Recently, I was asked by Michael Scheifler to announce that two apostolic constitutions of Paul VI apply the title "Vicar of the Son of God" to the popes. The relevant quotes can be found on this page (roughly, a quarter of the way down the page; look for the picture of Paul VI). He claims, "[Vicarius Filli Dei] can no longer be denied as an authentic papal title. The papacy is now deeply branded with it." He sums up the import of these statements in the following words: "The demise of Vicarius Filii Dei was greatly exaggerated."
I, for one, have never denied that "Vicarius Filii Dei" is an authentic papal title, and welcomed Bill Cork's defense of its authenticity almost three years ago on this blog. The fact the title appears in two 20th century papal documents is not surprising to me in the slightest. However, the claim that "the papacy is now deeply branded" with the title is exaggerative. The fact Michael must locate the title in obscure papal documents (both quite short, of limited provenance, and of minor import) is evidence enough it is one of the rarer papal titles, however legitimate. (It is certainly rarer than the "Servant of the Servants of God" boldly introducing apostolic constitutions, along with "x, Bishop" or "x, Pope" sealing these and other documents). Above all, however, the discovery of the title in these documents does nothing to commend the view (now abandoned by mainstream Adventist scholars) that the title Vicarius Filli Dei is "the number of the beast." The weaknesses of this interpretation are profound, as I have argued before:
1. The VFD view selects only one (relatively uncommon) title of the pope to fulfill a prophecy of the "number of the beast." With so many other titles, nearly all of them far more common and invested with an more official status, why would one select this one? Honestly, why this one? There is one reason: this title, unlike the others, can be manipulated to fulfill the prophecy. As I have stated in one of my essays: "The VFD view effectively argued from convenience: seeking what worked to satisfy the 666 prophecy, no matter how tenuous the connections."
2. Just as embarrassing, the VFD view selects a Latin title which must be interpreted using a system of Roman numerals to fulfill the specifications of a gammatria prophecy written in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience. This fact alone makes the entire enterprise appear far too suspect and tenuous. How would one know to look for a title in the Latin language, and interpret it according to a Latin gammatrial system? Again: the VFD grasps unto what is possible, however stretched. (Note: Michael claims this is legitimate insofar as the papacy issues its documents in Latin and "obviously" is the beast. I am unimpressed.)
3. Finally, the view never connects VFD (as "the number of the beast") to the "mark of the beast," despite the fact that the two are equivocal according to the prophecy (13:17).
Every Adventist should be glad mainstream Adventist scholars have dismissed this view. It is too tenous. Precisely for that reason, I find it unfortunate some Adventists are tenaciously championing the VFD as if it were the only acceptable option for Adventists. Much of this sentiment stems from a conservative Adventist traditionalism and a distrust of Adventist academia. As one individual informed me: "those 'scholars' have/had no authority to alter, redefine or dictate Adventist interpretation of scripture." I found this statement troubling. As I was compelled to remind him, what makes the VFD view the "Adventist interpretation of scripture"? The VFD view is not advanced or approved in the Spirit of Prophecy. Neither was it ever embraced by a decision of the General Conference in session (which the Spirit of Prophecy identifies as possessing doctrinal authority). How can one claim, then, that certain "scholars have/had no authority to alter, redefine or dictate Adventist interpretation of scripture" when the VFD view was never authoritatively promulgated as the "Adventist interpretation of scripture," but merely advanced as a plausible opinion by Adventist scholars a century ago, and circulated among Adventists in subsequent decades?
In response, he claimed "[the VFD view] need not have ever been 'officially' defined or decreed by the Adventist church to be true." I agree, and if he believes the VFD view is correct, he is welcome to defend it. However, he has no basis on which to champion any view as the "Adventist interpretation of scripture," which no one has a "right" to "alter."
In conclusion, I hope Adventists are open to other, better, more robust fulfillments of the "number of the beast" than VFD. This is, after all, an internal dispute between Adventists. As a Catholic, I embrace Pope Benedict as the vicar of Christ, who "feeds his sheep" on his behalf.