Reviewing Wright’s Universal Apologia: Part 4


This is the fourth in a series reviewing John C. Wright’s A Universal Apologia for the Catholic Church. See the index.

In this part, we continue the discussion on the biblical canon and argue that history and the Roman Catholic’s actions undermined its own authority to determine canon and that the exercise of undue authority is corrupting.

The Message

Wright explains how the Holy Spirit and the written message itself are insufficient to authenticate the message if you selectively ignore certain parts of the written message and all of the oral message. He drives home the point:

The Protestants respond that there was a time before the message become corrupted, and the Roman messenger from that time could be trusted, but the later messengers could not. You ask them how they know the early message existed at all? Their only answer yet again is to say they take the word for it of the early Roman messenger.


As far as I am concerned, the argument is definitively over at that point: if the one has no authority and no source of information aside from the other, then the one cannot logically be in a position to overrule the other, or claim his information is better, or his authority higher. It is logically impossible.

First, if two parties have the exactly same information, then neither party has an advantage. Neither party can overrule the other, assuming they agree on—not merely possess—the evidence. But if they don’t agree—and they don’t—then everything hinges on the evidence itself and nothing hinges on this logical conclusion that depends on that agreement.

Second, Rome claims that all messengers belong to itself, just as it claims complete continuity from the origin to today, both in terms of the chain-of-custody (called “apostolic succession”)[1] and in terms of the church itself. But citing this continuity to counteract the claim that it was corrupted is circular reasoning. Again, this leads to a stalemate, with everything hinging on the evidence itself. So we reject the question-begging premise of an “early Roman messenger.”

If the message is authentic (in reality), then no authority can make it authentic: it is authentic regardless. If the message is not authentic (in reality), then no amount of apostolic authority or faith can override that. Authority is irrelevant to the reality of canonicity.[2] An authority can merely confirm for another what the authenticity already was: it is at best descriptive and not prescriptive at all. The only roadblock is a personal and arbitrary one: do you demand an Appeal to Authority. Rather than authority, it is the evidence (if any) that matters.

Let’s explore the evidence. How can we know that the early message existed at all? To answer this, we have to look at the Old Testament (or the Jewish Tanakh), the deuterocanonicals, and the New Testament separately.

Old Testament

By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament existed in its original Hebrew and (possibly expanded) Greek Septuagint. In his ministry, Jesus commonly used and quoted the Greek translation. Although there has never been a universal established Jewish canon and none of the later extant Septuagint codices contain the same combination of books, this did not stop Jesus from using it authoritatively or Paul from declaring that it was “breathed out by God.”

Historically speaking, what happened is that there were two canons of the Old Testament proposed by Jewish scholars and authorities. One was the Alexandrian canon, which predates the Incarnation, and is the one quoted by Christ. The other was compiled by the Pharisees a century or two after the Crucifixion.

This is not only incorrect, but exactly backwards. Timothy Lim explains:

By the first century, it is clear that the Pharisees held to the twenty-two or twenty-four book canon, and it was this canon that eventually became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism because the majority of those who founded the Jewish faith after the destruction of Jerusalem were Pharisees.

The canon the Pharisees used was already determined and in use before Jesus’ ministry began. It was the Greek Septuagint which may not have been fully expanded at that time, as it may have been appended to later by Christians, thus explaining the multiple different extant codices that we know of that were all produced later. In any case, it would be logically absurd to claim that Jesus didn’t know what the Pharisees’ canon was, since it was not a development over time, even though Jesus arguably may have had access to wider set of materials. In particular

“…a list of the Old Testament books by Melito, bishop of Sardis in Asia Minor (2nd century), does not include the additional writings of the Greek Bible, and Origen (c. 185–c. 254) explicitly describes the Old Testament canon as comprising only 22 books.” — Brittanica

By examining the message, we can (allegedly) know what the king used and emulate it. The message shows that Jesus agreed more with the doctrines of  the Pharisees than others (e.g. Sadducees; Essenes). Furthermore, he quoted from the Pharisees’ canon, which most closely matches that of the Protestant canon. Jesus quoted from all sections of the Pharisee’s canon.

