Canon - purpose of early councils

Many non-Catholics deny the assertion that the early councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, through the working of the Holy Spirit, defined the canon of scripture with their own version of how the Holy Spirit worked through the communities to form the canon of scripture. While I have never been able to grasp this understanding, i continue to try to respect their belief.

My question is, to those who deny the claim of the Catholic Church and the authority of these early councils to define the canon, if these councils did not do what the Catholic Church claims, then what was the purpose of these councils?


Great question, will be interested to see the response’s you get, I’m here to learn.

The issue is not, at least for me, one of what those councils intended to do, but whether or not they are binding on the whole Church Catholic as truly ecumenical councils. ISTM that is not for the Catholic church in communion with the Bishop of Rome to decide. AFAIK, the other patriarchates did not and do not consider them such, but instead local synods.

Now, none of this is to diminish the view they present of the canon of scripture, but there are some things to consider:

  1. the Deuterocanonical books were not universally attested in the early Church. Without speaking for other communions, Lutherans take this into account when we consider these otherwise very important part of our scriptural heritage.
  2. even excluding the Reformation era communions, there has never been a universally agreed-upon canon. Various EO churches have varying canons.
  3. Even the use of the term canon can be applied in different ways regarding scripture.
    For example, Cardinal Cajetan did not consider the DC’s equal to the balance of scripture, but was able to call them canon because of their use liturgically. Using that definition, Lutherans could do the same, considering the our usage of them in hymnody, as well.


This gives an explanation:

So, at both the councils of Hippo (393) and at Carthage (397), the North African bishops worked out the final canon of the both the Old and New Testaments for the universal Church. This is the present canon of the Catholic Church, which the North Africans then submitted to Rome for final ratification. Now, we’re not sure when this final ratification was given, but we do know that, by A.D. 405, Pope St. Innocent I was promoting the so-called “canon of Carthage” (397) throughout the Western Church. Rome would also have sent rescripts of its decison (final ratification of the Carthaginian canon) to Alexandria, the 2nd See of the universal Church and the primate in the East, with the expectation that Alexandria (as Eastern primate)would disseminate it throughout the East.

Now, this was modified somewhat when, at both the Byzantine Council of Trullo (692) and the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II (787), both the church of Constantinople and the church of Antioch (along with Rome and Alexandria) recognized the binding canons of the Council of Carthage (397). This of course included the Carthaginian Biblical canon, which is thus TECHNICALLY binding on the modern Eastern Orthodox Church.

Hi Jon, thank you for your response and explanation which I have heard from you before and can respect and even grasp your position as to the authority of, or lack of, the councils. However your 1st statement above in bold is exactly the point of this thread. I realize it’s not an issue for you but it is the question I would like to get answers on from you and other non-Catholics.


Understood. From the Council of Carthage

Canon 24. (Greek xxvii.)

That nothing be read in church besides the Canonical Scripture

Item, that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.

But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows:

Joshua the Son of Nun.
The Judges.
The Kings, iv. books.
The Chronicles, ij. books.
The Psalter.
The Five books of Solomon.
The Twelve Books of the Prophets.
Ezra, ij. books.
Macchabees, ij. books.
The New Testament.
The Gospels, iv. books.
The Acts of the Apostles, j. book.
The Epistles of Paul, xiv.
The Epistles of Peter, the Apostle, ij.
The Epistles of John the Apostle, iij.
The Epistles of James the Apostle, j.
The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, j.
The Revelation of John, j. book.
Let this be sent to our brother and fellow bishop, Boniface, and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.

I think the bolded states their purpose.


And remember, that Lamentations and Baruch were originally considered appendices to the Book of Jeremiah, the four books of Kings include 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings, and the 2 books of Ezra include Ezra and Nehemiah. The 5 books of Solomon are Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, and Wisdom of Sirach. And the letters of St. Paul include the letter to the Hebrews (which doesn’t even attribute itself to him).

