The Canons of the Council of Nicea

The Council of Nicea met in A.D. 325 to address the doctrines of Arius, that were spreading with the help of Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia (not to be confused with Eusebius the historian).

Arius' doctrine that the Son of God was created in the beginning, rather than begotten of God's own substance, was rejected and condemned at Nicea. The council drew up a short creed summing up Christian belief and specifically condemning Arius' belief.

The council had other, lesser issues to address as well. Their decisions were given in a series of "canons," or rules, which are not so well-known as the creed.

These canons are found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. XIV.

The Twenty Canons of Nicea

Canons: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 

Canon 1

If any one in sickness has been subjected by physicians to a surgical operation, or if he has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain among the clergy; but, if any one in sound health has castrated himself, then it is good that such a one, if enrolled among the clergy, should cease, and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted† But, as it is evident that this is said of those who wilfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men the Canon admits to the clergy.

Comments:

This simply says that no one who is a eunuch—castrated— by his own design may remain a bishop or elder. Also, in the future, no one should be appointed elder who is castrated by their own will.

Why would someone do this? In the early church, remaining a virgin your whole life was greatly honored.

It was this focus—in my opinion borrowed from Greek ascetic philosophies, not from the apostles—that would eventually lead to all bishops and elders being required to take a vow of chastity.

Canon 2

Forasmuch as, either from necessity, or through the urgency of individuals, many things have been done contrary to the Ecclesiastical canon, so that men just converted from heathenism to the faith, and who have been instructed but a little while, are straightway brought to the spiritual laver, and as soon as they have been baptized, are advanced to the episcopate [office of bishop] or the presbyterate [office of elder], it has seemed right to us that for the time to come no such thing shall be done. For to the catechumen himself there is need of time and of a longer trial after baptism. For the apostolical saying is clear, "Not a novice; lest, being lifted up with pride, he fall into condemnation and the snare of the devil." But if, as time goes on, any sensual [lit., "soulish"] sin should be found out about the person, and he should be convicted by two or three witnesses, let him cease from the clerical office. And whoso shall transgress these [enactments] will imperil his own clerical position, as a person who presumes to disobey the great Synod.

Comments:

Basically, this requires that a person have an unspecified amount of experience before being promoted to elder or bishop.

Strangely, it adds that if he's found in "any sensual sin," then he needs to be dismissed from his office. Several suggestions have been made for what this means:

  • If a bishop or elder commits sexual sin, he should be removed. (Why would this need to be specified?)
  • If a bishop or elder that's been appointed too soon commits sexual sin, he should be removed. (Again, why specify this? All leaders who commit sexual sin would have been removed in the 4th century.)
  • If a bishop or elder that's been appointed too soon is found to have committed a grievous sin prior to becoming a leader, then he should be removed. (This doesn't really fit the text, which seems to suggest future sin, not past sin.)

None of these are very satisfying. As far as I know, it's still debated what this means.

Canon 3

The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.

Comments:

A "subintroducta" would be a person—in this case, female—brought into a leader's house for the purpose of discipleship.

Apparently, this practice, a common problem in the Middle Ages, was already happening in the early 4th century. This is very sad.

Canon 4

It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent [bishops] also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place.† But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.

Comments:

A Metropolitan is a bishop that is over a city and surrounding towns that have multiple congregations.

This canon says that a bishop should have the approval of all the bishops in a province. Cyprian had said this 75 years earlier (see Leadership Quotes), so this is not new.

Canon 5

Concerning those, whether of the clergy or of the laity, who have been excommunicated in the several provinces, let the provision of the canon be observed by the bishops which provides that persons cast out by some be not readmitted by others. Nevertheless, inquiry should be made whether they have been excommunicated through captiousness, or contentiousness, or any such like ungracious disposition in the bishop. And, that this matter may have due investigation, it is decreed that in every province synods shall be held twice a year, in order that when all the bishops of the province are assembled together, such questions may by them be thoroughly examined, that so those who have confessedly offended against their bishop, may be seen by all to be for just cause excommunicated, until it shall seem fit to a general meeting of the bishops to pronounce a milder sentence upon them. And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.

Comments:

What this covers is plain. Those excommunicated in one church should not be readmitted in another. If there's questions about the excommunication, the bishops should talk to one another. In order to facilitate that, there will be synods held twice a year in each province.

You may notice that there's an official "Lent" here. That's a very early practice. Irenaeus mentions differences in various churches over how long they fasted prior to Passover (it wasn't "Easter" until later) already in A.D. 185 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V:24).

Canon 6

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.

Comments:

This is an important canon!!!

