Reviewing Wright’s Universal Apologia: Part 14


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

A Matter of Council

In parts 12 and 13, we discussed Wright’s argument regarding unity in the church. We will continue and conclude the discussion on unity within the church, focusing specifically on what history has to reveal. Due to many citations, this is a long post.

“I did not understand why, in principle, a theological dispute could not be resolved in the future as they always had been in the past, by synods and counsels and, if need be, general counsels. Any Christian who accepts the Nicene Creed accepts the authority of the Council of Nicaea. I do not understand how, in principle, a Christian can claim to have the right to be a Christian without submitting to Christian teaching, that is, submitting to what Christ taught.”

The Council of Nicaea not coincidentally occurred just prior to the late 4th century, in 325AD, and is perhaps the last council that has wide acceptance by Christians. As we will see later below, if anyone fully accepts the authority of the Council of Nicaea, then they are obligated to reject Roman Papal Primacy. But first, let’s see what a church council should look like.

The first church council is described in Acts 15. The purpose of the council was to determine whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised to be saved. The result? Gentiles were free to act on their own convictions: no formal doctrine was determined, a stance that holds to this day with some Christians still maintaining the practice and  many others choosing not to. In addition, they required holy living (not eating food sacrificed to idols; not eating meat improperly slaughtered; no sexual immorality). The net result of the council was to simplify the practice of Christianity from the commonly accepted practices of its Mosaic root.

Consider the following common attributes of later Roman Catholic councils and disputes governed by Roman Papal decree:

  • Declaration of heresies
  • Condemnation of heretics
  • Threats or enactments of excommunication or banishment
  • Declarations of anathema
  • Development, expansion, definition, and/or codification of doctrine
  • Demands and coercion
  • Citations of non-scriptural or human authority
  • Universality
  • Encyclicals
  • Complexity
  • No apostles in attendance

These were conspicuously missing from the council in Jerusalem.

The Roman Catholic concept of a church council is very far removed from its earliest form. The Roman Catholic style church council is utterly antithetical to the kind of church council that might actually be able to resolve theological disputes. I am unlikely to get any disagreement when I say that no Roman Catholic style church council will ever embrace justification by faith alone. While Roman Catholic style church councils are doomed to failure, Jerusalem-style church councils have long occurred within Protestant Christianity, and with regularity. The only solution to the Roman Catholic’s lack of unity is a Protestant one: conversion away from Roman Catholicism.

There are times when the result of church councils must be a parting of ways, of schism, in order to maintain unity in what remains. This is especially true of denominations what cannot and will never repent (e.g. Roman Catholicism). Since the late 4th century, the most effective role of Roman Catholic councils has been ejecting the faithful from Roman Catholicism, ensuring that Christians who protested—the protestants of Roman Catholic heresy—were formally and unambiguously placed outside the authority of the apostate church. This freed them to find the path to life that few will find.

Altering History

“Certain crackpots whose name I will forebear to mention put forth the idea that Constantine alone founded the Church, which before then had no hierarchy or discipline or doctrine either agreed-upon nor enforced.”

As a matter of history, Roman Catholicism was founded in the late 4th century. It was not founded solely by the act of one man, but many. Regardless, Roman Catholicism as we know it today (with its particular hierarchy, discipline, and doctrines) simply did not exist prior to that. The extant documentary evidence is overwhelming on that point. With the sole exception of the Doctrine of the Trinity, I found “No Early Evidence for Roman Catholic Doctrine.”

“In order for this theory to be true, Constantine and his successors, would have had to possess the ability to discover all copies of both scripture and patristic writing extent at the time (including copies beyond the reach of the Empire, in Syria and Malabar) and redact or forge or burn them, to as to abolish all trace of this alleged original non-Authoritarian and non-Episcopal and non-Doctrinal proto-Feminist Church — and then with equal facility to erase all trace of this great act of book burning and book altering.

The Roman Catholic church did not just burn heretics, but they also undeniably burned the documents of heretics. What we lack is evidence of their wholesale destruction. As we will see below, it was not necessary.

For many heresies, we only have the accounts of their Roman Catholic enemies, for their own works were lost or destroyed. But if one applies the Principle of Charity[1] to infer what heretics actually believed, we often find that the heretics were closer to orthodoxy than the Roman Catholics.

Consider the Paulicians, of whom we know very little with accuracy. In Sermones Contra CatharosEckebert the Benedictine Abbot of Schönau wrote that:

“[The Paulicians]  believe that the body and blood of Christ can be by no means made by our consecration, or received by us in our communion [..]  they call their own flesh the body of the Lord; and forasmuch as they nourish their bodies by the food on their tables, they say that they make the body of the Lord.”

