Luther was joined in this declaration by virtually all Protestant reformers, including Andreas Osiander of Bavaria, by Zwingli, Leo Juda, Theodor Bibliander and Heinrich Bullinger of Switzerland, by William Tyndale, Robert Barnes, George Joye, Nicholas Ridley, John Philpot, John Hooper, John Jewel and Thomas Cramner of England, many of whom gave their lives as martyrs for their faithful witness. John Knox and John Napier from Scotland joined the rising chorus identifying, on the basis of scripture, the papacy as the antichrist of prophecy. Because it identified the antichrist as the historical papacy, this teaching became known as historicism.
The Catholic Church understood clearly the role that prophetic interpretation was occupying in the Reformation. With such clear and powerful preaching taking effect, as witnessed by the success of the Reformation movement, we would not expect the papacy to sit idly by while her adherents deserted her. And indeed they did not. The Jesuit order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola and becoming authorized in l540, became the leader of the counter-reformation movement. The Confession of Augsburg, the battle cry of the reformers, was met by the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent. To the charge of being the antichrist, the Church responded by the teachings of the Jesuits, Francisco Ribera of Spain, and Robert Bellarmine of Italy, and Luis De Alcazar of Spain.
Alcazar said, “The Church cannot be the antichrist, because the antichrist already came long ago.” In his view, the antichrist was the two-fold attack made on the early church by unbelieving Jews and pagans. Because this view sees the antichrist in the past, it has been called “preterism.”
Ribera and Bellarmine said, “The Church cannot be the antichrist, because the antichrist has not come yet. The Antichrist will come in the future, will be a single individual and not a system, will be an infidel, will have power for 3 l/2 literal, not prophetic years, will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, abolish the Christian religion, be received by the Jews, pretend to be God, and conquer the world.” Because this view sees the antichrist as coming in the future, it is called “futurism”.
Notice how these two schools of thought are basically self-contradicting. One says “Look for the antichrist in the past,” while the other says “Look for the antichrist in the future.” These two counter-reformation teachings were taught at the very same time by the Papal Church. And, notice how these teachings sought to undermine the 4-fold foundation upon which the reformers had built their system of belief. With some success, the Church used these two basically inconsistent schools of prophetic interpretation, to counterattack the advances made by the Protestant reformation. By pushing the identity of the antichrist either backward into history, or forward into the future, the Church removed the heat from itself.