tertullian and Origen have serious problems in some of their work, but remain important influences to consider.

We should also consider apocryphal literature of late antiquity, especially those pieces that have influenced the Church in some sense. Apocryphal books here, of course, not referring to those books of Scripture some have labeled as “apocrypha,” but rather to books like The Protoevangelion of James or The Gospel of Thomas. Some of these early writings ought to be rejected outright (such as Thomas), but those that are “reflected in the liturgical life or in hagiographic literature” of the Church have some standing for the Orthodox Christian. Where this literature contradicts the above received wisdom, we do not follow them.

Finally, other teachers should be considered, both ancient and modern. The teaching of the Church is revealed by God and unchanging, but that doesn’t mean its articulation is static. Fresh explanations abound in different periods of history, and since the “age of the Fathers” for Orthodoxy is not limited in scope, we remain attentive to the lead of the Holy Spirit and the fresh articulation of old truths.

Conclusion: Theology for the Orthodox Church is found in that beautiful symphony that is our Tradition, and only when all the sections play their appropriate parts at the right volume does the output sound appropriate. An over-emphasis on any one part of the symphony can only create discordant sounds, contrary to the appropriate execution of the piece by the great and holy Conductor, Jesus Christ.

Note: All quotes taken from Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2009), 205-208. Slight modifications made to capitalization for stylistic consistency. This is a modified form of a post that previously appeared at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.