It does give an explanation, but one which omits rather a lot of crucial context, and pretends that the C5th Church was a singular hierarchy under the bishop of Rome, and that other patriarchates did Rome’s bidding.

First, this was a period in which East and West were not on the best of terms: there had been mutual excommunications in the 340s, the complicated issue of the double archepiscopacy of Antioch (wherein Alexandria and Rome recognised Paulinus, while much of the East recognised Meletius, and so different parts of the patriarchate of Antioch were in communion with different parts of the rest of Christendom), the Council of Constantinople in 381 (over which Meletius presided and to which Rome was apparently not even invited), and the further East-West dispute over Flavian of Antioch. All of this tangled web was only sorted out in 398, when Meletius died. The East acted not only without Rome’s consent or involvement, but directly against Rome.

That was also when John Chrysostom was made Patriarch of Constantinople, and it might be worth mentioning that it was Constantinople, not Alexandria, which the Council in 381 had defined as the second highest in honour, because it was “the new Rome”, i.e. the new imperial capital (see also Chalcedon 451 for this Eastern, wholly non-Petrine view of Rome’s importance). Unfortunately, Chrysostom got on the wrong side of Empress Eudoxia and Theophilus of Alexandria, and so was synodically deposed and then exiled (twice). Councils ruled the East.

To help him, Innocent of Rome wrote to Constantinople, appealing to the canons “which were defined at Nicæa, to which alone the Catholic Church is bound to pay obedience and recognition.” Innocent also tried (pp.493-6), unsuccessfully, to convince Theophilus to convoke a new council to discuss the deposing of Chrysostom. Innocent then severed communion with Alexandria, leading to one of the canons of Carthage’s 11th synod, in 407, being that “Letters shall be addressed to Pope Innocent with regard to the division between the Roman and Alexandrian Churches (caused by the deposition of Chrysostom), that peace may be again restored.” Councils also worked as the primary organs of Church unity, because they brought bishops together.

while Alexandria apparently (as it always did) followed the lead of Rome and accepted the Carthaginian canon

Actually, Athanasius of Alexandria had set out the New Testament canon in 367, and so Alexandria were leading Rome, and their adherence to that list was to their greatest ever patriarch. Also, as mentioned above with respect to Theophilus, they did not always get on with Rome (see also when patriarch Dioscuros of Alexandria decided to “pronounce a sentence of excommunication on Leo” some forty years later, and the thirty-five-year Acacian Schism).

Now, this was modified somewhat when, at both the Byzantine Council of Trullo (692) and the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II (787), both the church of Constantinople and the church of Antioch (along with Rome and Alexandria) recognized the binding canons of the Council of Carthage (397). This of course included the Carthaginian Biblical canon, which is thus TECHNICALLY binding on the modern Eastern Orthodox Church.

Well, sort of, in as much as Nicaea 787 was referring to Carthage 419, which contained the canon list from Carthage 397 (whereas Trullo was referring to Carthage 257). However, it is not entirely reasonable to claim that the bishops at a council were actually consciously aware of each and every act of each and every previous council, especially by the C8th (cf. Zosimus of Rome confusing the acts of Sardica with the acts of Nicaea in 416).

As the blogger mentions, “the simple reality is that the modern Eastern Orthodox Church does not possess a formal, universally-approved Biblical canon”, because no General Council ever explicitly set one out.

What we see in all of this is the role which the councils play. As the authority in the West increasingly centres upon the bishop of Rome, councils become more and more local, and subject to Rome. In stark contrast, the East vests authority in the councils, for example allowing Constantinople 381 to alter the creed but exploding when Rome does likewise with the Filioque.

Thanks Jon. I had asked this question in some recent threads with no response so I thought I should make it ts own thread to get more input. I hope other non-Catholics will share their opinion to their understanding of the intent of these councils.


