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Gentry Theology: Man of Lawlessness in Historical Context

These articles come directly from e-mail "studies" from Kenneth Gentry.  

In my last two emails I briefly discussed the Antichrist, showing that it is not a person, but a movement, and not a future movement, but one in the first century. Thus, most Antichrist discussions today are fundamentally unbiblical. But the same type of error occurs with Paul’s Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thess. 2. This famous passage contains Paul’s reference to the "man of lawlessness" (Nestle’s Text) or "man of sin" (Majority Text).

The Problem of the Passage

Before I study the passage, however, I think it is important to note the exceptional difficulty associated with Paul’s statement. It is important that we note this difficulty because so many "prophecy experts," televangelists, and so forth throw around this text that one might think it is a simple passage that presents a clear picture. Let us note just a few observations regarding its difficulty then show how important this difficult and confusing passage is to the dispensational system.

Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the early church fathers and still a great influence today, writes regarding a certain portion of the passage: "I confess that I am entirely ignorant of what he means to say." New Testament Greek scholar Marvin Vincent omits interpreting the passage in his four volume lexical commentary: "I attempt no interpretation of this passage as a whole, which I do not understand." Renowned Greek linguist A. T. Robertson despairs of the task of interpreting this passage because it is "in such vague form that we can hardly clear it up."

In our own day, Leon Morris urges "care" in handling this "notoriously difficult passage." F. F. Bruce notes that "there are few New Testament passages which can boast such a variety of interpretations as this." Ernest Best mentions that much in the passage is "exceptionally difficult." [1] Even some dispensationalists admit that it is an "extremely puzzling passage of Scripture that has been a thorn in the flesh of many an expositor." [2]

The Abuse of the Problem

Sadly, this exceedingly difficult prophecy serves as a key text for dispensationalism. Note the following comments by dispensationalists.

• Constable observes that "this section of verses contain truths found nowhere else in the Bible. It is key to understanding future events and it is central to this epistle."

• According to Walvoord, the man of lawlessness revealed here is "the key to the whole program of the Day of the Lord."

• Of 2 Thessalonians 2 Chafer notes: "though but one passage is found bearing upon the restraining work of the Holy Spirit, the scope of the issues involved is such as to command the utmost consideration."

• Ryrie and Feinberg employ 2 Thessalonians 2:4 as one of the few passages used "to clinch the argument" for the rebuilding of the temple. [3]

Because of its enormous difficulties, 2 Thessalonians 2 generates lively debate in eschatological studies. The pessimistic eschatologies of amillennialism, premillennialism, and dispensationalism frequently employ this passage as evidence of worsening world conditions leading up to the final apostasy. In his chapter "Postmillennialism and the Spiritual View," amillennialist Lloyd-Jones points to 2 Thessalonians 2 against postmillennialism: "There will be an intense period of tribulation at the end of this period." [4] When setting forth objections against postmillennialism, amillennialist Hoekema makes but a cursory reference to this passage in a mere two sentences, confident that it offers a self-evident refutation of postmillennialism. [5] Though this is a perplexing passage requiring caution, data in it at least remove it as an objection to postmillennialism.

How shall we interpret this Man of Lawlessness? What role does he play in the eschatological debate? To find out, join me in my next study!

1. Augustine is cited in Alford, The Greek New Testament, 2:82. Marvin Vincent, Word Studies, 4:67. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 4:51. Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 213. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, 309. Ernest Best, First and Second Epistles to Thessalonians, 274.
2. E. Schuyler English, Rethinking the Rapture, 72.

3. Thomas L. Constable, "2 Thessalonians," BKC, 2:717. John F. Walvoord, PKH, 493. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 6:85. Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, 151. See also: Charles Lee Feinberg, "The Jew After the Rapture," in Feinberg, Prophecy and the Seventies, 181. 

4. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, 225

5. Anthony Hoekema, Bible and the Future, 178. See also: Herman Hanko, "An Exegetical Refutation of Postmillennialism," 26.

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