On Law, Grace and the Holy Canons

PatsavosDr. Lewis Patsavos, Professor Emeritus of Canon Law

What is said about the Holy Canons comes at a time when there is much confusion about the character and role of the canons in the Church. This sense of confusion is due mainly to the spirit of secularism which pervades our society…

The pastoral ministry of the Church has always been based upon Holy Canons, which constitute the Church’s law. Nevertheless, the relationship between pastoral ministry and the canons is not always correctly understood. The result is that we are sometimes directed towards antinomianism, which is the autonomous exercise of pastoral ministry in the absence of the canons, and other times towards legalism, i.e., the exercise of pastoral ministry according to the letter of the canons only, in a legalistic, juridical way.

The adoption and application of the Holy Canons by the Church as her law coincides with the teaching of Holy Scripture that the Law, which is an expression of grace, is a gift of God to His people. It has an instructive and pastoral character, which helps elevate and free the believer in Christ.

When one understands the true character of the Law in Holy Scripture and the relationship between law and grace, one also correctly understands the relationship between the Holy Canons and pastoral ministry. Understood in this way, pastoral ministry is protected from the two dangerous extremes of legalism and antinomianism.

An overview of the theology of law in the Old and New Testaments reveals the following conclusions:

  1. The Law of the Old Testament is not in substance detrimental, even though it is incomplete and temporary. The Law has a pastoral and soteriological character. Even the incomplete law of the Old Testament is necessary as a “pedagogue in Christ”. As decreed by the 82nd Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod: “Therefore, embracing the ancient types, and the shadows, as symbols of the truth and patterns given to the Church, we prefer grace and receiving it as a fulfillment of the Law” (Gal. 3:19-25).
  2. The Law is not some beneficial human invention, but an expression of God’s revealed will for humankind (Ex. 24:12; Lev. 24:22).
  3. The Law is a means and not an end. By applying the law in humility, a person can be elevated to a relationship of love towards God and fellow human beings. In such a relationship one receives divine grace, the life of God, and salvation (1 Tim. 1:8-11).
  4. Misuse of the Law by transforming it from a means to an end becomes spiritually fatal for a person. However, the Law is not responsible for this misinterpretation (Rom. 7:6-16, 9:30-32).
  5. The Lord reveals the true content of the misinterpreted Law of the Old Testament and indicates that its true character is to be found in love. Love and decrees of law are in a relationship of substance and form (Mt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10).
  6. True freedom for the believer is not to be found in discarding the law, which is lawlessness, but in preserving it by living in love as responsible freedom towards God and fellow human beings (Rome. 6:15-18; Jas. 1:25).

According to the patristic interpretation of Scripture, there is no contradiction between law and Grace; rather, law constitutes an expression of grace. (Patsavos, L. J., Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons, pp. 60-63)