It is logically absurd to hold the people to the Law if it was impossible for the people to know what the Law was. Yet, when Jesus debated the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-46, rather than tell them that they had the wrong canon, he defeated their argument using only their own limited canon. Logically, it is possible for people to know what the Law is either (1) without a top-down episcopal sacred tradition or (2) with a restricted canon. The bottom-up, community-based sacred tradition of the Jewish people appears perfectly adequate. The Jews and later the early Christians accepted scripture axiomatically: on no authority but its own authority.[3]

There is no serious historical question that the Old Testament existed. One does not need the authority of the RCC or the early church to know this. We accept the Old Testament, more-or-less, implicitly without specific external authorization. We do not possess sufficient authority to authenticate the sources of those texts, as the original messengers are not known.


Jesus never quoted from the deuterocanonicals. Even if Jesus considered the deuterocanonicals to be canonical—as did the Anabaptists[4]  and do the Roman Catholics—he didn’t apparently think them important enough to promote. Jesus, as described in the message itself, was comfortable using a restricted canon.

The Pharisees were scrupulous to exclude any books of the canon which they could not find in Hebraic (or Aramaic). [..] However, in the 1950’s the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals copies of at least some of the disputed books in their original Aramaic. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches have always accepted the Alexandrian canon.

There are problems with these claims. First, we’ve already established that the various Old Testament canons were already established by the first century, so it doesn’t matter what the Essenes used. Second, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, no codices were found and there were (later determined to be) non-canonical writings, thus no proof that the Essenes at Qumran accepted the Alexandrian canon in that form. It would beg-the-question to say that finding some (but not all) Aramaic texts proved the rightness of the decision to later canonize them. Third, if the Pharisees (and Jesus) did not have access in Jerusalem to the Aramaic documents in Qumran, then they lost the original scriptures. The implications of this on the necessity of a well-defined canon are profound. Fourth, Jesus is not recorded as quoting from the Greek deuterocanonicals, let alone lost Aramaic ones, so the distinction seems irrelevant. Fifth, there is no clear and convincing evidence that the original Septuagint even contained the deuterocanonicals.[7][8]

Regardless, the Catholic canon ultimately chosen is not identical to the list of books in any extant versions of the Septuagint or any known formulation of the Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures. Even if Jesus considered the deuterocanonicals to be canonical, the canon the RCC chose is likely not the same one Jesus had access to. Prior to the church councils that canonized the deuterocanonicals, they had never been canonized by anyone, Jewish or Christian.

Unlike the Old Testament, which existed in its current form long before the councils formally recognized it, the canonization of the—not previously canonical—deuterocanonicals constitutes direct, independent proof that “there was a time before the message become corrupted”: The act of canonization was itself a corruption.

As with the Old Testament, there is no serious historical question that the deuterocanonicals existed. If an authority is required, it is to determine which set of books is canonical, although it is not immediately clear why the choice made by the RCC is more authoritative than the collections that came before it, nor why it should override the original (based on historical evidence).

New Testament

The original messengers of the Old Testament and deuterocanonicals are largely unknown. There is no documented chain-of-custody, even a questionable one. Even 2 Kings 22 describes how the Book of the Law was found after a period of disuse. We do not have sufficient evidence to authenticate the source of those texts, as the original messenger is not known. It is unclear why the standard-of-evidence used for them is different for the New Testament.

We have two evidentiary starting points. The first, historical, shows that the Old Testament and the deuterocanonicals were formed through a flexible bottom-up, community-based sacred tradition. The second, internal, shows that Jesus did not demand a canon be made. Logically, Occam’s Razor suggests that the same applies to the New Testament.

Up until the middle of the 4th century, this is precisely what we see.  Even Athanasius, writing in AD 367, gave a different canon from the one later canonized by the Catholic church at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s (and he is not the only one to do so). The error, if there is one, appears to be attempting to canonize the scriptures at all: the act of canonization was itself a corruption. Wright’s claim…

[All Protestant Denominations claim] that Christian tradition must and should be rejected as unchristian and unauthoritative if not supported by the Bible. However, the Bible itself does not anywhere authoritatively list which books are canonical, which are deutero-canonical, which are apocryphal, and which are heretical, nor does any book in the Bible give any measure or standard by which this determination is to be made.

