Q&A: The Westminster Confession and the Antichrist

The Westminster Confession and the Antichrist

Question

According to the Westminster Confession, the Pope in the Antichrist. Is this true?

Answer

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. (WCF 25.6)

The above is from the original 1647 version of the Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6. However, there have been updated versions since. For many denominations it now reads, "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." This newer version is accepted by the PCA, OPC, and some other denominations.

Of significance in the newer version is that the entire section regarding the Antichrist has been removed. The change could be called a purposeful ambiguity. It neither states that the papacy is or is not the Antichrist.

In defense of the 1646 version, it can be said that Jesus Christ is the head of his church, which is his body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:27; Eph. 4:12; 5:23; Col. 1:23; Heb. 13:3) and has the preeminence (Col. 1:18; cf. Psa. 89:27; Eph. 1:22). Jesus – not the pope – is the supreme authority of his church (Col. 2:10). Christ Jesus is Lord (Eph. 5:22-24; cf. 1 Cor. 12:3) and the source of life for his church (Eph. 4:15-16).

Many disagree with a lot of what the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) teaches (please see "Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic Church teaches?" below). One of the greatest heresies of Rome is their exaltation of a mere man – their pope – to the place of Christ. I refer to this as a foundational heresy of the RCC because from it flows so many other doctrinal errors and misunderstandings.

The pope (or bishop of Rome) takes the title "Vicarius Christi," which is Latin for "Vicar of Christ." The word vicar means "instead of." In other words, Rome considers the pope as Christ's replacement, his representative, ruling as the supreme head of the universal church on earth. However, this is in direct contradiction to Scripture. There is only one high priest who is Christ Jesus the Lord (Heb. 7:23-25). Jesus is our high priest forever (Heb. 7:28). There is no other priest of the same measure or stature of Christ.

When Jesus left this earth, he did in a sense leave us a vicar, or an "instead of" replacement. However, it was no mere man that he gave to his church. We might say that the only biblical "Vicar of Christ" is the Holy Spirit. Jesus states in John 16:7, "Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you." He also says, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever" (John 14:16). He further states in John 14:26, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity – not the pope – as our counselor, teacher and guide into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13).

Jesus warned that "false Christs, and false prophets" would come (Matt. 24:24). Paul told us of "the man of lawlessness … the son of destruction" who would exalt himself to the place of God in the temple (2 Thess. 2:3-4). The Westminster divines soundly reasoned the papacy fulfilled these titles, because it claims to rule the universal church which is the temple of God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16). And when one usurps Christ's place, they are the enemy of Christ. So, in this sense the pope is "an" antichrist.

However, I also understand the reason for the updated version of the Confession. The original version which read, "but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition," seems to imply, or at least may lead to the misunderstanding that the papacy is the only antichrist. But John wrote, "Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18; cf. 1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). We observe that Scripture states there are "many antichrists" and that some had "already come" even in John’s time, which was before the official Roman Catholic Church even existed. [1] Also it appears from reading John that it is more proper to speak of the "spirit of Antichrist" (1 John 4:3) as opposed to just an antichrist. (Please see "What is the sin that leads to death?" below.) So, in my opinion, the newer statement leads to a little more clarity on the issue.

Regardless, Jesus is Lord!

Footnotes

[1] The papacy is a product of man’s design, not God’s. The RCC maintains that Peter, who was married (Matt. 8:14-17, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38; cf. 1 Cor. 9:5), was the first pope of the entire universal (catholic) church. They base this on thinking of Peter as the "rock" upon whom Jesus would build his church (Matt. 16:18).

However, the Bible doesn’t support this. Let’s look at what Matthew says in context. Jesus asked who the people thought he was (Matt. 16:13), and there were a wide variety of opinions (Matt. 16:14). So, Jesus redirects the question to all his disciples (Matt. 16:15). Peter, answering for the Twelve said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Jesus responded, telling the group that flesh and blood did not reveal this to Peter, but God the Father did (Matt. 16:17). So, Peter had spoken a profound revelation.

Using a play on words, Jesus renames Peter (Greek, petros), meaning "small stone," and states that on this "rock" (Greek, petra) he would establish his church. Peter is a pebble but the rock is the revelation he spoke, and it would become the bedrock for establishing the church. Furthermore, according to Peter himself, all church believers are living stones of the building called the church (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8).

Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11; 1 Pet. 2:5-8). He is both the foundation and builder of his church. And he builds his church upon his confessing saints. "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3. Rom. 10:9-10, 13; 1 John 4:3; cf. Acts 4:12). He is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16).

Peter wasn’t infallible. He denied Jesus during his trial (Matt. 26:33-35, 69-75). Peter gave in to legalism and had to be corrected by Paul (Gal. 2:11-14). There were many pillars in the church (Gal. 2:9), but James apparently headed the Jerusalem Counsel, not Peter (Acts 15:13, 19). And though he did minister to some Gentiles, God appointed Peter as the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-9), not the Gentiles. [2] The "loosening and binding" authority attributed to Peter (Matt. 16:19) was likewise shared by the local churches (Matt. 18:15-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 13:10; Tit. 2:15; 3:10-11). Peter may have spent some time in Rome, yet there is no evidence that he was ever a bishop there. And nowhere in Scripture is it taught that the bishop of Rome, or any other bishop in any other city, was to have primacy over the entire church.

[2] How many Gentiles are in the Catholic Church? The majority of the church is Gentile, including the pope. Peter did minister to Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48; 15:6-11), but his primary apostolic calling was to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8). Apparently the RCC ignores this scripture, as the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued a solemn renunciation: "the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews." James Carroll. "Pope Francis and the Renunciation of Jewish Conversion." The New Yorker. (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/pope-francis-and-the-renunciation-of-jewish-conversion). Accessed 8, April 2021.

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Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic Church teaches?
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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).