The word “canon” derives from the Greek kan -on , a straight stick, measuring rod or ruler (cf. Latin regula ); hence, a standard or norm. At the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others spoke of the “rule of faith” or “canon of truth”, meaning the heart of the gospel as expressed in summary forms similar to the creeds.* From the 4th century onwards, conciliar decisions on doctrine and discipline were designated canons (see ecumenical councils ). “Canon law” is the way most churches regulate their life (see canon law, church discipline ); monastic rules may also be called canons. In the liturgy of the Roman (Catholic) church, the “canon” of the mass is a normative eucharistic prayer.

Ecumenically, “canon” is most widely used in connection with the scriptures of the church. Verbally, such usage goes back only to the 4th century, but the fact and idea of a “collection of authoritative writings” (intrinsic authority) or even an “authoritative collection of (such) writings” (extrinsically recognized authority) has been present to Christianity since its beginnings. To the scriptures of Israel – which it claimed for its own – the earliest church added writings that told the story of Jesus the Christ and recorded the preaching, teaching and life of the primitive Christian community. The question of which writings were to be properly so treated arose acutely in the mid-2nd century. The catholic “canon” established itself over against, on the one hand, the reductionism of  Marcion (whose own canon comprised only a doctored Luke and a mutilated corpus paulinum ) and, on the other hand, the pullulation of apocryphal gospels, acts and apocalypses that were largely Gnostic in character and, perhaps, the more recent oracles considered by the Montanists as further revelation. Positively put, the catholic canon consisted of those writings which had been accepted for reading in the worship of the church and, in the case of the “New Testament”, were held to be derived from an apostle or his surrogate (e.g. Mark writing for Peter, or Luke writing on the authority of Paul).

There was no conflict between such writings and authentic tradition. Indeed the scriptures* were intrinsic to the tradition – a vehicle for transmitting the Christian message and faith. Preaching, catechesis, sacramental rites, episcopal teaching and the confessions of martyrs and everyday saints were also instruments of the Tradition. But a special role and value attached to the scriptures – reflected in the care taken to protect them in times of persecution – as the permanent legacy of the original witnesses and of inspired writers who had been normatively guided by the same self-consistent Spirit as indwelt the believing community. According to an ecumenically influential formula of Oscar Cullmann: in establishing the principle of a canon, “the church, by an act of humility, submitted every later tradition that she would elaborate to the higher criterion of the apostolic tradition fixed in the holy scriptures” ( La tradition , 1953). Thus the canonical scriptures of Old and New Testament constitute, for the continuing life of the church, the decisive written testimony to God’s history with Israel, the incarnation of the Son, and the mission of the Spirit. In times of doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversy, however, there has been conflict over their interpretation and over their operative relation to the other vehicles of tradition.

At the fourth world conference on Faith and Order (Montreal 1963), a remarkable convergence was registered between Protestants and Orthodox on Tradition (the “great T radition”, which is to be distinguished from the particular ecclesiastical “ t radition s ”, even if these are its channels) as the “ paradosis of the kerygma ”, the handing on of the message, “the Tradition of the gospel” – with the scriptures as a privileged and normative element within the Tradition. As “the Tradition in its written form”, the scriptures have “a special basic value” and serve as “an indispensable criterion” for distinguishing “faithful transmission” (Montreal 1963, paras 38-76). At the same time Vatican II, in line with the historical work of J.R. Geiselmann on the limits of the formula of the council of Trent* concerning “scriptures and (et) unwritten traditions”, rejected a draft text on “the two sources of revelation” and adopted instead the constitution Dei Verbum , which was much closer to Yves Congar’s systematic notion that the scriptures and the oral-practical tradition of the church are diverse and interactive modes of transmitting one and the same gospel.

Thus there has been growing ecumenical agreement on the sufficiency of the scriptures, even if varying emphases continue to reflect historical controversies. The Protestant principle of sola scriptura was first erected against some practical and doctrinal tradition s which were tolerated or even endorsed by the pastoral authorities of the medieval West but in the reformers’ eyes contradicted the original gospel and faith. Understood absolutely, “scripture alone” implies that the Bible is self-interpreting, at least under the Holy Spirit’s direct guidance; but in fact the “living voice of the gospel” (viva vox evangelii) is always mediated by preachers who actively expound – and therefore interpret – what they take to be the scriptural message within a variable cultural context. While continuing to insist on the primacy of the scriptures, ecumenically minded Protestants recognize that the church has willy-nilly a “teaching office” – and the issue is as to where such a magisterium is lodged (bishops, synods, professors, pope…). The Roman Catholic tradition has always recognized more openly the need for a teaching office and has been more willing to admit the fact of later “explication” or “development” of what was latently or germinally present in the apostolic faith recorded in the scriptures (not only as regards, say, the full formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity but also, controversially, the Marian dogmas and the “Petrine office” itself). On its side, however, Vatican II has insisted that the magisterium remains subservient to the apostolic witness ( Dei Verbum 7-10).

