1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Apostolical Constitutions

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APOSTOLICAL CONSTITUTIONS (Διαταγαὶ or Διατάξεις τῶν ἁγίων ἀποστόλων διὰ Κλήμεντος τοῦ Ῥωμαίων ἐπισκόπου τε καὶ πολίτου. Καθολικὴ διδασκαλία), a collection of ecclesiastical regulations in eight books, the last of which concludes with the eighty-five Canons of the Holy Apostles. By their title the Constitutions profess to have been drawn up by the apostles, and to have been transmitted to the Church by Clement of Rome; sometimes the alleged authors are represented as speaking jointly, sometimes singly. From the first they have been very variously estimated; the Canons, as a rule, more highly than the rest of the work. For example, the Trullan Council of Constantinople (quini-sextum), a.d. 692, accepts the Canons as genuine by its second canon, but rejects the Constitutions on the ground that spurious matter had been introduced into them by heretics; and whilst the former were henceforward used freely in the East, only a few portions of the latter found their way into the Greek and oriental law-books. Again, Dionysius Exiguus (c. a.d. 500) translated fifty of the Canons into Latin,[1] although under the title Canones qui dicuntur Apostolorum, and thus they passed into other Western collections; whilst the Constitutions as a whole remained unknown in the West until they were published in 1563 by the Jesuit Turrianus. At first received with enthusiasm, their authenticity soon came to be impugned; and their true significance was largely lost sight of as it began to be realized that they were not what they claimed to be. Vain attempts were still made to rehabilitate them, and they were, in general, more highly estimated in England than elsewhere. The most extravagant estimate of all was that of Whiston, who calls them “the most sacred standard of Christianity, equal in authority to the Gospels themselves, and superior in authority to the epistles of single apostles, some parts of them being our Saviour’s own original laws delivered to the apostles, and the other parts the public acts of the apostles” (Historical preface to Primitive Christianity Revived, pp. 85-86). Others, however, realized their composite character from the first, and by degrees some of the component documents became known. Bishop Pearson was able to say that “the eight books of the Apostolic Constitutions have been after Epiphanius’s time compiled and patched together out of the didascaliae or doctrines which went under the names of the holy apostles and their disciples or successors” (Vind. Ign. i. cap. 5); whilst a greater scholar still, Archbishop Usher, had already gone much further, and concluded, forestalling the results of modern critical methods, that their compiler was none other than the compiler of the spurious Ignatian epistles (Epp. Polyc. et Ign. p. lxiii. f., Oxon. 1644). The Apostolical Constitutions, then, are spurious, and they are one of a long series of documents of like character. But we have not really gauged their significance by saying that they are spurious. They are the last stage and climax of a gradual process of compilation and crystallization, so to speak, of unwritten church custom; and a short account of this process will show their real importance and value.

These documents are the outcome of a tendency which is found in every society, religious or secular, at some point in its history. The society begins by living in accordance with its fundamental principles. By degrees these Origin and real nature. translate themselves into appropriate action. Difficulties are faced and solved as they arise; and when similar circumstances recur they will tend to be met in the same way. Thus there grows up by degrees a body of what may be called customary law. Plainly, there is no particular point of time at which this customary law can be said to have begun. To all appearance it is there from the first in solution and gradually crystallizes out; and yet it is being continually modified as time goes on. Moreover, the time comes when the attempt is made, either by private individuals or by the society itself, to put this “customary law” into writing. Now when this is done, two tendencies will at once show themselves. (a) This “customary law” will at once become more definite: the very fact of putting it into writing will involve an effort after logical completeness. There will be a tendency on the part of the writer to fill up gaps; to state local customs as if they obtained universally; to introduce his personal equation, and to add to that which is the custom that which, in his opinion, ought to be. (b) There will be a strong tendency to fortify that which has been written with great names, especially in days when there is no very clear notion of literary property. This is done, not always with any deliberate consciousness of fraud (although it must be clearly recognized that truth is not one of the “natural virtues,” and that the sense of the obligations of truthfulness was far from strong), but rather to emphasize the importance of what was written, and the fact that it was no new invention of the writer’s. In a non-literary age fame gathers about great names; and that which, ex hypothesi, has gone on since the beginning of things is naturally attributed to the founders of the society. Then come interpolations to make this ascription more probable, and the prefixing of a title, then or subsequently, which states it as a fact. This is precisely the way in which the Apostolical Constitutions and other kindred documents have come into being. They are attempts, made in various places and at different times, to put into writing the order and discipline and character of the Church; in part for private instruction and edification, but in part also with a view to actual use; frequently even with an actual reference to particular circumstances. In this lies their importance, to a degree which is only just being adequately realized. They contain evidence of the utmost value as to the order of the Church in early days; evidence, however, which needs to be sifted with the greatest care, since the personal preferences of the writer and the customs of the local church to which he belongs are continually mixed up with things which have a wider prevalence. It is only by careful investigation, by the method of comparisons, that these elements can be disentangled; but as the number of documents of this class known to us is continually increasing, their value increases even more than proportionately. And whilst their local and fugitive character must be fully recognized and allowed for, is it unjustifiable to set them aside or leave them out of account as heretical, and therefore negligible.

