The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI have drawn great attention to the papacy in recent months. Such intense interest is remarkable. Much of it relates to the personality and accomplishments of John Paul II. He was a man of great courage and contributed significantly to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

Part of the interest also results from the powerful images that Rome can offer television cameras. Some of the greatest art and architecture of western civilization serve as a backdrop for elaborate rituals performed by gloriously clad clerics.

Part of the appeal for many—including non-Roman Catholics—is the sense of continuity and certainty provided by the institution of the papacy. The office of the pope connects us with the past, with a time of greater Christian presence and influence at all levels of society and culture in the west. It also speaks of certain moral standards defended against the relativism of our times.

All of these elements of appeal for the papacy went largely unexamined by the media. I heard few authentically Protestant voices challenging the papacy on historical or theological terms. A few Protestant leaders briefly provided words of praise for John Paul II, but the only criticism of papal theological positions came from more liberal Roman Catholics.

Perhaps the nature of the event (and of the media) made it unlikely that much Protestant opinion would be expressed. But in America—with many more Protestants than Roman Catholics—one might have expected some media exploration of why Protestants do not acknowledge the pope as the head of the church. The repeated claims that the pope is the successor of Peter and that the papacy is a 2000 year old institution went unexplored and unchallenged.

This Protestant silence says much about the state of Protestantism today. After observing 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, one Oxford historian declared, “Protestant England is dead.” Similarly, in America the reaction to the death of John Paul II was surprising. Our president, a Methodist, ordered American flags flown at half-staff—an honor not even accorded Winston Churchill. And while Mrs. Lillian Carter headed the American delegation to the funeral of John Paul I, the president and two former presidents represented the United States at this funeral. Does the American response indicate that Protestant America is more interested in religious toleration or a Christian united front than it once was?

Historic Protestant View 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’s Claim #1: The Bishop of Rome is the earthly head of the whole church.
Protestants have wanted to show historically and theologically that this claim is invalid. They have argued that the papacy is not a 2000 year old institution. Even if Peter did minister and die in Rome, it can not be demonstrated that he was bishop there in the Roman Catholic sense of that word. For Rome a bishop is a separate office in the church superior to the ministers (or priests) who serve under him. If Peter was a bishop in Rome, he was bishop in a New Testament sense where bishop is simply another term for minister or elder (see Titus 1:5-7). In I Peter 5:1 Peter simply refers to himself as a “fellow elder.”

Certainly many churches in the first five hundred years of the history of the church did not recognize a sovereign authority in the bishop of Rome. The churches of Eastern Orthodoxy have never recognized such a claim, and many churches in the western part of the Roman empire during those early centuries did not recognize them either.

Rome’s Claim #2: Peter is the rock on which the whole church is built.
Roman Catholics have argued that Jesus indicated that the church is built on Peter as its rock, appealing to Matthew 16:18, 19. Peter (Petros) confesses that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus responds that on this rock (petra) he will build his church. Most Protestants have insisted that Jesus the Christ is the rock on which the church is built. (Some argued that Peter as the confessor and believer in Christ stood for the faith of the church and in that sense was the rock.) Peter in his first epistle sees Jesus as the rock, calling Jesus the rock of offense (I Pet. 2:8). Also the keys of the kingdom given to Peter in Matthew 16 are not uniquely given to him, for Matthew 18:18 shows that they are given to all the disciples.

Even if Peter were the head of the entire church and the rock on which the church is built as the leading apostle, that fact would not demonstrate that Peter’s power could be passed on to anyone else. Only Jesus makes apostles, and even Rome grants that the office of apostle does not continue in the church beyond the first century.

The Pope as Antichrist: In Europe during the Middles Ages voices were raised against the claims of the Bishop of Rome. Some medieval Christians—notably radical followers of St. Francis of Assisi and of 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 vast wealth and various moral scandals in the Vatican all seemed to support this belief.

The conviction that the pope was the Antichrist was held by almost all Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When the pope refused to support reformation in the church and began to use the power of his office to persecute the advocates of reform, Luther concluded that the pope was Antichrist. Most other Protestants followed Luther in that belief.

Historic Protestant View: Biblical Basis

These early Protestants appealed to various texts of the Bible to support their contention. They cited 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4,9,10: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God….The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” Those Protestants noted that the Pope opposed the truth and claimed miracles to support his unbiblical teaching. They argued that he seated himself in the heart of the church which is the temple of God and took divine prerogative to himself, especially in changing the Gospel of grace.

They also applied Revelation 13:6,7 about the beast to the pope: “It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them….” (See also Daniel 7:25.) Protestants claimed that Rome’s rejection of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone was a blasphemy against God and his grace in Christ. This doctrine was anathematized, or denounced as accursed, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a council which Rome believes is an official ecumenical council of the church. Trent’s anathemas were approved by the popes and remain a condemnation of that doctrine to this day. Further, many Protestant believed that because the popes supported the persecution of Protestants, leading to the martyrdom of tens of thousands of them in the sixteenth century, the papacy was revealed as the Antichrist.

Historic Protestant View: The Confessions

So strong was this Protestant conviction about the Pope that it was incorporated into several Protestant confessions. Philip Melanchthon in the official Lutheran “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” (1531), Article 15, wrote: “If our opponents defend the notion that these human rites merit justification, grace, and the forgiveness of sins, they are simply establishing the kingdom of Antichrist. The kingdom of Antichrist is a new kind of worship of God, devised by human authority in opposition to Christ….So the papacy will also be a part of the kingdom of Antichrist if it maintains that human rites justify.”

Martin Luther wrote even more strongly in the Lutheran confessional document, the Smalcald Articles (1537), Part 2, Article 4, “The Papacy,” “this is a powerful demonstration that the pope is the real Antichrist who has raised himself over and set himself against Christ, for the pope will not permit Christians to be saved except by his own power, which amounts to nothing since it is neither established or commanded by God.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), chapter 25, section 6 declared: “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 exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.”

While confessional Lutherans have not changed their confessional statements, most American Presbyterian churches have removed the declaration that the pope is Antichrist from their confession.


If many Protestants today are not persuaded that the pope is the Antichrist, what should we say of him? Has the theology of the Roman Catholic Church about the pope and about the Gospel changed? The Roman Catholic Church has changed some of its claims about being the only institution in which one can find salvation. It is willing to call Protestants in some sense separated brothers. There does seem to be more toleration and less commitment to coercion on the part of the bishop of Rome. We should be glad for these changes.

Still the basic teaching about the authority of the pope has not changed and the teaching about the Gospel also has not changed. The Roman Catholic Church still anathematizes the Protestant and biblical doctrine of justification.

The most important criterion by which any minister must be evaluated is this: did he preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? As Paul taught clearly: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). By that standard we must conclude that Pope John Paul II was no more a success than his predecessors since the time of the Reformation. Let us pray that Pope Benedict XVI, a very learned man, may come to see the truth as it is in Christ and teach it faithfully.