While not all problems regarding the sufficiency of the scriptures in relation to Tradition have found an ecumenical solution, the more explosive question now may concern the integrity of the canonical scriptures. Although Christian churches differ somewhat over the extent of the OT (see Old Testament and Christian unity ), they are officially just about unanimous over the composition of the NT, i.e. those 27 books whose precise listing is first found in Athanasius’s festal letter for 367 (see New Testament and Christian unity ). Nevertheless, three recurrent issues may prove disruptive.

One is the relation between the OT and the NT. If we adopt, say, the historical categories of “promise and fulfillment” or the theological categories of “law and gospel”, the question in each case remains that of the kind and extent of continuities and discontinuities between the Testaments. Answers affect not only the relations between Christianity and Judaism but also wider matters in the understanding of the history and nature of salvation.* These issues have been present since the beginning of Christianity and, after the rupture of church and synagogue, do not appear to have been directly church-divisive before the Reformation (and even in the 16th century the soteriological arguments were not primarily framed directly in terms of the relations between the Testaments). While these matters probably belong, among Christians today, to the realm of theological controversy rather than doctrinal conflict or institutional separation between the churches, the issue of the history and nature of salvation retains an explosive potential when what is at stake is the nature and practice of the Christian mission* vis-a-vis (in different ways) Jews, people of other faiths or the irreligious.

Second, given the dimensions and the diversity of the Bible, it is not surprising that Christians have looked for a substantive “centre” of the scriptures. If with Luther one takes “that which advances Christ” (was Christum treibt) as an interpretative principle, few Christians will disagree. But (to stay with the example) when Lutherans further define “justification through faith alone” as the “canon within the canon”, other Christians will put forward other candidates (e.g. the motifs of “covenant” or “liberation” or “kingdom of God”). In striking harmony with the ancient “rule of faith” or “canon of truth”, the Faith and Order project “Towards the Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today” took the Nicene Creed* as its “theological basis and methodological tool” in seeking to present to our time and world a faith that is roundly and thoroughly biblical. The question remains whether different “interests” (justificationists, liberationists, pietists, liturgists, etc.) can be contained within this more complex hermeneutical grid, which is needed to catch the full range of the scriptural material and neglect or dismiss none.

A third issue affecting the integrity of the canon concerns the use of “historical criticism” in exegesis (see exegesis, methods of ). Modern biblical scholarship has sought to “get behind” the inherited text to earlier stages in the transmission of the material and even to “what really happened”. The historical-critical approach is legitimated by an incarnational faith that takes human history* seriously. It does not of itself – despite its more sceptical practitioners – exclude the occurrence and perception of divine presence and action within that history. In fact it can help to make clear that the interpretation of events is part of history itself, so that words and deeds are “revelation”* only when they are received as such; and thus the way is open for the Christian community to accept certain writings – precisely on account of their interpretation of events – as “correct records” of God’s operation in and through Christ. Historical research has proved valuable ecumenically, in that it has shown the scriptures to be a privileged part of such an earlier and continuing Tradition which perceives, receives and transmits the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Montreal 1963). Yet while historical exegesis may help to illuminate the earliest stages in that process, the faith cannot be made to depend upon particular scholarly reconstructions and speculations (hypotheses that enjoy varying degrees of probability) concerning what preceded and surrounded the scriptural writings. Otherwise there would be as many churches as there are scholars.

Spiritual and ecclesial dissatisfaction with the uncertainty and fluctuation in the “results” of modern NT scholarship has more recently prompted some within the academic profession of exegesis to adopt a more “canonical” hermeneutics. While historical investigations are not abandoned, greater attention is now focused in a more literary way upon the final text of scripture as the church has received it (with the question of manuscript and textual variants rightly seen as a relatively minor one for most substantial purposes). Abiding by the decisions of the church(es) concerning the extent of the canon, exegetes seek to understand and interpret a particular passage or book in light of its place and function within the Bible as a whole. The flat, univocal reading of the scriptures that characterizes fundamentalism can be avoided by a recognition of differences in literary genre (not everything is intended as “historical reporting”, and history itself, as we saw, is a complex notion) and by allowing some passages to complement and even correct others (though the “canonical” school is less likely to scent “contradictions” within the scriptures than some historical critics or the most ardent advocates of a single “canon within the canon”). The way is still open, for example, for the careful detection of “trajectories” within the biblical material such as a mixed group of Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars in the United States found ecclesiastically promising in their work published as Peter in the New Testament (1973) and Mary in the New Testament (1978). Since the “canonical” method is in greater harmony with the way in which the scriptures have actually been read in the liturgical, homiletical and devotional life of the church, its practice also opens up the possibility of dialogue with past interpretations of the scriptures and thus a more integral relation between scripture and the continuing, enveloping Tradition. Herein resides perhaps its greatest ecumenical potential.