It will be sufficient here to mention shortly the chief collections of this kind which came into existence during the first four centuries; generally as the work of private individuals, and having, at any rate, no more than a local authority Other collections. of some kind, (a) The earliest known to us is the Didachē or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, itself compiled from earlier materials, and dating from about 120 (see Didachē, The). (b) The Apostolic Church Order (apostolische Kirchenordnung of German writers); Ecclesiastical Canons of the Holy Apostles of one MS.; Sententiae Apostolorum of Pitra: of about 300, and emanating probably from Asia Minor. Its earlier part, cc. 1-14, depends upon the Didachē, and the rest of it is a book of discipline in which Harnack has attempted to distinguish two older fragments of church law (Texte u. Unters. ii. 5). (c) The so-called Canones Hippolyti, probably Alexandrian or Roman, and of the first half of the 3rd century. It will be observed that these make no claim to apostolic authorship; but otherwise their origin is like that of the rest, unless indeed, as has been suggested, they represent the work of an actual Roman synod, (d) The so-called Egyptian Church Order, in Coptic from a Greek pre-Nicene original (c. 310). It is part of the Egyptian Heptateuch and contains neither communion nor ordination forms, (e) The Ethiopic Church Order, perhaps twenty years later than (d), and forming part of the Ethiopic Statutes. (f) The Verona Latin Fragments, discovered and published by Hauler, portions of a form akin to (e), which may be dated c. 340, though possibly earlier. It has a preface which refers to a treatise Concerning Spiritual Gifts as having immediately preceded it. (g) The recently discovered Testament of the Lord, which is somewhat later in date (c. 350), and likewise depends upon the Canones Hippolyti. (h) The so-called Canons of Basil. This is an Arabic work perhaps based on a Coptic and ultimately on a Greek original, embodying with modifications large portions of the Canons of Hippolytus. (On the relations between the six last-named, see Hippolytus, The Canons of.)

Here also may be noticed the Didascalia Apostolorum, originally written in Greek, but known through a Syriac version and a fragmentary Latin one published by Hauler. It is of the middle of the 3rd century—in fact, a passage in the Latin translation seems to give us the date a.d. 254. It emanates from Palestine or Syria, and is independent of the documents already mentioned; and upon it the Constitutions themselves very largely depend. It is a mixture of moral and ecclesiastical instruction. The Sacramentary of Serapion (c. 350), The Pilgrimage of Etheria (Silvia) (c. 385), and The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem (348) are also of value in this connexion. In the (so-called) Constitutions through Hippolytus we have possibly a preliminary draft of the famous 8th book of the Apostolical Constitutions.[2]

The Constitutions themselves fall into three main divisions. (i.) The first of these consists of books i.-vi., and throughout runs parallel to the Didascalia. Bickell, indeed, held that this latter was an abbreviated form of books i.-vi.; Contents. but it is now agreed on all hands that the Constitutions are based on the Didascalia and not vice versa. (ii.) Then follows book vii., the first thirty-one chapters of which are an adaptation of the Didachē, whilst the rest contain various liturgical forms of which the origin is still uncertain, though it has been acutely suggested by Achelis, and with great probability, that they originated in the schismatical congregation of Lucian at Antioch. (iii.) Book viii. is more composite, and falls into three parts. The first two chapters, περὶ χαρισμάτων, may be based upon a lost work of St Hippolytus, otherwise known only by a reference to it in the preface of the Verona Latin Fragments; and an examination shows that this is highly probable. The next section, cc. 3-27, περὶ χειροτονιῶν, and cc. 28-46, περὶ κανόνων, is twofold, and is evidently that upon which the writer sets most store. The apostles no longer speak jointly, but one by one in an apostolic council, and the section closes with a joint decree of them all. They speak of the ordination of bishops (the so-called Clementine Liturgy is that which is directed to be used at the consecration of a bishop, cc. 5-15), of presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, sub-deacons and lectors, and then pass on to confessors, virgins, widows and exorcists; after which follows a series of canons on various subjects, and liturgical formulae. With regard to this section, all that can be said is that it includes materials which are also to be found elsewhere—in the Egyptian Church Order and other documents already spoken of—and that the precise relation between them is at present not determined. The third section consists of the Apostolic Canons already referred to, the last and most significant of which places the Constitutions and the two epistles of Clement in the canon of Scripture, and omits the Apocalypse. They are derived in part from the preceding Constitutions, in part from the canons of the councils of Antioch, 341, Nicaea, 325, and possibly Laodicaea, 363.

