Liber Canonum

An outline of the Armenian Liber Canonum

Armenia was evangelized and its Church was organized by St. Gregory the Illuminator. In 314 St. Gregory went to Caesarea and was consecrated there as bishop and head of the Armenian Church by the Metropolitan or Exarch Leontius of that city. In his missionary labours Gregory received assistance from the Church of Caesarea and the neighboring churches to the west and to the south of the country.

According to the 6th canon of the Council of Nicaea the Exarch of Caesarea had supervisory jurisdiction over the missionary districts to the east of the Exarchate. Consequently, for about 60 years after the consecration of St. Gregory as Catholicos or the chief bishop of the newly organized hierarchy, his successors were ordained by the Exarchs of Caesarea. However, once in office, the consecration of bishops within the jurisdiction of the Armenian Church was the prerogative of the Catholicos, who established new dioceses as the Church extended its influence and its work, convened Episcopal synods, sent missionaries to the neighboring territories in the north and in the east and supervised their administration.

After the year 373, open canonical ties with Caesarea were severed. The Church had become sufficiently strong and mature, its clergy had increased in numbers and its authority had been firmly established. Political considerations were also operative in this movement for ecclesiastical independence. Armenia was within the sphere of the influence of the Persian Empire which did not countenance the close ties between the Armenians and the Romans of Byzantium. Thus many factors became operative within the country and in the Church to make the latter self-governing and canonically independent. This de facto independence was gradually consolidated and the Council of Shahapivan in the year 444 ruled that the candidates for consecration to the episcopate needed only the approval of the Armenian Catholicos.

In these circumstances the collections of canons prevalent in and organized by the Greek Church in the West and in the Syrian Church in the south were accepted and used in the Armenian Church also. The canons of the Council of Nicaea were brought to Armenia by the son and successor of St. Gregory, Aristakes, who had taken part in the Council. During the fourth and fifth centuries the canons of other councils as well as collections of various Apostolic Canons were in use. By the middle of the fifth century collections of canons were translated into Armenian together with or after the Bible and other liturgical and patristic literature. Towards the end of the fifth century there already was a collection of canons comprising 114 articles taken from the following groups:

of the Apostles (of Syriac origin)
of Nicaea
of Ancyra
of Caesarea
of Neocaesarea
of Gangra
of Antioch
of Laodicea
of Shahapivan
These canons except the Canons of the Apostles in 34 articles and those of Shahapivan (Armenian), were contained in the earliest Byzantine corpus attributed to Stephan of Ephesus. It is thought that this corpus was put together at the end of the fourth century and comprised 166 canons, including the Apostolic canons (Greek), which appeared in the Armenian corpus comparatively later. In the sixth century the Byzantine Codex was augmented with the canons of the Council of Ephesus, those of Chalcedon, the canons of St. Basil and sections from the laws of Justinian added by John Scholasticus. Of these the canons of Chalcedon could not have found a place in the Armenian Codex because the Armenians did not formally recognize this Council. The canons of St Basil, of St Athanasius together with those of St Gregory the Illuminator were, however, taken into the collections. The final determination of the contents of the corpus was made in the third decade of the eighth century by Catholicos Hovhan Odznetsi. Odznetsi brought together 21 groups of canons in a codex which he published with a short preamble. The following are the headings included in the Liber Canonum of Hovhan Odznetsi:


1. Apostolic Canons (Syrian), 34
2. Second Apostolic Canons of Clement (Greek), 85
3. Post-Apostolic Fathers, 27

Ecumenical Councils:
1. Nicaean, 20
2. Constantinopolitan, 3
3. Ephesian, 6

Local Councils:
1. Ancyra, 25
2. Caesarea, 10
3. Neocaesarea, 20
4. Gangra, 23
5. Antioch, 25
6. Laodicea, 55
7. Sardica, 21

Armenian Councils:
1. Shahapivan, 20
2. Dvin II, 37

Decretals of Armenian Fathers:
1. Gregory the Illuminator, 30
2. Sahak Partev, 51
3. Hovhannes Mandakuni, 9
4. Abraham Mamikonian, 3
5. Sahak Dzoraporetsi,25
6. Hovhan Odznetsi, 32

By the end of the 10th century we find 16 more groups of canons introduced into the Codex, making a total of 40 headings. After the year 1098 we see yet 17 more additional groups of canons incorporated into the Codex. Finally, extending from the end of the eleventh century to the end of the fourteenth, the Codex was increased to 78 chapters, comprising 1,544 individual canons in all. The most recent additions to the Codex were made by Georg Erzenkatsi (+1416) who augmented the 65 groups by 13 more chapters. The year of the latest writing among the 78 chapters of the Codex is 1166. It is a paragraph from the inaugural encyclical of Catholicos Nerses IV Glayetsi, who held office from 1166 to 1173. The second section of the Codex has the following groups of canons:

Non-Armenian sources:
1. Thaddeus the Apostle, 32
2. Philipus the Apostle, 8
3. Second Council of Antioch, 9
4. Ephrem the Syrian, 8
5. Cyril of Alexandria, 5
6. Epiphanius of Cyprus, 5
7. Third Council of Antioch, 1
8. Second Council of Nicaea, 114
9. Basil of Caesarea, 272
10. Gregory the Theologian, 30
11. Macarius of Jerusalem, 9
12. Dionysius of Athens, 1
13. Epiphanius of Cyprus (again), 3
14. John of Jerusalem, 1
17. Melito of Sardis, 1
18. Athanasius of Alexandria (again), 1
19. Severianus, 1;
20. Socrates, 2
21. Dionysius Aeropagite, 1
22. Manuel, 1
23. Clement of Rome,1

