The Papacy as Antichrist: Cramner, Knox, Wesley & Spurgeon

By Cris D. Putnam

Thomas Cranmer

It is a demonstrable historical fact that every notable protestant theologian of the 16-19th century, regardless of denomination, believed and taught that the papacy was antichrist. In the British Isles, Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and for a very short time for Mary I. He was successful under the former two, famously composing the Book of Common Prayer which is still in use today. Of course, his Protestant stance was what led the staunchly Catholic Queen, “bloody Mary,” to execute him. However, he was first tortured by watching his close friends being brutally executed. Under such duress, he signed a statement denying Protestantism and was scheduled to make a public profession just prior to his own execution. Instead, he recanted the coerced statement saying, “As for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrines” and thus he died honorably as a reformation martyr.[1]

The Scottish reformer, John Knox, held similar views to Calvin and other reformers. He had been captured from his native land by the French and forced into slave labor until he was released to England where he served the Anglican King Edward VI. When bloody Mary ascended to the throne, he moved to Geneva where he met Calvin. Accordingly, he learned reformed theology and on his subsequent return home led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. His writings on the papacy as antichrist are extensive. A word search of The Works of John Knox using the search terms “antichrist” and “Roman” returns an astonishing 102 occurrences in thirty-six articles. He stated, “Yea, we doubt not to prove the kingdome of the Pope to be the kingdome and power of Antichrist.”[2]Indeed, the reformers had little doubt. But is this just a Lutheran and Calvinist construct?

John Wesley

Lest one begin to think that this belief was particular to Calvinism, it is essential to examine the opinions of John Wesley. Of course, Wesley was Arminian in his theology and the founder of Methodism. He wrote a book entitled, Antichrist and His Ten Kingdoms, where he said of the pope, “He is in an emphatical sense, the Man of Sin…”[3] In his commentary on Revelation, he wrote, “The beast with seven heads is the Papacy of many ages: the seventh head is the man of sin, antichrist. He is a body of men from Re 13:1–17:7; he is a body of men and an individual, Re 17:8–17:11; he is an individual, Re 17:12–19:20.”[4] Wesley makes an apt observation that the biblical material points to an institution and an individual. This infers the historic/futurist hybrid interpretation mentioned earlier. It is also seen in the writings of Charles Spurgeon.

Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, wrote eloquently about the apostasy of the Church into the system of Antichrist. He also had little doubt and argued the point forcefully. For instance, in one sermon, he expounds on the clever strategy of Satan’s evil world system:

Charles Spurgeon

Then the world changed its tactics; it became nominally Christian, and Antichrist came forth in all its blasphemous glory. The Pope of Rome put on the triple crown, and called himself the Vicar of Christ; then came in the abomination of the worship of saints, angels, images, and pictures; then came the mass, and I know not what, of detestable error.[5]

Far from a fanciful eschatological theory relegated to the hinterland of his thought, it was demonstrably a cornerstone in his theological discourse. He was fond of elaborating on the metanarrative of salvation history as it progressed from the apostolic era. In a later sermon, he offered concerning the digression of Roman Catholic Church, “She became like the heathen around her, and began to set up the images of her saints and martyrs, till at last, after years of gradual declension, the Church of Rome ceased to be the church of Christ, and that which was once nominally the church of Christ actually became the Antichrist.”[6] Yet, it is important to note that Spurgeon also saw a future time when the Jews would return to their own land and then, “that the power of antichrist shall be utterly and eternally destroyed, and that Babylon, that is to say, the Papal system, with all its abominations, shall be cast like a millstone into the flood, to rise no more forever.”[7]

Next the views of Charles Hodge bring us into the 20th century.

[1] Christian History: Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation., electronic ed. (Carol Stream IL: Christianity Today, 1995; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996).

[2] John Knox, The Works of John Knox, Serial. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2003), 4:470.

[3] John Wesley, Antichrist and His Ten Kingdoms (Public Domain), 110. (See:

[4] John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes: Revelation, electronic ed. Wesley’s Notes (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1999), Re 13:1.

[5] Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 10, electronic ed; Spurgeon’s Sermons (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998).

[6] Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermons: Volume 12.

[7] Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermons: Volume 50.

The Papacy as Antichrist: John Calvin and Francis Turretin

By Cris D. Putnam

Calvin shared and affirmed Luther’s conclusions concerning the papacy. In his Institutes, he based his primary argument on the 2 Thessalonians passage and the “little horn” prophecies in Daniel, arguing that the papacy personifies arrogant displacement of the Gospel. He argues that this is so self-evident, that denying it is to dispute the Apostle Paul’s credibility:

To some we seem slanderous and petulant, when we call the Roman Pontiff Antichrist. But those who think so perceive not that they are bringing a charge of intemperance against Paul, after whom we speak, nay, in whose very words we speak. But lest anyone object that Paul’s words have a different meaning, and are wrested by us against the Roman Pontiff, I will briefly show that they can only be understood of the Papacy.[1]

He contends that the worldly pope sits in opposition to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Based on the “mystery of inequity already at work” he denies that it could be, “introduced by one man, nor to terminate in one man.” [2] Searching the Institutes for the terms “Antichrist” and “Papacy” occurring together with Libronix software returns a total of thirty-five occurrences in seven articles. Thus, it is safe to say that the view goes hand-in-hand with historic Calvinism. A later Swiss Calvinist Theologian, Francis Turretin, is famous for his polemic style and his Seventh Disputation: Whether it Can Be Proven the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist, published in 1661, is such a foundational treatment on the subject that it will be examined in more depth.

