This is a guest post by J. V. Fesko. He is the author of The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights.
I can remember one of the members of my congregation asking me in a somewhat sheepish tone, “Do we still believe that the Pope is the antichrist?” He was referring to the original 1646 version of the Westminster Confession that states the following: “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” (25:6).
I informed this church member that when American Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Standards in 1789, they changed them in a few places and they deleted this reference to the Pope as the antichrist. He seemed greatly relieved because it appeared as an embarrassing gaffe on the part of the original framers of the Standards.
Whether or not the Pope is the antichrist is a question for another day. Though, I believe the proper way to frame the question is not whether the Pope is the antichrist, but whether he is an antichrist. In other words, anyone who leads people away from the gospel of Christ participates in the spirit of antichrist (1 John 2:18).
Nevertheless, why on earth would the theologians at Westminster make such a statement?
A Trip to the 17th Century
Answering this question requires us to enter into the seventeenth century, something that is probably, at many levels, like a foreign country to us. Presently, especially in this country, theology doesn’t impact foreign policy in a big way. People can sit down in a coffee shop and discuss theological differences and ideas over a half-caf latte without fear of danger, violence, or bloodshed.
In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, things were quite different. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods marked by theological conflict that often wrote checks cashed in blood. Theology was so ingrained into the life and culture of the time that there was no such thing as the separation between church and state. Cities and entire countries usually either aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church or with the Protestant Reformation.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, for example, the King of Spain launched an attack against the Protestant nation—his desire was to return England to the fold of Rome and under the supremacy of the Pope. Spain was defeated, of course, in the famous “Protestant wind,” which largely destroyed the Spanish Armada. The Pope even issued a decree that stated that loyal Roman Catholics need not render their allegiance to Elizabeth, whom he considered a bastard queen and one who had led an entire nation astray theologically.
In 1605, a Roman Catholic by the name of Guy Fawkes hatched a plot to plant explosives in the basement of Westminster Abbey so that when King James and Parliament first gathered for their opening session, he would literally blow the roof off the building. In the wake of the king’s death, Fawkes hoped to engineer a coup and install a Roman Catholic king upon England’s throne.
However, the concerns about Roman Catholicism were not simply political but also theological. Protestant theologians viewed the Reformation as a recovery of the gospel. Sinners were not saved by a combination of Christ’s work and the sinner’s obedience, the alchemy of grace and works to produce the gold of salvation. Rather, salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-10).
The Council of Trent (1547), the official meeting and authoritative declaration of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the idea of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone. In the minds of many, the far greater concern was that the Pope was leading millions of souls astray into the very gates of hell itself.
Compounded by the many wars on the continent, such as the Thirty Years War, rumored assassination plots against Protestant rulers, Protestant theologians believed they were engaged in the final battle of the ages—the battle of antichrist against the church of Christ. They sought, therefore, to protect the church from the perceived threat and declared that the Pope was the antichrist. This opinion was quite common and met with little dissent.
As much as we might raise our eyebrows at such firm convictions about the identity of antichrist, we have something to learn from these past events. While we might not worry about theology becoming violent warfare and have the luxury of discussing and debating eternal matters without much fear, we should recognize that theology matters.
We may discuss weighty matters in a serene setting, but we should not forget that eternity is in the balance. True, God is sovereign and his plans will never be thwarted, but we should remember that, humanly speaking, when we discuss the gospel with someone heaven and hell are in the balance. In a word, our doctrine impacts our lives. Decisions and ideas we embrace now matter for eternity.
J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is academic dean and associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California. In addition to serving as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he is the author of a number of books related to the Reformation, including The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (excerpt).