Council of Arles: Introductory Essay Constantine’s letter Letter to Sylvester Canons of Arles
hi mom
Incipit: Quid decreuerimus
Date: 314
Ancient Source: Select manuscripts from various collections of canon law, including the Corbie, Diessen, Koln, and Rheims collections, and others.
Modern edition used: C. Munier, Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506, (Turnhout: Brepols 1963), pp. 9-13

Note: In the manuscript tradition there is slight variation in the numbering of canons 9-17, as noted below.

The assembly of bishops who were gathered at the town of Arles, to our lord and most holy brother Sylvester:

That which we in common council have decreed, we hereby make known to your most esteemed person, so that also <all> the bishops might know what ought to be observed in the future.

1. In the first place, concerning the celebration of Easter Sunday: That it be observed by us on one day and at one time in all the earth, and that you should send out letters to all, as is the custom.

2. Concerning those who have been ordained ministers in certain places: They are to continue to serve in those same places.

3. Concerning those who lay down their weapons in peacetime,[1] be it resolved that they be excluded from fellowship.

4. Concerning charioteers who are among the faithful, be it resolved that as long as they continue to drive in chariot races they be excluded from fellowship.

5. Concerning actors, be it further resolved that as long as they continue to carry on that occupation they be excluded from fellowship.

6. Concerning those who in time of sickness wish to confess the faith, be it resolved that they ought to receive the laying on of hands.

7. Concerning officials who are among the faithful who serve in the government, be it is resolved thus,  that when they are transferred, they should receive letters of reference from their churches, so that, therefore, in whatever places they serve, they can be cared for by the bishop of that place, and when they begin to act against the church’s discipline, that only then they be excluded from fellowship.

8. Similarly also concerning those who wish to pursue a public career.

9 (8). Concerning the Africans who use their own special law in that they practice rebaptism, it is resolved that if any come to the church from heresy, they question him on the creed (used at his baptism), and if they consider him to have been baptized into the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let him only receive the laying on of hands so that he receive the Holy Spirit; but if when questioned he does not solemnly confess this Trinity, let him be baptized.

10 (9). Concerning those who carry letters from the confessors, be it resolved that, when they have handed over those letters, they receive other letters of reference.

11 (10). Concerning those who apprehend their wives in adultery, and the same persons are faithful youths and are prevented from marrying (again), be it resolved that, as much as is able, they be counseled not to take other wives while their own wives are still living, even if the latter are adulterous.

12 (11). Concerning young women among the faithful who are getting married to unbelievers, be it resolved that they be excluded from fellowship for a considerable period of time.

13 (12). Concerning clergy who lend money at interest, be it resolved that, in accordance with the divinely given model, they be excluded from fellowship.

14 (13). Concerning those who are said to have handed over the Holy Scriptures or sacred vessels or the names of their brothers, be it resolved by us that any of those who from the public records, not from words alone, are discovered to have done so be removed from the office of the clergy. But if that same person who was exposed has ordained others, and the affairs of those ordained are all in order, let their ordination not be revoked. And whereas there were many who seemed to fight against the church and who thought they could disprove the accusations made against them by the testimony of paid witnesses they should not be cast out altogether, but only, as stated above, if their guilt is shown by public records.[2]

15 (14). Concerning those who have falsely accused their brothers, be it resolved that they not be given fellowship as long as they live.

16 (15). Concerning deacons who we have learned are conducting services in many places, be it resolved that this ought to happen as little as possible.

17 (16). Concerning those who have been excluded from fellowship because of their own wrongdoing, be it resolved thus, that in whatever place they have been excluded, they must be re-admitted to fellowship in that same place (17), so that no bishop oversteps another bishop.

18. Concerning the deacons of a city[3]: That they not presume too much for themselves, but reserve honor for the presbyters, so that they do nothing of importance without the presbyter’s knowledge.

19. Concerning foreign bishops who are accustomed to come into a city[3], be it resolved that they be given a place where they can conduct services.

20. Concerning those who assume that they have the right individually by themselves to ordain a bishop, be it resolved that no one presume to do this by himself; but only if there are an additional seven bishops with him; if, however, it is not possible <to have seven present>, they dare not ordain someone with less than three bishops present.

21. Concerning presbyters and deacons who were accustomed to leave the place where they were ordained and have gone to different <places>, be it resolved that they serve in those places; but if, they leave these places and wish to transfer themselves to yet another locale, they should be deposed.

22. Concerning those who apostasize and never present themselves again to the church, neither seeking to do acts of repentance nor even afterwards; if then they are seized by sickness and seek to be received into fellowship, be it resolved that they not be given fellowship, unless they recover their strength and bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.

Subscriptions (cf. Munier, pp.14-22).


[1] Various explanations have been suggested: a) the most obvious reading of the text is that this supports the duty of Christians to serve in the army even during peacetime; b) that this canon was passed in support of pacifism and that the text is corrupt (note in bello suggested by Surius); c) that in pace refers to the new peace between the Empire and the Church, enjoining Christians to continue to do their duty as citizens (According to Marrou [and Pietri seems to agree], in pace means “under the Christian Empire.” See also Harnack, pp. 87-88.); d) that this somehow refers to gladiators (note id est gladiatur in T), as Canons 4 and 5 refer to charioteers and actors; if so, however, further corruptions must have occurred, since the present reading would enjoin gladiators (or Christians brought into the arena) to fight!

It would seem that the best interpretation would be to take it as it reads. During the persecutions of the preceding quarter century, the military was called upon to carry out the edicts. This must have created a dilemma among Christians in the military and led to many Christians either deserting the army or refusing to obey orders. Now that Christianity had been legalized, there was no longer reason for such desertions. The synod merely underlines this fact, reminding Christians that they have no further cause for shirking their responsibility to serve in the army.

[2] The meaning is unclear; Hefele-Leclerq make this apply to the affair of Felix of Abtughi: The accusers who, contrary to all the rules of the church, have with money procured witnesses in order to prove their accusations (against the adversaries of Felix), must absolutely be rejected unless they can prove their grievances by public actions.

[3] There are two possible interpretations: 1) “a city” – meaning that in urban settings where there are multiple clergy, the deacons should not do the w ork of presbyters, and that visiting clergy be allowed to hold their own services (perhaps because of language differences); or (2) “the City,”, i.e. Rome.  That in mega-city of Rome there was need for special rules because of the multitude of clergy.  The former seems the more likely interpretation for a council held in Gaul, but since the bishop of Rome did have delegates present, it is possible that he asked for special rulings to be made for the capital city.


Harnack, Adolf von., Militia Christi die christliche Religion und der Soldatenstand in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Tübingen: Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1905)

Clerq, Charles de, Henri Leclercq, P. Richard, Karl Joseph von Hefele, and Auguste Michel, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux (Paris: Letouzey, 1952)

Marrou, H.I., Christiana tempora. Mélanges d’histoire, d’archéologie, d’épigraphie et de patristique [recueil d’articles]. Collection de l’École française de Rome 35 (Roma: École française de Rome, 1978)

Munier, C., Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506, (Turnhout: Brepols 1963)

Pietri, Charles. Roma Christiana: recherches sur l’Eglise de Rome, son organisation, sa politique, son idéologie de Miltiade à Sixte III (311-440). Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 224. (Roma: École Française de Rome, 1976).

Translation/Notes by GLT

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