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