By applying the Principle of Charity, we can see that the Paulicians simply believed that their own physical bodies were the body of Christ, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 6:15 and Ephesians 5:30. They affirmed the rather mundane observation that to eat food was to nourish and increase that same body. The Paulicians merely echoed the ancient words of Justin Martyr who used the same language of bodily nourishment[2]:

“[We have] been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”
— Justin Martyr, First Apology (c.155-157AD) §66

Thus we see how we can extract the true beliefs of the ‘heretics’ from the calumnious words of their enemies, even when their original words were lost or destroyed. In doing so, we find that they are rooted in a deep scriptural tradition.

Roman Catholics not only destroyed works, but also redacted and forged them. Textual critics have long noted a number of passages in ancient manuscripts and fragments where the text of scripture was altered to promote certain doctrines. As Wright notes, they could never fully hide their actions, yet many forgeries have persisted. While many authors have documented this[3], the works of Bart Ehrman are quite approachable (and affordable) for those who are interested in exploring this topic further.[4]

Was it possible that Constantine, who gained the purple after a civil war, was able to exact so complete an obedience from a wide empire that remembered other masters, that all would conspire to deceive future historians by failing to keep any record, verbal or oral, of such a vast program as a purge of all history would entail?”

Wright believes that it would have been impossible for a false church to arise and deceive the majority without it being noted in the historical record. If Roman Catholicism were false, there would be evidence. He is correct that there would be evidence, but he is incorrect that no such evidence exists.

We will challenge Wright’s claim in two ways. First, we will find a time earlier than the late 4th century that Papal Rome did not exist, that is, Rome did not have primacy within its own diocese, let alone within the universal church. Second, we will show an instance of persistent Roman Catholic doctrinal innovation based on historical error in order to show that it is not necessary to redact, forge, or destroy all earlier writings in order to succeed in deceiving the masses.

In 307AD, Meletius of Lycopolis unlawfully ordained bishops outside his jurisdiction. From that point until 451AD, no less than five church councils had to deal with ecclesiastical and Metropolitan jurisdictional problems, such as dealing with multiple Metropolitians in a single geographical unit. Most importantly, the Council of Nicaea (325AD) in Canon 6 defined jurisdictional boundaries between the Metropolitans of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem within that single province. Specifically, it gave Antioch jurisdictional primacy over both Alexandria and Jerusalem, citing “the custom of Rome.” This custom of Rome would later be cited as evidence of the primacy of Rome because—by tradition—Rome has always had primacy, but this is both circular reasoning and an ignorance of history.

In 325AD, the Metropolitan seat of the Diocese of Italy was with the Bishop in Milan.[5][6][7] The “custom of Rome” referred to Rome being under the Bishop of Milan, carving out a smaller defined geographic boundary within the diocese. At the Council of Nicaea, it was decided that so too would both Alexandria and Jerusalem both be granted limited geographic scope under the overall provincial primacy of Antioch. The example of the limited authority of the Bishop of Rome was cited to solve the problem between three Metropolitans in a single province. Far from Roman Papal Primacy from the apostolic age, the Bishop of Rome did not even have primacy within his own diocese until 358AD at the earliest.

In 370AD, Optatus of Milevus would be the first to declare that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome.[8] This was in direct contradiction to the early patristic writers, such as Irenaeus[9] and Eusebius[10], who recognized Linus as the first Bishop of Rome. The early church did not believe that Peter—an apostle—was ever a bishop of Rome, let alone a pope. This novelty would set the stage for what followed.

By the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Roman provinces were now dioceses. Sometime in the six decades that followed Nicaea and the two decades since 358AD, the ecclesiastical unit of the church had changed from provinces to dioceses and the civil diocese of the East had split into two (Egypt and East). No longer was there a single province containing Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The Diocese of the East contained Antioch and Jerusalem, while the Diocese of Egypt contained Alexandria. By this time, Rome had claimed the diocesan primacy from Milan, and the previous arrangement was forgotten or ignored. A year after Constantinople, at the council of Rome in 382AD, Pope Damasus I would declare:

“the holy Roman church is given first place by the rest of the churches”
Council of Rome, III.1

Damasus was the first to successfully make this assertion.

