Lutheranism & the Antichrist

The teaching that got Michele Bachmann into trouble–that the papacy is the antichrist– and made her leave Lutheranism in order to be a creditable presidential candidate (see the other post for today) is not limited to the Wisconsin Synod.  It is a tenet of the Lutheran Confessions, serving as the climax of Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (41-42) and affirmed throughout the Smalcald Articles.  This, however, is not in the sense of the premillennialist understanding of the Antichrist, as in the Left Behind series or in the various historical figures from Napoleon to Henry Kissinger who have been given this label.  Rather, it is in this sense, as explained in another one of those confessions, referring to the notion that humanly devised ritual, rather than the Gospel, confer saving power:

If the adversaries defend these human services as meriting justification, grace, and the remission of sins, they simply establish the kingdom of Antichrist. For the kingdom of Antichrist is a new service of God, devised by human authority rejecting Christ, just as the kingdom of Mahomet has services and works through which it wishes to be justified before God; nor does it hold that men are gratuitously justified before God by faith, for Christ’s sake. Thus the Papacy also will be a part of the kingdom of Antichrist if it thus defends human services as justifying.  Apology of the Augsburg Confession XV. 18.

Now Lutherans are not alone in this.  Reformed confessions say the same thing in the Westminster Confession, Chap. 25, Art. 6, though conservative Calvinists in the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have apparently repudiated that section. (Perhaps someone from one of those traditions could explain how it is  possible to be a confessional body, as these groups claim to be, while rejecting part of the confession.)  The Reformed Baptists also associate the pope with anti-christ in their statement of faith.  (See this Catholic site, which keeps track of such things.)

Perhaps a better question could be asked by reporters to ferret out “anti-Catholicism” with an even broader application:  “Do you consider Roman Catholics to be Christians?”   Many, if not most, evangelicals will say, “no.”  Lutherans, on the other hand, including those who believe the pope to be antichrist will say, “yes.”   The Church of Rome is still part of the church, since it retains the Word and Sacraments, which are the marks of the Church, and the Gospel is still present in its liturgy and in the teachings of many of its pastors and theologians.  A major argument that Roman Catholics are part of the true church is precisely that, according to 2 Thessalonians 2, the antichrist will arise in the true church!  Lutherans, unlike many other conservative Protestants, do affirm that Roman Catholics may well and often do have saving faith in Christ.

These theological subtleties, of course, will go over the head of most reporters and other outside observers.  Does that mean it would be impossible for a confessional Lutheran–or a Calvinist who confesses the whole Westminster Confession or an Evangelical open about his or her beliefs about who is a true Christian–to win the Catholic vote and thus win national office?

Bachmann is no longer a Lutheran

It is now official, I guess.  Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann left the Wisconsin Synod shortly before running for president. This, as the press started portraying the conservative Lutheran denomination as a weird cult for believing that the Pope is the antichrist and that homosexuality is a sin.  From the Washington Post story:

The conservative church that Michele Bachmann officially left days before launching her presidential campaign said Friday that the Minnesota congresswoman’s decision came at their request.

“The impetus came from the church,” said Joel Hochmuth, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the denominational organization that includes the church. “For the pastor’s sake, he wanted to know where he stood with the family.”

Bachmann (R) had stopped attending Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church two years ago but did not formally end her membership until June 21, a date first reported by CNN. The timing raised questions because it came shortly before she formally kicked off her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, and because the church has taken controversial stands on Catholicism and homosexuality.

Candidates have often come under fire for the religious company they keep. During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama was forced to disavow his affiliation with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright after videos emerged of Wright’s more controversial sermons, which included statements critical of the United States and what many considered to be slurs against white people.

A spokeswoman for Bachmann’s congressional office said she now attends a non-denominational church in the Stillwater, Minn., area but declined to specify which one.

“As the family’s schedule has allowed, they have attended their current church throughout the past two years,” spokeswoman Becky Rogness said in an e-mail.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is a conservative branch of Lutheranism that has about 390,000 adherents across the country. It has been criticized in part because it holds that the Catholic pope is the Antichrist. Bachmann has said emphatically that she does not share that view, and church officials recently told the Atlantic that it is not a central tenet of the faith.