A comparison of the Constitutions with the material upon which they are based will illustrate the compiler’s method. (a) To begin with the Didascalia already mentioned. It is unmethodical and badly digested, homiletical in style, and abounding in biblical quotations. There is no precise arrangement; but the subjects, following a general introduction, are the bishop and his duties, penance, the administration of the offerings, the settlement of disputes, the divine service, the order of widows, deacons and deaconesses, the poor, behaviour in persecution, and so forth. The compiler of the Constitutions finds here material after his own heart. He is even more discursive and more homiletical in style; he adds fresh citations of the Scriptures, and additional explanations and moral reflexions; and all this with so little judgment that he often leaves confusion worse confounded (e.g. in ii. 57, where, upon a symbolical description of the Church as a sheepfold, he has superimposed the further symbolism of a ship). (b) Passing on to books vii. and viii., we observe that the compiler’s method of necessity changes with his new material. In the former book he still makes large additions and alterations, but there is less scope for his prolixity than before; and in the latter, where he is no longer dealing with generalities, but making actual definitions, the Constitutions of necessity become more precise and statutory in form. Throughout he adopts and adapts the language of his sources as far as possible, “only pruning in the most pressing cases,” but towards the end he cannot avoid making larger alterations from time to time. And his alterations throughout are not made aimlessly. Where he finds things which would obviously clash with the customs of his own day, he unhesitatingly modifies them. An account of the Passion, with a curiously perverted chronology, the object of which was to justify the length of the Passion-tide fast, is entirely revised for this reason (v. 14); the direction to observe Easter according to the Jewish computation is changed into the exact contrary for the same reason (v. 17); and where his archetype lapses into speaking of a lull in persecution he naïvely informs us that the Romans have now given up persecuting and have adopted Christianity (vi. 26), forgetting altogether that he is speaking in the character of the apostles. Above all, he both magnifies the office of the Christian ministry as a whole and alters what is said of it in detail (for example, the deaconess loses rank not a little), to make it agree with the circumstances of his day in general, and with his own ideas of fitness in particular. It is here that his evidence is at once most valuable and needs to be used with the greatest care. To give one striking example of the value of these documents. The Canones Hippolyti (vi. 43) provide that one who has been a confessor for the faith may be received as a presbyter by virtue of his confessorship and not by the laying on of the bishop’s hands; but if he be chosen a bishop, he is to be ordained. This provision passes on into the Egyptian Ecclesiastical Canons and other kindred documents, and even into the Testamentum Domini. But the corresponding passage in the Apostolical Constitutions (viii. 23) entirely reverses it: “A confessor is not ordained, for he is so by choice and patience, and is worthy of great honour.... But if there be occasion, he is to be ordained either a bishop, priest, or deacon. But if any one of the confessors who is not ordained snatches to himself any such dignity upon account of his confession, let the same person be deprived and rejected; for he is not in such an office, since he has denied the constitution of Christ, and is worse than an infidel.”