…implicitly asserts that canonization is more than merely a good thing, but a duty or requirement and one which must be backed by a hierarchical authority. This view is questionable. Let’s look at Wright’s summary of the Protestant argument:

There are two witnesses which provide confirmation of the authenticity. The first witness is a Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit whom the king has sent to guard the authority and continuity of the message. Each messenger makes a claim of inerrancy or infallibility, either express or implied, for to claim otherwise is to claim that the king has no power to send the message. The second is the written message itself, which can be examined such that it proves itself by its own authority to be authentic and authoritative.

Regarding the second, as we’ve shown above, the written message itself can be examined for evidence. Such evidence is not conclusive, and may even be circular at times[2], but any discrepancies between the oral and written messages reduce the authority of the messenger, the message, or both. All else equal, if two messages are the same, but the oral message is different, we would logically choose the one that is most consistent with the message[6], that is, accept the shared premises and argue logically from that shared understanding to the logical conclusion.

Regarding the first, one of the reasons a flexible bottom-up, community-based sacred tradition is not chaos is because it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Wikipedia, a community-based encyclopedia, had its best days when it was run as a flexible, bottom-up community. When it became overwhelmed by by bureaucratic, top-down processes, it quickly drowned in political bias. If anything, a top-down approach is objectively worse, even outright evil. Now, Wikipedia is not guided by the Holy Spirit and it is deeply bureaucratic, so its corruption is not a surprise. But God’s Word is guided, confirmed, and provided by the Holy Spirit. Even the message itself states as much.

There is nothing in the Bible listing the canon of scripture. There is not even a rule or standard mentioned explaining how to compile such a list, or to establish what books belong and what do not.

The lack of any rule or standard explaining how to make a canon makes it less—not more—likely that one should make a canon using authoritarian rules and standards. Jesus, when given the opportunity, declined to provide any. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus about the rules for where to worship (the mountain or in Jerusalem), Jesus responded that worship will be “in spirit and truth.” Recognizing the Word of God is likewise governed by the Holy Spirit, not rules and regulations.

We do not need to require the messenger to claim inerrancy or infallibility, because we have independent[5] modes of verification: a web of verification. The entire field of biblical textual criticism relies on this. Counter-intuitively, the more textual variants (errors) that are discovered over time, the more accurate becomes our ability to perform verification of the original message. It’s also worth noting that we do not require a church authority to perform scholarly analysis, including manuscript and fragment dating. Examination has led to a number of cases of priests and scribes tampering with the documents, making fraudulent alterations. We know about these alterations precisely because we have so many variants.

Textual Scholarship

The claims and counter-claims rely on both historical and internal evidence, which is logically evaluated independent of the authority derived from those claims (otherwise it would be circular reasoning). We are not without tools, such as textual scholarship, that allow us additional means to examine these claims. We do not and should not solely rely on authority, if at all.

Just as I do not accept the extreme agnostic’s frame (as Bart Erhman describes) that we cannot know what the original was, I do not accept the claim that an Appeal to Authority is required to know what the original was[1]. Both the agnostic and the Roman Catholic argue that you cannot know what the original was. The only difference is that one rejects the Roman authority and the other does not, a matter not determined by the evidence.

Oddly, the Protestants all agree with each other about which books to exclude. No version of the Bible among the Protestants accepts the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, or the Gospel of Thomas or the Apocalypse of Peter, albeit they all accept the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Esther.

Anabaptists—who are rightly or wrongly normally listed as Protestants—accepted the same canon as the RCC. Interestingly, the Anabaptists came to deemphasize the Apocalypse of John, leaving matters of eschatology to the future and focusing on living life for God in the now.

Regardless, the reasons to include or exclude specific books (such as excluding the extended endings of Esther and Daniel) is often well-justified. While this is too big a topic to delve into here, the reasons behind these inclusions/exclusions are both logical and scholarly. If anything, scholarship more often suggests that the Roman Catholic canon is too large (e.g. too many forgeries and pseudepigrapha), not too small.

Additional Thoughts

Wright says…

I have never sympathized with the argument that one can accept the writings of the Church as authoritative, but reject the authority of the Church that authorized them.

