Karl Keating on Canon Certainty From Local Church Councils

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Karl Keating’s book Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). Chapter two is dedicated to exposing the errors of Lorraine Boettner’s book on Roman Catholicism.

Keating documents Boettner’s error of attributing the forbidding of the Bible to laymen by the Council of Valencia in 1229. Keating points out this is historically inaccurate. It would be impossible for a council to have occurred at this location at this period in history. Keating does though go the extra mile: he suggests a council which may actually be the source for Boettner’s claim.

Keating notes a council was held in Toulouse France in 1229. Keating specifically notes it was not an ecumenical council (p.45). He then goes on to describe the situation which prompted this council to restrict the use of the Bible. He notes, “Their action was a local one” and it “is hardly the across-the-board prohibition of the Bible” Boettner mentioned (pp. 45-46). Problem solved: Boettner confused a local decree with an ecumenical decree binding on the church for all ages. Case closed.

But not so fast- If one skips a bit further down page 46, one finds Mr. Keating correcting Boettner’s position that the Roman church added the apocrypha to the Bible in 1546. Keating states,

The fact is that the Council of Trent did not add to the Bible what Protestants call the apocryphal books. Instead, the Reformers dropped from the Bible books that had been in common use for centuries. The Council of Trent convened to reaffirm Catholic doctrines and to revitalize the Church, proclaimed that these books always had belonged to the Bible and had to remain in it. After all, it was the Catholic Church, in the fourth century, that officially decided which books composed the canon of the Bible and which did not. The Council of Trent came on the scene about twelve centuries later and merely restated the ancient position (pp. 46-47).

Keating states “it was the Catholic Church, in the fourth century, that officially decided which books composed the canon of the Bible and which did not.” Now if Keating is referring to the councils of Hippo and Carthage, they were provincial councils which did not have ecumenical authority. There’s also the Esdras problem. Hippo and Carthage include a book as canonical that Trent later passed over in silence. So, if Keating has these councils in mind, why is it these local councils were binding on decreeing the canon, while just a few paragraphs earlier, Keating explains local councils aren’t binding on the church for all time?

I’ll go the extra mile for Keating like he did for Boettner. Maybe Keating has the Council of Rome with Pope Damasus in mind. A few years back I read the following from a Roman Catholic blogger:

“It was at the Council of Rome in 382 that St. Pope Damasus decreed the final canon of Scripture. Often, it is said that the Council of Trent codified the canon of Scripture after the reformation, but the evidence points to this early council as the when the canon was finalized. The Council of Trent reiterated the canon in a response to the reformer’s revision of the historic canon” [source].

The canon as allegedly defined by Damasus includes the apocryphal books, so it’s important for Roman Catholics that the statement from this early Pope be used as historical proof for the Bible they claim their church has infallibly defined. Upon closer scrutiny, the distinct position held by the Roman Catholic writer above on the canon is not consistent, nor does the historical record provide any certainty for the beliefs espoused above. The historical record is important in Roman Catholicism, because the claim made by the current batch of Roman Catholic apologists is that Rome provides certainty.

Roman Catholics are supposed to believe conciliar statements which bind all Christians are those put forth by ecumenical councils. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out: “Ecumenical councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians.” Was the Council of Rome an ecumenical council? No it was not. It was a local council. Were the decrees issues by this council then infallible binding pronouncements for the universal church? No. The Catholic Encyclopedia states also, “only the decisions of ecumenical councils and the ex cathedra teaching of the pope have been treated as strictly definitive in the canonical sense, and the function of the magisterium ordinarium has been concerned with the effective promulgation and maintenance of what has been formally defined by the magisterium solemne or may be legitimately deduced from its definitions.” So, in terms of the Council of Rome being a binding council for all, it was not. Here we find that whatever was said at the Council of Rome cannot bind all Christians. Whatever was said at the Council of Rome can provide no certainty for a Roman Catholic. Hence, it cannot be true, in a consistent Roman Catholic paradigm, that the Council of Rome infallibly decreed the final Canon.

But the Pope was at the Council of Rome, was he not? Doesn’t this mean what he said at this local council binds the universal church? In the decree on the Canon, Damasus is reported as saying:

“The holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Here we can infer that the statement on the canon issued by Damasus is infallible because the Roman Church and Pope speak infallibly. But here is a rarely cited fact by the defenders of Rome. The statement above, and indeed, the entire statement from Damasus listing the canonical books, probably didn’t come from Damasus. F.F. Bruce notes,

“What is commonly called the Gelasian decree on books which are to be received and not received takes its name from Pope Gelasius (492-496). It gives a list of biblical books as they appeared in the Vulgate, with the Apocrypha interspersed among the others. In some manuscripts, indeed, it is attributed to Pope Damasus, as though it had been promulgated by him at the Council of Rome in 382. But actually it appears to have been a private compilation drawn up somewhere in Italy in the early sixth century” [F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1988), p. 97).

So this statement from Damasus didn’t actually come from Damasus. In fact, as far as I know, there isn’t a written formal record of the proceedings at the Council of Rome to have certainty exactly what was said or decreed. Much historical speculation then surrounds the decree of the canon by Damasus. The bottom line though, is that Roman Catholics cannot have any certainty on the accuracy of this statement. Of course, they are free to believe it, but they do so on faith, not on historical verification. Thus to be deep in history, is not to be certain that the Roman Catholic Church infallibly defined the Canon in 382.

To make it even a bit more complicated, Tim Staples (who works for Karl Keating as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers) says the canon was dogmatically closed in 1442. Here’s a quick mp3 clip from Dr. White on the Bible Answer Man show with Catholic apologist Tim Staples:

Tim Staples Dogmatically Closes the Canon
Staples dogmatically closes the canon in 1442, while Dr. White says Rome closed it in 1546. Anyone interested in this entire discussion can find the mp3 here -> Part 1 and Part 2.

Ah, what a tangled web they weave.