Damasus was the first pope to refer to Rome as the apostolic see, to distinguish it as that established by the apostle St. Peter, founder of the church. In 380 the emperors Gratian in the West and Theodosius in the East declared Christianity as preached by Peter to be the religion of the Roman Empire and defined orthodoxy as the doctrines proclaimed by the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. Rome’s primacy was officially pronounced by a synod called in Rome in 382 by Damasus, who was perhaps wary of the growing strength of Constantinople, which was already claiming to be the New Rome. St. Jerome (c. 342–420) attended the synod and stayed on to become Damasus’s secretary, close adviser, and friend. Damasus commissioned him to revise the Latin translations of the Bible for what subsequently became known as the Vulgate.
— Encyclopedia Brittanica, “St. Damasus I” (2022)

Jerome—close friend of Damasus—would become his greatest ally. In his dispute with John of Jerusalem in 398AD, Jerome claimed that Nicaea had granted Antioch jurisdiction over Jerusalem in the diocese of the East and over Alexandria in the diocese of Egypt because of the custom of the primacy of Rome. Jerome’s claim—whether intentional or by accident—was an impossible historical anachronism.[11] Combined with the political power of two emperors, Damasus and Jerome were able to fabricate the doctrine of Roman Papal Primacy out of thin air, indeed by citing as evidence the very historical record that disproved it. By no coincidence, this occurred along with the single greatest corruption of scripture—the Latin Vulgate.

In 449AD, Pope Leo I would fraudulently claim that the canons of the council of Sardica were actually from Nicaea, deliberately misquoting them in order to claim that Rome was always chief of its diocese and to demonstrated the primacy of Rome to resolve all church disputes. In so doing, he perpetuated and cemented the false doctrine of Roman Papal Primacy.

The historical error has persisted. In 1880, Father James Loughlin made the exact same anachronistic mistake in arguing for the primacy of the Pope to assign jurisdictions (over the other two Petrine Seats of Antioch and Alexandria).[12] Around the same time and making the same mistake, famed historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893), in his history of the Christian Church, claimed that Rome had always had its own diocese.

Far from showing Wright’s claim that “the Church was meant to be unified, a single institution under a single head”, that is a pope, we have only established the prior to the late 4th century, the head of the church was Christ and in the late 4th century Christ was replaced by the Pope. No Roman Catholic church council or pope has any authority over the body of Christ, and so cannot be a solution to any lack of unity. And so we must agree with Wright and reject Roman Papal Primacy…

Any Christian who accepts the Nicene Creed accepts the authority of the Council of Nicaea.

…if we are to accept the authority of the Council of Nicaea, which itself relied on the inferiority of Rome to resolve a jurisdictional dispute.

And so we have shown a clear instance of Roman Catholic doctrinal innovation. And far from proving the necessity of redacting, forging, or destroying, we have established that all that was required was misinformation, misunderstanding, and lying.

Although attempted to varying degrees and ultimately failing, it was not necessary to redact, forge, or destroy the earlier writings to introduce doctrinal error. Conspiracies do not have to be secret, only unfamiliar or not accepted. So long as most people do not believe it, even if they are aware the information, the effect is the same as if it were completely hidden. Even in the internet age, when information is more easily available than at any time in all of recorded history, the effect is readily and often achieved in modern day politics, something that Wright himself has noticed. There is simply no need to erase world history, merely obscure it. And obscure it they have.

Hiding the Truth

Roman Catholicism achieves this obscurity through the axiom of sola ecclesia (the Church Alone): the notion that the church alone determines ultimate truth. When applied to history, this means:

“The recent explicates the older”

Far from needing to alter and destroy the patristic writings, Roman Catholicism needed only obfuscate it, to gaslight its members by reinterpreting it in light of what they already believe.[13] And this is precisely what they have done. Whenever evidence earlier than the late 4th century is required, whatever is there is interpreted in light of whatever the church currently believes. But, as I noted in my other post, “No Early Evidence for Roman Catholic Doctrine”, when Roman Catholics are honest with themselves, they cannot find early evidence: because it does not exist.

No Roman Catholic layman is permitted to examine the earlier writings to determine if what they say matches what the church currently believes. If they were to find a contradiction, they would be obligated to either explain it away, or brand the view as heretical. They are obligated to assume the apostolic legacy is continuous, uninterrupted, and universal. Any alleged deviations must be considered an aberrations and not orthodoxy. No Catholic is permitted to conclude that the Roman Catholic Church got an accepted dogma wrong and act upon it, not without setting themselves outside the authority of the Church.

Since these events were in living memory, one would think Constantius or Jovian or Julian would have left some memo about the sudden loss of the world-history-erasing power which their grandfather had enjoyed, or would have left some complaint about its use to benefit the Catholics and no one else.

