Saturday, July 26, 2008

Roundtable 36: The Papacy (Smalcald Articles II.iv)

The most vigorous rejection of the office of the papacy in the Book of Concord is found in this portion of the Smalcald Articles. Luther asserts that the Papacy is the Antichrist. This is a statement that shocks most modern Christian ears, striking many as an outrageous excess of rhetoric. Confessional Lutherans must be sensitive to the degree to which this assertion in our Book of Concord is deeply offensive to other Christians when they learn of this teaching. Care must be taken not to imitate the high-volume polemics of the Reformation era in a context where, regardless of what we think of it, high value is placed on civility, politeness and courtesy—qualities obviously not understand in the same way in Luther’s day where there was a much greater degree of “rough and tumble” in the way Christians addressed issues and those with whom they disagreed. This is not to suggest, even for a moment, that we are to back away from this teaching in the Lutheran Confessions, no, not at all. But it is to say that we must be careful to be very clear on what we mean, and what we do not mean, when we continue to assert that the Papacy in Rome is the Antichrist.

"The Reformation's greatest weapon against Rome, was not Rome's errors, but Rome's truths" said John Nevin, a prominent American Lutheran theologian in the 19th century. It is precisely because of this reality that confessional Lutherans continue to assert the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions that the Papacy is the Antichrist. And it is precisely for the sake of the truths of Rome that we vigorously reject and condemn the errors of Rome. Further, Nevin's statement is a caveat to heed carefully that we never throw the baby out with the bathwater even as we point out the grave errors inherent in the Papacy.

This roundtable post will be longer than others posted so far, because, in my opinion, this is such a sensitive issue, yet such a very vital one. I’ve noticed even among confessional Lutherans a tendency to want to dismiss the assertion Luther makes here as historically conditioned. While it is most certainly true that the assertions in this article are historically conditioned and some do not even pertain anymore, at the heart of Luther’s argument is an issue that is still very much alive and well and of essential, vital importance: the issue is the Gospel of Christ and how that Gospel is confessed, and to what degree the Gospel is properly understood and believed. That is the heart of Luther’s argument here and it is why, to this say, we must continue to confess the antichristian nature of the office of the Papacy.

Let us be very clear what we are not saying with this assertion. We are by no means suggesting that within the Roman Catholic Church there are no Christians, or that everything taught and heard in Roman Catholic congregations is anti-Christian. No, quite the opposite is the case. It is precisely because we recognize the Gospel is preached, taught and heard in the Church of Rome, and that the Sacraments are validly administered, that we are all the more concerned to point out as clearly as we can what, precisely, in the Roman Church runs so deeply contrary to the Gospel. That is the animating passion in this article in the Smalcald Articles: the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ, alone. But that there are dear Christians in the Roman Church is undeniably true!

It is therefore important for Lutherans to understand precisely what this teaching is all about and to take care when explaining their beliefs to other Christians, particularly Roman Catholics. Simply put, the historic teaching of the Lutheran Church, as stated here, is that the office held by the particular men chosen to be pope is the fulfillment of what Paul warns the church about in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:3): a man will seat himself in the church of God, as supreme ruler, and claim that his teachings are God’s teaching, making himself thus, effectively, equal to God. Elsewhere St. Paul warns the Church to be on watch for those who enact rules and requirements, like forbidding people to marry and ordering the abstention from certain food (1 Tim. 4:3). We are warned that such movements in the church will result in things like. The person and office that continues, to this day, to best fit this description, is the office of the Papacy in Rome, which continues to claim for itself supreme rule and ultimate doctrinal authority in the Christian Church on earth. At the time of the Reformation, the Papacy claimed not only ultimate authority in the church, but also claimed authority in the realm of civil government. A couple helpful documents from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod help to explain this teaching. In response to a question from a non-Lutheran about the historic Lutheran teaching concerning the Antichrist, the LCMS’ Frequently Asked Questions site states:

