The Canonical Tradition of the Church

The Holy Canons of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church are temporal manifestations of eternal truths, and are born out of the Church’s responses to the pastoral needs of the Church. They stress the nature of the Church as communion between God and Human beings in Christ, and are the subsequent expressions of the Church’s pastoral concerns for the salvation of its members.The establish the boundaries of behavior for the Church, her clergy, the the laity under them.

They draw their source of authority from the will of God. 1 While the canonical tradition of the Church can draw parallels and comparisons with that of civil law, it extends beyond the reach of civil law, focusing on the salvation of those within the universal Church. As the Church which Christ instituted is made of a society of mortal men and women,2 it makes sense to understand that we were obliged to institute ways in which to guide and guarantee the orthodoxy of the faith within this divine-human institution, to govern her organization, her relations to her members, to the state and other secular bodies, as well as other religious institutions.3 Being temporal expressions of eternal truths, the canonical tradition has adapted itself to the changing circumstances of each and every age. Yet, the Church is not defined by her Canons, but she is guided by them. They are an expression of the Church’s pastoral life.4

There are a few main sources of canon Law: local councils, ecumenical councils, and patristic writings containing canonical authority (Such as those canons created and received from the writings of Saint Basil). The Corpus of the canonical tradition can be found in two primary collections. The Rudder of Saints Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and Makarious of Corinth, called as such, for the canons are the rudder of the Church, establishing the the boundaries of the faith, and the guiding principles of the Church. The other is the Karmchaya Kniga; the Ecclesiastical Law of Nikodim Milash. Yet, no single work of canon law within the Church are received by all as comprehensive or authoritative; however, the authority of the late 12th century commentators has been accepted by all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches.5

These collections and commentary of the Orthodox canonical tradition however do not indicate a codification of Canon Law within the Church. In regards to the treatment of Canon law, this lack of codification in the Orthodox Church in the east is perhaps the primary difference to the treatment of Canon law in the west. All the Canons in the east are born of a pastoral response to the needs of the Church, where as the western Canonical tradition is more prescriptive in a fashion similar to civil law. This perhaps mirrors in some respects the scholastic and juridical mindset of the Catholic Church. Yet, this lack of codification lends it some freedom of application in the spirit of the current age through economia.

Is Canon Law infallible?

Are the canons infallible expressions of the truth for every age? I would say the answer to this question is conditional, dependent on how one looks at the canonical tradition in its current form. That being said, the answer is yes, and no.

If the Church is a divine human institution, and the canons are the guiding principles and regulations of that institution, then there are two ways by which one can view the canonical tradition: the human and the divine. The human aspect of the canonical tradition and the institution of the Church will lend itself to some degree of fallibility, though man being conduits of grace by the Holy Spirit, his fallen nature still grants a susceptibility to error. Yet, it is the Church that stands as the pillar and foundation of truth, and it has always been her plurality of human voices which has guided her to the fullness of truth, the understanding of our faith, and in essence is the guiding hand on the helm of her rudder (the canons). As previously stated, these canons are a temporal expression of eternal truths, and are given authority by the eternal will of God. His eternality and unchanging truth does lend some degree of infallible truth to the canons through all ages.

In viewing the canonical tradition from the human perspective, we have to accept and recognize that the canons were formed and written down from the perspective of a singular point or period of time. That point in time is the context from which the canon was applied and understood. It was the given response to the pastoral need of the Church in that particular moment. Yet as time moves on, the pastoral needs of the Church changes, the society in which the Church exists also changes, and therefore so does the possible application of the very same canon to the same or similar pastoral needs at different points in time throughout the life of the Church. The canons are “conditioned by time, and cannot give expressions to doctrine without causing distortion, simply because they were intended for another area.”6 Yet, this view clearly is not applicable to all canons, as some canons express matters of doctrine as concisely today as the day they were written. So some canons do continue to reflect the doctrines of the Orthodox Church in their practice and application, but other canons can only be understood in their historical context.7

There is a rigorist response to Canon law, a legalistic approach and application of the canonical tradition within the church such as one may find in the scholastic west. In this regard, there is an overemphasis of the canons’ divine nature to the extent that they are regarded as an expression of truth for all ages, bereft of the context in which they were written and understood.8 This approach sounds strikingly similar to the sola scriptura approach and application of scripture often found across the protestant milieu, interpreting and applying scripture apart from any historical contextual understanding.

So it is the fallibility of the human element in which we find the “no” to our answer, as well as the temporal implications of each and every canon. Yet, when we look at the eternal truths to which they express, and divine element of the Holy Tradition, then one can only help but say yes to our question. Such canons are infallible in so far as the truths that they express are unchanging, and never will change. They indicate the boundaries of the Church to the faithful therein, identify the application and understanding of theology and doctrine, and preserve the theanthropic communion of Christ within the Church.9 Perhaps though, it is only our understanding of those truths that may change, and it is within their historical context that they are understood, and that understanding will change in future histories.

Looking at the canonical tradition of the Church, the human and divine elements hold the Church at a sort of tension with itself. This tension is what guides the Church. A tension of keeping to the divine and changeless truths expressed therine, and accepting the changing nature of the humanity that comprises the Church. This is where economia finds its strength, in being allowed to approach and apply such changeless truths to the changing pastoral needs of the Church. For, it is within the Canons of our Holy Tradition we find all the pastoral experiences and theology of the Church. It is within the divine-human institution of the Church, the Body of Christ, where truly man meets God. Here we simultaneously experience the fallible and the infallible, the infinite and the finite, and tie them all together in the living realities of our Canonical Tradition. We are guided by perfect will of God by imperfect human hands.

[1]- Lewis J. Pastavos, Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons. (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), 2.

[2] - Ibid, 2.

[3] - Ibid, 5.

[4] - Patrick Viscuso, Orthodox Canon Law: 2nd Edition, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 3.

[5] - “Canonical Perspectives on the Position of the Laity,” in Aanton C. Vrame (ed.), One Calling in Christ: The Laity in the Orthodox Church, Berkeley, CA: InterOrthodox Press, 2005: 79

[6] - Lewis J. Pastavos, Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), 10.

[7] - Ibid. 10.

[8] - Patrick Viscuso, Orthodox Canon Law: 2nd Edition, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 4.

[9] - Lewis J. Pastavos, Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), 25.