[St. Pachomius Library]

APOSTOLIC CANONS AND CONSTITUTIONS



A collection of ancient laws and liturgical rubrics supposedly written by the Apostles themselves and recorded by Clement of Rome in the I Century, the Apostolic Constitutions are of very early date but unquestionably (even according to Church tradition) re-edited by many later hands. The term "Apostolic Constitutions" refers to the entire long document, "Apostolic Canons" to the final chapter only. The distinction is important, because the Council in Trullo concluded that only the Canons had come down in an uncorrupted text, and therefore incorporated only this last chapter of the Constitutions into canon law. The earlier chapters are often said to show the influence of an Arian editor.

The Canons provide a minimal blueprint for the operation of the Church as an institution; one reason for accepting them as at least partly authentic is that something like them must have existed from very early times. The Canons attempt to deal with the impact on the community of conflicts and temptations due to money, power, and sex; they also discuss the extent of permissible relations between Orthodox and heretical Christians, the proper method of performing the liturgy, and the canon of Scripture. They address the issues of religious fanaticism and laxity, enjoining asceticism but in moderation. All of these are matters of community life which any new religious movement has to face in its first or second generation; even if the Apostles did not write these particular rules, they surely wrote something similar, and the specific solutions proposed are so much in line with what is known of primitive Christianity that there seems little reason to doubt that the document as it has come down to us grew around an apostolic core. On the other hand, some provisions, e.g. that concerning the date of Easter relative to the Jewish Passover, seem to deal with issues which were explosively controversial at a much later date; even if the Apostles had prophetic power to forsee these conflicts long in advance, it is surprising that their canons were not then immediately invoked to settle the matters as they arose. Hence many people regard these as later additions.

All of these comments apply still more forcefully to the longer document, the Constitutions. Although the text is not authoritative, there is unquestionably an apostolic substratum. Parts of the Constitutions closely follow the Didascalia and Didache; other portions include ancient prayers and liturgical documents, including the entire Liturgy of St. Clement and the Great Doxolgy from Matins. There are detailed accounts of the catechumenate, of the Order of Widows, and of various ranks of the church hierarchy (including deaconesses), all in generally close agreement with the Apostolic Traditions recorded by Hippolytus. Rules are given for Christian conduct in various situations, for fasting, and for the liturgical cycle. There is an account of the history of heresy, including the famous story of Simon Magus flying over Rome and being shot down by the prayers of Peter.

It is interesting that the Church Fathers and the Council in Trullo, as much as modern critics, viewed these "Apostolic" documents with reservations, never (for example) adding them to the New Testament. The very last Apostolic Canon in fact enumerates the books of the New Testament -- a different list than the one now in use, and one including the Apostolic Constitutions themselves. The Council in Trullo, while accepting the authenticity of the list itself, rejected the authority of this canon with the remark that the Constitutions were no longer available except in versions altered by heretics, and thus could not be used by the Church as they once were. Unfortunately, the Council did not specify which portions of the Constitutions it deemed objectionable.

Norman H. Redington



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