Friday, November 16, 2012

Canonical Terms: What are we talking about?

In examining to what extent the Assyrian Church of the East shares common ground with the Orthodox Church, I’ve been using the collection of canonical writings of the Church of the East known as the Synodicon Orientale. I am going to deal with canonical material from the Synodicon Orientale in a more minute way, so I’ll begin with a few definitions of the basic canonical terms I’ll use.

Canonical: Christianity has been attempting organization since the apostles first disputed over who can sit with who at table in fellowship. When Christians first got permission from imperial authorities (the Persian Empire for the Assyrians; the Roman for the Orthodox-Catholic Church), they got to unite in both local and ecumenical or world-wide synods—the Ecumenical Synods all happened under the Roman Christian authority of Constantinople. Ecumenical synods were an outgrowth of the basic and universal Christian structure of bishops who preside over cities and the bishop of the metropolis, around which the other cities share an imperial/secular economy and government, uniting with his fellow bishops from time to time to order Christian life in common. The meetings were called synods, meaning “walking together”. The local synods of the first couple centuries gave rise to imperially supported Ecumenical Synods after the conversion of St Constantine the Roman Emperor.

When something required a group of bishops to deliberate, they gathered and came up with a statement or even a set of commonly accepted rules (canons). This statement, with the canons that might accompany, becomes the expression of the will of the Holy Spirit for the body of the church that proclaimed it. Now, if we’re considering a decree and/or canons of a local council of the Church of the East (Synod of Mar Aqaq, for instance), then we know that decree is particular to the Church of the East.

Similarly, when we consider a decree of an Ecumenical Council, we know that this affects the entire ecumenical (worldwide) Church. It also means that if someone does not accept it as ecumenical while another church does, they now have a fundamental division; schism or heresy. Now a canon of the synod of the patriarchate of Antioch very much will affect the entire Church of Antioch, but if Russia disagrees, it doesn’t matter since it is an Antiochian canon. If everyone adopts the decisions of a particular synod, then it becomes, by use, ecumenical. Most decrees and rulings are the local administration of a local church—Antioch, Alexandria, Russia, Georgia, or the Church of the East. Some synods are ecumenical because they are accepted by the entire church: Nicea, Constantinole, etc.

Canonical denotes material recognized as the binding and expressed will of the Holy Spirit. Canonical material is binding in a way other documents are not. You can disagree with a point of St John of Damascus (Angels cannot repent because they do not have bodies) and still be an obedient Orthodox Christian of the Patriarchate of Antioch, but you cannot be violating the canonical decrees of that Patriarchate of Antioch (celebrate Christmas on 25 December) to which you belong. The Scriptures are the fundamental canonical material of Christianity as is the Nicean Creed. There are other less well known ecumenical documents such as the Apostolic Canons or the Canons of Laodocia that are also ecumenical. Of course, Christians the world over will have a bible and recite the creed. They won’t however, usually, be dealing with Episcopal discipline or other canonical issues, so some parts of the canonical tradition are more well-known than others.

Synodicon: A synodicon usually means a decree or summary and authoritative statement of a Synod, such as the Synodicon of Orthodoxy . Or it can also mean a book that contains the material of the synods that are considered binding on a particular jurisdiction. An ecumenical synodicon would be everything universally binding while a Russian, Greek, Church of the East or Roman synodicon would be stuff that is binding on the local church. Of course, the ecumenical canonical material has priority over the local canons that usually are trying to fine-tune the purpose of the ecumenical canons. For example of an old ecumenical synodicon and what the word represents read up on the Vetus Synodicon.

The Synodicon of the Church of the East is a term I use to refer to a massive collection of everything considered canonical in the Church of the East at the time of the particular manuscript’s writing. However, in the 13th century the main texts of the synodicon were compiled and edited in one volume; as far as I know, they haven’t been since. We’re working with a document that is from the 13th century, so bear that in mind. This document is the expression of the will of the Holy Spirit to the Church of the East and speaks for the Church’s self-understanding in as serious a fashion that her liturgy does.

Now a word about editing. How important would the second article of the US Constitution be without the Constitution itself, just as a stand-alone document? It would be a nice opinion but defiantly not binding. Canon Law is as much a history of how the Church structured herself as it is a history of what made-up that structure. Imagine the books of the bible mixed in with every other ancient writing that vaguely spoke of Christ rather than the particular sequence and priority structure we have due to the Church’s careful work in the first centuries.

Now canons have been collected together ever since Nicea created the sense of a united Christendom. At first, there was a Corpus Canonum, or Body of Canons from Antioch which just had all the canons and decrees of the councils then accepted as authoritative; it probably had its origins in Antioch. This Corpus or body of canons was continually growing from around 350 until around 520; it thereafter morphed in to Syntagma and Nomocanon, which are beyond the scope of this entry. During this time, an early edition was taken to the Church of the East by St Marutha of Maperqath. From the time of Mar Marutha, the Church of the East receives various editions of the documents of the ecumenical councils of the “western fathers”, which is how she saw her Antiochian, Constantinopolitan, etc brethren.

Now, Mar Marutha simply began the process of the Church of the East accepting those canonical documents which the rest of Christianity accepted. Since his time, there were several updated editions of the ecumenical synods that were received, as you can see in my prior post. For instance, Mar Yahbalaha in 420 geso so far as to furnish an actual request of the patriarch and synod the Church of the East for the Persian emperor to furnish them with texts of the canonical material of their western brethren.

Eventually, the documents of the Ecumenical Synods, or Corpus Canonum, is enlarged for the particular use of the Church of the East by the addition of the documents of the Patriarchal Synods and also a body of authoritative letters and responses. This great body of canonical material is collected in the eight and again in the thirteenth centuries to produce the basic collection of everything considered explicitly canonical in the Church of the East. This collection of canonical material is what we are dealing with in our investigation and it is that document that will be called Synodicon Orientale or the Synodicon of the Church of the East.

Next I will deal with the particular way Chalcedon was accepted into the canonical material of the Church of the East. Given that everyone might not be as familiar with the basic concepts of canon law, I penned this entry to provide some definitions. I hope to post my final entry on Chalcedon in the next few days as it is mostly written.  


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