The LCMS does not teach, nor has it ever taught, that any individual Pope as a person, is to be identified with the Antichrist. The historic view of LCMS on the Antichrist is summarized as follows by the Synod's Theological Commission: “The New Testament predicts that the church throughout its history will witness many antichrists (Matt. 24:5,23-24; Mark 13:6,21-22; Luke 21:8; 1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 7). All false teachers who teach contrary to Christ's Word are opponents of Christ and, insofar as they do so, are anti-Christ.” However, the Scriptures also teach that there is one climactic “Anti-Christ” (Dan. 7:8,11,20-21,24-25; 11:36-45; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; Revelation 17-18). . . Concerning the historical identity of the Antichrist, we affirm the Lutheran Confessions' identification of the Antichrist with the office of the papacy whose official claims continue to correspond to the Scriptural marks listed above. It is important, however, that we observe the distinction that the Lutheran Confessors made between the office of the pope (papacy) and the individual men who fill that office. The latter could be Christians themselves. We do not presume to judge any person's heart. Also, we acknowledge the possibility that the historical form of the Antichrist could change. Of course, in that case another identified by these marks would rise. In a footnote, the Commission adds: To the extent that the papacy continues to claim as official dogma the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent which expressly anathematizes, for instance, the doctrine “that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified,” the judgment of the Lutheran confessional writings that the papacy is the Antichrist holds. At the same time, of course, we must recognize the possibility, under God's guidance, that contemporary discussions and statements (e.g., 1983 U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue statement on “Justification by Faith”) could lead to a revision of the Roman Catholic position regarding Tridentine dogma.
These things are well said, but of course we know that Rome continues to insist on the historic definition of the doctrine of justification as specified at the Council of Trent and, to that extent, remains in the gravest of error regarding the very heart of the Gospel of Christ itself. And this is the main point of this article in the Smalcald Articles. The reason the Papacy was so strongly opposed, and why to this day we must continue to reject and condemn the office and its powers is precisely because of how it conflicts with the Gospel. Here is the mystery of lawlessness and the degree to which Satan works

It is claimed by by the majority of the mainline/liberal form of the Lutheran Church as typified by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other large state churches in Europe and Germany that the differences between Rome and Lutheranism on Justification were resolved by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This claim is clearly refuted in an excellent monograph on this issue that was prepared by both Missouri Synod seminaries with the Missouri Synod’s Commission on the Doctrine of Justification. It is essential reading on this point. The other essential book that must be read is Rev. Dr. Robert Preus’ Justification and Rome. It is a penetrating analysis and summary of the critical difference between Rome’s understanding of the Gospel and the Scriptural teaching of the Gospel.

And lest we think it was only Missouri Synod theologians playing the role of eternal party-poopers in ecumenical dialogs, we need to remember that a large number of the most prominent members of German theological faculties also pointed out the failings of the JDDJ. Here is a quote from an article about this:
While sharp critiques from conservative Protestants in the United States did not constitute a hot news flash, the reaction of over two hundred Lutheran theologians in Europe (primarily from German universities) was somewhat of a surprise. Prior to the signing of JDDJ they issued a “Position Statement of Theological Instructors” which set forth seven points of objection to JDDJ. Among the signatories were eighteen professors from the University of Tubingen (hardly a bastion of conservatism), including Peter Stuhlmacher, Martin Hengel, and Otto Betz. Among their objections was that JDDJ promulgates an essentially Catholic view of justification.
And here is the text of the useful FAQ on the JDDJ available on The LCMS web site, which yours truly authored at the time of the release of the JDDJ:

Q. I would like to understand the main problem your church body has with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed October 31 by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church). Is it the fact that it implies that we are saved as a result of both faith and works?

A. Yes, you are on the right track here. The recently signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) does not signal a change in the Roman Catholic church, but rather, a willingness on the part of the Lutherans who signed it to allow Rome's doctrine of justification to stand as a valid interpretation of what the Bible teaches us about justification. This is something that the Lutheran church has never done before, and in fact, it is a great tragedy and a profoundly sad moment in the history of Lutheranism.

Rome historically has always taught that we are saved by grace, and grace alone. They emphasize that very strongly. The 16th century Council of Trent makes this point very clear. Thus, there is nothing new on this in the Declaration on this point, even though some Lutherans have made it sound as if Rome's words about grace signal some marvelous breakthrough.