The synod — a term Hochmuth defined as “a fellowship of congregations that hold to the same beliefs and doctrines” — also believes that homosexuality is a sin and can be changed.

Bachmann’s husband, Marcus Bachmann, has recently come under fire over his Christian-based counseling center’s treatment of gay clients. Several recent reports say the center practices “reparative therapy,” which seeks to “cure” gays and lesbians of their homosexuality.

On Thursday, Marcus Bachmann acknowledged in an interview with the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis that counselors at Bachmann and Associates do treat homosexuals who seek to become heterosexual, but that it is not the clinic’s main focus, and “we don’t have an agenda or a philosophy of trying to change someone.”

Michele Bachmann stopped attending services at the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church after she moved to a different part of town, according to media reports. Around the time that her campaign for president geared up this spring, the Rev. Marcus Birkholz asked that she make clear her relationship with the church, Hochmuth said.

The Bachmanns then asked the church council that they be removed from the membership ranks — a request that is not required of a person that leaves the church, but assists with recordkeeping and helps the church ensure that “you’re in the spiritual care of someone else,” Hochmuth said. “In other words, we would want to know if you are being ‘fed the word,’ as we say.”

Bachmann did not specify to which church she was moving, Hochmuth said.

via Bachmann left church at pastor’s request, official says – The Washington Post.

The story is accompanied by another story (from the Religious News Service) on the WELS stance on the anti-Christ and the associated charge of anti-Catholicism (the abundance of links will fill you in on the whole controversy):

 The Lutheran denomination that GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann quit in June sought to explain its belief that the papacy is the anti-Christ after reports questioned whether Bachmann is anti-Catholic. . . .

The denomination says on its Web site: “We identify the anti-Christ as the papacy. This is an historical judgment based on Scripture.’’ . . .The Republican, who has surged in recent presidential polls, denied that she is anti-Catholic in a 2006 debate. “It’s abhorrent, it’s religious bigotry. I love Catholics, I’m a Christian, and my church does not believe that the pope is the anti-Christ, that’s absolutely false.’’Bachmann also said that her pastor, the Rev. Marcus Birkholz, told her he was “appalled that someone would put that out.’’

According to Hochmuth, the pastor told Bachmann that WELS “primarily views the office of the papacy as the anti-Christ, not the individual popes themselves.’’

Asked for comment, Birkholz said Thursday, “I have been asked by my congregation not to give any more interviews.’’

An online report in The Atlantic magazine on Thursday (July 14) reported on WELS’ anti-papal doctrine, and questioned whether Bachmann also subscribes to the view.

Bill Donohue, president of the watchdog Catholic League, said he does not believe Bachmann is anti-Catholic, but that “it is not inappropriate to ask some pointed questions of Rep. Bachmann and her religion’s tenets.’’

Hochmuth said in an interview the anti-papal doctrine is “not one of our driving views, and certainly not something that we preach from the pulpit.’’ Hochmuth said he doubts whether many members of WELS are aware of the doctrine, which dates to Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.

“As a confessional Lutheran church, we hold to the teachings of Martin Luther who himself maintained the papacy, and in turn the pope, has set himself up in place of Christ, and so is the anti-Christ,’’ Hochmuth said.

He also described the anti-Christ as a theological principle, not a “cartoon character with horns.’’

Hochmuth added that “we love and respect Catholic Christians … Yet we pray that they would come to see the errors of their church’s official doctrine that the pope is infallible and that no one can be saved outside of the Roman Catholic Church.’’

Was this well-handled?Is this responsible reporting?Was Michele Bachmann driven from her church in the same way Barack Obama was?

Should confessional Lutherans now refuse to support Bachmann now that she has abandoned her confirmation pledge to uphold the Lutheran confessions?

UPDATE:  The article in The Atlantic that broke the story is not all that bad, in that it explains the theological position pretty well.  HT to Jonathan and Todd for that.


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