Hi Mystophilus, do you agree with JonNC above on the intent of these councils? Care to elaborate on that?


Oh, you mean, “What in that extended rant on someone’s revisionist abbreviation of history was relevant to the OP?” :o

Councils were used to regulate the Early Church, either locally (when the attending bishops were from the immediate area) or generally (when the attending bishops came from the whole οικουμενη, Christendom): the vast majority of council canons are not about lists of Scripture, but about what churches, priests, and monasteries can or cannot do. Scriptural canon lists are thus a part of the normal process of the councils forming rules.

Such lists were especially important in the West, because the West did not start off with Scriptures: the Septuagint (Greek OT) was there before Christianity, and then the NT showed up in Greek, but the Latin-speaking West needed translations. Before Jerome’s Vulgate, the West had a multiplicity of locally-made translations, and thus it was felt that some standardisation was in order. That was evidently the intent of those particular canons of those particular councils.

The real historical, ecclesiological issue is thus not that these councils were invalid in any way, but that they were *local *rather than general, hence the East’s never having had a formalised canon. In stark contrast, with the growing centralisation of Western authority in Rome, the approval of Rome progressively developed the effect of generalising rules for the West, until it reached the situation wherein Roman ratification made a decision for the West as a whole.

So, regarding the OP reference to denials of councils in Rome, Carthage, and Hippo’s having defined the canon of Scripture (denials which I have not seen), I would point out that we have historical records of them having done this, but that only the other Western churches adopted the list as their own, which is why such wonders as the 81-book Tewahedo canon exist. In other words, denying that the councils defined a canon would be daft, but admitting that the canon did not bind the whole Early Church is wholly in accordance with historical record.

My understanding of why early councils were called was due to the emperor calling them so that there would be peace within the empire religious wise.

This is largely true of the intent of the General Councils (the ones attended by and thus binding upon everyone), but it did not always work. From the fourth century onwards, there was a lot of religious division in the empire(s).

Hi Mystophilus: I have to agree that was the case and I think it is true of all of the early ecumenical councils.

While it is true that the Emperor did call many of the Ecumenical Councils, he could not excersice any thelogical power over them. The best example of that is the fact that Emperor Constantine, who called the Council of Nicea in 325, was an Arian.

Hi Kjetilk: True but he was able to influence what was said and done in the councils

By getting his own position anathematised?

I have never understood your bellwether reliance upon the Orthodox to determine what you, a Lutheran, should accept as true. I don’t mean that you look at their beliefs and then accept them as your own, but you often say things like, “Well, maybe I will accept the universal jurisdiction of the Pope when the Orthodox do.” What the heck? :shrug:

OF COURSE it is for the Catholic Church (based in Rome) to decide which councils are or are not ecumenical. Otherwise, every heretical splinter group from the Arians and Nestorians on down to the dispensationalists of today would be able to say, “Well, we don’t agree with x, and, of course, we are just as much a part of the true Church as anyone else.”

This actually happened when the Oriental Orthodox churches rejected the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The Catholic Church (based in Rome) went on without them. Later, the Eastern Orthodox would pull the same stunt rejecting Florence. Again, the Catholic Church (based in Rome) continued on without them. It makes no more sense for Rome, Hippo or Carthage to be rejected because of your objections than it does Chalcedon to be rejected because of the objections of the OO.

The Catholic Church (based in Rome) can and does evaluate the beliefs of groups with whom it has conflict to determine whether those beliefs are orthodox or heterodox. In the latter case, efforts are made to win the wayward back; failing that, excommunications ensue.

This is why I object to you and Kjetilk claiming to be “Catholic (not based in Rome)”; you can call yourselves whatever you like, of course, but when the Pope enters the room, we know you will both remain seated. :wink:

Hi Kjetilk: I rather doubt it being an emperor and all his weight carried much in the way some were influenced by him.

But that was exactly what happened. Constantine was an Arian, and Arianism was anathematised at the council he called.

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