Armenian sources:
1. Sion of Bawon, 23
2. Eghishe vartapet, 1
3. Vachakan of Aghuank, 21
4. Council of Dvin (645), 12
5. Sahak Partev, 1;
6. Hovhannes Mandakuni, 1
7. Council of Karin, 9
8. Manuel III of Ishkhan, 43
9. Hovhannes Mandakuni (again), 7
10. Gregory the Theologian, 30
11. Macarius of Jerusalem, 9
12. Dionysius of Athens, 1
13. Epiphanius of Cyprus (again), 3
14. John of Jerusalem, 1
17. Melito of Sardis, 1
18. Athanasius of Alexandria (again), 1
19. Severianus, 1;
20. Socrates, 2
21. Dionysius Aeropagite, 1
22. Manuel, 1
23. Clement of Rome,1

The third section of the Liber Canonum contains the following:

The Mosaic Code, which was introduced into the Codex during the Arabic domination of Armenia, extending from the middle of the 7th to the middle of the 9th century. It has been translated from the Syriac and then adapted to the social conditions of Armenia. The code is based on the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deutoronomy as developed in the Talmudic literature. The Mosaic Code was translated from the Greek into Armenian a second time in the 12th century.

The Syro-Roman Code, which has taken its origin sometime during the 5th century in Asia Minor. The date of its introduction into Armenia is not certain. The prevailing opinion is that Armenians began to make use of it during the 12th century.

The third civil legislation which has found its way into the Liber Canonum is the Roman Code, which is taken partly from Justinians Civil Code, i.e., the Corpus Iuris Civilis, and partly from the code known as Ecloga, enacted during the time of the Isaurian emperors of Byzantium. This compilation has been introduced into Armenia during the ninth century.

Apart from these three compilations of civil laws, the third section of the Liber Canonum contains also two other collections of laws compiled by Armenian jurists to meet the requirements of their time. One of these is the Code of David Alawka, comprising articles published early in the 12th century not long before the year 1139. The other is the Code of Mekhitar Gosh, compiled around the year 1148. It contains a preamble of 11 articles, 124 Church canons and 130 articles of civil and criminal law. This second code is the more important of the two. It has been widely accepted and used down to the beginning of the 17th century in many Armenian communities.

During the 19th century political and social events of crucial significance for the eastern as well as for the western sections of the Armenian Church, under the Persian and Ottoman rules respectively, produced drastic changes in the judicial organization of the Church. The eastern part of Armenia was occupied by the Russians and was incorporated in the Tsarist Empire in 1828. Not long after the occupation, in1836, and following negotiations of several years, a Church Constitution came into being and was ratified by the Tsar and the Catholicos. This Constitution brought the eastern dioceses of the Church as well as the Catholicate of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin, under the tight control of the Tsarist government. This Constitution, called POLOZHENIE in Russian, created a permanent Synod, composed of bishops and prelates, which sat in Etchmiadzin. A representative of the government, with the title of procurator, attended the meetings of the Synod regularly. Participation of laymen in the affairs of the Church was confined to the stewardship of economic matters in the parishes.

In the western part of the Church under Ottoman rule a National Constitution was established in 1863. This Constitution, granted by a Muslim power after three years of study and negotiations, was based on the principle that a religious community, as a people and as an ethnic minority, is in itself a juridical entity and has the inherent right to administer its own internal affairs in accordance with its own customs and usages. By the application of these principles the National Constitution reduced drastically the traditional canonical authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople and of the bishops and the clergy generally. It established the rule of popular general election of all candidates for sacred office in the Church. It created organs for the government of the Church almost completely dominated by laymen. The National Assembly of Deputies mainly composed by laymen and presided over by the Patriarch was recognized by the state as being the higher representative body and governing authority for the internal administration of the Armenian Nation throughout the Ottoman Empire.

With the events, however, resulting from the First World War both these constitutions, the one of 1836 and the one of 1863 in Russia and Turkey respectively, were nullified and the institutions created by them went out of existence. Part of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was massacred by the Government forces and the rest were scattered to many parts of the world.

After the Second World War the desire arose to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the two constitutions. Attempts were made at Etchmiadzin to frame a new constitution for the whole Church, a kind of Charta Magna or fundamental law of the Armenian Church to be applied equally in Armenia and the Diaspora. A draft was prepared and distributed to the bishops and their diocesan councils in 1958 for consideration and comment. But the draft did not elicit generally favorable response and was consequently withdrawn in 1962 in a session of the periodic Church Assembly held in Etchmiadzin.At present every diocese is governed by makeshift regulations adapted to their local conditions.

The Sources of the Liber Canonum of the Armenian Catholic Church

Besides the Kanonagirk Hayotc the Armenian Catholic Church recognizes all the Councils of the Catholic Church. However, the Armenian Catholic Church after its approval from the Holy See in 1742 has had other legislations that organize the life of the Church. The sources of the Armenian Catholic Church are:

Constitution of the Pope Gregory XVI Inter Gravissimum. (February 3, 1832 for the Armenians of Constantinople).
Constitution of Pope Pius IX Reversurus. (July 12, 1867).
Synod of Bzommar in 1851.
Synod of Qadi-Ki in 1890.
Synod of Rome in 1911. It was approved by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on September 14th, 1913.


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