What you probably have not heard is that the JDDJ very carefully avoid precise definitions of the words grace, faith, sin, etc. That is no accident. Careful definition of those terms would have shown how far apart our two churches actually are on the doctrine of justification.

The problem with Rome's view of justification is that they view it as a process, whereby we cooperate with God's grace in order to merit eternal life for ourselves, and even for others (that is a paraphrase of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches). They view grace as a sort of “substance” that God infuses into us that permits us to do those works that are necessary in order that we might earn more grace. The Bible describes grace as the loving and favorable disposition of God; in other words, grace is all about what God is doing and giving.

We distinguish between the result of justification, which is the Christian life, and the work of God to save us. Rome mixes sanctification with justification. Why is this view troublesome? Because it teaches that something other than trust in Christ is necessary for or salvation. That “something other” is what we bring to the table. And the only thing we do bring to the table is our sin, not our good works. Our works are a response that God works in us, but not a contributing cause to our justification.

The Roman Catholic Church is very careful to state that even this “something other” is made possibly only because God has given us the “initial” grace to desire more grace. But in practical reality, it is apparent that the Roman Catholic Church is finally throwing people back on relying on what they are doing, or can do, to merit eternal life. When we mix in our works in the picture of our salvation, the glory and merit of Christ always end up becoming obscured.

But the Bible is clear that it is purely by grace, not by works, or else grace would just be a “help” for us to do the works that finally are what merit God's forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic view, justification is a process by which we participate with God in achieving our salvation. The Biblical view is that justification is God's declaration of our complete righteousness and total forgiveness, apart from any works. This gift is received by faith alone--apart from works (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-9).

Another point to be made is this: If, in fact, Rome does teach justification as the Bible teaches it, then there should be an immediate change in its view of indulgences, prayer to the saints and the myriad of other extra-biblical traditions that it has embraced. For if justification is the heart and center of the Bible, then these other things are incompatible with it.

I hope this helps you see that the Roman Catholic view of justification and the classical Lutheran view are definitely not complementary, but diametrically opposed to one another. The JDDJ did not change that fact. The Lutherans who signed the document did not insist on careful definition of terms so as to make absolutely clear that our salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone.

The best short study of the historic differences between Rome and Lutheranism on the doctrine of justification is available in a book called “Justification and Rome” by Robert Preus. You may purchase a copy of this book from Concordia Publishing House (CPH) (800-325-3040).
The most complete treatment of this subject is in the 16th century Lutheran response to Trent, which still stands today as the best and most complete treatment of Trent by a Lutheran. It is “The Examination of the Council of Trent” by Martin Chemnitz, also available through CPH.

And it is not only Lutheran groups that have clarified precisely what the JDDJ means, and does not mean. Here is the Vatican's own very carefully clarification and caveats issued at the time the JDDJ was being hailed as a great “breakthrough” by certain Lutherans. Read this carefully and you will see the extent to which claims that the differences between Rome and historic Lutheranism have been “resolved” are entirely false, as anyone with even the most elementary familiarity with the Lutheran Confessions will be able to see in the statement below.

From the Vatican statement issued at the time the JDDJ was announced, this from Cardinal Cassidy:
Under the title “Declaration” it is clearly stated that “a considerable agreement has been reached” on a question that has been for centuries so controversial. Indeed “it is rightly stated that there is a consensus in fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification”. At the same time, the Catholic Church is of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as to eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification. And as a matter of fact the Joint Declaration itself refers to some of these differences.