Turretin followed in Calvin’s footsteps in Geneva where he was born and later buried. Even so, he was cut from broad cloth, educated in a variety of theological centers: Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht, Paris, Saumer, Montauban, and Nimes. He was ordained as a pastor to the Italian parishioners in Geneva in 1647; later in 1653 he became professor of theology.[3] Among his writings, his Institutio Theologiae Elencticae, a systematic theology written in argumentative form, became the standard text at Princeton Theological Seminary only until it was replaced by Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology in the late nineteenth century. His style of elenctic theology is still studied by reformed apologists and theologians today. The point of this seventh argument in the larger work is that the seventh major reason Protestants can never be reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church is that the pope is certainly the Antichrist. This work is known as the classic apology for the papal antichrist and the Church of Rome as Mystery Babylon.

Turretin builds his case systematically from the ground up. He addresses the many ways in which the term “antichrist” may be used as was done at the beginning of this book. He establishes a semantic case that the Latin “vicar” carries a similar meaning to the Greek “anti” as “one who comes in the place of another.”[4] He makes a powerful case from 2 Thessalonians that, “The Pope takes for himself not only the name of the Church, but with its name its privileges and all authority, as if he alone (with his faithful) were the temple of God, which is the Church (the Christians outside his belief system being viewed as heretics and schismatics).”[5] He then establishes that the location, Rome, matches the prophecy in Revelation 17 incorrigibly. He argues that Babylon was a known codeword for Rome used by early Christians (cf. 1 Pe 5:13) and “the seven heads are seven mountains” (Re 17:9) infers Rome which was famously called “the City on Seven Hills.” He argues that, “the great seven-hilled city, which in John’s day held power over the kings of the earth, and which, by her cup of fornications, was destined to inebriate all people, intoxicating them with the blood of the saints” cannot represent Pagan Rome because only Christian Rome could slide into apostasy.[6]

While some of his exegesis is suspect, his reasoning is, for the most part, impeccable as he systematically builds the case. For instance, he argues Paul mentioning that the “mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Th 2:7) can only describe an entity which had its roots at the onset of the Church. The Thessalonians had to know about it for Paul’s letter to be coherent. Accordingly, he reasons the restraining influence was the Roman Empire. History bears this out as the papacy assumed greater temporal power as the Empire fell. He cites examples from history of various popes asserting their power over the earth as vicars of Christ. He argues that birth and revelation of the Antichrist came to fruition in AD 606 with Boniface III who claimed the title of “Universal Bishop.”[7] Furthermore, their regalia match the descriptions in Revelation 17:3, 4 with uncanny accuracy. The Church of Rome martyred many Christian believers in accordance with Revelation 17:6, he goes on to claim. Less convincing, he even postulates that the mark of the beast is Catholic sign of the cross. At the end of his treatment, he addresses counter arguments and refutes them.

One particularly compelling counterargument is titled, “Antichrist’s Attack and Denial of Christ is Hidden and Implicit; Not Open and Explicit.” He makes the case that those who object to the papal antichrist often do so because the pope ostensibly believes in and promotes Jesus. (This sounds like many modern evangelicals today.) It seems valid because it ostensibly disagrees with John’s definition, “he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 Jn 2:22b). This is still a popular objection today, so his work is quite relevant. On opposing Christ, he says the following:

Is it to be understood as open and explicit as far as external profession, or implicit and hidden as far as the actual truth of the matter? We Reformed hold firmly that the Antichrist must deny Christ, not in the first, but in the second manner; that he must be a disguised enemy of Christ, who, under the pretence of the name of Christ would rule over the Church of Christ, attacking the person of Christ, his offices and his good works. It must not, therefore, be expected that the Antichrist would openly profess himself the enemy of Christ, (although in reality he shows himself to be such), nor would he boast himself to actually be the Christ, which the pseudo-christs did.[8]

This argument is a fine example of his elenctic style. The explanation carries some weight because only in this way can the Antichrist simultaneously meet both meanings of the prefix “anti.” If he were to openly oppose Christ, no one would accept him instead of Christ. It seems that many folks have a cartoonish image of the antichrist and false prophet figures in mind. Whether or not we accept that the papacy is antichrist this argument should give us notice that it is not likely these end time figures will be so easily identified and exposed. Indeed, according to scripture they will fool most of the people on earth. The false prophet figure is described as “like a lamb” which seems to imply he is considered a Christian (Rev 13:11).


The next post will continue to examine historic protestant views on antichrist.

[1]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translation of: Institutio Christianae Religionis.; Reprint, With New Introd. Originally Published: Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845–1846 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), IV, vii, 25.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. J. VanderMolen, “Francis Turretin,” as quoted in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1221.

