Brian Kennway is not the first to note that, in general, Irish people have a rather distant relationship (and consequently understanding) with the theological intricacies of their own religions. Last week’s exchange on RTE’s Liveline between Wallace Thompson and Joe Duffy (not to mention the Plain People of Ireland) was a prompt for his piece in the Irish Times today. Paul at Never Trust a Hippie has his own more agnostic take on the same event. Both appear to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.By Brian Kennaway
How did a complaint to the Dean of St Patrick’s over rosaries lead to a debate on RTÉ? wonders Brian Kennaway .(Irish Times 31/1/08)
The hour-long radio exchange last week between Wallace Thompson, secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society, and Joe Duffy was the stuff which makes live broadcasts compulsive listening.
While Duffy’s professionalism shone through and Thompson expressed his personal views, which he is entitled to hold, it was the reaction from listeners which proved the most enlightening.
Many failed to understand what their own churches actually believed, others clearly had no understanding of Christian faith, while some, including Thompson, misrepresented what other churches believed. Thompson, whose published letter to the editor of The Irish Times
sparked the debate, told his radio audience, in reference to the pope being called the antichrist, “that is the position of the Church of Ireland and all the main [Protestant] denominations”.
This is not true. Neither the Church of Ireland nor the Methodist Church has any such reference in their doctrinal standards. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, has subordinate standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states (at Chapter 25, paragraph 6): “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.”
This statement has to be understood in terms of language and history. It is obvious from this extract that the reference to the antichrist is by way of parenthesis and not the substance of the chapter. Chapter 25 devotes itself to the reformed understanding of the church. Paragraph six simply states that only Christ is the head of the church.
The Westminster Confession is a human compilation. This one reference to an antichrist is based on the Biblical references in John’s Letters. In 1988 the Presbyterian Church in Ireland revised its understanding of the confession by declaring: “the historical interpretation of the pope of
Rome as the personal and literal fulfilment of the Biblical figure of ‘the antichrist’ and ‘the man of sin’ is not manifestly evident from scripture”. Other churches have also clarified their understanding of the antichrist, in the confession. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, of which Thompson is an elder, are two such churches.
The historical use of this term antichrist is worth noting. The first use of the term outside its use in the Bible (John’s letters) and in reference to the pope, was not by fundamentalist Protestants but by the popes themselves. This was a term in common use by Catholic writers long before the Protestant Reformation.
For example Pope Gregory I (590-604) stated: “Moreover, I say confidently that anyone calling himself universal bishop, or desires to be so called, shows himself, by this self-exaltation, to be the forerunner of the antichrist because by this display of pride he sets himself superior to others.” This was the same Gregory who, apparently, refused the title pope given to him in 604 by the Roman emperor Phocas.
This was of course before the time of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, over the whole church.
Later in 991, Arnulf, Bishop of Orleans, mourned the state of the church declaring: “Reverend Fathers, who do you regard this man to be who sits on such a lofty throne? For there is no doubt that if he is destitute of charity, and if he is proud by virtue of his own intellect, then he is the antichrist sitting in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”
Eberhard, Bishop of Salzburg in 1242 made reference to Pope Gregory IX as: “That morally depraved man whom they are accustomed to call the antichrist, upon whose forehead is written the name of contempt. . . .” It was, therefore, natural that the writers of the Westminster
Confession of 1643-1647 followed the language of their Roman theological predecessors. They did not intend any offence by the use of this term Antichrist. Nor did they regard it, in the words of the Dean of St Patrick’s, as “unhelpful name-calling”.
Those who adhere to reformed theology today and use this term, I am sure, equally intend no offence. Though I can understand how many Catholics find it offensive, when they are unaware of the general use of the term within their own church in the past. The term antichrist did
not have its origins among the fundamentalist Protestants of the “black North”, or even the so-called heretics of the Protestant Reformation. Blame the popes – they started it.
Brian Kennaway is Presbyterian minister at Crumlin in Belfast and former education convenor of the Orange Order. He is author of The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed
© 2008 The Irish Times