by Clarence Pamphile  |  9 December 2021  |  

When doing eschatology in the 21st century, we should no longer simply pick through the abundance of historical information for an incident here and another there, and lay these as foundations for our eschatological structure. It will no longer do to tweak the data to maintain a denominational tradition. There is need for fuller investigation to determine the veracity of what is proposed. 

Take, for example, the interpretation of this historical event: In 1798 the armies of the revolutionary French Directory, with Napoleon at its head, created a republic in Rome. They took Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), who had been hostile to the Revolution, prisoner, and carried him to France where he died a few months later. (See K. S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. II, p. 1010). 

This event is generally calculated backwards in terms of Revelation 13 as follows:

  • General Berthier, under orders from Napoleon, imprisoned the Pope in 1798. This is the deadly wound inflicted on the beast in Rev. 13:3. The Pope is the beast.
  • The beast’s career would last 42 prophetic months, i.e, 1260 years. Hence, 1798 minus 1260 gives 538; that must then be the beginning of the beast’s career. 
  • Therefore the Papacy began in 538. It persecuted God’s people for 1260 years but its power was broken in 1798. It will return, being healed of the its deadly wound. 

This interpretation of Revelation 13 begs several questions:

  • When did the Papacy begin?
  • Was a pope ever taken prisoner before 1798? 
  • Did the Papacy come to an end in 1798? 
  • Is 1798 necessary to authenticate a religion or denomination?

The origin of the papacy

The Adventist Bible Commentary casts doubt on the traditional date for the beginning of the papacy: 

The development of the great apostasy that culminated in the papacy was a gradual process that covered several centuries. The same is true of the decline of this power.” (“Additional Note on Daniel Ch. 7” in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 834). 

That note tells us that some persons on the editorial board of the SDABC questioned 538 CE as the date for the beginning of the papal career. We see, in fact, the papacy existing as an organization since the pontificate of Silvester I in the 4th century, coinciding roughly with the arrival of Emperor Constantine.

Hints of papal interference in the early church are already evident in Bishop Clement’s letter to the church at Corinth. (See, The Lost Books of the Bible; New York; Gramercy Books, pp. 112-144. Clement was a disciple of Peter and became Bishop of Rome c. 96 CE). The church was persecuted before Constantine in Rome and Licinius in Constantinople ended persecution around 313 CE. The church could now breathe easier, and this allowed the Bishop of Rome to exercise what he felt was his prerogative as supreme church ruler. A new era had begun. (John Farrow, Pageant of the Popes; New York; Sheed and Ward Publishers, 1950, p. 30). 

Pope Sylvester came two years after Constantine’s arrival, and he hesitated not to flex his papal muscles. In the very presence of the Emperor, Sylvester dared to declare that he had the authority to judge anyone, and no one could judge him. This Pope’s domains were greatly increased by imperial gifts. 

The document “The Donation of Constantine,” a forgery from the 7th or 8th century CE, shows that in the 600’s or 700’s churchmen considered the primacy of the Bishop of Rome to date from the pontificate of Sylvester.

Of great importance is the displacement of the seat of government from Rome to Constantinople in 330. The Emperor thereby left Rome in the hands of the Pope, who became, de facto,”Pontifex Maximus”, the supreme head of religion, a title formerly held by the Emperor (Latourette, op. cit.,; Vol. I, p. 90.) 

The papacy did not begin in 538 CE. The institution was in place with Sylvester by the year 330 CE. The supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was accepted by other bishops in the west from the fourth century. 

Thus the 538 CE date is an oversimplification, because Emperor Justinian in 538 CE had simply incorporated into his code what two previous heads of state had decreed before. 

Imprisonment of popes

Imprisoning of popes was not a unique event. Several popes were imprisoned before 1798.

Pope John (d. 526 CE) went to Constantinople to urge the Emperor Justin to be tolerant towards Arian Christians as much as Theodoric, King of Rome and an Arian, was towards non-Arians. The King, however, became suspicious of the friendly relations between the Pope and the authorities (patriarch and emperor) in Constantinople. When Pope John returned to Rome, the King had him seized and imprisoned. The Pope died in prison. 

Pope Silverius was taken prisoner by Belisarius at the command of Empress Theodora. The empress wanted revenge because she had been opposed to the election of Silverius. Seized and imprisoned, Pope Silverius died in prison in 537 CE). 

Pope Vigilius was imprisoned for 7 years by Emperor Justinian (the same one who declared the Pope of Rome head of all churches in 538). Finally released, Vigilius undertook to return to Rome but died on the way. 

Pope Stephen VII came at a time when the papacy was steeped in corruption and political intrigue. The previous pontiff, Formosus, had angered Lambert, a contender for the German imperial crown. Pope Stephen consented to the disinterment, trial and condemnation of the dead Formosus, whose body with fingers mutilated, was dragged across the streets of Rome. Stephen VII did not last one year. His enemies got him. In 897 CE he was seized, chained to a chair and strangled to death. 