Who, then, is the author of the Constitutions, and what can be inferred with regard to him? (i.) By separating off the sources which he used from his own additions to them, it at once becomes clear that the latter are the work of one Authorship, place, and date. man: the style is unmistakable, and the method of working is the same throughout. The compiler of books i.-vi. is also the compiler of books vii., viii. (ii.) As to his theological position, different views have been held. Funk suggests Apollinarianism, which is the refuge of the destitute; and Achelis inclines in the same direction. But the affinities of the author are quite otherwise, the most pronounced of them being a strong subordinationist tendency, denial of a human soul to Christ, and the like, which suggest not indeed Arianism but an inclination towards Arianism. Above all, his polemic is directed against the dying heresies of the 3rd century; and he writes with an absence of constraint which is not the language of one who lives amidst violent controversies or who is conscious of being in a minority. All this points to the position of a “conservative” or semi-Arian of the East, one who belongs, perhaps, to the circle of Lucian of Antioch and writes before the time of Julian. It is hard to think of any other time or circumstances in which a man could write like this, (iii.) The indications of time have been held to point to a different conclusion. On the one hand, the fact that the attempt to rebuild the temple by Julian in 363 is not mentioned in vi. 24 points to an earlier date; and the fact that the κοπιᾶται are not mentioned amongst the church officers points in the same direction, for elsewhere they are first mentioned in a rescript of Constantius in a.d. 357. On the other hand, in the cycle of feasts occur the names of several which are probably of later date—e.g. Christmas and St Stephen, which were introduced at Antioch c. a.d. 378 and 379 respectively. Again, Epiphanius (c. a.d. 374) appears to be unacquainted with it; he still quotes from the Didascalia, and elaborately explains it away where it is contrary to the usages of his own day. But as regards the former point, it is possible that the Apostolical Constitutions constantly gave rise to these festivals; or, on the other hand, that the two passages were subsequently introduced either by the writer himself or by some other hand, when the last book of the Constitutions was being used as a law-book. And as regards the latter, the fact that Epiphanius does not use the Constitutions is no proof that they had not yet been compiled. (iv.) As to the region of composition there is no real doubt. It was clearly the East, Syria or Palestine. Many indications are against the latter, and Syria is strongly suggested by the use of the Syro-Macedonian calendar. Moreover, the writer represents the Roman Clement as the channel of communication between the apostles and the Church. This fact both supplies him with the name by which he is commonly known, Pseudo-Clement, and also furnishes corroboration of his Syrian birth; since the other spurious writings bearing the name of Clement, the Homilies and Recognitions, are likewise of Syrian origin. Moreover, the spurious Ignatian epistles, which are also Syrian, depend throughout upon the Constitutions, (v.) But this is not all. It was long ago noticed that Pseudo-Clement bears a very close resemblance to Pseudo-Ignatius, the interpolator of the Ignatian Epistles in the longer Greek recension. Usher, as we have seen, identified them, and modern criticism accepts this identification as a fact (Lagarde, Harnack, Funk, Brightman). Lightfoot, indeed, still hesitated (Ap. Fathers, II. i. 266 n.) on the ground that Pseudo-Ignatius occasionally misunderstands the Constitutions, that the two writings give the Roman succession differently, and that Pseudo-Clement shows no knowledge of the Christological controversies of Nicaea. But as regards the first of these, it is rather a case of condensed citation than of misinterpretation; the second is explained by the writer’s carelessness as shown in other passages, and all are solved if a considerable interval of time elapsed between the compilation of the Constitutions and the spurious Ignatian epistles.

It seems clear then that the compiler was a Syrian, and that he also wrote the spurious Ignatian epistles; he was likewise probably a semi-Arian of the school of Lucian of Antioch. His date is given by Harnack as a.d. 340-360, with a leaning to 340-343; by Lightfoot as the latter half of the 4th century; by Brightman, 370-380; by Maclean, 375; and by Funk as the beginning of the 5th century.

Authorities.—W. Ueltzen, Constitutiones Apostolicae (Schwerin, 1853); P. A. de Lagarde, Didascalia Apostolorum Syriace (Leipz., 1854); Constitutiones Apostolorum (Leipz. and Lond., 1862); M. D. Gibson, Didascalia Apost. Syriace, with Eng. trans. (Horae Semiticae, i. and ii., Cambridge, 1903); J. B. Pitra, Juris Ecclesiastici Graecorum Historia et Monumenta, i. (Rome, 1864); Hauler, Didascaliae Apostolorum Fragmenta Ueronensia Latina, (Leipzig, 1900); Bickell, Geschichte des Kirchenrechts, i. (Giessen, 1843); F. X. Funk, Die apostolischen Konstitutionen (Rottenb., 1891); A. Harnack, Geschichte d. altchristl. Litteratur, i. 515 ff. (Leipz., 1893); F. E. Brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western, I. xvii. ff. (Oxford, 1896); H. Achelis, in Hauck’s Realencyklopädie, i. 734 f., art. “Apostolische Konstitutionen und Kanones” (Leipz., 1896); A. S. Maclean, Recent Discoveries illustrating Early Christian Worship (Lond., 1904); J. Wordsworth, The Ministry of Grace, pp. 18 ff; J. P. Arendzen, “The Apostolic Church Order” (Syriac Text, Eng. trans. and notes) in Journ. of Theol. Studies, iii. 59. Trans. of Apost. Constitutions, book viii., in Ante-Nicene Christian Library.  (W. E. Co.) 

  1. Why he did not go on to give the remaining thirty-five is not clear; they belong to the same date as, and are not inferior to, the first fifty.
  2. At a later date various collections were made of the documents above mentioned, or some of them, to serve as law-books in different churches—e.g. the Syrian Octateuch, the Egyptian Heptateuch, and the Ethiopic Sīnōdōs. These, however, stand on an entirely different footing, since they are simply collections of existing documents, and no attempt is made to claim apostolic authorship for them.