over the question of the validity of schismatic and heretical baptisms, the inherent conflict between local episcopal control and general norms, whether established by a centralised authority or councils, raised an issue of ecclesiology and obedience that would bedevil the church for centuries. Cyprian's response to Pope Stephen in 256, after his council had rejected the validity of heretical baptisms, reveals his ambivalence towards any conception of canonical rules or norms that would govern the entire church:

We are not forcing anyone in this matter; we are laying down no law (legem).

For every appointed leader has in his government of the Church the freedom to exercise his own will and judgment, while having one day to render an account of his conduct to the Lord.10

Cyprian recognised no system of canon law and, if he had been asked the question (anachronistically), he would probably have opposed the idea that the church should have a uniform system of law to which the clergy and laity would be subject.

By the fourth century bishops had established themselves as administrators of local churches. They also recognised their role in governing the affairs of nearby churches in councils as well as their responsibility to confront questions that touched upon the interests ofthe universal church. In the East and the West councils became the main vehicles for promulgating norms that regulated the lives of clergy and the organisation of the churches.

It is during the fourth century that the enactments that these assemblies produced became called 'canons', from the Greek word 'Kaváv', which became 'canon' in Latin. In Greek 'canon' did not mean 'law' but simply a 'straight rod' or a 'rule'.11 As we shall see, the primary focus of conciliar legislation in the fourth century was the structure of church and clerical discipline. The earliest council for which we have a set of legislative decrees is one that was held c. 306 in Elvira (Iliberri), a small town that once existed near Granada, Spain. This council issued rulings that dealt with a wide range of matters, from clerical celibacy to apostasy. Although the eighty-one canons commonly attributed to the council may be the product of several subsequent fourth-century councils in Iberia, it is clear that the focus of the canons was on the sexual mores of the clergy and laity.12 Elvira was the first Western council to stipulate that priests should be celibate. Its canons, however, did not circulate widely.

10 Cyprian, Letter 72.3, 2 (trans. ACW 47: 54); see Hess, Early development, 19, 32-3.

11 See H. Ohme, Kanon ekklesiastikos.

12 Hess, Early development, 40-2, discusses the textual problems of the legislation at Elvira.

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