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Christianity Today, Week of April
Weblog: 'Antichrist' No More: Evangelicals Praise
Most are unreserved in their praise on
political, social, and even theological matters, but critique of papacy
| posted 04/05/2005 04:30
One of the most surprising tributes paid by a conservative
evangelical to the pope came years before the pontiff's death: Left
Behind raptured him.
A few decades ago, the pope wouldn't have been among the
redeemed in such a book: He would have played the role of the antichrist
himself. Such a belief has a longstanding tradition in Protestant teachings, from Martin
Luther ("The papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist") to the Westminster Confession ("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."
Contemporary versions, such as those used by the Presbyterian Church in America, stop at "head thereof").
But no, it's actually Cardinal Peter Matthews, an American
critic of the pope, who becomes a villain in the series.
(Tribulation Force, the second Left Behind volume,
backtracks quite a bit from the initial suggestion that John Paul II got taken
up, saying it was "new pope" John XXIV who was raptured just five months after
his installation, and had "stirred up controversy in the church with a new
doctrine that seemed to coincide with the 'heresy' of Martin Luther than with
the historic orthodoxy they were used to." Old habits die hard, but the books
still signal a dramatic reduction in hostility to the office of bishop of
The harshest criticism of Pope John Paul II is coming from
American Catholics like Andrew Greeley, Thomas Cahill, and John
Cornwall. And it's not just liberals: Dallas Morning News columnist
Rod Dreher laments that the "holy and humble" pope "was
largely a failure" as governor of the church.
Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, can't say enough nice
things about him. This shouldn't come as a big shock. Last year at this time,
PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly polled evangelicals, asking them:
Now, I'd like to rate your feelings toward some people
and organizations, with one hundred meaning a VERY WARM, FAVORABLE feeling; zero
meaning a VERY COLD, UNFAVORABLE feeling; and fifty meaning not particularly
warm or cold. You can use any number from zero to one hundred, the higher the
number the more favorable your feelings are toward that person or organization.
If you have no opinion or never heard of that person or organization, please say
Here's how evangelicals rated some names:
George W. Bush
Pope John Paul II
In other words, those who love James Dobson or Franklin Graham
may love him more strongly than they like Pope John Paul II, but
more evangelicals like John Paul II than like them. (Note that many more
evangelicals didn't like the pope than didn't like Dobson or Graham, but he
still did better than Robertson or Falwell.)
Many evangelicals "felt more in harmony with him than with the
leaders of their own denomination," says The Weekly Standard executive
editor Fred Barnes, an evangelical Episcopalian. Barnes
He was the world's greatest defender of orthodox,
Bible-based Christianity. … Important differences remained between Protestants
and Catholics, but John Paul II made them seem small. He was pro-life,
pro-family, anti-totalitarian, and quite a lot more that conservative
evangelicals identified with. … John Paul was bold and unswerving in proclaiming
salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. He did this all over the world,
despite declining health and personal risk. … Catholics have lost a great and
wonderful leader. And so have evangelicals.
Wheaton College's Mark Noll, whose book (with Carolyn Nystrom)
Is the Reformation Over? is due out in July, told Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling that evangelicals
had doctrinal differences with John Paul II, like the pope's Marian
devotion. But the pope's theology as articulated in his encyclicals and pronouncements was deep and biblical, Noll
says. "People who've taken the time to read these should come away impressed
with his classically orthodox Christian stance."
It's one encyclical in particular that evangelical Protestants
are referring to: Evangelium
Vitae, "on the value and inviolability of human life." (Veritatis
Splendor, on morality, is a somewhat distant second. Surprisingly, few
evangelicals are talking about Redemptoris
Missio, his call to evangelism and missions.)
"Pope John Paul II, champion of pro-life and pro-family causes,
dies at the age of 84," says the headline on the Baptist Press
"Pope John Paul II's strong voice in confronting issues crucial
for our age with courage and conviction for more than a quarter of a century
will be missed," Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod president Gerald B.
Kieschnick said. "He provided inspiration and leadership, not only to Roman
Catholics but also to the greater Christian world and beyond with his
uncompromising stances in favor of life and against the culture of death."
