(I had a much better and longer post but I somehow deleted it so this is the cliff notes version as I do not have time to rewrite the 1500 words I had finished)
We have moved from the 16th to 17th to the 19th centuries and have watched how the unanimous voices of Reformed orthodoxy in the past have spoken against the construction (or injection-molding, chipb) of images of the entire Godhead. In this part we will look at the modern effects on how we view not just the Decalogue but the Mosaic Law in general. How is it that now one cannot go 10 feet without seeing the Scandinavian-“Jesus” plastered on everything from T-shirts to Billboards? Well Greg Bahnsen in his work on Post-Millennialism entitled Victory in Jesus (published post-mortem) has a very good short section on the three things plaguing not just the rampant violation of the second commandment but other problems encroaching on orthodox Reformed Christianity in the West. While his focus is presenting a case for Post-Millennialism and why it has fallen out of favor he is correct in identifying the three major issues confronting orthodoxy in general. Two of these three movements would not even consider the Second commandments words on imagery binding today but it is their influence in the minds of those who may that bring them into this discussion.
Bahnsen begins by identifying firstly Liberalism. By Liberalism Bahnsen means to direct his words to the movement that began under the influence of men like Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Heinrich Paulus who were the forerunners of and greatly influenced 19th century Historical Jesus research. Also understood in this section is the work by Immanuel Kant whose philosophy continues to undergird nearly all persons in the West. Included in this is the work of higher critics like Julius Wellhausen and David Strauss. However for Americans the greatest influence was brought forth by Friedrich Schleiermacher whose thoughts and ideas are still taught in every mainline seminary. The effect these men had on the subject of this essay is in the way we now approach the Scriptures in the West. Out of all of their criticisms of the Biblical text the most divisive has been the hatchet job done on the Pentateuch especially on the Mosaic Law. If the law was not received by Moses in toto (as Scripture testifies it did, Ex. 20-23) then what bearing does it have on us today? How can a collection of separate instructions hold any weight for today’s Christian? These are serious questions that cannot be answered by simply dismissing these ungodly men and their followers away by wrote. They must be challenged and confronted in a manner that does not cause their descendants to shun orthodoxy.
The Second influence recognized by Bahnsen is the work of Evolutionary Progressivism. One may look at the title and wonder “How does that differ from Liberalism?” Well to answer the question a person needs to understand that their is a difference between what most people refer to in contemporary times as Liberalism and what academically should be referred to as Liberalism. This second part is what we would identify with the modern usage of the word. This movement led by men such as Charles Darwin and Walter Rauschenbusch delivered a focus that moved Christianity away from its foundation in the Older Testament to a purely New Testament focus, a recurrence of Marcionism. Also another thing that distinguishes it from Liberalism as defined above is its belief that man is is generally good and has evolved past the Mosaic prohibitions to a new era of life that looks not upon the strictures but upon the liberty brought by Christ. Hence the term “Evolutionary”. In other words Christianity no longer needs to worry about offending God by their actions as long as they do so with a kind heart and a loving mind. Therefore in regards to the Second Commandment the Evolutionary Progressivist has moved on from the old covenant completely and any attempt to use it in discussion is Pharisaical.
Thirdly in Bahnsen’s hypothesis is the effect of Dispensationalism on the mind of today’s Evangelical. Mostly brought to the forefront of Christianity in America by the work of Cyrus Scofield and his reference Bible and the writings of John Nelson Darby. The greatest effect Dispensationalism has had for this discussion is its emphasis on the distinctions between the New Testament Church and ancient Israel of the Old Testament. Scofield believed that between creation and the final judgment there were seven distinct eras of God’s dealing with man and that these eras were a framework around which the message of the Bible could be explained. Therefore the words of the second commandment can be properly explained as belonging to a prior dispensation and no longer applicable in there literal sense to today’s Christian.
Cumulatively these three positions have effected the way in which most in the Reformed camp come to the Decalogue and the Case Law of Moses imparticular. With a Hermeneutic of Suspicion the Second commandment (and its spiritual brother, the 4th commandment as we saw here in J.C. Ryle’s thought) is cast in a light of a “Canon within a Canon” as it passed over, with rest of the first table, in our times for all the reasons the three positions of Liberalism, Evolutionary Progressivism, and Dispensationalism have provided.
In the final part of this 7 part series on the Second Commandment I will present a Biblical and Systematic argument showing why it is not only unlawful according to the Older Testament but also in the New Covenant to picture the Godhead in physical form.