Monday, April 30, 2007

The AntiChrist: Call for Discussion Among Lutherans

Generally, I refrain from posting pieces on this blog that are not applicable in some way to all Christians everywhere. This post is different in that it is intended only for those who are, like me, members of confessional Lutheran churches. This post re-opens old controversies and is nearly guaranteed to raise tempers among both Lutherans and Roman Catholics. I have to respectfully ask the Roman Catholics to pass over this conversation as a matter internal to Lutherans. It is surely not news that Lutherans view the church of Rome as needing reform. This call is for Lutherans to maintain our witness to Christ while re-evaluating the idea that it is proper to identify the papacy with the antichrist; as such it will surely have more effect as an internal conversation among Lutherans (or at least Protestants). For that reason, comments coming from outside the intended target audience may be deleted for the sole reason of keeping the conversation within that intended target audience, contrary to my usual practice of letting a pertinent comment stand regardless of author, view, tone or helpfulness. Your understanding is appreciated.

Also, writing something in a recognizable call-for-debate format is tedious. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, really. But for all that, I think this is a necessary conversation and so here goes.

One of the foundational marks of Lutheran Christianity is its loyalty to Christ, especially its devotion to the cross of Christ and the mystery of the humble God, to the gentle yoke and easy burden of the gospel, the determination to lift high the cross and to trust Christ alone. We have an instinctive dislike for speculative theologies and for Bible interpretations involving artifice; the further a dogma drifts from the cross of Christ, the more certain we are that it is bad theology. We have a deep and abiding love for forthrightness and plain talk. We also believe that questions of Reform should be matters for open discussion in the church; we've even been known to nail our theses to church doors.

To this end, I have to ask:
  • Given that Lutherans reject Rome's decree "that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff"1, first because it is at the name of Jesus that every knee should bow, and second because Christ called leaders among his people not to lord it over others as Gentile rulers did, but taught plainly that the greatest among the apostles should be the self-humbling servant rather than the self-exalting ruler;
  • Given that Lutherans reject Rome's dogma that our works merit the attainment of eternal life2, in that eternal life is a gift beyond our earning, and eternal life cannot be attained apart from forgiveness of sins and is therefore is not attained by our merit;
  • Given that the antichrist is said to be known for his self-exaltation and his enmity for the Gospel of Christ;

Does it therefore follow that we are justified in identifying the office of the papacy with the antichrist?

Consider these points:
  • That not everyone bearing any similarity to the final and ultimate antichrist is truly the final and ultimate antichrist, since the sins and rebellions of the antichrist (self-exaltation and devaluing Christ) are common;
  • That even those who have gone so far as to rightly earn the name antichrist are not always the final and ultimate antichrist, as John taught that "even now many antichrists have come";
  • That we do not call everyone the antichrist who exalts himself, who claims that every human creature owes him submission; though we condemn self-exaltation as contrary to the spirit of Christ, and affirm that the one with all authority in this world is none other than God's Messiah, the true Christ;
  • That we do not call everyone the antichrist who teaches that our works merit eternal life, though we condemn the teaching that eternal life is merited by human works.
  • That those who have declared that the final and ultimate antichrist of history is none other than the office of the papacy have rendered a historical judgment without having seen all of history and so have reached a verdict without hearing all the evidence;
  • That the antichrist will only be known with certainty on the Last Day;
  • That the right judgment to reveal the antichrist rests with God alone;
  • That if before the Last Day we say that we have identified the antichrist, we may be proved wrong; and if proved wrong then we will have been teaching falsely;
  • That if before the Last Day we say that we have identified the antichrist and are proved wrong, we will have borne false witness;
  • That likewise if proved wrong, we will have sowed discord among brothers;
  • That if we present something as truth without knowing for a fact that we are truthful, then morally it is as if we had been false witnesses because of our lack of knowledge, even if at the Last Day we should be proved correct.
  • It follows that even if this criticism against the papacy is vindicated we cannot know that now and therefore cannot rightly teach it now;
  • That even one who speaks the truth finds himself in the wrong if he speaks without love -- this is not to say that strength and certainty and condemning wrong are to be faulted, but only to say that even these things rightly have the ultimate aim of bringing about repentance and reform;
  • That if we speak without love, we prevent ourselves from being heard except as an annoying and senseless sound;
  • That if we have become an annoying and senseless sound then we will not be heard even when we teach Christ's humility and Christ's merits;
  • That portraying the office of the papacy as the anti-Christ presupposes the impossibility of repentance or humility on the part of the papacy and hinders true love (if not precluding it altogether);
  • That associating the papacy with an unreformable character causes us to neglect preaching Christ's humility and Christ's merits in those places where Christ's humility and Christ's merits would be a message of greatest blessing.

With that in view, I would like to call for open discussion on whether it is acceptable to continue permitting the identification of anyone or any institution (including the office of the papacy) as the antichrist before the Last Day when the truth of the matter becomes known. In the spirit of reform, I would hold that we cannot rightly answer this question solely in terms of loyalty to doctrines derived in the Middle Ages, but must first and foremost consider our loyalty to Christ, to his call to make disciples of all nations, not to bear false witness, and to speak the truth in love. I would contend that refraining from calling the papacy the antichrist is right for our own sakes and for the sake of righteousness, and also makes us more effective witnesses of Christ's humility and Christ's merits. I would also contend that refraining from calling the papacy the antichrist will allow the church of Rome to hear our voice as something other than a clanging gong or resounding cymbal, and instead hear our objection: that supremacy belongs to Christ in such a way that there is no human office which can obligate us, and that salvation belongs to Christ in such a way that we do not earn it but receive it as an unmerited gift.

1 - Unam Sanctam, see concluding remarks.
2 - Council of Trent, Canon XXXII


japhy said...

I'm sorry to "intrude" as a non-Lutheran, but I would just like to stress the trait of an anti-Christ that John writes of in his first letter:

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. ... By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. (1 John 2:22, 4:2-3)

japhy said...

So, think what you will about the papacy, but remember that the man and the office are distinct. There have been wretched and evil Popes, and there have been compassionate and good Popes. The papacy has not, does not, and never will deny that Jesus is Christ, that Jesus has come in the flesh, or that Jesus is of God. If, for some reason, a Pope does deny that, he would indeed be an anti-Christ.

Sorry for the interruption.

Weekend Fisher said...

NP, Japhy, I'm just trying to get some bites from fellow-Protestants, that's all.

Take care & God bless

MICHAEL said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You