Vicarius Filii Dei

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Vicarius Filii Dei (Latin: Vicar or Representative of the Son of God) is a phrase first used in the forged medieval Donation of Constantine to refer to Saint Peter, a leader of the Early Christian Church and regarded as the first Pope by the Catholic Church.[1]

Origins and uses of the phrase[edit]

The earliest known instance of the phrase Vicarius Filii Dei is in the Donation of Constantine, now dated between the eighth and the ninth centuries AD.

It et cuncto populo Romanae gloriae imperij subiacenti, ut sicut in terris vicarius filii Dei esse videtur constitutus etiam et pontifices, ...[2][3]

Johann Peter Kirsch states that "many of the recent critical students of the document [i.e. Donation of Constantine] locate its composition at Rome and attribute the forgery to an ecclesiastic, their chief argument being an intrinsic one: this false document was composed in favour of the popes and of the Roman Church, therefore Rome itself must have had the chief interest in a forgery executed for a purpose so clearly expressed".[4]

However, it goes on to state, "Grauert, for whom the forger is a Frankish subject, shares the view of Hergenröther, i.e. the forger had in mind a defence of the new Western Empire from the attacks of the Eastern Romans. Therefore it was highly important for him to establish the legitimacy of the newly founded empire, and this purpose was especially aided by all that the document alleges concerning the elevation of the pope."[4]

Gratian excluded it from his "Decretum". Later it was added as "Palea". It was also included in some collections of Greek canons. As a forgery it currently carries no dogmatic or canonical authority, although it was previously used as such for hundreds of years in the past.[4]

Is this a Papal title?[edit]

An example of a papal tiara. Contrary to some claims, no tiara has ever been inscribed with the phrase Vicarius Filii Dei.[5]

After the "Donation of Constantine", the title "Vicariuis Filii Dei" appeared again in Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic journal. An article in the April 18, 1915, issue of Our Sunday Visitor had the following question and answer: "What are the letters on the Pope's crown, and what do they signify, if anything?" "The letters on the Pope's crown are these: Vicarius Filii Dei, which is a Latin for 'Vicar of the Son of God'."[6] This has been used by some groups as evidence for the claim that the phrase appears on the papal tiara (see below). However, the writer of the article later withdrew his statements. A rebuttal was mentioned in a 1922 edition of the journal: "The Pope claims to be the vicar of the Son of God, while the Latin words for this designation are not inscribed, as anti-Catholics maintain, on the Pope's tiara."[5]

The Protestant writer Andreas Helwig suggested that Vicarius Filii Dei was an expansion of the historical title Vicarius Christi, rather than an official title used by the Popes themselves. His interpretation did not become common until about the time of the French Revolution.[7] Some later Protestant figures claimed that Vicarius Filii Dei was an official title of the Pope, with some saying that this title appeared on the papal tiara and/or a mitre.

Catholic apologists answer the Protestant claims by noting that Vicarius Filii Dei has never been an official Papal title.[8] Catholics answer the claims that "Vicarius Filii Dei" is written on the Papal Tiara by stating that a simple inspection of the more than 20 papal tiaras still in existence—including those in use in 1866 during the reign of Pope Pius IX when Uriah Smith made his claim—shows that none have this inscription, nor is there any evidence that any of the earlier papal tiaras destroyed by invading French troops in 1798 had it.[8]

Protestant view[edit]

Many Protestants have the view that Vicarius Filii Dei can be applied to the Bishop of Rome.

Origins of the controversy[edit]

The earliest extant record of a Protestant writer on this subject is that of Professor Andreas Helwig in 1612. In his work Antichristus Romanus he took fifteen titles in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and computed their numerical equivalents in those languages, arriving at the number 666 mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Out of all these titles, he preferred to single out Vicarius Filii Dei, for the reason that it met "all the conditions which [Cardinal] Bellarmine had thus far demanded." Besides being in Latin, the title was "not offensive or vile," but rather was "honorable to this very one."

The papal tiara given to Pope Pius IX by Queen Isabella II of Spain in the 1850s.
The tiara contains no writing.

Helwig suggested that the supposed title was an expansion of the historical title Vicarius Christi, rather than an official title used by the Popes themselves. Additionally, he said nothing about the title appearing on tiaras or mitres. Helwig's interpretation did not become a common one until about the time of the French Revolution.[9] Some later Protestant figures directly claimed that Vicarius Filii Dei was an official title of the Roman Catholic Pope, some claimed that this title appeared on the papal tiara and/or a mitre.

