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There are canon laws of ecu­meni­cal coun­cils, of provin­cial and local coun­cils, and of indi­vid­ual church fathers which have been received by the entire Ortho­dox Church as nor­ma­tive for Chris­t­ian doc­trine and prac­tice. As a word canon means lit­er­al­ly rule or norm or mea­sure of judg­ing. In this sense the canon laws are not pos­i­tive laws in the juridi­cal sense and can­not be eas­i­ly iden­ti­fied with laws as under­stood and oper­a­tive in human jurisprudence.

The canons of the Church are dis­tin­guished first between those of a dog­mat­ic or doc­tri­nal nature and those of a prac­ti­cal, eth­i­cal, or struc­tur­al char­ac­ter. They are then fur­ther dis­tin­guished between those which may be changed and altered and those which are unchange­able and may not be altered under any conditions.

The dog­mat­ic canons are those coun­cil def­i­n­i­tions which speak about an arti­cle of the Chris­t­ian faith; for exam­ple, the nature and per­son of Jesus Christ. Although such canons may be explained and devel­oped in new and dif­fer­ent words, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the Church Tra­di­tion grows and moves through time, their essen­tial mean­ing remains eter­nal and unchanging.

Some canons of a moral and eth­i­cal char­ac­ter also belong to those which can­not be changed. These are the moral canons whose mean­ing is absolute and eter­nal and whose vio­la­tion can in no way be jus­ti­fied. The canons which for­bid the sale of Church sacra­ments are of this kind.

There are, in addi­tion, canons of a quite prac­ti­cal nature which may be changed and which, in fact, have been changed in the course of the life of the Church. There are also those which may be changed but which remain in force since the Church has shown the desire to retain them. An exam­ple of the for­mer type is the canon which requires the priests of the church to be ordained to office only after reach­ing thir­ty years of age. It might be said that although this type of canon remains nor­ma­tive and does set a cer­tain ide­al which the­o­ret­i­cal­ly may still be of val­ue, the needs of the Church have led to its vio­la­tion in actu­al life. The canon which requires that the bish­ops of the Church be unmar­ried is of the lat­ter type.

It is not always clear which canons express essen­tial marks of Chris­t­ian life and which do not. There are often peri­ods of con­tro­ver­sy over cer­tain canons as to their applic­a­bil­i­ty in giv­en times and con­di­tions. These fac­tors, how­ev­er, should not lead the mem­bers of the Church to dis­may or to the temp­ta­tion either to enforce all canons blind­ly with iden­ti­cal force and val­ue or to dis­miss all the canons as mean­ing­less and insignificant.

In the first place, the canons are “of the Church” and there­fore can­not pos­si­bly be under­stood as “pos­i­tive laws” in a juridi­cal sense; sec­ond­ly, the canons are cer­tain­ly not exhaus­tive, and do not cov­er every pos­si­ble aspect of Church faith and life; third­ly, the canons were pro­duced for the most part in response to some par­tic­u­lar dog­mat­ic or moral ques­tion or devi­a­tion in the Church life and so usu­al­ly bear the marks of some par­tic­u­lar con­tro­ver­sy in his­to­ry which has con­di­tioned not mere­ly their par­tic­u­lar for­mu­la­tion, but indeed their very existence.

Tak­en by them­selves, the canon laws of the Church can be mis­lead­ing and frus­trat­ing, and there­fore super­fi­cial peo­ple will say “either enforce them all or dis­card them com­plete­ly.” But tak­en as a whole with­in the whole­ness of Ortho­dox life—theological, his­tor­i­cal, canon­i­cal, and spir­i­tu­al —- these canons do assume their prop­er place and pur­pose and show them­selves to be a rich source for dis­cov­er­ing the liv­ing Truth of God in the Church. In view­ing the canons of the Church, the key fac­tors are Chris­t­ian knowl­edge and wis­dom which are borne from tech­ni­cal study and spir­i­tu­al depth. There is no oth­er “key” to their usage; and any oth­er way would be accord­ing to the Ortho­dox faith both unortho­dox and unchristian.