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  • Morning Worship—10:45 a.m.
  • Afternoon Worship—2:15 p.m.

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Thinking Biblically About Church Architecture

Laon.jpgIn the video broadcast of 25 January 2011 for Renewing Your Mind, Dr. Sproul emphasises the following principle.

Every form is an art form, and even the way we construct buildings says something about our worldview. Throughout the history of the church, architecture has revealed something about man’s concept of God and of worship.

At the outset Dr. Sproul corrects any misconceptions that may arise regarding God’s omnipresence. We are not to think that God resides only in specific locations. Neither are we to think that only certain locations are appropriate as places for worship. In the New Testament, location is a secondary matter in relation to worship. A congregation may rightly assemble for worship in any location that will allow them to engage together in the sacred acts commanded by God.

To give a biblical context to the concept of church architecture as a Christian art form, Dr. Sproul develops the concept of sacred space as we find it revealed in the Old Testament, pointing out that it is the manifestation of the holy presence of God that shaped this concept of sacred space. It is this understanding of the holy presence of God that informed classic Christian architecture as we find it, for example, in the majestic cathedrals of Europe. The structures of these architectural masterpieces are thick with symbolism intended to communicate profound truths regarding the Visible Church, Salvation, redemptive history, and the character of God. Such architecture was intended to stimulate an experience of awe appropriate to the experience of the presence of God. Dr. Sproul urges us to realise that it is precisely this awesome awareness of the holy presence of God that is so lacking, so foreign, to the worship of most modern evangelical churches, and that sacred architecture might help us recover.

Dr. Sproul briefly notes that this mode of church architecture changed after the Protestant Reformation. He suggests that the conceptually God-centred architecture of the mediaeval era was displaced by a more utilitarian design that became increasingly man-centred, focusing upon the comforts and facility of the worshipper rather than the One being worshipped. Dr. Sproul is not referring here to the architectural designs of our day which feature stadium seating and focus the attention upon the entertainment being performed on the central stage. No, he seems to be referring to classical Reformed Protestant church architecture. Now, I make no pretence of being a scholar of Dr. Sproul’s calibre, but I cannot help but question his interpretation and explanation of Reformed Protestant church architecture. I have never noted “creature comforts” as being part of their intended design. And I think he may be misunderstanding the seeming utilitarian nature of that architecture.

It is critical that we begin by understanding this: the acceptable way of worshipping God is instituted by God Himself and is strictly limited by His revealed will. We may not add to it, and we may not take away from it. If we are merely discussing doors, windows, walls, pews, podiums, and tables which have no special meaning in relation to worship, then we may do with them as we find convenient. But, (and this is the critical part) as soon as we begin to load these physical objects with special meaning and bring them into worship as symbolic parts of our worship, then we are taking upon ourselves the prerogatives of God alone. God alone provides the symbols for worship, and that includes even architectural symbols. When God purposed to include architectural symbols in worship, He commanded in exhaustive detail what those symbols would be. He did this with Moses in the case of the Tabernacle, and with David and Solomon in the case of the Temple. The dimensions, the materials, and the designs — in exhaustive detail — were given by God through a supernatural revelation to His appointed prophets, and His people were to follow those details without adding to them or taking away from them.

Now, it seems to me that Dr. Sproul fails to distinguish sharply enough the fact that this former manner of God’s using divinely commanded sacred space such as the sacred architecture of the Tabernacle and the Temple, or even a geographical “Holy City,” has ceased. God put an end to that with the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and as Dr. Sproul notes at one point in his lecture, there is no basis given in the New Testament for the reinstitution of such practices of sacred space. Again, that is a critical point: to incorporate the symbolism of sacred space into our worship setting is to intrude upon the prerogatives of God alone. The Temple and Tabernacle architectures were not designed by man, but by God. Their symbols were not of human origin, but divine. When God wished to employ the symbolism of architecture He supernaturally revealed the detailed and specific designs to His prophets. He left nothing to the sinful mind of man, not even the smallest details of the architectural symbolism. It is God’s prerogative to institute sacred space, including architecture thick with religious symbolism, but He has not done so for us in the New Testament era. We lack the supernatural revelation necessary to justify the reinstitution of some form of sacred space even if we are only doing so through thick forms of symbolic architecture.

But of course, this does not mean that we should pay no attention whatsoever to the architectural design of our churches. Where we may determine the design and structure of our places of worship, attention should be given to a design that is suitable for the purpose at hand and functions to facilitate that purpose in practical ways. We should desire to remove distractions which might in any way intrude upon the spiritual purposes of worship. Thus there will be a simple plainness to the design. We should seek to design a structure and to use materials conducive to the warm amplification and resonance of the human voice in singing, prayer, preaching, and so on. The design should accommodate the various postures of worship such as standing, sitting, and kneeling. Room must be provided for communion tables and to allow for the congregation to gather close to observe the sacred meal. Attention should be given to the lighting to allow the prolonged and ready use of the sacred texts and the giving of careful extended attention to the minister in his delivery of the sermon.

For the classical Reformed Protestant of the second Reformation era, and especially for the traditional Reformed Presbyterian, the forgoing would be the guiding concerns that shape architectural decisions where we have such discretion. Now, I imagine Dr. Sproul eschews these as being too utilitarian but I think it is a mistake to call them man-centred. This simply presses the art of architecture into the service of worship in a manner that does not impose its own meaning upon the sacred worship of God. It simply cannot be our purpose to insert thick forms of man-made symbolism into the place of worship. That is not the prerogative of man. For us to do such a thing would be truly man-centred, for we find no warrant in Scripture for man inventing such things and imposing them upon the mind of the worshipper, not for the purpose of deepening his worship experience, nor for any other purpose.

We are not denying the God-honouring place of architecture in the Christian worldview. Rather, we are bringing the principles and dictates of Scripture to bear upon the art of architecture in the place of worship. Worship is not the same as all the other parts of our life. In relation to the architecture of our places of worship, we must not take upon ourselves the prerogatives of God and design for ourselves new man-made temples. Yes, modern evangelical worship is sorely lacking in the deep awe-inspiring awareness of the holy presence of God, but the remedy to this is not to be found in the artificial stimulation of man-made means. After all, isn’t modern evangelical worship already full of such man-made means? Granted, they are less artistic and more popular, but they are just as “man-made.” The solution we need is the reverent and disciplined use of the spiritual means of grace commanded by God for stimulating a right awareness of Him and His presence. Our attention should not be rapt with the artifice of man’s architecture but by the simple yet spiritually powerful ministry, oracles, and ordinances of Almighty God.

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