The second millennium, from a Christian perspective, is arguably best known for the Reformation and the religious conflict it caused. Most Christians know names such as Martin Luther and John Calvin for the parts they played in the Reformation. Far less know that these men, and many others before and after the Reformation, identified the Papacy as the Antichrist.
In Greek, the term “anti” can carry the meaning “against,” or “in stead of.” It follows that the antichrist may refer either to one who is against Christ, or one who places himself in the stead of Christ, or both. In all cases, it refers to the attempted usurpation of the authority of Christ.
The Antichrist “A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet”
From the earliest times in Christian history, it was understood that several Bible terms and phrases refer to the Antichrist. Among these are the “little horn” (Daniel 7:8), the “man of sin” and the “son of perdition” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), the one who “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship” or “seats himself in the sanctuary of God and himself declares that he is God” ” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). Ascribing any, or a combination of these roles to the Papacy could imply identifying it as the antichrist.
Passages from Daniel 7, 2 Thessalonians 2, 1 John 2, 2 John, and Revelation 13 were read and interpreted as pointing to the Papacy as the Antichrist. This was in part due to the use of historicism as a framework to interpret Daniel and Revelation, and the correlation between 2 Thessalonians 2 and the perceived actions of the Papacy.
Identifying the Papacy as the Antichrist
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The first individual known to have identified the Papacy as the Antichrist, was Arnulf of Reims. At the Council of Reims (991 CE) he declared, “Verily, if he be void of charity, and be blown up and advanced only with knowledge, then he is antichrist sitting in the temple of God, and shewing out himself as if he were God.”
Arnulf’s identification of the Pope as the Antichrist was rooted in a broader theological debate concerning the exercise of papal authority and corruption within the church. His argument for this view seems to have been rhetorical and polemical, aiming to expose and criticize the perceived abuses of power and decadence within the papal institution. Though this identification was not widely held at first, it became a trend for almost a millennium thereafter, and even the norm among later Protestants.
In some instances, Popes and their supporting factions would even identify each other as the Antichrist. This was the case with Pope Gregory VII and Pope Clement III (formerly known as Wilbert of Ravenna). Gregory called Wilbert “plunderer of the holy church of Ravenna, Antichrist, and archeritic” while Cardinal Benno, supporting Clement III, replied that Gregory VII was “either a member of Antichrist, or Antichrist himself.”
To add insult to injury, the Popes started using titles, and claimed authority, that played into the hands of their accusers. The Popes began referring to themselves as “the Vicar of Christ” during the reign of Innocent III (1198–1216). Vicar means “substitute” or “representative.” Boniface VIII (1294-1303), in one of his papal proclamations, said, “Listen to the Vicar of Christ, who is placed over kings and kingdoms. He is the head of the Church, which is one and stainless.” This statement flew in the face of Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 5:23 both of which point to Christ as the head of the church.
A Growing Opposition to Papal Authority
Resistance against Papal authority gained momentum and those fighting against the Papacy were later called Protestants because they protested Papal abuses. Those who protested the Papacy and identified it in terms synonymous with the Antichrist did so even when faced with torture and execution.
Jan Hus, a Czech theologian from Prague expressed open opposition to the Papacy. He declared “As for antichrist occupying the papal chair, it is evident that a pope living contrary to Christ, like any other perverted person, is called, by common consent, antichrist.” Hus was eventually put on trial and sentenced to death in Konstanz, Germany for his opposition to the Papacy and its excesses. He was burned at the stake on the 6th of July 1415.
Approximately 100 years after Hus, the Reformation got into full swing when Luther joined the ranks of those identifying the Papacy as the Antichrist. The different denominations that sprang forth from the Reformation — Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans — all shared one view of the Papacy as the little horn power.
Martin Luther (Lutheran) emphatically stated:
“We here are of the conviction that the papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist…personally I declare that I owe the Pope no other obedience than that I do Antichrist.”
Calvin (Presbyterian), in turn, had the following to say on the matter:
“Though it be admitted that Rome was once the mother of all Churches, yet from the time when it began to be the seat of Antichrist it has ceased to be what it was before. Some persons think us too severe and censorious when we call the Roman Pontiff Antichrist. But those who are of this opinion do not consider that they bring the same charge of presumption against Paul himself, after whom we speak and whose language we adopt. I shall briefly show that (Paul’s words in II Thess. 2) are not capable of any other interpretation than that which applies them to the Papacy.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith stated:
“There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalts himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.”
Thomas Cranmer (Anglican), in turn, claimed:
Whereof it followeth Rome to be the seat of antichrist, and the pope to be very antichrist himself. I could prove the same by many other scriptures, old writers, and strong reasons.
Opposition to Protestant Antichrist Claims
At the height of the Reformation, the Jesuit order was established by a soldier-turned-priest named Ignatius of Loyola. One of the primary functions of this order was to drive the Counter-Reformation which included opposing the identification of the Papacy as Antichrist. They opposed the use of the day-year principle, that is applied in Historicism to the interpretation of Daniel 7. This method of interpretation resulted in the identification of the Papacy as the “little horn.”
The Jesuits played a significant role in persecuting opponents of the Papacy. Individuals from Jesuit ranks, such as Francisco Ribera, Luis del Alcazar, and Cardinal Bellarmine played significant roles in countering claims of the Papacy as the Antichrist system.
Del Alcazar came up with the Preterist interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, which resulted in Antiochus IV Epiphanes and even Nero being identified as the Antichrist. Ribera, in turn, developed futurism as an interpretive framework, which pointed to an individual somewhere in the future being identified as the Antichrist.
In time it became evident that their Counter-Reformation was gaining the upper hand. Preterist and Futurist interpretations of Daniel and Revelation are the dominant methods in the vast majority of denominations today.
Abandoning the View of a Papal Antichrist
After the Reformation, many leaders held fast to the view of the Reformers on the Antichrist. John Wesley (Methodist), for one, boldly proclaimed “The whole succession of Popes from Gregory VII are undoubtedly Anti-Christ.” Part and parcel of being Protestant was the identification of the Papacy or the Pope as the Antichrist. This identification was shared by Roger Williams, the first Baptist Pastor in America, Cotton Mather, a Congregational Theologian, Sir Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, George Stanley Faber, Rev. J.A. Wylie, Charles Spurgeon, and Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones to name but a few.
The winds of change were however beginning to blow. A mere 143 years after the Westminster Confession of Faith was accepted, the American Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Standards in 1789. This document omitted the reference to the Pope as the Antichrist as the denomination wanted to distance itself from such an identification.
Likewise, the Lutheran Church in the US saw several synods move away from their previous identification of the Papacy as the Antichrist in the 1950s. They referred to their previous identification as a “historical judgment based on Scripture” but believed that such an identification went too far.
Papal Claims Remain Unchanged on the Antichrist
The claims of the Papacy in the early second century were reaffirmed by the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (De Ecclesia), the Pope is again stated to be “the Vicar of Christ, and visible head of the church in its entirety.” Neither their claim to title nor authority has changed.
Protestants are no longer protesting for the most part, with only a handful of denominations still articulating their view that the Papacy is the Antichrist. Even in the ranks of these lone voices, opposition is growing, and the push to abandon the identification of the Papacy as the Antichrist is getting stronger. This is in large part due to the abandonment of Historicism as an interpretive framework when reading books such as Daniel and Revelation.