There were others. As the historian noted, by the 9th Century, “murder was no longer unfamiliar to the papal station.”(See, Farrow, op. cit., pp. 47-52, 97).

Many have heard the story of the conflict between the German Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. Henry had dared to interfere in the Church’s electoral process. For that and other disagreements the Pope excommunicated Henry and released the Germans from all obedience to the Emperor. This caused an upshot among the German nobles who informed the Emperor that he must make peace with the Pope or he would lose his throne. In 1077, faced with the prospect of being deposed, Henry IV undertook the trip to Canossa, to meet the Pope. Gregory let Henry remain in the snow for three days before granting him an audience and pardon. The papacy was then at the zenith of its power. That much is well known and recited as an example of the abuse of papal power. 

What is often not remembered is that a few years later Henry IV again angered the Pope and was again excommunicated. This time, however, the Emperor had the support of his nobles and of Germany. With a strong army he invaded Italy and sought to take the Pope prisoner. This time, Pope Gregory VII fled to Salerno, where he died in exile. (Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries; Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishers, 1964, pp. 230-231). 

Therefore the imprisonment of Pope Pius VI by General Berthier in 1798 wasn’t a unique event, but another in a long list of papal imprisonments and deaths in prison. 

Did the Papacy disappear in 1798?

The Papacy did not end in 1798. The imprisonment of the pope affected one man, but it didn’t destroy the papal system or Catholicism. 

Here, in a nutshell, is what happened. 

France had been seeking, since Louis XIV, to institute Gallicanism, the independence of the Church in France from papal control. The French Revolution accomplished that to the extreme. In 1789 the revolutionary National Assembly abolished tithes, depriving the Church of one of its chief sources of revenue; all church lands, comprising about one-fifth of the territory of France, were confiscated and became the property of the State. 

In 1790 the National Assembly enacted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The old diocesan boundaries were abolished and every “department” was now a diocese. Though the pope could define doctrine for the church, he could no longer have any administrative function in the French church. 

On June 8, 1794, a new religion was formally proclaimed with Reason as goddess, and not God but with a Supreme Being, honored by an immense gathering in the Fête de l’Etre Supreme at the Champs de Mars. 

Under Louis XIV, by the “Revocation of the Edict of Nantes,” (1685), only Roman Catholics were to be considered citizens of France. But, in 1791 the National Assemble drafted a new constitution giving complete religious freedom to all citizens, cutting further into the privileges of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Pope Pius VI denounced what was happening in France. In the general religious and political turmoil, the revolutionary National Assembly became the Directory, with Napoleon Bonaparte as its strongman. Under his orders the French army invaded Italy in 1798, declared Rome a republic, took the pope and carried him a prisoner to Valence in France where he died in prison in 1799. 

The French Revolution and Napoleon did grave damage to the Roman Catholic Church in France. But the imprisonment of Pope Pius VI is but an incident, and not the worst, over a period of time when the influence of the Papacy was waning not only in France but all across Western Europe. 

There have been popes of all characters: good ones and bad ones; intelligent and unwise; pious and impious; even wicked ones like Alexander VI (Borgia) and Formosus. It is a principle in Roman Catholicism that a man’s character does not cancel his calling, and the pope remains the pope even when imprisoned. 

Does a date authenticate a denomination?

The reason for taking 538 as the beginning of the papal career is the idea that the “time of the end” began with the pope’s imprisonment in 1798. But the interpretation we give to both dates is unsound. The papacy wasn’t founded on the first date, nor Catholicism given a fatal setback on the second. The Revolution (1789) damaged the church in France. But elsewhere, in Austria, in Spain, in Holland, the Catholic Church remained strong, and along with Anglican England awaited the defeat of Napoleon which came a few years later at Waterloo. 

The Papacy has had a long history. It reached its zenith in the high Middle Ages, under the pontificates of Gregory VII and Innocent III, but thereafter began a decline in influence that has continued to this day. Now Pope Francis is criticized and his word and position rejected even by Catholics on important questions. Pope Francis himself, commenting on a position adopted by some Catholics, said that if some people were of another opinion, “Who am I” to tell them otherwise?

It is tempting to do eschatology by arithmetic. Yet in eschatological studies any position founded on a date or on a point in time risks being unraveled by time The 1798 date is weak: it presents one pole for the beginning of “the time of the end”, followed by another, more than one generation later in 1844, whose predicted outcome also failed to materialize. 

Happily for us Christians, salvation is not dependent on mathematical calculations. Prophetic knowledge may boost faith (John 14:29; 16:4), but no one is saved for believing a particular end-time prophetic interpretation. Salvation is always by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and ministry as the means by which forgiveness is given to sinful man. 

A denomination is not authenticated by a particular date or time. That which authenticates a religion is the preaching of the gospel, buttressed by the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wherever these are done, the Christian church is present, calling sinners to salvation.

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Dr. Clarence Pamphile studied at Caribbean Union College in Trinidad, at Andrews University, and in the Institut de Théologie Protestante in France. He has worked as pastor, theology professor and church administrator. He and his wife, Reinette, are retired in Guadeloupe.

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