Oliver O’Donovan On The Antichrist

Though, sadly, he offers no insight on when Nicolai Carpathia will appear, O’Donovan offers some otherwise helpful thoughts on the nature and function of the Antichrist. From The Desire of the Nations:

Mission is not merely an urge to expand the scope and sway of the church’s influence. It is to be at the disposal of the Holy Spirit in making Christ’s victory known. It requires, therefore, a discernment of the working of the Spirit and of the Antichrist. These two discernments must accompany each other: to trace the outline of Christ’s dawning reign on earth requires that one trace the false pretensions too. One reason that the idealist language about the Kingdom of God in the late nineteenth century failed to avoid the trap of civilisational legitimation was that it never identified the false horizon, and could grasp social evil only as a regression from civilisation into barbarism. Recognition of the Antichrist is a recurrent theme in the doctrine of the Two. Gelasius observed it in the pretensions of imperial authority; Gregory VII in the involvement of kings in episcopal appointments; Wyclif and his successors paradoxically in the structure of papal administration which Gregory’s successors created. Yet there is a single theme which connects the varied warnings of Antichrist in different ages: the convergence in one subject of claims to earthly poltiical rule and heavenly soteriological mediation. John of Patmos found it present not in the Roman empire as such but quite specifically in the imperial cult. It was therefore not inappopriate to discern Antichrist even in the papacy, while it claimed universal juridical competence over political societies and wielded it in the name of mankind’s salvation. The rejection of Antichrist is the rejection of a unified political and theological authority other than that which is vested in Christ’s own person. That is to say, it is implied in the basic structure of the Two itself. (pp. 214-215)

We are tempted to think, perhaps, that the concept of Antichrist, capable of such shifting and contrasting applications from age to age, is useless for serious theological analysis; but it is not so. There is no one Antichrist; but in any period of history Antichrist may take shape as one thing, challenging the claims of God’s Kingdom with its own. Every candidate nominated for the role of Antichrist has passed away. That does not itself invalidate any attempt to identify it; for that identification is part of an age’s secret knowledge about itself, its interpretation of its own ‘today’ from the point of view of its today. Of course, those who never want to be out of date will never interpret their today; they will wait until they can read about it in the newspapers. But those whose business lies with practical reason cannot take their place among what P. T. Forsyth called ‘bystanders of history’. When believers find themselves confronted with an order that, implicitly or explicitly, offers itself as the sufficient and necessary condition of human welfare, they will recognise the beast. When a political structure makes this claim, we call it ‘totalitarian’. (pp. 273-274)