[4] Turretin, Seventh Disputation: Whether it Can Be Proven the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist, trans. Kenneth Bubb (, ebook location 9.8, last accessed October 01, 2011,

[5] Ibid., 21.6.

[6] Ibid., 24.3.

[7] Ibid., 42.6.

[8] Ibid., 136.2–136.9.

Petrus Romanus: The Papacy as Antichrist

By Cris D. Putnam

The idea that the pope or office of the papacy is the biblical Antichrist offends modern sensibility. Contemporary culture elevates political correctness as a cardinal virtue albeit many of its staunchest proponents are intolerant of those who advocate objective truth. It seems pluralism rules the day in religious discourse. Even in evangelical circles, ecumenism disavows such an idea. However, protestant tradition is not politically correct. The purpose of this series is to survey the history of the notion that the papacy fulfills the prophetic descriptions of Antichrist and to follow the data where it leads. This presentation will first give a broad overview and summary of the biblical data and then it will offer a sampling of significant Protestants who have contended for the idea. Two noteworthy proponents, Francis Turretin and Charles Hodge, will be discussed more thoroughly. Finally, a brief discussion will be offered on contemporary responses and conclusions will be drawn. While the argument that the papacy fulfills the prophecies of the Antichrist is sound and compelling, it seems unwarranted to conclude that it does so exclusively.

The Antichrist in Prophecy

The concept of antichrist traces back to Israelite history where Israel as the chosen people of God were threatened or opposed by a pagan Kings. For example, concerning the Babylonian King, Isaiah writes, “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north” (Is 14:13). Ezekiel paints a similar portrait of the King of Tyre (28:2) and Gog of Magog (38-39). This self-proclaimed apotheosis is also found in the “little horn” of Daniel 7 and 8. Even more, it is seen in Daniel 11:36-37. Antiochus IV Epiphanes who desecrated the second temple typifies the eschatological figure and the infamous “abomination of desolation” is seemingly spoken of as future event by Jesus (Mt 24:15). This deified tyrant figure appears in the New Testament in Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” who “proclaims himself to be God” (2 Th 2:4). In John’s Apocalypse, he is the beast from the abyss whose image is idolatrously worshipped (13:1-18). In Mark 13:22, Jesus warns near the time of his return that false Christs (pseudochristoi) and false prophets (pseudoprophētai) will deceive people by doing signs and wonders (cf. Matt 7:15; 24:11, 23–24). These texts form a composite picture from which scholars and expositors have formed a model of who this is and how he might manifest.

The Greek term antichristos can be taken two ways as “opponent of Christ” or as “false Christ.” This is due to the twofold meaning of the prefix “anti.” It can mean “against” or “instead of.”[1] It is only used explicitly in 1 John 2:18.22; 4:3; 2 John 7, and in other apocryphal Christian literature. If we look to John’s epistles we see that antichrist is defined as “he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 Jn 2:22b). This meets the “against” sense the prefix “anti.” Yet, John also seems to distinguish between a single Antichrist “who is coming” and a plural “many antichrists who have come,” (1 Jn 2:18). Leon Morris offers, “Perhaps we should bear in mind that John refers to ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ as well as ‘the Antichrist’ (thus using both neuter and masculine); indeed, he refers to ‘many antichrists’ in whom that spirit finds expression (1 John 4:3; 2:18).”[2] Thus, it seems prudent to be flexible in one’s view. Even so, in 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul’s use of: 1) “man of lawlessness;”2) ” son of destruction;”3)”he who opposes and exalts himself;”4) “he whose coming is after the working of Satan” points to a single individual. Due to this and because Jesus is described as defeating an individual (cf. 2 Th 2:8; Re 19:20), one should understand the general term “antichrist” as many individuals culminating with an ultimate incarnation, “the Antichrist,” just prior to the Parousia.

Most interpreters conflate the two meanings of “anti” with a figure who poses as Christ while initially clandestinely opposing God in allegiance with Satan. This portrait of a deceptive usurper is well supported by the above mentioned passages. Yet, the futurist interpretation has not been the dominant view of the Apocalypse historically. Since the reformation, there has been a large body of biblical scholarship which posits the events in the book of Revelation as milestones along church history. We believe that this approach has merit and will suggest a hybrid of futurist and historical interpretation. While speculations on the identity of Antichrist have run the gamut from Muhammad to President Obama, arguably, until very recently, the dominant opinion since the reformation has been the Roman Catholic pope albeit not a single pope rather the office of the papacy. Even though strictly historical interpretations seem inadequate, a hybrid of historical with a still yet ultimate realization of “the Antichrist” offers more promise. Nevertheless, it is demonstrable that from the time of Luther to the present day, there has been a consistent and compelling argument that the office of the papacy fulfills the prophetic type of antichrist.

Next we begin a survey of some of the major proponents of the papal Antichrist.

[1] L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, “Antichrist.” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd extensively rev. ed. K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking and Pieter Willem van der Horst (Leiden; Boston; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 62.


[2]Leon Morris, vol. 13, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 129.