Under the second heading “Clarifications”, the Catholic Church indicates several points that need further study. The major difficulties are to be found in paragraph 4.4 of the Joint Declaration concerning the justified person as sinner. We have some difficulty in seeing how the explanation given in N° 29 regarding the Lutheran understanding of the justified person as sinful can be fully compatible with the Catholic doctrine explained in N° 30. The Lutheran explanation seems still to contradict the Catholic understanding of baptism in which all that can properly be called sin is taken away. Concupiscence remains of course in the justified, but for Catholics this cannot be properly called sin, while in N° 29 it is stated that for Lutherans it is truly sin. Moreover, the Statement in N° 22 that “God no longer imputes to the justified their sins” does not seem an adequate explanation of the Catholic understanding of the interior transformation that takes place in the justified person. The term “Opposition to God” that is used in NN° 28-30 is understood differently by Catholics and Lutherans and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. For these reasons it is difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that the Lutheran doctrine of “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decrees on original sin and justification.

One of the most discussed points in the Joint Declaration has been the question considered under N° 18, concerning the Lutheran understanding of justification as criterion for the life and practice of the Church. For Lutherans this doctrine has taken on an altogether particular significance. The Joint Declaration states clearly that for Catholics also the doctrine of justification “is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ”. Catholics, however, “see themselves as bound by several criteria” and our Note indicates what those criteria are by stating that, “according to Scripture and already from the time of the Fathers of the Church, the message of justification has been organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the regula fidei, that is the confession of the one God in three persons, christologically centered and rooted in the living Church and its sacramental”.

The Catholic Church has noted with satisfaction that N° 21, in conformity with canon 4 of the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent, states that man can refuse grace; but it must also be affirmed that, with this freedom to refuse, there is also in the justified person a new capacity to adhere to the divine will, a capacity that is rightly called cooperatio. Given this understanding and noting that in N° 17, Lutherans and Catholics share the common conviction that the new life comes from the divine mercy and not from any merit of our own, it is difficult to see how the term “mere passive” can be used by the Lutherans in this regard, and how this phrase can be compatible with the affirmation by the Lutherans in N°21 of the full personal involvement in faith. A clarification would therefore seem necessary in order to determine more exactly the degree of consensus achieved in this regard.

The Catholic Church also maintains with Lutherans that these good works of the justified are always the fruit of grace. But at the same time, and without in any way diminishing the totally divine initiative, they are the fruit of man, justified and interiorly transformed. We can therefore say that eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.

In pursuing this study further, it will be necessary to treat also the sacrament of penance, through which the sinner can be justified anew.

And then in a third section, the Note indicates some Prospects for Future Work. The hope is expressed that the present important step forward towards agreement on justification may be followed by further studies that will make possible a satisfactory clarification of the divergences that still exist, some of which concern aspects of substance and are therefore not all mutually compatible, as affirmed on the contrary in N° 40. Particularly desirable would be a deeper reflection on the biblical foundation that is the common basis of the doctrine of justification both for Lutherans and Catholics.

And the Note finally expresses the wish that Catholics and Lutherans might seek to find a language which can make the doctrine of justification more intelligible also for the men and women of our day.

9. In conclusion, I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long disputed question at the close of the twentieth century, and on the eve of the new millennium. It is a response to Pope John Paul II's appeal in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that “the approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium” (N° 34), and will be an enormous encouragement to Catholics and Lutherans as they continue to work in the years ahead for the visible unity to which the Lord is calling us. Indeed, it will be an encouragement to the whole ecumenical movement. It will show that patient work to overcome difficulties through dialogue can achieve results that go far beyond what could have been hoped for when the dialogue began.
And of course there is this illuminating response from the Vatican prepared by the man who is now Pope. Note particularly the very telling affirmation of precisely the very doctrine of Rome that is so vigorously and consistently rejected and condemned in the Lutheran Confessions as the direct contradiction of the Gospel that it is:

1. The major difficulties preventing an affirmation of total consensus between the parties on the theme of Justification arise in paragraph 4.4 The Justified as Sinner (nn. 28-1,0 ). Even taking into account the differences, legitimate in themselves, that come from different theological approaches to the content of faith, from a Catholic point of view the title is already a cause of perplexity. According, indeed, to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God (3). It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptised is not, properly speaking, sin. For Catholics, therefore, the formula “at the same time righteous and sinner”, as it is explained at the beginning of n. 29 (“Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament ...Looking at themselves ... however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them...”), is not acceptable.
This statement does not, in fact, seem compatible with the renewal and sanctification of the interior man of which the Council of Trent speaks (4). The expression “Opposition to God” (Gottwidrigkeit) that is used in nn. 28-30 is understood differently by Lutherans and by Catholics, and so becomes, in fact, equivocal. In this same sense, there can be ambiguity for a Catholic in the sentence of n. 22, “... God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love”, because man's interior transformation is not clearly seen. So, for all these reasons, it remains difficult to see how, in the current state of the presentation, given in the Joint Declaration, we can say that this doctrine on “simul iustus et peccator” is not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification.
We also need to recognize, as Rome rightly notes, politely yet bluntly, that the Luthreran World Federation can not be regarded as an entity that in fact represents or speaks for world Lutheranism. In fact, at the time the JDDJ was being pushed by the LWF Executive Council many member churches of the LWF did not approve it, or sign on, or vote to adopt it. The Vatican says:

We need finally to note, from the point of view of their representative quality, the different character of the two signataries of this Joint Declaration. The Catholic Church recognises the great effort made by the Lutheran World Federation in order to arrive, through consultation of the Synods, at a “magnus consensus”, and so to give a true ecclesial value to its signature; there remains, however, the question of the real authority of such a synodal consensus, today and also tomorrow, in the life and doctrine of the Lutheran community.
Therefore, when we today read this article in the Smalcald Articles we need to keep in mind that the severity of the rhetoric reflects the reality Luther and his fellow reformers were experiencing at the time: the Roman Papacy was engaged in literal warfare against those who disagreed with Roman Catholicism. They were torturing and putting people to death for affirming the Biblical Gospel. Today we can be thankful that there the extravagant claims made for Papal authority on heaven and on earth are no longer being made by the Papacy, and we praise God for any movement more toward the proclamation of Christ that we do see and notice in more recent Papal sermons and addresses; however, the most fundamental error of Romanism remains: the claim that we are not saved by grace alone through faith alone, but that we are saved through a mixture of faith plus works. The Pope continues to insist on his universal authority in the Church.

We rejoice that we have much in common with our fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. Because of what we have in common, we are committed to working toward true reconciliation of our important differences. We can not support the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification because it does not actually reconcile the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics concerning the most important truth of Christianity. What is that truth? God loved the world so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life in our place and to die for our sins. God declares us to be totally righteous and completely forgiven because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God gives us eternal life as a free gift through trust in Christ alone. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that something more than trust in Christ is necessary for us to be saved. It teaches that we are able to merit, through our works, eternal life for ourselves and others. We believe this teaching obscures the work of Jesus Christ and clouds the central message of the Bible. Therefore, despite what has been reported in the public media about the Lutheran-Roman Catholic declaration, very significant differences remain in regard to how we understand salvation, a fact that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges. We pray for genuine reconciliation of differences among Christians. Our church is intent on working for the day when the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed with one voice. We will continue to work toward true reconciliation.

Let's be careful not to forget what Trent declared over against the Gospel:
CANON 9: "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."

CANON 12: "If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed."

Canon 14: "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

Canon 24: "If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema."

Canon 30: "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema."

Canon 33: "If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.
I ask for your kind indulgence, dear reader, as I wax a bit autobiograpical at this point in this post.

Why Separation from Rome is Still a Tragic Necessity

Some time ago, word went out that the Papacy might be considering lifting the charge of heretic against Martin Luther. This rumor was squelched. In the course of talking about it with a friend, we were going back and forth about our feelings about Rome and the Papacy. I offered him these more personal reflections on my experiences with Rome and what a truly painful thing it is to recognize that Lutheranism and Romanism must be, and remain, separate. In light of the Pope's coming trip to the USA, I thought I would share these thoughts, with a few modifications, more openly here:

The reason I have such strong feelings of frustration and, yes, anger, with the errors of Romanism is precisely because there is so much in the Roman Catholic Church that I love and cherish. "Tragic necessity" is no mere polite soundbite to me, nor to many other faithful Lutheran Christians. We cherish the Gospel that is read and heard in Roman Catholic Churches whenever and wherever it is read, or preached. We cherish the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar which is given and distributed in Roman Catholic Churches. We love and cherish these things in spite of the errors that obscure the glory and grace of God in the mercy of Christ.