To say the least.

This says that the bishop of Alexandria has far more authority than a Metropolitan (mentioned in canon 4). He has authority over all of Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis. Then it says that the bishop of Rome has a similar jurisdiction.

It doesn't express the extent of that jurisdiction, but it seems certain that the pope's claim to be the leader of the Church in the whole world is contradicted by canon 6 of Nicea.

This canon is considered to have created the first official "patriarchs." To this day the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome—the ones mentioned in this canon—are the heads of the various Orthodox churches. Others, like the bishop of Jerusalem and Moscow have been added in the centuries since.

Canon 7

Since custom and ancient tradition have prevailed that the Bishop of Ælia [i.e., Jerusalem] should be honoured, let him, saving its due dignity to the Metropolis, have the next place of honour.

Comments:

This canon adds patriarchal dignity (see comments on canon 6) to the bishop ot Jerusalem, even though he doesn't have the same wide range of authority as the metropolitans mentioned in canon 6.

Canon 8

Concerning those who call themselves Cathari, if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Wheresoever, then, whether in villages or in cities, all of the ordained are found to be of these only, let them remain in the clergy, and in the same rank in which they are found. But if they come over where there is a bishop or presbyter of the Catholic Church, it is manifest that the Bishop of the Church must have the bishop's dignity; and he who was named bishop by those who are called Cathari shall have the rank of presbyter, unless it shall seem fit to the Bishop to admit him to partake in the honour of the title. Or, if this should not be satisfactory, then shall the bishop provide for him a place as Chorepiscopus, or presbyter, in order that he may be evidently seen to be of the clergy, and that there may not be two bishops in the city.

Comments:

The Cathari, or "the pure," are the Novatianists, not to be confused the Cathari of the late middle ages.

The Novatianists were started by an elder named Novatian around A.D. 250 in Rome. Novatian objected to the forgiveness of those who lapsed during persecution. The churches did not agree with him, so he found three bishops willing to ordain him a bishop, and he formed his own schism.

The Novatianists and Montanists were the only pre-Nicene schisms in the church except the gnostics, who cannot be called Christians.

Novatianist doctrine was exactly the same as the catholic (universal) churches except for refusing forgiveness to those who lapsed during persecution. They also would not take communion with any who were divorced and remarried as Christians. (Many would disagree with me, but it seems quite obvious that divorce and remarriage prior to becoming a Christian was ignored by the Church. See quotes by Tertullian on this page.)

This canon allows Novatianist clergy to leave the Novatianists and keep their status as elder or bishop, though the catholic bishop would have priority where there was conflict.

A Chorepiscopus is a bishop of a small congregation that is also under the supervision of a Metropolitan (see canon 4 comments). The office was invented in the late 3rd century and ceased to be used in the 9th.

Canon 9

If any presbyters have been advanced without examination, or if upon examination they have made confession of crime, and men acting in violation of the canon have laid hands upon them, notwithstanding their confession, such the canon does not admit; for the Catholic Church requires that which is blameless.

Comments:

The examination mentioned here is not a written test, but a questioning done by other bishops.

Some of the more heinous sins (blasphemy, bigamy, heresy, idolatry, etc.) made a person uneligible for leadership in the Church. This canon says that churches have to check for these things, and that anyone who was not examined or who was wrongly ordained must be removed from office.

The argument used for such rules came from passages like Lev. 21:17-18, where God tells Moses and Aaron that no one with a blemish can approach the altar of God.

Canon 10

If any who have lapsed have been ordained through the ignorance, or even with the previous knowledge of the ordainers, this shall not prejudice the canon of the Church; for when they are discovered they shall be deposed.

Comments:

If a person denied Christ or offered sacrifice to the Roman gods during persecution, he is never to be a church leader. If he is already ordained for some reason, he shall be deposed.

Canon 11

Concerning those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, the Synod declares that, though they have deserved no clemency, they shall be dealt with mercifully. As many as were communicants, if they heartily repent, shall pass three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall communicate with the people in prayers, but without oblation.

Comments:

For those that are used to a purely Biblical—or even purely apostolic—Christianity, there are a lot of new words here. These all resulted from the Church having to learn how to deal with situations of church discipline.

Basically, if you denied Christ or offered sacrifice, and the persecutors didn't have to hurt you or take your property to get you to do so, there's a long path of discipline to go through before you are admitted to communion. The canon even mentions that you wouldn't deserve even that (which is true), but the Church is being merciful.

