Why the Year 538?
Various dates have been given by different writers outside this movement for the establishment of the Papacy. Perhaps the year most frequently mentioned in this connection is A. D. 606. This is the date suggested by Dowling; but in this matter we must find a year that fits into the prophetic picture, and one that is consistent with the statement of the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, 8:
"The mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth thindereth] will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming."
The language of this text makes it plain that the "mystery of iniquity," spoken of by the apostle, was a growth, a development; and we know that this growth covered a period of some five centuries, or, to be more exact, from the middle of the first century until approximately the middle of the sixth.
It is said by many that it was paganism that hindered the full development of the Papacy; and in a sense that is true, but it is not all the truth; the gross paganism of the earlier centuries of Christianity was taken away in the days of Theodosius (346-395) ; but it was speedily replaced, not by the pure, spiritual religion of Christ, but largely by Arianism, a religion as spiritless and as political as Romanism itself, and withal quite as ready to appeal to the sword as were even the popes. Arianism was essentially paganism, only in a Christian garb.
The fact that the Arians denied the deity of Christ, is sufficient to prove them virtual pagans, for in denying this fundamental fact they changed the truth of God into a lie, and in adoring a being less than divine they worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator. (See Romans 2:25.)
So far as being a dominating factor in the religious world, this form of paganism was taken away, not in the time of Theodosius, but by the crushing defeat of the Eastern Goths before Rome in A. D. 538. Writing of this event, Finlay says:
"With the conquest of Rome by Bellsarius, the history of the ancient city may be considered as terminating; and with his defense against Witiges Eking of the Goths, A. n. 5381 commences the history of the Middle Ages."—"Greece Under the Romans," p. 295.
Up to that time Arianism and Romanism, both claiming to be Christian, but both alike lacking many of the essentials of the religion of Christ, had been contending one against the other for the supremacy. But with the Goths, so far as being dominant was concerned, that hope perished in 538; and Romanism entered upon a new era in its career that led to a spiritual dominance unknown to the papal system before that time.
It should be borne in mind that great things sometimes have small and apparently insignificant beginnings. It was in 533 A. D. that Justinian addressed the pope as being "the head of all the churches."—Code of Justinian, lib. I, title I. A little later, but in the same year, the emperor repeats a decision previously made, "that all affairs touching the church shall be referred to the pope, 'Head of all bishops, and the true and effective corrector of heretics.' " (See "Source Book," p. 383.)
It is true that subsequently Justinian sought to place the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople upon an equality, but he could no more recall what he had said, and undo what he had done, than another pope some centuries later could recall the title, "Defender of the Faith," which he had conferred upon Henry VIII, a title still retained by British sovereigns.
It is true that the defeat of Witiges and his Goths before Rome in 538 was not the full end of the Gothic monarchy in Italy, but it was the beginning of its downfall, and so opened the way for the development of the Papacy not possible as long as Italy, if not Rome itself, was governed by an Arian power, or indeed by any ruler whose authority was primarily civil.
Of the decisive character of the Gothic defeat in 538, Thomas Hodgkins makes this remark:
"Some of them [the retreating Goths] must have suspected the melancholy truth that they had dug one grave deeper and wider than all, the grave of the Gothic monarchy in Italy." —"Italy and Her Invaders," Vol. IV, p. 235.
It is true that as the Gothic power was not at once snuffed out of existence, so the Papacy did not spring at once into full flower of political and spiritual power. There were in those days popes and popes. Pope Silverius, if not an Arian, was at least suspected of sympathy with the Goths as against Justinian and his supporters. In 537 this pope was deposed by Belisarius. There being some question as to the authority of a military leader summarily to depose a pope, an appeal was taken to the Emperor Justinian, whose capital was Constantinople. The emperor sustained the action of his general, and the following year, 538, Schaff tells us, "Vigilius, a pliant creature of Theodora [wife of Justinian], ascended the papal chair under the military protection of Belisarius.""History of the Christian Church," Vol. III, p. 327.
As might be inferred from Dr. Schaff's statement, Vigilius was not a great pope, nor was he able greatly to magnify his office; he was a pliant tool in the hands of Theodora and her imperial husband, and that very fact, and the way in which he was used by the emperor and his consort, greatly strengthened the claim made in behalf of "the holy office," that the pope of Rome was supreme in the sphere of religion, possessing authority to speak for the church universal.
The year 538 has this further claim as marking the beginning of the 1260 years of the prophecy of Daniel 7:25, that it fits in perfectly with the receiving of the deadly wound, or "the stroke of the sword" (Rev. 13:14, A. R. V.), by the Papacy in 1798. The Protestant Reformation began to cut the ground from under the Papacy. But a stroke of the sword certainly means an act of war, for even today when swords are much less used than formerly, the sword is still the most prominent symbol of war; and certainly the deposing of the pope, the abolition of the papal government, and the decreeing of a republic in the city of Rome by the French in 1798 were acts of war, the consummation of the deadly wound administered to the papal system. From that day, the pope was not king until the signing of the concordat with Italy, February 11, 1929, when Pope Pius XI appeared on the upper balcony of St. Peter's and hundreds of voices from the street below joined in the jubilant cry, "Viva it papa-re! viva it papa-re!" (Long live the Pope King.) Now he is again in very truth a real king.
Inasmuch as 1798 is one of our key dates, it would seem that we should be in no doubt as to its defensibility, nor ignorant of the facts of the history connected therewith. If it be objected touching the events of 1798 that Pius VI was not the only pope forcibly deprived of his office, that other popes had been deposed and carried or driven into exile, the all-sufficient reply should be that while the statement is true in a general way, the fact still remains that Pius VI was the only pope thus deposed for the avowed purpose of destroying the Papacy.
It is claimed by Roman Catholics that the two swords spoken of in Luke 22:38 represent the authority given to the church by Christ Himself, the one being civil and the other spiritual authority. The pope claims the right not only to spiritual but also to temporal dominion. He not only claims the right, and as far as possible has exercised authority, to appoint pastors, teachers, priests, and bishops, but also both to depose kings and to set up kings. The purpose of the French in the events leading up to and culminating in 1798 was utterly to destroy and take away from the pope all civil authority. It was the taking away of that power that gave the deadly wound in 1798; and may we not well believe that the signing of the concordat of 1929, giving the pope full recognition as a civil ruler, yea, even as a king, was the essential feature in the healing of the deadly wound? These two events, separated by 131 years, are certainly of significance, and not to be lightly brushed aside. Prophecy said these things would be, and history testifies that they have come to pass.
Washington, D. C.
* The mighty movements of history that fulfill major prophetic predictions do not come to pass suddenly. There is always a groundwork of preparatory events leading up to the crucial event foretold. Often it is difficult to put the finger on a single event that marks a great transition hour. Frequently a group of events cluster about and lead up cumulatively to the pivotal point, as in the case of that fateful year, 538. The game is true concerning the terminus in 1798 of the outstanding "1260- year prophetic period. But the divine measuring rod laid down on these two clusters of events marks out precisely 1260 years. Our emphasis denominationally upon 538 is therefore justified from every reasonable point of view. We are glad to have this contribution from one of our veteran editors, Elder Bollman, who presents his conclusions from a fresh approach.—Editors.
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