In the contemporary secular West, the whole notion of a literary, artistic, cultural canon – which was in any case a much looser notion than that of a scriptural canon within the church – has recently come under strain, even to the point of dissolution in the eyes of some. Excisions of the offending, the hegemony of a single and narrow hermeneutical principle, the addition of matter believed to have been neglected – all has been attempted without a communal consensus. Perhaps the nearest proposal for dealing with the scriptural canon in a similar way occurs in, say, the work of Rosemary Ruether: after rejecting any interpretation of the messiahship of Jesus that might offend a Jew ( Faith and Fratricide , 1974, where 1 Cor. 1:23 goes unmentioned), Ruether proposes “whatever promotes the full humanity of women” as the criterion for taking or leaving scriptural material and looks to add from “pagan resources” what is otherwise missing ( Sexism and God-Talk , 1983). Such proposals, however, present a wide variety of theological difficulties, and are thus unlikely to bring Christian unity closer.


n R.E. Brown, “The Gospel of Peter and Canonical Gospel Priority”, New Testament Studies , 33, 1987 n H. von Campenhausen, Die Entstehung der christlichen Bibel (ET The Formation of the Christian Bible , Philadelphia, Westminster, 1972) n B.S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible , Minneapolis, Fortress, 1993 n B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture , Philadelphia, Fortress, 1979 n B.S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon , Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985 n E. Käsemann ed., Das Neue Testament als Kanon , Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970 n B.M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament , Oxford, Clarendon, 1987.


Canon law states the rules for institutional ecclesiology, which reconciles normative ecclesiological principles – taught as dogma* – with the ecclesiological maxims that touch the lives of the people of God in practice. According to this approach, true ecumenism requires two encounters – one covering the behaviour of church members as Christians, and the other relating to the dogmaticians of the various churches. The history of these two encounters shows that the problem of the institutional church is structural and ecumenical: If the gospel is to be preached and experienced, does it call for institutionalism in Christian life? With this question in mind, we may look briefly at the main stages in the history of the German Lutheran churches as an example of the path taken by the Reformation churches in their institutional history.

In the socio-political situation of the time of the Reformation, it became urgently necessary to transfer episcope (oversight, or the ius episcopale ) to the temporal prince, both because of the radical Lutheran idea of original sin* and because of the combination of the Thomist view of the non-sacramental nature of the episcopacy* with Luther’s advocacy of the priesthood of all believers. This established the fundamental principle that any legal organization is contrary to the essence of the church, which generally made itself felt in the five following stages of church-state relations: (1) between the 16th and mid-17th centuries, when the church was governed by the sovereign princes of the territory ( Landesherrliches Kirchenregiment , supreme ecclesiastical authority of the regional sovereign); (2) between the mid-17th century and 1848, when the church was organically incorporated in and served the state ( Staatskirchentum , the system of the state church); (3) from 1848 until just before 1919, when the churches administered their own internal affairs and the state now had the right to inspect and supervise them only in matters of external order ( Staatskirchenhoheit , the system of state church sovereign rights); (4) between 1919 and 1933, when the church made agreements with the state in the Weimar Republic (parallel to the Roman Catholic concordats), made possible by the constitutional process separating church and state; and (5) between 1933 and 1945, when the Protestant churches during the Third Reich contended with the implantation of Nazi ideology in a German national people’s church which was to be the religious mainspring of the state ( Kirchenkampf , struggle between church and state).

On the eve of the Kirchenkampf the tragedy of German Protestantism arose from its failure to create for itself a church law embodying the content of the Protestant faith, because it had always left its legal structure to the state. Since that time, German Protestantism has been re-discovering itself as its structures have come to be distinguished from those of the state. By comparison, it can be said (in J. Hoffmann’s terms) that while the Roman Catholic Church is able to remain itself throughout the variety of its relations with the state (thanks to the institutional objectivization it worked out for itself through its canon law), the German Protestant churches are progressively discovering themselves in the actual evolution of these relations. The effort expended by Lutheran churches on re-integrating the institution of episcopacy in line with a practice like that of the RCC allows differences between the two to persist: Lutheran bishops are not legislators, they have no magisterium,* they do not belong to a higher order than the pastor, and they are not directly installed as pastors.