I developed close friendships with many Roman Catholics growing up in the Deep South where Lutheran and Roman Catholics were but two sides of the same coin in the view of Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. There was a shared history and experience of liturgy and church history that was unknown to many, if not all, Bible fundamentalists.

I attended a Roman Catholic High School and was so deeply moved and impressed by the nuns and priests there who taught us everything from typing (thank you Sister Mary Jean!) and drilled us to death in English and grammar (thank you Sister Mary Margaret!). I loved Latin class when Father Pine, S.J., would wander in and engage in Latin with our teacher, and when he actually corrected my writing one day, walking up and down the rows of desks, "Ah, excuse me, Mr. McCain, but you seem to have a certain fondness leaving your "t's" uncrossed and your i's undotted." As my face grew red, I was able only but to agree and say "Yes, Father. You are right."

And I recall Father Foley regaling us with tales of youthful episodes with a certain "fair lass" in Ireland, where he hailed from, and I recall listening to him and Sister Mary Ellen rattle away back and forth in Gaelic, their mother tongue, the mother tongue of my ancestors as well.

And they even gave a Lutheran kid best religion student of the year award, twice in a row! And I have the warmest memories of all of the many kind notes and remembrances from the priests, sisters and brothers who, in their own dear ways, encouraged me to become a Lutheran pastor, with quiet conversations, even whispered in some cases. We shared a love for Christ!

But as for the institution and public doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, here is where the tragic necessity of separation becomes a reality.

But I sat seething through four years of Masses where the Gospel was terribly obscured with all manner of nonsense that one can only imagine that would be possible in the mid-seventies, with people trying to impress teenagers attending Mass. (It became so bad the Bishop announced he would no longer conduct mass at our high school until the behavior in Mass got better!).

For these very personal reasons, in addition to my passion for theology, I've been deeply concerned and interested in Roman Catholicism for years and feel such a kindred spirit with the Roman Church, but also at the same time, such a heart-wrenching separation when I watch the Gospel not really proclaimed sweetly and clearly.

Tragic necessity, indeed. Lord, have mercy.

While it is necessary to read and understand this particular article in the Smalcald Articles with the errors of Rome clearly in view, there is also much to be gained from this article in addition to that. Read and applied to the situation even within our Lutheran Church raises opportunities for introspection, confession and repentance. How and when can situations arise in any church where the Gospel is obscured and the authority of a man, or men, is elevated over and above that of Christ and His Word? While the Papacy is still rightly identified as Antichrist, is the Papacy alone antichrist? What are other modern-day “antichrists” that threaten the church?

8 comments:

wmc said...

This article requires the ability to make same sharp distinctions, or as Luther says in his writing On the Councils and Churches (1539) to untangle a twisted strand of cords. As the original post said, this is a sensitive topic, easily prone to misunderstanding.

We must distinguish between the Pope as pope and the pope as the "bishop and pastor of the churches in Rome and of such other churches as have attached themselves to him." Likewise, we must make a clear distinction between the Roman Church as a papal church, promoting the distinctive false teachings of the papacy, and the Roman churches as true churches insofar as they exhibit the divine marks (Kennzeichen in our Confessions) of the Church. Tricky business indeed.

In the original Scriptural context, the term "antichrist" is found only in 1,2 John, there referring to the followers of Cerinthus who denied that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God. Our dogmatic tradition conflates John's "antichrist" with Paul's "man of lawlessness" in 2 Thess 2:3-4. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 really sets the agenda for Luther who sees the papacy consistently setting himself up in the temple of God and arrogating worship and honor to himself that should go to God alone.

As our CTCR rightly notes in its little addendum to this article on the lcms.org web site, the assessment of the papacy as the antichrist is an historic one. Today's popes hardly resemble those of the Reformation in their violent opposition to the Gospel, yet a kinder and gentler pope is still very much the pope. Unless the Roman Church formally renounces its teaching of the pope as the de jure divino head of all Christians, not to mention the later 18th c. innovation of "papal infallibility," the Reformer's judgment on the papacy remains. Nor were Luther and the Reformers alone in this assessment.

