Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XIV:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The First Ecumenical Council: The First Council of Nice.: Canon XVIII
It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and order. And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.
p. 39 Notes.
Ancient Epitome of Canon XVIII.
Deacons must abide within their own bounds. They shall not administer the Eucharist to presbyters, nor touch it before them, nor sit among the presbyters. For all this is contrary to canon, and to decent order.
Four excesses of deacons this canon condemns, at least indirectly. The first was that they gave the holy Communion to presbyters. To understand more easily the meaning of the canon it must be remembered that the reference here is not to the presbyters who were sacrificing at the altar but to those who were offering together with the bishop who was sacrificing; by a rite not unlike that which to-day takes place, when the newly ordained presbyters or bishops celebrate mass with the ordaining bishop; and this rite in old times was of daily occurrence, for a full account of which see Morinus De SS. Ordinat. P. III. Exercit. viij.…The present canon does not take away from deacons the authority to distribute the Eucharist to laymen, or to the minor clergy, but only reproves their insolence and audacity in presuming to administer to presbyters who were concelebrating with the bishop or another presbyter.…
The second abuse was that certain deacons touched the sacred gifts before the bishop. The vulgar version of Isidore reads for “touched” “received,” a meaning which Balsamon and Zonaras also adopt, and unless the Greek word, which signifies “to touch,” is contrary to this translation, it seems by no means to be alien to the context of the canon.
“Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let the bishop or the presbyter administer to them.” In these words it is implied that some deacons had presumed to receive Holy Communion before the presbyters, and this is the third excess of the deacon which is condemned by the Synod.
And lastly, the fourth excess was that they took a place among the presbyters at the very time of the sacrifice, or “at the holy altar,” as Balsamon observes.
From this canon we see that the Nicene fathers entertained no doubt that the faithful in the holy Communion truly received “the body of Christ.” Secondly, that that was “offered” in the church, which is the word by which sacrifice is designated in the New Testament, and therefore it was at that time a fixed tradition that there was a sacrifice in which the body of Christ was offered. Thirdly that not to all, nor even to deacons, but only to bishops and presbyters was given the power of offering. And lastly, that there was recognized a fixed hierarchy in the Church, made up of bishops and presbyters and deacons in subordination to these.
Of course even at that early date there was nothing new in this doctrine of the Eucharist. St. Ignatius more than a century and a half before, wrote as follows: “But mark ye those who hold strange doctrine touching the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us, how that they are contrary to the mind of God. They have no care for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from eucharist (thanksgiving) and prayer, because they allow not that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.” 100
In one point the learned scholiast just quoted has most seriously understated his case. He says that the wording of the canon shews “that the Nicene fathers entertained no doubt that the faithful in the holy Communion truly received the body of Christ.” Now this statement is of course true because it is included in what the canon says, but the doctrinal statement which is necessarily contained in the canon is that “the body of Christ is given” by the minister to the faithful. This doctrine is believed by all Catholics and by Lutherans, but is denied by all other Protestants; those Calvinists who kept most nearly to the ordinary Catholic phraseology only admitting that “the sacrament of the Body of Christ” was given in the supper by the minister, while “the body of Christ,” they taught, was present only in the soul of the worthy communicant (and in no way connected with the form of bread, which was but the divinely appointed sign and assurance of the heavenly gift), and therefore could not be “given” by the priest. 101
This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Decretum. Pars I. Dist. XCIII., c. xiv.
Ignat. Ad Smyr. § vi. Lightfoots translation. Apost. Fath. Vol. II. Sec. I. p. 569.39:101
Cf. Art. xxviij. of the “Articles of Religion” of the Church of England, which declares that “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper,” etc.
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