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NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
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Introductory Note.

An attempt to write a commentary upon all the canons of the African Code, would have meant nothing less than the preparation of one volume or more on the canon law of the West.  This is impossible and therefore, interesting as the field would be, I have been compelled to restrain my pen, and rather than give a scant and insufficient annotation, I have contented myself with providing the reader with as good a translation as I have been able to make of the very corrupt Latin (correcting it at times by the Greek), and have added the Ancient Epitome and the quaint notes in full of John Johnson from the Second Edition, of 1714, of his “Clergyman’s Vade-mecum,” Pt. II., which occupy little space, but may not be easily reached by the ordinary reader.  The student will find full scholia on these Canons in Van Espen in the Latin, and in Zonaras and Balsamon in the Greek.  These latter are in Beveridge’s Synodicon.

Johnson writes an excellent Introduction to his Epitome of these Canons, as follows:

“Councils were nowhere more frequently called in the Primitive Times than in Africa.  In the year 418–19, all canons formerly made in sixteen councils held at Carthage, one at Milevis, one at Hippo, that were approved of, were read, and received a new sanction from a great number of bishops, then met in synod at Carthage.  This Collection is the Code of the African Church, which was always in greatest repute in all Churches next after the Code of the Universal Church.  This code was of very great authority in the old English Churches, for many of the Excerptions of Egbert were transcribed from it.  And though the Code of the Universal Church ends with the canons of Chalcedon,417417    I do not understand what Johnson means by this statement.  Vide Can. j. of Chalcedon. yet these African Canons are inserted into the Ancient Code both of the Eastern and Western Churches.  These canons though ratified and approved by a synod, yet seem to have been divided or numbered by some private and unlearned hand, and have probably met with very unskilful transcribers, by which means some of them are much confounded and obscured, as to their sense and coherence.  They are by Dionysius Exiguus and others entituled The Canons of the Synod of Africa.  And though all were not originally made at one time, yet they were all confirmed by one synod of African bishops, who, after they had recited the Creed and the twenty canons of the Council of Nice, proceeded to make new canons, and re-enforce old ones.”

In his “Library of Canon Law” (Bibliotheca Juris Canonici) Justellus gives these canons, and, in my opinion, gives them rightly, the title “The Code of Canons of the African Church” (Codex Canonum Ecclesiæ Africanæ), although Hefele418418    Hefele.  Hist. of the Councils, vol. ii., p. 468, Note 1. describes them as “the collection of those African Canons put together in 419 by Dionysius Exiguus.”  Hefele says that the title Dionysius gave them in his collection was “The Statutes of an African Council” (Statuta Concilii Africani) which would certainly be wholly inadequate and misleading; but in the edition of Dionysius in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (Tom. LXVII., col. 181) in the Codex Canonum Ecclesiasticorum no such title occurs, but the perfectly accurate one, “A Synod at Carthage in Africa, which adopted one hundred and thirty-eight canons.”  This is an exact description of what took place and of the origin of these most important dogmatic and disciplinary enactments.  Hefele must have been thinking of Dionysius’s Preface where the expression does occur but not as a title.

(Beveridge.  Synodicon, Tom. II., p. 202.)

Carthage was formerly the head of the whole of Africa, as St. Augustine tells us in his Epistle CLXII.  From this cause it happened that a great number of councils were held there, gathered from all the provinces of Africa.  Especially while Aurelius as Archbishop was occupying the throne were these meetings of bishops frequently holden; and by these, for the establishing of ecclesiastical discipline in Africa, many canons were enacted.  At last, after the consulate of Honorius (XII.) and Theodosius (VIII.), Augustuses, on the eighth day before the Calends of June, that is to say, on May 25, in the year of our Lord 419, another Council was held in the same city at which all the canons previously adopted were considered, and the greater part of them were again confirmed by the authority of the synod.  These canons, thus confirmed by this council, merited to be called from that day to this “The Code of Canons of the African Church.”  These canons were not at first adopted in Greek but in Latin, and they were confirmed in the same language.  This Dionysius Exiguus distinctly testifies to in his preface to the “Code of Ecclesiastical Canons,” in which they are included.  It is uncertain when the canons of this Carthaginian synod were done into Greek.  This only is certain, that they had been translated into Greek before the Council in Trullo by which, in its Second Canon, they were received into the Greek Nomocanon, and were confirmed by the authority of this synod; so that from that time these canons stand in the Eastern Church on an equality with all the rest.

An extremely interesting point arises as to what was the authority of the collection as a collection, and how this collection was made?  There seems no doubt that the collection substantially as we know it was the code accepted by the Council of Trullo, the canons of which received a quasi-ecumenical authority from the subsequent general imprimatur given them by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nice.  Van Espen has considered this point at great length in Dissertation VIII. of the First Part of his Commentaries, and to his pages I must refer the reader for anything like an adequate presentation of the matter.  He concludes (§ I.) that the “Code owes its origin to this synod,” and argues against De Marca in proof of the proposition that the collection was not the private work of Dionysius, but the official work of the council by one of its officials, concluding with the remark (§ II.) that “this was the persuasion both of Greeks and Latins,…and these canons are set forth by Balsamon with the title, ‘The Canons of the CCXVII. Blessed Fathers who met together at Carthage.’”

In the notes on each canon I shall give the source, following Hefele in all respects (Hist. of the Councils, vol. ii., pp. 468 et seqq.), and content myself here with setting down a list of the various councils which made the enactments, with their dates.

Carthage (under Gratus)—345–348 a.d.

      “       (under Genethlius)—387 or 390

Hippo—393

I.  Carthage—394

II.   “   (June 26)—397

III.   “   (August 28)—397

IV.   “   (April 27)—399

V.   “   (June 15)—401

VI.   “   (September 13)—401

VII.  Milevis (August 27)—402

VIII.  Carthage (August 25)—403

IX.   “   (June)—404

X.   “   (August 25)—405

XI.   “   (June 13)—407

XII. and XIII.  Carthage (June 16 and October 13)—408

XIV.  Carthage (June 15)—409

XV.   “   (June 14)—410

XVI.   “   (May 1)—418

XVII.   “   (May 25) which adopted the African Code—419

The numbering of the African councils differs very widely between the different writers, and Cave reckons nine between 401 and 608, and thirty-five Carthaginian between 215 and 533.419419    For this statement I am indebted to Mr. Ffoulkes in art. “African Councils.”  Smith and Cheetham, Dict. Christ. Antiq.  Very useful tables, shewing the conclusions of Fuchs, are found at the end of Bruns, Canones Apostolorum et Conciliorum Veterum Selecti.

I need only add that I have frequently used Dr. Bruns’s text, but have not confined myself to it exclusively.  Evidently in the Latin, as we now have it, there are many corrupt passages.  In strange contradistinction to this, the Greek is apparently pure and is clear throughout.  Possibly the Greek translation was made from a purer Latin text than we now possess.


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