The article of justification continues to be the standard against which the churches and their bishops are to be judged, and here the papacy continues to come up short, no matter how nicely the ecumenical terminology is couched.

All one has to do is recall the funeral of Pope John Paul II or view a papal mass from the current pope to see the adulation given to a man that rightly belongs to the Son of God and true Head of the Church.

I appreciate the final question, whether one may well look for other manifestations of the "antichrist" as we approach the Last Day. I don't see any reason to stop with the Roman papacy. In fact, if one brings in the Revelation with its political and religious beasts (signifying Rome and the emperor cult of Asia Minor), one might draw the conclusion that any admixture of the two kingdoms, where church and state or the kingdoms of grace and power are combined, partakes of the spirit of antichrist.

Many Lutherans forget, or perhaps don't realize, that Apology 15 also includes the kingdom of Mohammed (Islam) as part of the kingdom of antichrist (Ap 15.18). In the very same paragraph, Melanchthon makes it clear that the assessment of the papacy as antichrist is conditional, "if it maintains that human rites justify."

So to answer the question, I would certainly point to Islam, with its union of "church" and "state" and its stated desire to create a single world religion compelled by a single world government as part of the kingdom of the antichrist. It sets up a false Christ and a system of works by which men are justified before God.

Paul McCain said...

Great comment on the Papacy article.

It is one of the more fascinating articles in the BOC, sorting out carefully what truly is historically conditioned and what is not.

I think, in some ways, perhaps the most important ways, the Papacy today, in terms of the doctrine of the Gospel, even more insidiously dangerous since he sounds SO close to the mark, so, painfully, painfully close, yet not there.

But the last questions I raised in the post are the ones that in many ways fascinate me more.

How can we identify the spirit of antichrist in our own churches?

Ultimately the "spirit" of Antichrist is the old evil foe doing his "best work" where the Gospel is most clearly proclaimed.

wmc said...

"How can we identify the spirit of antichrist in our own churches?"

This is an important question. One of the problems with exclusively seeing the papacy as antichrist is that it blinds us to the threats in our own midst. If we run with John's terminology of antichrist, this could be anyone or anything that undermines or adulterates the Gospel.

I think that church institutions run the greatest risk of "antichrist" behavior, as they dilute the Gospel for the sake of their own institutional survival. The papacy itself is a self-preserving institution, but there are protestant popes as well. It might even be the tyranny of the majority in a democratized church body where the "majority rules" by political force. I would say that whenever Religion and Politics get together, the spirit of antichrist is sure to be among them.

Rev. Randolph Schnack said...

The historical and doctrinal arguments given both in the original document, and the comments following, are to be commended. However, I feel the real reluctance among so many to affirm this doctrine of the church arises from a cancer within the midst of our church. One which has been growing at an alarming rate. The cancer of relativism.

The Church is buit on OBJECTIVE FACTS - Truth which is immutable. Our society, and sadly, day by day, many within the church reduce truth to opinion. Thus the differences between Catholics, and Lutherans, and Baptists, Moslems, Mormans and Jews, are no longer caused by sinful error on the part of the various church bodies holding to false doctrine, but rather differing opinions, all of which, if not equally valid, should at the very least be affirmed by all.

Put simply, most laity, and quite frankly, all too many pastors within our beloved synod, have given up the clear teaching of Luther, as shown in his exposition on the Second Commandment in the Large Catechism. Note especially the following two quotes.

After speaking of the many ways we take God's name in vain in our day to day lives, Luther continues -

54] But, the greatest abuse occurs in spiritual matters, which pertain to the conscience, when false preachers rise up and offer their lying vanities as God's Word.

Comparing this commandment to the others, Luther writes, -

56] Here, then, let us learn and take to heart the great importance of this commandment, that with all diligence we may guard against and dread every misuse of the holy name, as the greatest sin that can be outwardly committed.

