Review of Virgil Dunbar’s book: Why Christ Can’t Be Pictured: God Is Not Like Art

As a Roman Catholic priest, my first conviction of sin came in the matter of graven images. Now as a Bible believer and evangelist, I am aghast at the number of churches and their leaders who while calling themselves Biblical are using images of Christ Jesus and God the Father in overhead projections and in videos to promote worship of our God. Further, in the last decade the number of Bibles, especially those produced for children, which use artists’ portrayals of God and of Jesus Christ is astounding. The Second Commandment has been disobeyed unequivocally. Nevertheless, the New Testament confirms the Second Commandment, for God’s Biblical Word is absolute: “Be not deceived ... idolaters ... nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

It is difficult to find adequate words to express how widespread and accepted is breaking of the Lord’s commandment at the present time. In Dunbar’s own words,
Countless millions or billions of pictures to represent Christ are used around the world every year. These pictures and images include crucifixes, paintings, stained glass windows, wall ornaments, Sunday School papers, Christmas cards, postage stamps, etc. Who can add up the vast numbers of these and other pictures used every year to present ‘Christ’? They are countless. And they are used extensively by the church to accomplish purposes such as evangelism, Christian education, and to focus worship.
Legitimacy of picturing Christ is not questioned in today’s church. Occasionally somebody says the pictures are only artists’ ideas of what Christ looked like. But these same people go ahead and use them. This legitimizes them in a practical way as ‘pictures’ of Christ.

They seem legitimate because of the repetition with which they are used, the variety of media that use them, and the apparent universal usage of them by all churches ...
Such practices are clearly wrong when viewed in the light of Scriptural commands. The Decalogue has not changed. Neither has the required obedience to it changed, modern techniques notwithstanding. Thus the issue is grave, for the book quite clearly shows, those who sidestep the Second commandment in the words of Exodus 20 hate God.

The Roman Catholic Church, infamous for her consistent breaking of the Second Commandment, cleverly prevaricates on the issue in her latest catechism, Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori Publications, 1994), “... By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.” (#2131) Quoting Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Church goes on to explain her position, “Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.” (#2132)

What all fail to see is that this is the exact rationale of Aaron regarding the golden calf. As Dunbar points out, ...
... Aaron, though he did make the image [golden calf] did not intend to lead the people away from God. It [Scripture] says that he called the people to worship God there before the image.

Nobody spoke of departing from God, neither Aaron nor the people who came to him. ... Aaron, and the people of Israel, really did plan to continue to worship (with the aid of that elohim image) the Elohim that delivered them from Egypt. It wasn’t the image itself that they wanted as their Elohim, it was the Elohim who delivered them from Egypt that they wanted....They had an image to make God seem real and tangible. It seemed so good. But consequences of making the God-image soon appeared. First came natural consequences. Their festivities led soon to sexual sin.
Thus Dunbar’s clarity of thought on this Bible passage blows away the carefully articulated smoke screen of the latest Roman Catholic catechism, making the inherent idolatry taught therein plainly visible. This is only one example of the helpfulness of Dunbar’s exposition.

Dunbar not only shows the extent of the problem in the church today, but he ably explains the ways in which the sin matures and thereby effects the people by whom it is touched. Dividing the problem into five major sections, Dunbar first deals with the extraordinary and all appealing power of pictures in our modem world. In Part II, he analyses what in fact is communicated to the person accepting and using pictures and images. Part III moves into the basis of a realistic solution for the author lucidly shows how the Law and the Gospel, God’s own Word, views the use of pictures and images. Further, most inquiring minds want to deal with the reality of Christ, God/Man in the flesh and to ask how does the reality of Christ affect the Biblical Commandment. Part IV tackles that problem by dealing with the language of the Bible with its many human descriptions of God. Do these descriptions and the reality of the incarnation alter the Divine command?. Dunbar’s treatment in this fourth section alone is worth the price of the book.

Quite valuable also is the author’s much needed section on the history of the issue, both the opposition to images and later their acceptance in the Western World. This last section recounts how historically, in distinction to the early Church, the Roman Catholic Church adopted deity images, and in some detail shows why the Reformation leaders were able to oppose consistently the Roman church reading deity images. Nevertheless, the informative conclusion of the book, “Some Reasons Why the Modern Church Again Uses Deity Images”, summarizes’ why the modern Protestant churches, for the most part, have been wooed into the Dark Ages fold of deity image worship—an idolatrous fold from which the Roman Catholic Church has never returned.

Rather than palliative, Dunbar’s solution is Biblical and restorative. In a culture increasingly debilitated by the noxious fumes of idolatry, his work is positively salutary. I have read all of Virgil Dunbar’s book. Although necessary reading by every pastor, church leader, teacher, parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle, it will sharpen wonderfully the perspicacity of almost anyone who takes the Christian walk with the Lord seriously.

Richard M. Bennett
Richard M. Bennett
July 27, 1994