The canons of the councils of Africa – a few general thoughts

Few of us are specialists in the material left to us by the early councils of the church. But it is often said that the canon of scripture was “decided” by the “Council of Hippo” or the “Council of Carthage in 397”. This sort of claim is very hard for most of us to evaluate. Handbooks on the bible usually quote a single “canon”, devoid of context. This leaves most of us none the wiser. Many will find themselves wondering just what they are looking at. How do we find out more?  Where does this stuff come from?

I know that some readers will know a lot about this; but others won’t.  So let’s just give a quick view of what these things are.

The ancient church produced dossiers of decisions made by councils, together with prefatory matter, or letters written at the time, and so forth.  These are not literary texts, composed by a single author and intended to be transmitted exactly as written. They are technical texts, like agricultural handbooks, or, better, legal texts.  Technical texts are subject to revision, to updating, improving, abbreviating, and so forth. This is because they are created for a practical purpose, and later copyists may have other things to add on the same subject.

The medieval church had a rule book, which covered administrative matters. We refer to this material – jargon term – as “canon law”. The content within it has passed through just such a process of revision. But much of it ultimately derives from the ancient world.

Councils of bishops tended to gather from earliest times in order to decide on a common approach in case of disputes. This could be theological, but it could equally relate to practical matters of church administration and membership.

A council would often issue a set of “canons”, rules or decisions, on practical matters of church discipline. These were not “holy writ”. They could be, and were, ignored, modified, adopted, and so on. A later council might well revisit the canons of an earlier council, omitting or adding to them, as circumstances changed.

The “acts” of a council could comprise the minutes of the meeting, the signatories, any canons issued, and any covering letters or other correspondence. They might also include a summary of the canons of earlier councils.

Material of this sort starts to survive from the councils of the fourth century. There are twenty canons from the council of Nicaea in 325, covering matters such as whether eunuchs can be ordained, how people should stand in church, and the like. They are very brief. But the authority of Nicaea was widely disputed until the latter part of the fourth century.

Not all councils were considered authoritative. But over time it was natural that collections would be made of the acts of such councils as were considered authoritative.

Not every council issued canons. Not every council had its minutes recorded. In many cases the material is lost. If the canons survived, later writers might find differing versions of the canons in circulation. For instance the Council of Carthage in 419, confronted with a version of the canons of Nicaea which asserted Papal primacy in the west, discovered that this canon was in fact interpolated from the unauthoritative Council of Sardica.

It is at the end of the fourth century that the great series of councils of bishops in Africa begins, which were highly influential on other western provinces. These councils were held almost annually by Aurelius of Carthage, with the assistance of St Augustine, as a way to organise the weak Catholic church in the province in order to combat the Donatist majority. Material of various sorts from these councils survives. The council of Hippo in 393 made various decisions, but these do not seem to have circulated very well. The material from the council of Carthage in 397 begins with a covering letter by Bp. Aurelius to a summary of the canons of the council of Hippo in 393 – the Breviarium Hipponense – saying that this was necessary because many bishops pretended ignorance of what the council had decided. It seems that thereafter Aurelius left nothing to chance, and arranged for notaries to record what was said.

The African canons were well-thought out and well thought of. Material produced by this process finds its way into the medieval manuscripts from which we derive almost all ancient literature and much else. Compilations or excerpts of this material feed into later antique collections of canonical material, in Spain and Gaul. Much of it was also translated into Greek. For instance the great collection of canons by Dionysius Exiguus in the early 500s, contains a whole section devoted to the “code of the church of Africa” (Codex canonum ecclesiae Africae). From there it passes into later medieval texts like the Decretum of Gratian, which are outside our concern.

The original texts are the dossier issued by the council at the time. These do not survive as distinct and complete entities, although some – such as the Council of Carthage of 419 – come very close. The way that these texts are edited, therefore, is to gather together materials that relate to each particular council, and simply give the councils in chronological order. There is, obviously, a great deal of room for disagreement as to how such material should be organised, which is one reason why it can be hard to know what we are dealing with, when we look at an individual canon. Just where do these words come from?

The canon of scripture is listed in a canon of a couple of the ancient African councils.  This term, the “canon of scripture”, itself can confuse laymen. It has nothing to do with the use of the term “canon” for the decisions of the councils. The only connection is the use of the jargon word “canon”, for a rule or set of rules. The canon of scripture, the list of divinely inspired books, is not the product of any ancient council, but of a more gradual process which I don’t intend to address.


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