The Death of Pope John Paul II and the Election of Pope Benedict XVI have drawn much attention to the papacy in recent months. This intense interest is remarkable. Much of this relates to the personality and achievements of John Paul II. He was a man of great courage and was instrumental in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Part of the interest also comes from the powerful images that Rome is able to offer to television cameras. Some of Western Civilization's finest artwork and architecture serve as a backdrop for elaborate rituals performed by richly dressed clerics.
Part of the appeal for many, including non-Roman Catholics, is the sense of continuity and certainty imparted by the institution of papacy. The office of Pope connects us to the past, to a time of greater Christian presence and influence at all levels of society and culture in the West. It also talks about certain moral norms that are defended against the relativism of our time.
All of these elements of appeal to the papacy went largely unnoticed by the media. I heard few truly Protestant voices historically or theologically challenging the papacy. Some Protestant leaders briefly praised John Paul II, but the only criticism of the papal theological positions came from more liberal Catholics.
Perhaps the nature of the event (and the media) made it unlikely that many Protestant opinions would be expressed. But in America, where there are many more Protestants than Catholics, one might have expected the media to investigate why Protestants don't recognize the Pope as head of the Church. Repeated claims that the Pope is Peter's successor and that the papacy is a 2,000-year-old institution have not been investigated or challenged.
This Protestant silence says a lot about the state of Protestantism today. After noting the postponement of a royal wedding and the presence of the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the papal funeral, an Oxford historian declared, “Protestant England is dead.” In America, too, the reaction was to surprising the death of John Paul II. Our President, a Methodist, ordered the American flags to be flown at half-mast, an honor not even accorded Winston Churchill. And while Mrs. Lillian Carter led the American delegation to the funeral of John Paul I, the President and two former Presidents represented the United States at that funeral. Does the American response suggest that Protestant America is more interested than ever in religious tolerance or a united Christian front?
Protestant history of the Pope
Historically, Protestants have been very critical of the papacy as an institution. They have rejected the papacy for its theological claims and for its tyrannical exercise of power over the churches.
Rome Claim #1: The Bishop of Rome is the earthly head of the entire Church.
Protestants wanted to show historically and theologically that this statement is not valid. They have argued that the papacy is not a 2,000-year-old institution. Even if Peter served and died in Rome, it cannot be shown that he was a bishop there in the Roman Catholic sense of the word. For Rome, a bishop is a separate office in the church above the ministers (or priests) who serve under him. When Peter was bishop in Rome, he was a bishop in the New Testament sense, bishop being simply another term for servant or elder (see Titus 1:5-7). In 1 Peter 5:1, Peter refers to himself simply as "elder companion."
Certainly many churches in the first five hundred years of church history did not recognize sovereign authority in the bishop of Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Churches never recognized such a claim, and neither did many churches in the western part of the Roman Empire in these early centuries.
Rome Statement #2: Peter is the rock upon which the entire Church is built.
Catholics have argued that Jesus indicated that the church was built on Peter as its rock, citing Matthew 16:18, 19. Peter (Petros) confesses that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus replies that on this rock (Petra) will is lift. build your church Most Protestants have insisted that Jesus the Christ is the rock on which the church is built. (Some have argued that as a confessor and believer in Christ, Peter represented the faith of the church and in that sense was the rock.) Peter in his first epistle sees Jesus as the rock and calls him the rock of the fall (1 Peter 2:8 ). Furthermore, the keys of the kingdom given to Peter in Matthew 16 are not given only to him, for Matthew 18:18 shows that they are given to all the disciples.
Even if Peter were the head of the whole Church and the rock on which the Church stands as Chief Apostle, this would not prove that Peter's power could be transferred to others. Only Jesus makes apostles, and even Rome acknowledges that the apostleship in the church does not last past the first century.
The Pope as Antichrist: Voices were raised in Europe in the Middle Ages against the claims of the Bishop of Rome. Some medieval Christians, notably the radical followers of Saint Francis of Assisi and John Hus, argued that the Pope was in fact the Antichrist because of his power, wealth, and corruption. The Pope's use of military power, his accumulation of enormous wealth, and various moral scandals in the Vatican seemed to support this belief.
