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Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council - Relevant Or Irrelevant Today?

Metropolitan Philip Saliba

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Talk given by Metropolitan Philip, Primate of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese at the Conference of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius held at St. Vladimir's Seminary, June 4-8, 2008.

Met. Philip Saliba

Met. Philip Saliba

Of all the canons dealing with Church authority and jurisdiction, there is probably none more controversial and debated in inter-Orthodox circles today than Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Chalcedon in the year 451. Those of us familiar with Church history know that the Ecumenical Council was called to put an end to the ongoing Christological debates of the time. While this was the main focus of the Council, like other councils before and after, it dealt with other pressing issues of the day. Canon was no exception. It reads as follows:

Following in every detail all the decrees of the holy Fathers and knowing about the canon, just read, of the one hundred and fifty bishops dearly beloved of God, gathered together under Theodosius the Great, emperor of pious memory in the imperial city of Constantinople, New Rome, we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things about the prerogatives of the very holy Church of this same Constantinople, New Rome. The Fathers in fact have correctly attributed the prerogatives (which belong) to the see of the most ancient Rome because it was the imperial city. And thus moved by the same reasoning, the one hundred and fifty bishops beloved of God have accorded equal prerogatives to the very holy see of New Rome, justly considering that the city that is honored by the imperial power and the senate and enjoying (within the civil order) the prerogatives equal to those of Rome, the most ancient imperial city, ought to be as elevated as Old Rome in the affairs of the Church, being in the second place after it. Consequently, the metropolitans and they alone of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops among the barbarians of the aforementioned dioceses, are to be ordained by the previously mentioned very holy see of the very holy Church of Constantinople; that is, each metropolitan of the above-mentioned dioceses is to ordain the bishops of the province along with the fellow bishops of that province as has been provided for in the divine canons. As for the metropolitans of the previously mentioned dioceses, they are to be ordained, as has already been said, by the archbishop of Constantinople, after harmonious elections have taken place according to custom and after the archbishop has been notified.

Proper Interpretation of Canon 28

The issue of the proper interpretation of Canon 28 and its relationship to the so-called "disapora" is crucial, not only to the Church in North America, but to the relationship of all Orthodox churches worldwide to each other, and to their witness to the world. As Patriarch ALEKSY of Russia has said: "The question of the Orthodox diaspora is one of the most important problems in inter-Orthodox relations. Given its complexity and the fact that it has not been suffi ciently regularized, it has introduced serious complications in[to] the relations between Churches and, without a doubt, has diminished the strength of Orthodox witness throughout the contemporary world." (For more information on the historical background of Canon 28, I recommend the book The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils, by the late Archbishop PETER L'Huillier, published in 1996 by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.)

The issue of the proper interpretation of Canon 28 and its relationship to the so-called "disapora" is crucial, not only to the Church in North America, but to the relationship of all Orthodox churches worldwide to each other, and to their witness to the world.

It is my opinion that there are three types of canons: 1) Dogmatic; 2) Contextual; and 3) "Dead" canons. Canon 28 is by no means a "dead" canon, since there is still great controversy over it today, and so many commentaries, both past and present, show how controversial it has been, to say the least. I believe that Canon 28, historically, is a contextual canon and not a dogmatic one; it gave the city of Constantinople certain rights as the New Rome for secular, political reasons because it was the seat of the emperor. At the same time, the Fourth Ecumenical Council considered (Old) Rome to be the first among equals. What does this say to us today? Let us begin by stating that the whole idea today of "Rome," "New Rome," and "Third Rome" would be absurd. If we want to give prominence to any city in Christendom, we should give it to Jerusalem, where the history of salvation was accomplished.

The second part of the Canon dealt with the Dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace. Canon 28 gave Constantinople jurisdiction over the metropolitans of the barbarians and those three provinces or dioceses, which today are only Bulgaria, Northeastern Greece and European Turkey.

We can also ask, Is this Canon dealing with a dogmatic issue or a pastoral administrative one? In my opinion it clearly deals with an administrative question. If Antioch or Alexandria had become the seat of imperial power, likely this Canon would have made either of them New Rome. If we were to follow the reasoning of Canon 28, in fact, then Russia could rightfully claim, as it did historically, to be the Third Rome, and the Church of Greece could have made the claim to be the Fourth Rome during the captivity of the Russian Church under Communism.

Given the lack of a new Great Council, common sense would dictate that, with the current captivity of the church in Constantinople (whose indigenous flock totals just a few thousand), there is no reason for Canon 28 and it is no longer relevant today. We do have a problem, however: we have a responsibility to the past and the councils of the past, but there is no Great Council to address this issue. We must therefore explore other solutions.

The Relevance of Canon 28 Today
Constantinople's Long Arm

While the Canon is not relevant to the question of different "Romes," it is profitable for us to look at its relevance today, especially to the subject of administrative organization in North America. We are well aware of the complex issues regarding the so-called "diaspora" and the desire of our Orthodox people, especially in North America, to have an administratively united church. As you must know, there are basically two interpretations of this Canon that extend back into history. Some claim that this Canon implies that Constantinople has authority over all territories outside the geographical limits of autocephalous churches.

Patriarch ALEKSY of Russia has stated that "...until the 1920's the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority."

Those on the other side of the argument say that this interpretation is, in fact, misinterpretation. Archbishop PETER in his book, The Church of the Ancient Councils, states that "such interpretation is completely fantastic." For those holding this view, any autocephalous church can do missionary work outside her boundaries and can grant autocephaly to such missions. Archbishop PAUL of Finland, in summarizing the position of the Orthodox churches, has stated in the reports submitted in 1990 to the Preparatory Commission for the Great and Holy Council that "the Patriarchates of Antioch, Moscow and Romania strongly oppose the authority of Constantinople over the diaspora and [maintain] that the theory remains an anachronism as far from the modern age as the year 451 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is from the Twentieth Century."


Read the entire article on the American Orthodox Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 27-Jan-2009

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