…but the RCC more-or-less invented the concept of universally canonizing the scriptures. By the weight of the evidence and its own admission, it had never been done before. It is logical (and perhaps tautological) that if one rejects the authority of the RCC that authorized the canon, that they reject the RCC’s authority to authorize the canon. And they do! But rejecting the authority of canonization is not the same as rejecting the authority of the canon, nor does it imply requirement to accept or reject a universal canon (for that would be circular reasoning). Wright’s argument does not logically follow.

The RCC claim to the authority to determine a canon is a circular argument. It ultimately relies on the message it is authenticating to derive its authority to do so (even if you accept for sake of argument the messenger chain-of-custody for the message). If the messenger lacks the authority to canonize the message, then the act of producing a canon is logically a corruption. By showing this independently[5] (as seen in the historical evidence) and internally (by examining Jesus’ own actions), the corruption becomes more evident.

Logic alone is insufficient to show the superiority of the RCC church and its authority. Examining the evidence is required. I find that the historical evidence, internal evidence, and yes even the logic of the argument, strongly weighs against its claims.

When I take the word of the “early Roman messenger”, what I find in the historical record contradicts the claim being made. I don’t reject that an early messenger existed, I reject that the Roman messenger is correctly describing the early messenger and adjust my view accordingly.

With this in mind, the various splits and heresies within the church and as well as the general history of the church become more relevant. However, before that rather lengthy topic can be addressed, the next part in the series will cover some of Wright’s other objections.

A Personal Note

There was never a time when I was an atheist. For as long a time as I can remember, I knew of the power of the Word of God. I was an eyewitness to its validity. I did not need or require proof or authority.

And yet, I noticed that unbelievers demanded both proof and authority. So I dedicated myself to the pursuit of proving my faith, that is, apologetics. I didn’t need the proof personally, but I found the evidence reassuring nonetheless. I argued that faith is not blind, but that it is justified trust.

In a comment arguing that we should not exclude the Roman Catholic canon, Tyler Journeaux asked:

Why think that God’s purpose in giving us the Bible is to make doctrine conspicuously clear?

I agree! The purported benefit of church authority to canonize the Bible is to prevent doctrinal chaos, but the choice of canon is dwarfed by issues of theology. The RCC brutally tortured and murdered Anabaptists over numerous doctrines and they agreed on the choice of canon.

The need for a human authority to validate God’s Word appears to be mostly a matter of unbelief, not doctrine.




[1] A linear chain of officially authorized messengers is one way to ensure a chain-of-custody, assuming you have some way to authenticate the authorized messages, otherwise the chain is not valuable. Cryptographic signatures are one way this can be done. The Holy Spirit also acts in the same capacity, albeit through an obviously different means. Lacking an independent authentication scheme, a linear chain of authority is the worst possible transmission scheme. People like the air of confidence of such a scheme, even as it is—quite literally—the most likely to be corrupted. Even blockchain loses its cryptographic security if it is not adequately distributed.

[2] Although this is partially circular reasoning—trusting that excluded books are not excluded in error—adding apostolic authority does not eliminate the circularity. If anything, it adds to it. If my argument should be rejected because it is circular, then so to should Rome’s argument. Regardless, internal consistency of the alleged message is still an important criteria, even if it is not deductively conclusive.

[3] How did Peter know and confess that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God? It was revealed by the Father in heaven. The living Word of God is revealed as such, it is not determined or assigned. The Word of God speaks for itself, for there is no authority greater than it.

[4]  I’m currently in the process of reading through 1 Maccabees as I write this.

[5] Not fully statistically independent. That would be impossible. It would also be a contradiction as a key feature the web of verification is its interconnectedness.

[6] It requires less effort to change an oral message than to change one written down, especially prior to the printing press. For this reason, we would rather validate the oral message by the written message rather than the written message by the oral message, if both oral and written are supposed to agree.

[7] Ellis, E. E. (1992). The Old Testament in Early Christianity. Baker. p. 34-35. ISBN 978-3161456602.

[8] Beckwith, Roger T. (2008). The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church: and its Background in Early Judaism. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock. pp. 382, 383. ISBN 978-1606082492.


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