The belief that the Pope was the Antichrist was held by almost all Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. When the pope refused to support reforms in the church and began using the power of his office to persecute advocates of reform, Luther concluded that the pope was the Antichrist. Most other Protestants followed Luther in this belief.
Historical Protestant Viewpoint: Biblical Basis
These early Protestants referred to various scriptures to support their claims. They quoted 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4,9,10: “Do not let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless rebellion comes first, and the man of unrighteousness is revealed, the son of perdition, resisting and rising up against all that is called God or object of worship, so that he may be in the temple of God, posing as God... The coming of evil is through the work of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders and with all deception of iniquity to those who perish because they refused to love the truth and to be so beside himself." These Protestants found that the pope opposed the truth and claimed miracles to support his unbiblical teaching. They argued that he sat at the heart of the church, which is the temple of God, and the divine Privilege claimed, particularly in amending the gospel of grace.
They also applied Revelation 13:6–7 about the beast to the pope: “He opened his mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling place, that is, those who dwell in heaven. It was also lawful to make war on the saints and conquer them...". (See also Daniel 7:25.) Protestants claimed that Rome's rejection of the doctrine of justification by grace alone by faith alone was blasphemy against God and His grace in Christ. This doctrine was anathema or denounced as accursed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a council that Rome considers an official ecumenical council of the Church. The abominations of Trent were approved by the popes and remain a condemnation of that doctrine to this day. In addition, many Protestants believed that the papacy revealed itself as Antichrist because the popes supported the persecution of Protestants that resulted in the martyrdom of tens of thousands of them in the 16th century.
Historical Protestant View: The Confessions
This Protestant belief about the Pope was so strong that it was assimilated into various Protestant denominations. Philip Melanchthon wrote in the official Lutheran Apology for the Augsburg Confession (1531), Article 15: “If our opponents hold the idea that these human rites merit justification, grace, and forgiveness of sins, then they only establish the rule of the antichrist. The dominion of Antichrist is a new mode of worship of God devised by human authority as opposed to Christ... So the papacy will also be part of the dominion of Antichrist if it holds human rites to be justified.”
Even more forcefully, Martin Luther wrote in the Lutheran confession, the Schmalkaldic Articles (1537), Part 2, Article 4, “The Papacy,” “This is a powerful demonstration that the Pope is the true Antichrist, risen and supreme against Christ, because the Pope will not allow Christians to be saved except by his own power, which is nothing, having not been instituted or commanded by God."
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), chapter 25, section 6 states: “There is no other head of the church than the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome in any way be its head; but it is this Antichrist, this man of sin and son of perdition, who rises up in the church against Christ and all that is called God.”
While denominational Lutherans have not changed their confessional statements, most American Presbyterian churches have dropped the statement that the Pope is the Antichrist from their confessional statements.
If many Protestants today are not convinced that the Pope is the Antichrist, what are we to say about him? Has the Theology of the Roman Catholic Church Changed to the Pope and the Gospel? The Roman Catholic Church has changed some of its claims of being the only institution where salvation can be found. He is ready to call the Protestants separate brothers, as it were. There seems to be more tolerance and less commitment to coercion on the part of the Bishop of Rome. We should be happy about these changes.
However, the basic teaching about the authority of the pope has not changed, and neither has the teaching about the gospel. The Roman Catholic Church still curses the Protestant and Biblical doctrine of justification.
The most important criterion by which every minister must be judged is: Did he preach the gospel of Jesus Christ? As Paul clearly taught, "If we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel than what we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). From this standard we must conclude that Pope John Paul II has not been more successful than his predecessors since the Reformation. Pray that Pope Benedict XVI, a man of great learning, will come to see truth as it is in Christ and teach faithfully.
First published in Gospel, Vol. 3, Issue 4, July/August 2005
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HANGING TAGS: Roman Catholicism,papacy,Luther,Pope John Paul II,Pope Benedict XVI
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The acceptance rate at Westminster College is 63.7%.
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