The only word so far from National Association of Evangelicals
Haggard is a line in a Focus on the Family news item: "Pope John Paul II has
stood with us strongly all over the free world in defending heterosexual,
monogamous marriage and defending the fact that a fetus is a human being."
On Monday's Focus on the Family radio program, James
Dobson he promised to devote some airtime later to discussing John Paul II's
legacy. In the meantime he issued a statement unequivocally praising the pope, focusing almost completely on
Today's passing of Pope John Paul II is an
immeasurable loss — not only to our friends of the Roman Catholic faith, but to
the entire world. We found common cause with him and with the 'culture of life'
he espoused so eloquently; the legacy he left us is to be
While we grieve the profound loss of this remarkable
man, we celebrate his life, his ministry, and his undeniable impact on the
world. During his time as leader of the Catholic Church, he embodied the belief
that freedom is a gift from God that should not be infringed by any government;
that all life is precious and should be protected; and that dying is part of
living and should not be feared nor hastened artificially.
Pope John Paul was an uncompromising voice on the
sanctity of life—in fact, his was one of the greatest contributions of the 20th
century to that cause. The 'culture of life' will forever be indebted to the man
who championed the value of all human life, even to his last
Charles Colson, who organized the evangelical side of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together meetings, recounts in his
Breakpoint radio program how he and Dobson "were invited as
the first evangelicals to speak in the Synod Hall in the Vatican. I was struck
by the intensity of his blue eyes [the pope's, not Dobson's] and the glow he seemed to have about him. He was an extraordinary
human being—and I say that as a devout Southern Baptist."
The rest of Colson's commentary focuses on another political
aspect of John Paul II's life: his opposition to communism.
But when you focus on his social and political stances, you
miss the point, says Anglican blogger Christopher S. Johnson. He
notes a recent Associated Press poll that says Americans "want the next pope
to allow priests to marry and women to join the priesthood … do more about
predatory clergy … [grant] a larger church role for laypeople … ." Johnson adds,
"The new pope should also come up with an anti-steroid plan for major league
baseball with some teeth. And Social Security. The new pope should have a plan
to fix Social Security. A solid majority of Americans also felt that the new
pope should pick a vice-pope from the South in order to balance the ticket."
In a separate post, Johnson notes that perhaps John Paul II's most
unfinished goal: strengthening the ties between Christian churches, went
unfinished. "But I think John Paul II achieved far more Christian unity than he
realized. Leaving out those in the fever swamps, rare indeed is the prominent
Protestant who doesn't boast of his connection to him. At the start of all his
television programs, Benny Hinn, of all people, shows a picture of his meeting
with the pope."
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological
Seminary, says such meetings are important and give real insight into the pope's
beliefs and attitudes. Patterson met with John Paul II twice, and told Baptist Press the pontiff was "affable on both occasions" and
"sufficiently understanding of our evangelical position":
He did not ask or expect the kind of obeisance which
would normally be accorded to him. I remember thinking when I left his presence,
"Here is a pope who knows how to pope." [After we discussed 1 Peter], I gave him
a Criswell Study Bible and he gave me a rosary. I am not sure who won the
exchange. While it would be difficult to imagine two people talking together
with a theological divide as wide as the ocean and still finding much in common,
this is exactly what transpired.
"One of the truly great men of the 20th century has passed into
eternity," write Presbyterian Church in America pastor-brothers David and Tim Bayly. "We need not consider theological
differences at this point to mourn the passing of a man who stood courageously
for God's Word in defense of the poor, the sick, the helpless." The Baylys also
remark how their time protesting outside Terri Schiavo's hospice gave them respect for Roman Catholicism's shared liturgy, clear
leadership, and understanding of the limits of politics. We hope, they conclude,
"despite our opposition to the gospel-denying teaching of Roman Catholicism, to
gather before the throne of the Lamb with John Paul II in glory."