In 4th century congregations, people sat in sections. There were those admitted to communion; there were those learning the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism, called catechumens; there were hearers, who had made no decision to continue as Christians but were considering; and there were penitents, or prostrators as they are called here, who are forbidden from communion in penance for something they did.

This canon requires those who lapsed without having to be compelled to sit with the hearers for three years, the penitents for seven years, and then they could pray with the rest of the congregation but not take communion.

That may seem harsh, as it adds up to 12 years, but such people need to be grateful they're admitted to the church at all.

An oblation is a sacrifice, and the early church thought of communion as a sacrifice. They often called it the eucharist, which has a very Roman Catholic connotation nowadays, but really just means "thanksgiving," which is an awesome name.

Canon 12

As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, (so that some spent money and by means of gifts regained their military stations); let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators.† But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like.† For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretence, with  fear, and  tears, and perseverance, and good works, when  they have  fulfilled  their appointed  time as hearers, may properly communicate  in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favourably concerning them.† But those who take [the matter] with indifference, and who think the form of [not] entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.

Comments:

It is amazing how many people ignore this canon. You'd think every Christian would know about this.

This canon forbids military service. The early church was against all killing, arguing that murder does not become good when it's done on a wholesale basis, as in war. This canon, in A.D. 325 with the emperor presiding, backs up that historical position of the Church.

It's important to remember that the emperor Constantine was at this council. Constantine knew that Christians were not allowed to serve in his military.

He also knew that emperors could not be Christians, and so, despite his support for all things Christian, he was not baptized until he retired as emperor on his deathbed.

Note, too, that while denying Christ during persecution led to seven years of penitence (Canon 11), joining the military could make you sit with the penitent for ten years.

Personally, I think that's bizarre, but I have to point it out.

Canon 13

CONCERNING the departing, the ancient canonical law is still to be maintained, to wit, that, if any man be at the point of death, he must not be deprived of the last and most indispensable Viaticum. But, if any one should be restored to health again who has received the communion when his life was despaired of, let him remain among those who communicate in prayers only. But in general, and in the case of any dying person whatsoever asking to receive the Eucharist, let the Bishop, after examination made, give it him.

Comments:

The Viaticum is a last rite. The editors of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers say that it applies to "everything that could be conducive to the happy death of the person concerned."

This canon makes provision for a person receiving the Eucharist even if he is going through the penance mentioned in the previous canons. However, if he (or she) then recovers from his illness, he is to be once again banned from communion.

Canon 14

Concerning catechumens who have lapsed, the holy and great Synod has decreed that, after they have passed three years only as hearers, they shall pray with the catechumens.

Comments:

If you're a catechumen [someone learning the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism] and you deny Christ or sacrifice during a persecution, you have to go listen with the hearers for three years before you are readmitted as a catechumen.

Canon 15

On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the Canon, must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, elder, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if anyone, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or elder.

Comments:

This canon stopped bishops, elders, and deacons from moving from city to city. Such a situation had happened with Origen. He had taught while traveling in Caesarea, and the bishop of his home church, Alexandria, had objected, saying only elders can teach.

So the next time through, Caesarea ordained him as an elder. When the bishop objected to that, too (rightly, I'd assume, because this was a divisive thing to do), Origen simply remained in Caesarea as an elder there.

Canon 16

Neither elders, nor deacons, nor any others enrolled among the clergy, who, not having the fear of God before their eyes, nor regarding the ecclesiastical Canon, shall recklessly leave from their own church, ought [not] by any means to be received by another church; but every constraint should be applied to restore them to their own parishes; and, if they will not go, they must be excommunicated. And if anyone shall dare surreptitiously to carry off and in his own church ordain a man belonging to another, without the consent of his own proper bishop, from whom although he was enrolled in the clergy list he has seceded, let the ordination be void.

Comments:

Obviously, this applies to Origen's situation, mentioned in the comments on the last canon. This is simply punishment decreed for those who violate canon 15.

Canon 17

Forasmuch as many enrolled among the Clergy, following covetousness and lust of gain, have forgotten the divine Scripture, which says, "He hath not given his money upon usury," and in lending money ask the hundredth of the sum [note by NPNF editors: "as monthly interest"; I don't know how they know this], the holy and great Synod thinks it just that if after this decree any one be found to receive usury, whether he accomplish it by secret transaction or otherwise, as by demanding the whole and one half, or by using any other contrivance whatever for filthy lucre's sake, he shall be deposed from the clergy and his name stricken from the list.

Comments:

The early church believed that lending money at interest (usury) was a sin. Getting caught doing it, according to this canon, would get you removed from church leadership.