But someone did leave behind a memo complaining that Roman Catholics had a power that no one else did: John the Revelator. In Revelation 12:13, Satan was given power to directly physically persecute the faithful, which he did up to the late 4th century. But this changed in Revelation 12:14-17, when the Roman Catholic Church arose in the late 4th century. A remnant of Christ’s church was sent into the wilderness to be protected for 1,260 years where Satan could not persecute it directly. Frustrated, Satan’s changed his approach to a flood that came out of his mouth—a flood of doctrinal error—to deceive the remaining faithful…

“And the serpent spewed water, like a river, out of his mouth after the woman, so that he could cause her to be carried away by the stream. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed up the river that the dragon spewed out of his mouth. And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went away to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and hold the testimony of Jesus.”
— Revelation 12:15-17

…who did not flee with the woman to the wilderness.

“And yet somehow, even though the Imperial government of Constantinople possessed such overwhelming and thoroughgoing powers as this, the very next Emperor could not abolish the orthodox catholic Church in favor of Arianism, and by the time Julian the Apostate achieved the purple, he could not abolish Christianity in favor of paganism.”

As we discussed in the last part of the series, once the fourth kingdom of Daniel was handed off to the fifth kingdom—the little horn of Daniel and the Beast of Revelation—the Roman empire could never prevail against Roman Catholicism. It was not possible. The Bible had already declared what would happen, and no act of man could change what had been set in motion. This is why there can be no unity with Roman Catholicism: it cannot be reformed or fixed until Jesus himself returns in judgment.

Founding the Church

“Now, the matter is a main point of controversy between Protestants and Catholics as to whether Christ Himself founded the Church, or whether this was done by Peter and Paul or later generations of disciples. Be that as it may, there is no controversy that all the writings of the Early Church Fathers, and every scrap of evidence we posses, shows at least that the official teaching of the Church, long before any split between East and West, Coptic or Melkite, was that the Church was founded by Christ and His apostles.”

This is loaded premise. It is true that Christ’s church was founded by Christ, but Wright does not mean “church” in that sense, he means “Roman Catholicism.” In his Apologia, he lists the founder of each sect. The one that starts with Jesus? Roman Catholicsm. As shown above, this is false. Roman Catholicism began in the late 4th century, even as the remnant of Christ’s church fled to the wilderness. Since Wright’s loaded assertion is really two assertions in one, one true and one false, the combination must, by the laws of logic, be itself false.

Wright has made a category error. But, once we untangle the false equivalence of “Church” and “Roman Catholicism”, we see from scripture that Christ’s church is the body of all believers. It is made up of those few who have found life by making Jesus their Lord and their Savior. It is not a matter of membership in an denomination. The causation from the correlation flows the opposite direction: Christ’s church tends to congregate within denominations.

The Church is unique in world history. Even an atheist must recognize that. No other prophet, sage or philosopher established a Church properly so called.

The uniqueness of Christ’s church is not that he formed a universal denomination or any kind of formal structure. What separates it from every other religion is something quite different:

Christianity lives in the people: not a book, not an organization, not a building, nor doctrines, nor a history. This is the genius of God revealing himself; to do so in relationships multiplied in the lives of his followers. It is the Christian life lived out for all to see.
— “Is the New Testament Relevant?

The Roman Catholic Church continuously found faithful and persistent Christians—heretics—in the wilderness.They could not dislodge those few faithful who tirelessly resisted them. Christianity persisted, not in a denomination, but in Christians who defied specific formal categorization in any fashion except by their fruit.


[1] The Principle of Charity assumes the good faith of your opponents arguments. You do not assume he is a caricature of evil. Try to find the most logical, consistent, charitable viewpoint that he might have held. This is an application of the Golden Rule, because in most cases this is the standard most people hold towards their own arguments.

[2] “transmutation” means to be completely converted from one thing to another, as with food deriving nourishment in the body. This differs greatly from Roman Catholic “transubstantiation” which differentiates between the species and substance. Transmutation was anathematized by the Council of Trent.

[3]  For one example of scholarly evidence, see: “Junias and Junia in Early Commentaries of Romans 16:7” by Marg Mowczko (2019).

[4] “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart D. Ehrman (2007)

[5]  Athanasius, “Apologia Contra Arianos, Part II, chapter 6,  paragraph 89

[6]  Athanasius of Alexandria, Ad Episcopus Aegypti et Libyae, paragraph 8

[7] Athanasius of Alexandria, Apologia ad Constantium, 27

[8]  Optatus of Milevis “Adversus Parmenianum“, Book 2, Chapter 2

[9]  Irenaeus “Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3.3

[10]  Eusebius, “Church History“, Book III, Chapters 2, 13, 21

[11] Jerome, “To Pammachius Against John of Jerusalem”, paragraphs 4, 10 and 37.

[12] James Loughlin, “The Sixth Nicene Canon and the Papacy”, American Catholic Quarterly Review, vol. 5

[13] When done intentionally, this is lying. At the very least it involves severe cognitive dissonance.

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