birds of a feather

At present I am reading through a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (by Mark Howell), sent to me by B&H Publishing for review.¹ In many respects, it’s clearly written, contains minimal footnotes so as not to distract the reader, and it’s not over-burdened with protracted exegetical discussions, thus making it a useful commentary for the majority of pastors and interested church members. However, it must be said, the treatments on the eschatological portions of the two letters quickly reveal that this commentary’s usefulness and appeal will be rather limited. By that I mean: if you’re a Dispensationalist (particularly of the non-Progressive type), then you’ll enjoy this commentary–especially the bits on 1Thess 4.13–5.11 and 2Thess 2.1-12. If, however, you’re outside the Dispy camp (and outside of the US, for that matter), then you’ll either be confused, frustrated, or completely unconvinced. As I’ve read through Howell’s treatment, these outcomes have been my experience. Here’s one example as to why.

In his discussion on 1Thess 4.13-18, Howell adheres to the usual Dispy line concerning the so-called rapture of the church (see 116-24). Specifically, he follows the rapture view as espoused by Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism, which is: Christ returns–but never touches down on the earth (so it’s not the real second coming; that happens later)–raptures the church (i.e. true believers), they all head off to heaven for seven years while all hell breaks loose upon the world and the unlucky sods left behind. However, in his discussion on 2Thess 1.6-12 and 2.1-12, Howell appears to depart from the usual Dispy line when he speaks about those who will both experience/witness the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” and be present at the final (real) coming of Christ (see 198-206 and 216-32). Howell says it will be the church, the believers, the faithful, etc. In some cases, Howell makes certain we see that Paul is saying these things directly and specifically to the Thessalonian believers–i.e. the church. You know, the audience who was earlier promised a rapture at Christ’s (not-really-the-)second coming.

This is odd partly because most Dispys see the description of 2Thess 2.1-12 as that which occurs at the end of the tribulation period (i.e. seven years post-rapture) and thus involving only those not raptured (i.e. not the church), but also because Howell has already said the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation–à la 1Thess 4.13-18. But he’s also suggesting the church will be present on earth post-tribulation. How are we to account for this? Moreover, it should be noted, Howell does revert back to the usual Dispy line by seeing the “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7 as the Holy Spirit (see 228-29), which is occasionally taken as justification for situating the rapture of 1Thess 4.13-18 in 2Thess 2. I’m thinking of David Dean’s argument in particular, who makes a similar claim.² The (apparent) problem remains, however: how can there be believers, faithful followers of Jesus, or a “church” post-rapture when the Holy Spirit is out of the way³–since, theologically speaking, the Spirit is means by which one is sanctified before God–and the (true) church is already in heaven waiting for the seven years of hell-on-earth to end?

Howell appears to account for this by dropping in the random claim: “Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil” (229). From this, I get the impression that Howell is (implicitly) following a line of reasoning similar to what Gleason Archer uses for his “mid-tribulation rapture” reading (as found in Gundry, ed., Three Views on the Rapture [1996], 115-45). Specifically, Archer declares:

It is argued by most advocates of the pre-seventieth-week Rapture theory that the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 to the restraining power of the Holy Spirit as being removed from the world empire of the Beast points to a total removal of the church as well. That is to say, the Holy Spirit resides within the church as the spiritual temple of the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), a status that pertains to each individual believer as well (1 Cor 6:19). If therefore the Holy Spirit is removed from the earthly scene, it necessarily follows that the church will be removed likewise. But a more careful examination of the text and of related passages make it clear that this was not the meaning intended by the biblical author. In the first place, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 does not say that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world scene during the seventieth week. What it does say is that His restraining influence will be removed.

–Archer, 126-27

Archer makes sure that this distinction (i.e. removal of restraint and not presence) explains how those “left behind” are able to accept the gospel during the tribulation period (see 127). And it might be this distinction that allows Howell to speak of faithful believers on earth post-rapture but pre-Millennial reign (i.e. the real second coming of Christ). While there are a multitude of issues with Archer’s argument and the possibility of Howell following/relying on it, let me point out the most problematic.

  1. The arguments of Howell and Archer are predicated on the assumption (one that is never proven) that “restrain” is the appropriate translation of the Greek; the failure to acknowledge–let alone interact with–the more likely translation, “prevail” is unfortunate and unfair. (See here for a brief treatment on this issue).
  2. Contrary to both Howell and Archer, it is never (nor can it be) proven that the Holy Spirit is the (so-called) “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7; the claim that it is is nothing but conjecture.
  3. On a careful examination of the text, one thing is abundantly clear: Paul, in 2Thess 2.6-7, never names the Holy Spirit and never says anything about a “restraining influence” (contra Archer)–that is purely an interpretative translational gloss that borders on eisegesis. All Paul says is: καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας· μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (emphasis added). Even if we accept “restrainer” as the subject, the focus of the final clause is on the removal of him as an entity (or person) and not some abstraction associated with them.
  4. But most glaring, and this applies to both Archer and Howell: from a careful examination of the claims made, it becomes quite clear that the arguments presented are not given in service (let alone obedience) to the text; they are expressions of advocacy for a particular (and rather idiosyncratic) theological position. In other words: they are letting (or allowing) their theology to influence–if not determine–their exegesis. And that’s never a good thing.

¹ I’ll post the review on this blog, once I finish–hopefully in the next few weeks.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168.670 (2011): 196-216.
³ This is all the more problematic when we take into consideration the notion of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where the possibility of receiving forgiveness (e.g. salvation) has a definitive end-point–either the person’s life or the end of the age.


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