As long as we are unwilling to see the teaching of false doctrine as the GREATEST sin that can be committed outwardly, we will continue to have trouble explaining how and why the papacy is the antichrist, or the HORROR of decisional theology that destroys the gospel no less.

May we together pray that God root out this cancer that has taken root among us.

Daryl said...

Thank you Rev. McCain for the excellent article on the papacy as the AntiChrist. Since I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, I am part of a denomination that signed the JD on Justification. This document was not clear in its definitions as you point out and a sell out. I would affirm what the Lutheran Confessions say about the term "antichrist". I believe that one of the spirit's of antichrist that has reared its head in many churches in our land, including Lutheran churches is "antinominism". In our age of political correctness and "being nice," people don't want to hear the law which shows them their sin and their need for the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to Amos 2:4 This is what the Lord says: "For three sins of Judah even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed." Am I correct in calling antinomianism a spirit of antichrist? After all if there is no law to transgress, is there any need for forgiveness?
Some thoughts for your consideration. Pastor Daryl Olson

Daryl said...

Again thank you Rev. McCain for the thought provoking article on the papacy. Thankyou also to those who made comments. Luther's comments in the Smalcald Articles on the Papacy are worded very carefully. He speaks strongly against the pope claiming to be the head of the church which belongs only to Christ. In response to the question, "How can we identify the spirit of antichrist in our own churches?" I'm wondering if one the ways it happens is when leaders, presidents, bishops, Lord it over their flock rather than act as servants? Didn't the Apostle Paul speak about this in Acts 20:29-31
Pastor Daryl Olson

Gage said...

I think that this installment is well presented. The point is well made on the LCMS Q & A: "What you probably have not heard is that the JDDJ very carefully avoid precise definitions of the words grace, faith, sin, etc." The Romanists are still hung up with the same error about Original Sin that concupiscence is not "sin" in one after one has been baptized. This was dealt with in Apology II effectively. Even Augustine is quoted who said that sin remains sin but that "it is not imputed." Rome still ignores Paul when he says that sin is still in his flesh--even after his baptism--and that the glory of our God is that He is the God who justifies the ungodly.

Rome still maintains that God can only justify someone who is good in and of themselves in some way, thereby putting sanctification before justification. They fail to understand that God's action of justification changes the sinner, so that he can begin to do good works. Sadly, nothing has changed.

It doesn't help to represent to the world that Trent's abominable canons no longer apply to Lutherans or Protestants. If it were true that they no longer apply, then Lutherans and Protestants may not be teaching the same thing as they did at the time of the Reformation.

As to the Antichrist: one large aspect of this is the devil's own penchant for masquerading as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:13-14). What is evil is called holy or falsely represented as holy. I remember in a film where they had a Roman Catholic monk saying for everything that is holy there is something corresponding that is unholy, a counterfeit. That is the essence of temptation. "Anti" does not only mean "against" it means "in place of." When something is put in the place of Christ it is Antichrist. Christ must always have the preeminence as the only Savior (John 14:6--the pope in an encyclical fails to quote the entire verse ["no one comes to the Father except through Me"]: that would make Christianity too absolute!).

I think that Rev. Cwirla puts his finger right on the problem of saying what is the manifestation of Antichrist today: "One of the problems with exclusively seeing the papacy as antichrist is that it blinds us to the threats in our own midst." This is the problem with saying the papacy is the Antichrist to the exclusion of other manifestations. If you read the Smalcald Articles, Luther points out that the papacy cease to be the Antichrist if it were to divest itselfs of the marks of Antichrist. Luther, of course, is very doubtful that this would ever take place.

James Hidley said...

Thank you Pastor McCain for a very well written article on this subject. I find myself with similar feelings about the Roman Church. At a time of leaving the Seventh-day Adventist communion, I felt drawn to the historicity of the Catholic Church, joining it for a period. It was the recovery of the doctrine of justification by Christ's imputed righteousness which led me to conclude Rome could not be home to me. So like yourself, I feel this "love/hate" tension. Incidently, I feel similarly with regard to the Seventh-day Adventist communion. Thank you again for this and many other fine posts.