PMT 2015-006 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Do Paul’s statements in 2 Tim 3 regarding “difficult times,” “evil men and imposters,” and “all who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” undermine the postmillennial hope for history? These are important questions to consider in the eschatological debate.
Postmillennialism is an optimistic eschatology. But it is surrounded by the various pessimistic eschatologies: amillennialism, premillennialism, and dispensationalism (in all its varieties, including classic dispensationalism, revised dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, pre-wrath rapture dispensationalism, mid-Acts dispensationalism, Acts 28 dispensationalism, hyper-dispensationalism, ultra-dispensationalism, and the several dozen other forms of this eschatology founded on the plain-and-simple hermeneutic of literalism).
The pessimistic eschatological systems see Paul’s statements in 2 Timothy 3 as prophetic and normative for all of church history. And as such, these verses would be counter-indicative to postmillennial expectations. But do Paul’s comments in 2 Tim 3 declare the normative expectation for Christianity throughout all of history?
After a Christmas delay (lengthened by other obligations) I am restarting my reply to James White’s October 16, 2014 webcast, where he challenged my postmillennial understanding of 2 Timothy 3. You should consult my preceding articles for proper context and even check out my original article to which he is replying (“Postmillennialism and Perilous Times,” PMT 2014-029, March 7, 2014). His critique can be heard by clicking on: Alpha & Omega Ministries.
I am, however, renaming the series now because I want to re-focus the discussion by providing an exposition of the famed 2 Timothy 3 passage. Judging from the widespread use of the passage against postmillennialism, and the number of challenges I receive based on it (such as White’s challenge that sparked this series), this study should be helpful in strengthening defenses of postmillennialism. As we shall see, this passage is not handled accurately when brought into the eschatological discussion against the postmillennial hope.
In this article I will begin a brief introduction to 2 Timothy. Then in later articles I will provide a running commentary on 2 Timothy 3. I will occasionally insert historical and theological observations relevant to James White’s critique. My concerns, however, are now broader in this phase of my series (even causing me to re-name the series and to re-start the numbering!). I will continue referencing some of White’s comments and responding to them.
Be aware: because of the length of my running commentary (including this two-part introduction!), I will have to break down the material into several articles. This is for my benefit, as well as yours. If I were to write such lengthy articles for each day of my postings, I would not be able to do anything else. And my wife refuses to mow the yard or shovel the snow while I endeavor to correct all the errors I can find on the Internet. Helpmeet, indeed!
Second Timothy 3 is an important passage in the eschatological debate. Not because it presents the postmillennial hope; it does not. But because some believe it is contrary to the postmillennial hope; which it is not. I will begin with a brief, focused, and quite relevant introduction to 2 Timothy as one of Paul’s “pastoral epistles.”
2 Timothy Is Clearly Occasional
NT scholars classify 2 Timothy as a “pastoral letter.” That is, 2 Timothy is one of the three letters of Paul written to two of his coworkers, or co-pastors, Timothy and Titus. These letters are clearly inter-related in their themes and purposes, and distinctive from the other Pauline epistles (only Philemon among his other authentic letters is written to an individual, as are the Pastorals). To profitably study one, you need to access the others.
Furthermore, this closely knit body of material, represents what we call “occasional” epistles. That is, as George Knight points out: “the letters refer to specific events and places and are written in relation to these events” (Pastoral Epistles, 4). Therefore, they are dealing with relevant, historical, contemporary events and issues facing Paul, Timothy, and Titus in their first-century mission. This will be quite important for correctly understanding Paul’s comments in 2 Timothy 3, the concern before us.
But as occasional epistles that are inspired by God (e.g., 2 Tim 3:16–17), we may draw from their instruction basic principles that can apply in other circumstances when the same or similar conditions — or even tangentially related conditions — prevail. This is much like Paul’s using events associated with Israel’s exodus as a source for lessons for the new covenant church: “Now these things [1 Cor 10:1ff] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11). Of course, contemporary preaching does this all the time. God’s word was completed 2000 years old but is applicable to the modern world. But application must be done carefully, taking into account the original meaning and circumstances.
Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
(by Rosaria Butterfield)
Remarkable testimony of a lesbian professor who was a leading spokesperson for
the feminist movement, but whom Christ saved.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
We can see the occasional nature of 1 Timothy, for instance, in its very opening. It does not open like Ephesians, providing general theological truths on election, adoption, redemption, grace, forgiveness of sins, and so forth. Rather Paul immediately turns his attention to real-world problems the Pauline mission is facing: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope, To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1 Tim 1:1–3).
What is more, “2 Timothy is more personal and is often held to be a more ‘typical’ Pauline letter than 1 Timothy and Titus” (Philip Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 27). Thus, we will have an even stronger reason to recognize the occasional nature of this particular letter.
2 Timothy Is Individually Specific
Another important way that we can discern the occasional nature of the letters to Timothy is to note that he refers to specific, historical opponents that are troubling Paul and his co-workers. As Knight (Pastoral Epistles, 5) observes regarding 1 Timothy: “among the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander are singled out by name as specific examples (1:20).” Knight continues two paragraphs later by commenting on 2 Timothy: “as in the first letter, Paul mentions [in 2 Tim] by name two false teachers (2:17) as well as two among all those from Asia who turned away from him (1:15).” Thus, we have particular, first-century troublers who are plaguing Paul: Hymenaeus, Alexander, Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Philetus.
I will cite the verses for your illumination, since I will be making an important point regarding them.
1 Tim 1:20: “Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.”
2 Tim 1:15: “You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.”
2 Tim 2:17: “Their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus.”
Thus, The Oxford Bible Commentary (p. 1227) comments regarding 2 Timothy: “There are far more personal touches in this letter; people are mentioned by name, fellow-workers, and relations as well as opponents.”
This issue will be extremely relevant to our postmillennial understanding of the passage. And it undermines Dr. James White’s critique of the postmillennial handling of 2 Timothy. For instance, White argues against my paralleling 2 Tim 3 and 1 Cor 5:1 in this respect. At minute marker 32:48 in his webcast he says: “I don’t think that’s a meaningful parallel at all. And that’s one of the things that caught my attention.” What problem did he have with my interpretation?
At 33:24 White states: “The 1 Corinthians 5:1 [statement] is talking about a specific, identifiable church discipline issue in Corinth…. Paul didn’t do this, but he could have; he could have given us a name. There was a specific person, specific incident, and that had historical fulfillment. No question about it. But so much of what we see in 2 Timothy 3, that’s not what you’ve got.” He states toward the end of his webcast [56:14]: “When I read this [Gentry’s article], you know, I would just like to look at 2 Timothy 3 and just ask some questions.”
And interestingly, at the very close of his session [56:24] he responded to a Twitter regarding what interpretive problems he had with dispensationalism. He responded: “Especially looking at the Book of Revelation without first asking the question that I ask of everything else, and that is: what did it mean to the people to which it was first written. If it didn’t have any meaning to them, I’ve probably mis-interpreted it.”
Thus, White’s particularly-stated objection fails on his own terms. Paul is dealing with particular issues — even issues with false teachers he can and does name.
I will continue the introduction to 2 Timothy in my next article. It is very important for us to understand these matters because they will impact our understanding of the statements in chapter 3 that seem to undercut the postmillennial hope.