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Apostolic Constitutions

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Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth-century pseudo-Apostolic collection, in eight books, of independent, though closely related, treatises on Christian discipline, worship, and doctrine, intended to serve as a manual of guidance for the clergy, and to some extent for the laity. Its tone is rather hortatory than preceptive, for, though it was evidently meant to be a code of catechetical instruction and of moral and liturgical law, its injunctions often take the form of little treatises and exhortations, amply supported by scriptural texts and examples. Its elements are loosely combined without great regard for order or unity. It purports to be the work of the Apostles, whose instructions, whether given by them as individuals or as a body, are supposed to be gathered and handed down by the pretended compiler, St. Clement of Rome, the authority of whose name gave fictitious weight to more than one such piece of early Christian literature. The Church seems never to have regarded this work as of undoubted Apostolic authority. The Trullan Council in 692 rejected the work on account of the interpolations of heretics. Only that portion of it to which has been given the name “Apostolic Canons” was received; but even the fifty of these canons which had then been accepted by the Western Church were not regarded as of certain Apostolic origin. Where known, however, the Apostolic Constitutions were held generally in high esteem and served as the basis for much ecclesiastical legislation. They are today of the highest value as an historical document, revealing the moral and religious conditions and the liturgical observances of the third and fourth centuries. Their text was not known in the Western Church throughout the Middle Ages. In 1546 a Latin version of a text found in Crete was published by Capellus, and in 1563 appeared the complete Greek text of Bovius and that of the Jesuit Father Torres (Turrianus) who, despite the glaring archaisms and incongruities of the collection, contended that it was a genuine work of the Apostles. Four manuscripts of it are now extant, the oldest an early twelfth-century text in St. Petersburg, an allied fourteenth-century text in Vienna, and two kindred sixteenth-century texts, one in Vienna, the other in Paris. In its present form the text represents the gradual growth and evolution of usages of the first three centuries of Christian Church life. The compiler gathered from preexisting moral, disciplinary, and liturgical codes the elements suited to his purpose, and by adaptation and interpolation framed a system of constitutions which, while suited to contemporary needs, could yet pretend, in an uncritical age, to Apostolic origin.

Thanks to recent textual studies in early Christian literature, most of the sources of which the compiler made use are now clearly recognizable. The first six books are based on the “Didascalia of the Apostles“, a lost treatise of the third century, of Greek origin, which is known through Syriac versions. The compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions made use of the greater part of this older treatise, but he adapted it to the needs of his day by some modifications and extensive interpolation. Liturgical evolution made necessary a considerable amplification of the formulae of worship; changes in disciplinary practice called for a softening of some of the older laws; scriptural references and examples, intended to enforce the lessons inculcated by the Apostolic Constitutions, are more frequently used than in the parent Didascalia. The seventh book, which consists of two distinct parts, the first a moral instruction (i-xxxii) and the second liturgical (xxxiii-xlix), depends for the first portion on the early second-century Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles“, which has been amplified by the compiler in much the same manner as the Didascalia was amplified in the framing of the first six books. The rediscovery of the Didache in 1873 revealed with what fidelity the compiler embodied it, almost word for word, in his expansion of its precepts, save for such omissions and changes as were made necessary by the lapse of time. The fact that the Didache was itself a source of the Didascalia will explain the repetition in the seventh book of the Apostolic Constitutions of matters treated in the preceding books. The source of the second portion of the seventh book is still undetermined. In the eighth book are recognized many distinct elements whose very number and diversity render it difficult to determine with certainty the sources upon which the compiler drew. The eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions may be divided into three parts thus: the introductory chapters (i-ii) have for their foundation a treatise entitled “Teaching of the Holy Apostles concerning Gifts”, possibly a lost work of Hippolytus. The transitional third chapter is the work of the compiler. The last chapter (xlvii) contains the “Apostolic Canons“. It is the second part (iv-xlvi) which presents difficulties the varied solution of which divides scholars as to its sources. Recent studies in early Christian literature have made evident the kinship of several documents, dealing with disciplinary and liturgical matters, closely allied with this eighth book. Their interdependence is not so clearly understood. The more important of these documents are: The “Canons of [pseudo?] Hippolytus”; the “Egyptian Church Ordinance“; and the recently discovered Syriac text of “The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ“. According to Dr. Hans Achelis, the “Canons of Hippolytus”, which he considers to be a third-century document of Roman origin, is the parent of the “Egyptian Church Ordinance“, whence came, by independent filiation, the Syriac “Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ“, and the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions. In this hypothesis the “Canons of Hippolytus”, or more immediately the “Egyptian Church Ordinance“, and the contemporary practice of the Church would be the source from which the compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions drew. Dr. F. X. Funk, on the other hand, argues strongly for the priority of the eighth book of the latter, whence, through a parallel text, are derived the other three documents which he considers as fifth-century works, a conclusion not without its difficulties of acceptance, particularly with regard to the place of the “Canons of Hippolytus” in the chronology. If the priority of the Apostolic Constitutions be admitted, it is not easy to identify the sources on which the compiler depended. For the liturgical element (v-x)), which is an evident interpolation, the compiler may have been inspired by the practice of some particular church. The Antiochene “Diaconica” was not without some influence on him, and it may be that he had at hand other, now lost, ceremonial codes. It is not improbable that his Liturgy is even of his own creation and was never used in just the form in which he gives it. (See Antiochene Liturgy.)