In the Orthodox churches between 381 and 1453 the church was sometimes absorbed by the state (Emperor Leo VI, for instance, represented himself as an external bishop, convening and presiding at councils, promulgating decrees and appointing bishops and patriarchs); however, entrusting this function of supervising the church to the emperor did not plunge the system into Caesaro-papism. On the other hand, in the Russian church, Caesaro-papism found its best expression in the Spiritual Regulation of Peter the Great (1721), which subjected the church to the state and replaced the patriarchate of Moscow by a synod of which the czar was the supreme judge. By doing so, the czar destroyed the reality of the episcopate: the church was no longer governed only by the bishops, and the synod became a body with power over the church and no longer within the church. Church law and the church as an institution no longer had their sacramental source in the episcopal office but in the secular order of the state. In 1917 the Russian church was able to re-establish the patriarchate of Moscow , and in subsequently coping with the atheist state – and by analogy to the state principle of socialization – it gradually re-discovered the sacramental basis of canon law, first giving expression to this in the synod of 1961.

Today the Orthodox Church of Russia, while declaring the law of the state to be canonical, has re-affirmed the special nature of the law of communion* (the law of grace as koinonia*) over against the secular right of association. On the local level and in its relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, it tackles difficult questions similar to those experienced by the Eastern Catholic churches in their own context: What room must be made for political and national principles in the organization of the church? How are the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be defined in relation to those of the autocephalous sister church over its own members, especially in the diaspora? What is the specific nature of the unity of the Orthodox churches? Recent work done by the joint Roman Catholic-Orthodox theological commission has happily re-introduced the idea of the sacramental basis of church law, re-discovering in particular the sacramental character of episcopal jurisdiction and the Trinitarian eucharistic basis of the local church.*

The theory underlying the Roman Catholic Codex Juris Canonici of 1917 regards the church as a specific type of “perfect” society, so intended and founded by Christ and requiring law* by its very nature as a society.* The church was thus seen in terms of means and ends, and the ecclesiology of the code expressly favoured an individualist idea of the Christian life and of salvation.* In it Christians as individuals were confronted with a hierarchy that was regarded as extrinsic, and the fact that the church is a fellowship that is Trinitarian in its structure could not be institutionally expressed in the code; it forgot the law of grace.*

Vatican II* brought with it significant shifts. For the ecclesiology of the perfect society, essentially one of inequality, it substituted reciprocity in dignity and common action for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ among all members of the church. It re-discovered the sacramental basis of the episcopate – the basis for the power of order and of jurisdiction – and structurally it restored the importance of synodal practice at all levels of the church.

The code of canon law promulgated in 1983 is a compromise between that of 1917 and the contributions of Vatican II: in it the people of God is the fundamental visible reality of the church as communio , or fellowship, in which the members find themselves for the first time given rights and duties. Within certain limits the laity* are called on to participate widely in ministries contributing to the achievement of the church’s mission.* Synodal practice is implemented in new collegial structures, often of a consultative nature. Ecumenical concern has meant the opening up of various RC structures and institutions to the possibility of exchange and cooperation with equivalents from other churches. There is also the work pursued by the Joint Working Group between the RCC and the WCC.

To sum up generally: a fundamental ecumenical experience has been the re-discovery of canon law both as intrinsic to the Trinitarian communio , which gives the church a structure as a confessing church, and also as expressing itself in sacramental processes with an instituting function. Because institutional law gives expression to the statute or law of grace, it is primary, whereas law as legislation setting up norms comes only second. The “inductive” type of approach makes the local church a primary element of the church, restores the process of “reception”* of the laws to its rightful place and enables custom and jurisprudence to re-discover their legitimate creative capacity. This is an approach which cannot dispense with the gains from ecumenical exchanges among the people of God. If theologians and specialists in the social sciences are actively associated in working out church law, the

various churches will then have more opportunities to develop an awareness both of the worldwide environment in which they live together and of the fundamental unity of their mission to proclaim the gos-pel at the dawn of the 21st century.


n The Book of Church Order: The Reformed Church in America , New York, Reformed Church in America, 1989 n Church Law and Polity in Lutheran Churches: Reports of the International Consultations in Järvenpää (1970) and Baastad (1977) , Geneva, LWF, 1979 n Constitution and Regulations: And the Basis of Union: And Standing Orders and Rules of Debate , Melbourne, Uniting Church Press, 1990 n J. Provost & K. Walf eds, Canon Law-Church Reality , Edinburgh, Clark 1986 n M. Reuver, Faith and Law: Juridical Perspectives for the Ecumenical Movement , WCC, 2000 n L. Vischer, “Reform of Canon Law: An Ecumenical Problem”, The Jurist , 26, 1966.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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