Antichrist Morning

I was reminded of Adso this morning.

Adso was a French Benedictine abbot from the end of the 10th century (and a contemporary of Aelfric). He is best remembered for his letter on the Antichrist to Gerberga of Saxony/France (one of the interesting, literate, and powerful women of the period). This letter would become the standard treatment of the Antichrist throughout the medieval period.

The Antichrist is a feature of historic Christian teaching that modern mainline sorts look at askance, largely because of the prominence given the figure in Darbyite constructions of the End of Days popular among certain kinds of fundamentalists. People’s Exhibit A being, naturally, the Left Behind series…

There are two main problems with the figure of “Antichrist” to the modern Christian mind.

The first is that it contorts Christianity into a full-on dualistic position: there are the forces of Good with God, Jesus as main figurehead, and the believers and doers of good on one side arrayed against Satan, the Antichrist as main figurehead, and the workers of evil on the other side. This is a awfully black-and-white construction of reality. It may work well for propaganda purposes (City on a Hill [us and our geo-political allies] vs. the Empire/Axis of Evil [them and their geo-political allies]), but works less well for nuanced theological thought. Clearly this theological construct can and has been marshaled in service of Christian Nationalism which can then get linked to a host of other unsavory notions I need not descend into now but seem pretty obvious in our current context…

The second is its minimal biblical moorings. The term “Antichrist” only shows up in four verses in the Johannine letters, and seems to refer not specifically to one individual but to a class of folks who deny the Incarnation. However, these references were then connected to Paul’s references to “the Lawless One” in 2 Thessalonians (rendered in the Vulgate as homo peccati, filius perditionis [man of sin, son of perdition]) and then to the chief political enemy in the Book of Revelation. From there, a narrative is set up and Adso—among others—connects the dots to come up with a biography of the Antichrist.

Obviously, the image of the Antichrist is not only a dualistic one but apocalyptic. And that’s no surprise as apocalyptic rhetoric generally is strongly dualistic in order to set up an us-vs.-them dynamic. Apocalypticism defined the world that Adso lived in. He was living towards the end of the Viking Age. While this period had begun with Scandinavian attacks on England and Francia, its ending saw vikings as not just raiders but conquerors. It was not hard at all to see the struggle between the kingdoms of England and the Continent as engaged in an eschatological battle with martial implications as the (largely) pagan vikings sacked, looted, burned, and ruled Christian areas.  Adso, Wulfstan, Aelfric and their contemporaries could easily see a viking king on the  throne who would persecute Christians bringing all of the prophecies about the Antichrist together in their lifetime. Nor were they terribly off-base: the Dane Canute would become king of England in 1016. Luckily, Canute’s grandfather—Harald Bluetooth (yes, the guy the short-ranged communication protocol is named for)—had converted to Christianity and was the first Christian king of Denmark.

So—why was I reminded of all of this stuff this morning? Cranmer’s psalm cycle offers us Psalms 9, 10, and 11 this morning.

Psalms 9 and 10 also formed a central point of reference in the early medieval understanding of the Antichrist. Just as they understood the Psalms to speak directly of Christ, so too do these two psalms speak of the Antichrist. Just as the gender-inclusive plural (“Blessed are they…” in Psalm 1) hides from us some of the classical identifications of Christ in the psalter, so too here. While the “ungodly” and “wicked” of Ps 9:15 and 17 are in the plural in the Latin (we’re looking at what Adso was looking at…), the references to the wicked in our Psalm 10 (his second-half of Psalm 9) are in the singular. Hence the “wicked” and “covetous”—rendered by Jerome as impius and peccator—are a singular actor in the psalm, cursing God and acting unjustly towards the poor and innocent. Augustine connects this sinner to the Antichrist in his commentary; Cassiodorus takes this identification and runs with it, solidifying the interpretation of these psalms for Adso to take up and use.

As I frequently remind my church history students, the notion of what is “biblical” is not static. There are a host of things that we look at and wonder how Christians in previous ages could have believed such things—time and again the reason is because they found them in the Scriptures. To them and their reading logics they were clearly and obviously Biblical Truth.

Bottom line—“biblical” is not a simple binary. That doesn’t mean that it’s not useful and we shouldn’t use it, but that we should do so advisedly. What do we do with Antichrist? Well—we keep celebrating the Feast of the Incarnation! And we remember that our tradition has used this language to challenge those in power who act against biblical standards of justice and righteousness.