It is no surprise that the reformation resulted in extreme positions on both sides as it did. There was nothing less than excommunication and threats of death at play. This was now more than simple theological disagreement. The reformers repeatedly referred to the pope and the papacy as antichristus. Likewise, similar anathemas came from Rome. The Western Church was divided and the anathemas and differences made their way into official church documents and confessions.
After five centuries these teachings remain and there are well-reasoned and well-documented arguments on all sides. Nevertheless, outside of the recent presidential campaign, this dogma is not taken as seriously as it may have been many years, or decades, or centuries before.
If we look at the Scriptural references this may cause us to question arguments formulated and held over the last five centuries. In other words, these passages clarify specific teachings related to that of the antichristus and open up the possibility of application outside of the parameters created at the reformation divide, thus limiting anti-theological practice.
Antichristus in both its singular and plural forms appears only four times, in 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22, 1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7. The teachings related to this word are direct and focused. In 1 John 2 we see that the antichristus is already present. The antichristus denies that Jesus is the Christ, denying both the Father and the Son. In 1 John 4, again the antichristus is already in the world. He is the one who denies that Jesus comes in the flesh. In 2 John the antichristus again denies that Jesus is come in the flesh and is described additionally as a “seducer.” Etymologically, the antichristus is opposed to Christ or takes His place. Historically, 2 Thessalonians 2 is also included in the doctrinal formulations although it does not mention the word antichristus. Instead, the Apostle Paul refers to the “Man of Sin.”
Throughout Christian history there has been emphasis on any given time period as being the time of the last days. This was true also at the time of the reformation and explains how this doctrine would receive so much emphasis. However, the heat of the reformation and counter-reformation make it difficult to apply these passages to the times of the inspired writers and just prior to the Last Day. In other words, with this doctrine, too much emphasis on this doctrine has been made in connection to the reformation and the subsequent divide rather than on other historical periods and events, including those brought up in Scripture. The doctrine needs to be looked at in its own light and not necessarily as that belonging solely to, or shaped solely by, the reformation.
The closest reformation argument to tying these passages to the pope or papacy may be the etymological argument, that of taking the place of Christ. This becomes a major debate, including 500 years of history, which is too big a topic for this post. Nowadays, the pope makes no such claim and this can be found in official Catholic teaching. Furthermore, distinction is made between the times the pope is speaking official Catholic teaching and when he is not.
Look again at the epistles of John. To the more substantial teachings of the Apostle that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh and that He is the Son of God there is no division. The Catholic Church and most Protestants hold to the basic teachings of the faith, that is, the Holy Trinity and that Jesus is the Son of God, come in the flesh, born of the Virgin Mary. These teachings are clearly spelled out and confessed in the Creed and believed in and taught in the churches, whether of the Great Schism of 1054 or of the Western Schism of the reformation. Without denying theological differences in other areas it is a stretch to find a division among orthodox churches on the meaning of these passages that describe the antichristus. All orthodox Christians today deny the error of Docetism addressed here.
The application of antichristus to those we disagree with may or will continue to the Last Day. Unfortunately, it will continue to cloud, deform and distract the focus away from discussion of matters of theological substance. Nevertheless, and maybe because of this, these four passages in the epistles of John remain as a simple and clear witness and testimony to the reality that the opposition of the antichristus to Christ Jesus is a denial that He is come in the flesh and that He comes, the only-begotten of the Father. In other words, the antichristus seduces us away from Christ and does not draw us toward Him. As Scripture shows elsewhere, Christ comes in the flesh to draw all men to the Father, which He does on the cross for our salvation. He is risen in the flesh, ascended and coming again. Even today He comes to us in His Body and Blood in the blessed Eucharist. With the particular teaching of the antichristus, our biggest enemy may be simply in forgetting to return to the clear admonition of the Apostle, which is an application toward a right knowledge and understanding of the Lord, "the only-begotten Son of God," the same Lord of us all.