"Apparently the military have a saying, about the need for
junior ranks to show respect even to obnoxious or incompetent superiors: 'salute
the rank, not the man,'" writes blogger John H., a convert from Anglicanism to Lutheranism. "This
distinction between office and office-holder is a very important one, though one
that applies in reverse in this case: salute the man, not the rank." He argues
that the Lutheran designation of "antichrist" still stands for the papacy, but
"that doesn't prevent us from having considerable admiration for many aspects of
Roman Catholicism, and for this great pope in particular — whose errors have,
largely, been no more than one would expect of someone in that office, but whose
greatness has been all his own."
"We should be unembarrassed and unhesitant to declare our
admiration for John Paul II's courageous stand against communism, his bold
defense of human dignity and human life, and his robust and substantial defense
of truth in the face of postmodernism," says Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary president Al Mohler.
"In many of the great battles of our day, evangelicals found John Paul II to be
a key ally. … Evangelicals should be thankful for the personal virtues Pope John
Paul II demonstrated, and for his advocacy on behalf of life, liberty, and human
dignity, Yet we cannot ignore the institution of the papacy itself, nor the
complex of doctrines, truth claims and false doctrines that John Paul II taught,
defended, and promulgated."
Mohler says those doctrines include "the most troubling aspects
of Roman Catholicism. He defended and continued the theological directions set
loose at the Second Vatican Council."
Ah, but it would have been better had he been a bit stronger on
Vatican II, says Dallas Theological Seminary president Mark Bailey in an interview with Crosswalk.com. "Even with
Vatican II, there has never been a repudiation or backing off of the Council of
Trent that called all evangelicals 'devils' and really denied that evangelicals
and Protestants can have a place in eternity. There's a bit of contradiction
between Vatican II and the Council of Trent that still has to be wrestled
But what about the pope, Crosswalk asked. Does he have a place
in eternity? Bailey responds:
Some people can find themselves part of a tradition
that holds to certain doctrine, but they themselves have come to a personal
faith in Christ and are dependent only on Christ for their salvation through
what he did on the Cross. Our prayer, obviously, is that this pope had come to
that conclusion. And the next pope, we would hope, will place the authority in
Scripture and will see the exclusivity of Jesus as the only possibility of
salvation, and that the death of Christ and not our works is the absolute
provision given by a gracious God for our sin.
I have known Roman Catholics who are believers. My
personal preference would be that they then distinguish themselves from those
who hold to a different doctrine. But there are Baptists in bad Baptist
churches. There are Presbyterians in bad Presbyterian churches, who have lost
the message of the gospel. But that doesn't mean there can't be people
who—because of family or because they want to have an impact—stay within that
system for the purpose of evangelism and, hopefully, renewal.
Credenda Agenda editor Douglas Wilson agrees, saying that one can be "grateful for
the good he did within his generation" without succumbing to "the grip of an
ecumenical fuzziness, in a sentimentalist blur, that wants to pass over every
difference, however important, in order to get to the eulogy. We are mindful of
the many idols that remain in our day, and we want to be faithful in resisting
them, whether they are Roman or Protestant idols. And yes, this would include
the idols that John Paul did not topple."
Still, on issues of how we relate to each other as
humans—issues of politics, social justices, life ethics peace, ecology,
governmental structures, forgiveness, evangelization—evangelicals and Pope John
Paul II stood united, says the Evangelical Alliance, the United Kingdom's version of the
stateside National Association of Evangelicals. And we're united on much more
than that, the group says:
Despite differences between Catholics and
evangelicals, the Evangelical Alliance recognizes that John Paul was committed,
as we are, to creedal Christianity. As such, in many instances he offered a
welcome corrective to the forces of skepticism, secularism, and theological
liberalism, which threaten to undermine both the integrity of the church and the
effectiveness of its mission in the world.
The Evangelical Alliance is on to something here. You can (and,
if you're an evangelical Protestant, should) separate your feelings about the
pope from your feelings about the papacy. But it's far more problematic to
separate his social and political teachings from his theology. You don't have to
believe in papal infallibility, the perpetual virginity of Mary, or
transubstantiation to share the pope's commitment to the poor, the unborn, and
human freedom. But conservatives who want to treat him primarily as a political
ally and disregard him as a theological and spiritual giant may find themselves
siding rhetorically with secularists and liberals who argue that his teachings
were based on personal biases. The pope was not a lobbyist. He was, for better
and worse, the pope.