The first words of the troparion to St Nicholas extol him as a “rule of faith”. The word “rule” here is a translation of the Greek word “kanon” (often written in English as “canon”), a word used by St Paul and others which originally meant something like a ruler, a measuring rod, or a straight edge. From there it would come to mean different things in different contexts, but all of these would carry the general idea of a norm or ideal.
In regard to the Bible canon refers to the books that are included in the Church’s scriptures. From at least the second century the term is used by the Church to mean the Rule of Faith, i.e. that which defines the Church’s faith in regard to belief in God, Christ, etc. It is what Christians believe and confess essentially, what will become over time our Credal affirmation confessed most especially at Baptism and in the Liturgy.
We could go on and explore several other ways in which the Church uses the term canon, for example, as norms determined by Church Councils for dealing with pastoral situations. But we are thinking about canon right now because, as we noted, the troparion to St Nicholas begins by calling him a “rule of faith.”
Now I, for one, find this remarkable. The canon of Scripture? Sure. The Creed as a canon of faith? Of course. The rulings of Ecumenical Councils as canons of faith and life and practice? Okay. But what does it mean to call a saint a rule of faith? It means, quite simply and quite beautifully, that if we want to know what a Christian is, we can point to the saint and say, “There! Look! That is what a Christian is.”
St Silouan the Athonite once wrote that if:
...for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all her books, of the Old and New Testament, the works of the holy Fathers, of all service books.... Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps – the verbal form might be different – but in essence the new Scriptures would be the expression of that same 'faith which was once delivered unto the Saints'.
St Silouan is not saying that a restoration of the Scriptures would be possible because the saints have memorized the Bible and could thus reproduce it. Rather, the Scriptures could be restored precisely because the saints are themselves a rule of faith. The Gospel, the commandments of Christ, and the Orthodox Faith are not something external to them. Instead, with St Paul, they are “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
To call St Nicholas or any of the saints a rule of faith means that they have become, in a sense, "little Christs." Their lives have become so united to His life that they can say with St Paul, "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." And thus, also with St Paul, can they say, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
“Following the Holy Fathers”... This is not a reference to some abstract tradition, in formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to holy witnesses. Indeed, we appeal to the Apostles, and not just to an abstract “Apostolicity.” In the similar manner do we refer to the Fathers. The witness of the Fathers belongs, intrinsically and integrally, to the very structure of Orthodox belief. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogma of the Fathers. We may quote at this point an admirable ancient hymn (probably, from the pen of St. Romanus the Melode). “Preserving the kerygma of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers, the Church has sealed the one faith and wearing the tunic of truth she shapes rightly the brocade of heavenly theology and praises the great mystery of piety.”
-Fr George Florovsky