A study of the sources of this work suggests the many needs which the compiler endeavored to meet in gathering together and amplifying these many treatises on doctrine, discipline, and worship extant in his day. The extent and variety of his work may be suggested by a summary of the contents. The first book deals with the duties of the Christian laity, particularly in view of the dangers resulting from association with those not of the Faith. Vanity in dress, promiscuous bathing, curiosity as to the lives and the books of the wicked are among the things condemned. The second book is concerned principally with the clergy. The qualifications, the prerogatives and duties of bishops, priests, and deacons are set forth in detail, and their dependence and support provided for. This book treats at length of the regulation of penitential practice, of the caution to be observed in regard to accused and accusers, of the disputes of the faithful and the means of adjusting differences. This portion of the Apostolic Constitutions is of special interest, as portraying the penitential discipline and the hierarchical system of the third and fourth centuries. Here are also a number of ceremonial details regarding the Christian assembly for worship which, with the liturgy of the eighth book, are of the greatest importance and interest. The third book treats of widows and of their office in the Church. A consideration of what they should not do leads to a treatise on the duties of deacons and on baptism. The fourth book deals with charitable works, the providing for the poor and orphans, and the spirit in which to receive and dispense the offerings made to the Church. The fifth book treats of those suffering persecution for the sake of Christ and of the duties of Christians towards them. This leads to a consideration of martyrdom and of idolatry. Liturgical details as to feasts and fasts follow. The sixth book deals with the history and doctrines of the early schisms and heresies; and of “The Law“, a treatise against Judaistic and heathen superstition and uncleannesses. The seventh book in its first part is chiefly moral, condemning vices and praising Christian virtues and Christian teachers. The second part is composed of liturgical directions and formulae. The eighth book is largely liturgical. Chapters iiixxvii treat of the conferring of all orders, and in connection with the consecration of a bishop is given in chapters v-xv the so-called Clementine Liturgy, the most ancient extant complete order of the rites of Holy Mass. Chapters xxviii-xlvi contain a collection of miscellaneous canons, moral and liturgical, attributed to the various Apostles, while chapter xlvii consists of the eighty-five “Apostolic Canons“.

The strikingly characteristic style of the many interpolations in the Apostolic Constitutions makes it evident that the compilation, including the “Apostolic Canons“, is the work of one individual. Who this Pseudo-Clement was cannot be conjectured; but it is now generally admitted that he is one with the interpolator of the Ignatian Epistles. As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, Archbishop Ussher, recognizing the similarity of the theological thought, the peculiar use of Scripture, and the strongly marked literary characteristics in the Apostolic Constitutions and in both the interpolations of the seven epistles of Ignatius and the six spurious epistles attributed to the Bishop of Antioch, suggested the identification of the Pseudo-Clement with the Pseudo-Ignatius, a view which has won general acceptance, yet not without some hesitancy which may not be dispelled until the problem of the sources of the eighth book is solved. Efforts tending to a further identification of the author of this extensive and truly remarkable literature of interpolations have not been successful. That he was a cleric may be taken for granted, and a cleric not favorably disposed to ascetical practices. That he was not rigidly orthodox—for he uses the language of Subordinationismis also evident; yet he was not an extreme Arian. But whether he was an Apollinarian, as Dr. Funk would infer from his insistence in denying the human soul of Our Lord, or a Semi-Arian, or even a well-meaning Nicaean whose language reflects the unsettled views held by not a few of his misguided contemporaries, cannot be determined. For, whatever his theological views were, he does not seem to be a partisan or the champion of any sect; nor has he any disciplinary hobby which he would foist on his brethren in the name of Apostolic authority. Syria would appear to be the place of origin of this work, and the interest of the compiler in men and things of Antioch would point to that city as the center of his activities. His interest in the Ignatian Epistles, his citation of the Syro-Macedonian calendar, his use of the so-called Council of Antioch as one of the chief sources of the “Apostolic Canons“, and his construction of a liturgy on Antiochene lines confirm the theory of Syrian origin. Its date is likewise difficult to determine with accuracy. The earliest terminus a quo would be the Council of Antioch in 341. But the reference to Christmas in the catalogue of feasts (V, 13; VIII, 33) seems to postulate a date later than 376, when St. Epiphanius, who knew the Didascalia, in the enumeration of feasts found in his work against heresies makes no mention of the December feast, which in fact was not celebrated in Syria until about 378. If the compiler was of Arian tendencies he could not have written much later than the death of Valens (378). The absence of references to either the Nestorian or the Monophysite heresies precludes the possibility of a date later than the early fifth century. The most probable opinion dates the compilation about the year 380, without excluding the possibility of a date two decades earlier or later. (See Canon Law; Antiochene Liturgy; Saint Clement of Rome; Apostolic Canons.)


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