Some Protestants view the Pope as the Antichrist. This view was common at the time of Helwig and is still part of the confession of faith of some Protestant churches, such as those within Confessional Lutheranism.[10]

Roman numerals[edit]

Some Protestants identify the Roman Papacy with the Number of the Beast (666) from the book of Revelation, and believe that the phrase Vicarius Filii Dei, reduced to its Roman numerals, sums up to 666, where "U" is taken as "V" (two forms of "V" developed in Latin, which were both used for its ancestor "U" and modern "V"). To produce 666, the sum works as follows: VICARIVS FILII DEI = 5+1+100+1+5+1+50+1+1+500+1 = 666.[citation needed]

Historical Seventh-day Adventist views[edit]

In 1866, Uriah Smith was the first to propose the interpretation to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.[11] See Review and Herald 28:196, November 20, 1866. In The United States in the Light of Prophecy, he wrote: "The pope wears upon his pontifical crown in jeweled letters, this title: 'Vicarius Filii Dei', 'Viceregent of the Son of God'; the numerical value of which title is just six hundred and sixty-six. The most plausible supposition we have ever seen on this point is that here we find the number in question. It is the number of the beast, the papacy; it is the number of his name, for he adopts it as his distinctive title; it is the number of a man, for he who bears it is the 'man of sin'."[12]

Uriah Smith maintained his interpretation in the various editions of Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation, which was influential in the church.[11]

In November 1948, Le Roy Froom, a Seventh-day Adventist ministerial leader, editor of the church's Ministry, and a church historian, wrote an article to correct the mistaken use of some of the denomination's evangelists who continued to claim that the Latin words "Vicarius Filii Dei" were written on a papal tiara.

Each pope, like any other sovereign, has his own tiara, which is the papal crown. There is, therefore, no one tiara that is worn by the full succession of papal pontiffs. Moreover, personal examination of these various tiaras, by different men back through the years, and a scrutiny of the pictures of many more, have failed to disclose one engraved with the inscription Vicarius Filii Dei ... As heralds of truth, we are to proclaim the truth truthfully. No fabrication should ever becloud our presentation of truth. The present truth of the threefold message [the Three Angels' Messages of Revelation 14] is so overwhelming in its logical appeal, and so inescapable in its claims, that it needs no dubious evidence or illustration to support it.[13]

Froom continues in the article stating that a leading evangelist took photos of several tiaras in a trip to the Vatican and then, failing to find a tiara with the inscribed words, proceeded to add the words himself for use in his evangelistic preaching. The evangelist then tried to include the image in a book on Bible prophecy that he was publishing in one of the church's leading publishing houses in the United States. However, the image was rejected by the publishing house and by the General Conference for being misleading. However, some Adventist evangelists continue to make this claim. Froom concludes his 1948 article with the following words: "Truth does not need fabrication to aid or support it. Its very nature precludes any manipulation or duplicity. We cannot afford to be party to any fraud. The reflex action upon our own souls should be a sufficient deterrent. We must never use a quotation or a picture merely because it sounds or looks impressive. We must honor the truth, and meticulously observe the principle of honesty in the handling of evidence under all circumstances."[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "St. Peter". Saints and Angels. Catholic Online. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  2. ^ "Donation of Constantine".
  4. ^ a b c Kirsch, Johann Peter. "Donation of Constantine". The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Retrieved 1 November 2017.
  5. ^ a b Our Sunday Visitor, 11, No. 14, July 23, 1922
  6. ^ Our Sunday Visitor, April 18, 1915, p.3
  7. ^ Le Roy Edwin Froom (1948). Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2 (PDF), pp. 605–608. Review and Herald. Compare Ibid., p. 649; vol. 3 (PDF), pp. 228, 242.
  8. ^ a b Patrick Madrid. "Pope Fiction". Envoy magazine, March/April 1998
  9. ^ See Leroy Edwin Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2, pp. 605-608. Compare Ibid., p. 649; vol. 3, pp. 228, 242.
  10. ^ A Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, a Lutheran Confession in the Book of Concord
  11. ^ a b Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 223
  12. ^ Uriah Smith, The United States in the Light of Prophecy. Battle Creek, Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association (1884), 4th edition, p.224.
  13. ^ a b "The Query Column: Dubious Pictures of the Tiara". Ministry, vol. 10, no. 21. p.35. November, 1948]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Donation of Constantine". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.


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