It's important to understand the context of this. American Christians often want to apply Christian commands to the government or to banks, which are secular institutions. The early churches knew that Christians are supposed to be family. They are supposed to share their resources (see 2 Cor. 8:13-15, for example).

But what Christians are commanded is not what secular institutions are commanded. The Scriptures guide Christians into obedience to God, not into social activism. Notice that the punishment for charging interest is removal from church leadership, not being taken to court. This is a church matter, not a civil one.

Canon 18

It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the eucharist to the elders, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer.† And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the eucharist even before the bishops.† Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the elders.† Let them receive the eucharist according to their order, after the elders, and let either the bishop or the elder administer to them.† Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the elders, for that is contrary to canon and order.† And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.

Comments:

Somehow, I have a hard time believing that the council called by the apostles in Acts 15 would have called itself "the holy and great Synod." That's quite a pompous beginning to a canon, fit for kings but not for church leaders.

It's important not to confuse this council with apostolic authority. The apostles committed the faith to the churches "once for all" (Jude 3).

There is a lot of ungodly comments here about the importance of certain offices. Let me assure you, God is not impressed with such things, and he does not think they are okay. Everything in this canon is sin and offensive to Christ. Jesus rebuked those who loved titles and the best seats (Matt. 23:6-11).

Okay, having said that, let me also say that this canon would have been gibberish in 1st and 2nd century churches. They would have asked, "What are you talking about? Administer the eucharist??? What does that mean?"

In the earlier churches, the eucharist was a meal. Bread was served, not administered, and people didn't take note of who "touched" it first.

The word deacon is the Greek word for servant. It's bizarre that Bible translators translate <em>diakonos</em> as deacon in 1 Timothy and Titus, when it's translated as servant all 30 other times it's used in the New Testament.

The deacons were the servants of the churches. Thus, they were the ones who served the bread and wine of communion (Justin Martyr, First Apology 67) to those who were at the meal. It would have been normal for them to serve the bishops, elders, and everyone else.

Only late in the 3rd century does the eucharist turn into a ceremony where it's some sort of privelege to hand a small piece of bread or a wafer into the hand or mouth of the recipient. This canon is one of the signs of the terrible state the church had fallen into.

I make no apologies for my complete lack of impartiality in my comments on this section. This sort of behavior infuriated Jesus in the Pharisees and led to his loudest and longest outcry against them (Matt. 23).

Nothing about this canon is good (cf. Matthew 23:6-12; Mark 10:42-45)

Canon 19

Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the bishop [whichever is most local] of the catholic church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.

Comments:

"Paulianists" is a reference to Paul of Samosata, who believed that Jesus did not pre-exist. He believed that the Logos came upon Jesus at his birth, and it was only through righteousness that Jesus achieved oneness with God. He was accused of heresy in A.D. 269 and removed from the office of bishop.

He found protection from a queen in Syria, however, and so he was able to continue teaching for a few years. His followers, obviously, still existed 60 years later.

This canon says they have to be rebaptized to be admitted to the catholic churches. Paulianist baptism was not to be accepted. If they were clergy in the Paulianist church, then they could be ordained after baptism into the catholic churches.

Deaconnesses are mentioned here, and the editors of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers mention that "the duties of the deaconess are set forth in many ancient writings."

These duties almost exclusively had to do with women, and they were especially needed at baptism for the sake of modesty. Sometimes, though, they would instruct the female catechumens as well. They were never allowed to teach men.

It is likely that they were required to take a vow of chastity.

Canon 20

Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lordís Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.

Comments:

In De Corona (ch. 3) Tertullian, around A.D. 200, says that the practice of praying while standing on Sunday and between Passover and Pentecost was a long-standing tradition. So this tradition predates Nicea by around two centuries, at least.

The reason for this is that the first day of the week and Passover were days to celebrate the resurrection. Since they were days of celebration, kneeling and fasting were forbidden. Tertullian seems to think those traditions were observed everywhere.

Obviously, they weren't, but the council is asking that those practices become universal.

There are many who believe, falsely, that the Council of Nicea instituted the observance of Sunday as the Lord's day. They did not. It's mentioned in Ignatius' Letter to the Magnesians mentions observing the Lord's day rather than the Sabbath in A.D. 110 and The Letter of Barnabas mentions the first day of the week in opposition to the Jewish Sabbath around A.D. 130 (possibly earlier).

The observance of the Lord's day and the avoidance of fasting and kneeling on the first day of the week is a very ancient tradition.

Conclusion

The Council of Nicea issued these twenty canons and a creed. There were also letters issued by Eusebius of Caesarea, by the council itself, and by Constantine. However, these introduce no new issues.

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