This is a difficult problem in reading the apocalyptic section of 2 Thessalonians. Paul says the Man of Perdition cannot be revealed until the “restrainer” is removed. The problem is that he does not explicitly state who or what the restrainer is. Both the restraining power and the mystery of lawlessness are active at the time Paul writes. The restrainer must therefore be something active at the time of Paul and will continue to be active until the Day of the Lord. As a result, there are a number of suggestions as to the identity of this restrainer / restraining power.
There are two issues that need to be resolved with respect to the identity of the restrainer. First, there are lexical issues: What does the term κατέχω (katexo) mean? The word can mean to hold back or restrain, but also “to hold fast, keep secure.”
Second, and perhaps more problematic, are grammatical issues. In verse 6, Paul uses a neuter singular participle, but in verse 7 he uses a masculine singular participle. These two words should not refer to the same thing according to the rules of the Greek language. The first must have neuter referent, the second a masculine. The many suggested alternatives for understanding this passage can be categorized as taking the restrainer as a good force or an evil force.
From the time of Tertullian on, the neuter participle was taken as a reference to the Roman empire and the masculine to the emperor himself. The verb means “to restrain,” therefore it is the rule of the Roman empire (or the rule of law, God ordained political order, etc) that restrains the chaos of the man of lawlessness from being revealed. The problem with this view is that Paul does not have a political rebellion in mind, but rather a religious apostasy, a rebellion against God. It is also difficult to see Paul claiming that the fall of Rome will be the beginning of the tribulation period and the power of the Anti-Christ.
Oscar Cullman suggested the neuter participle is the preaching of the Gospel and the masculine participle is Paul himself as the key leader of the evangelical outreach in the first century. There is a serious problem with this view since Paul believed he would participate in the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff). This interpretation would need to have Paul taken out of the way before the beginning of the Day of the Lord.
I . Howard Marshall defends this position by accepting the first participle as the preaching of the gospel, but changing the identification of the second to something other than Paul. Essentially he sees the God as restraining the forces of evil in the present age so that the preaching of the gospel can be fully accomplished. The force holding back evil is an angel or some spiritual being working on God’s behalf. This presupposes the idea the gospel must be preached to the whole world before the Day of the Lord, which is not something Paul considered a requirement for the Day of the Lord to happen. This position is appealing since it makes God the restraining power, but one must deal with the “taking away” of the restrainer. God could not be removed, although his role as a restrainer may be.
Roger D. Aus (JBL 96 : 537-553) argues there are many allusions to Isaiah 66 in 2 Thessalonians so the source of the restrainer should also found in Isaiah. While the word does not appear in the LXX Isaiah 66:9 does talk about the shutting up of the womb as an image for the delay in restoring the fortunes of Israel. Aus argues that Paul is freely translating the MT at this point, using katexw to mean delay of the Day of the Lord. While it is possible that the verb could be used to translate the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:9, it is far from the most obvious choice, and Paul simply uses the verb without any modification.
As early as Darby (Notes, 452), the restrainer has been identified as the Holy Spirit in the Church. Walvoord, for example, argues in his prophetic writings that the restraining power is the Holy Spirit. This is not essentially different than I. H. Marshall described above, although Darby and other following Dispensationalist have made far more of this than Marshall would allow. If the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, then this passage becomes a clear argument in favor of a pre-tribulational rapture. The Holy Spirit is restraining the satanic influences in the world through the activity of the Church the Body of Christ. When the Body of Christ is removed from the world, the Satan is free to attack the world through the Anti-Christ.
Obviously this is a powerful argument for the pre-tribulational Rapture position. But is the restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2 the Holy Spirit? Is that what this passage is really saying? The grammar of the passage makes the identification of the Holy Spirit as the restrainer impossible since the restrainer is masculine and the word for Spirit is neuter. If the genders are properly interpreted, they need to refer to two different albeit coordinated things. An additional problem is the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the passage. The gospel is mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 but the Holy Spirit is not.
In the most recent revival of this argument, Charles Powell (BibSac 154 [July 97]: 321-333) sees the preaching of the Gospel as a part of the restraining force, but settles on the first referring to the Spirit and the second to God, with not contradiction based on the Trinity. He observes that in John 14:26 the Holy Spirit is called ὁ δὲ παράκλητος (ho paraklētos), a masculine noun referring the neuter pneuma.This avoids any grammatical difficulties and the thrust of the argument is in line with I. H. Marshall.
Someone might object the Old Testament very clearly indicates the Holy Spirit will be active in the tribulation (Joel 2, for example.) If the Holy Spirit is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation, how can the Spirit be “poured out” as Joel predicts? It is possible to argue the restraining function of the Spirit is by means of the Body of Christ, and the restraining function will end at the rapture. Other activities of the Holy Spirit, such as empowerment for ministry or prophecy, will continue.
Therefore it is best to conclude that the Restrainer power is God, through the Holy Spirit and the positive effects of the preached Gospel. The Spirit is active in the world as a preserving agent, a ministry that will end prior to the final time of persecution before the messiah returns (at the time of the Rapture, if you are into that sort of thing).