Symbols, Structures, and Scripture

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Meredith G. Kline, “Symbols, Structures, and Scripture”
[review article of Christ and Architecture, by D.J. Bruggink and C.H. Droppers], with M.M. Kline. PG 35 (June 1966): 74-75

To the extent that passing observers derive their image of our church’s life from its architecture they must often see us as unimaginative souls occupied in dull doings. And for that kind of advertising our congregations are paying heavily, in more ways than one. Applause is, therefore, an appropriate greeting for the effort of this superbly executed volume to create awareness of the need for a worthy church architecture. It has been jointly prepared by theologian Bruggink and architect Droppers, both of them men of Reformed convictions.

In part I, Bruggink seeks to deduce from the nature of the New Testament worship certain architectural norms. His special concern is with the arrangement of the furnishings in the worship center. The basic and pervasive fault in his discussion is that he aids and abets the “sanctuary” heresy that befogs much popular thinking about church buildings.

According to the Scriptures, the old, earthly and symbolic sanctuary of the Mosaic age has made way in this Messianic age for the heavenly and true sanctuary, an invisible sanctuary that cannot be localized in any man-made structure, no matter how solemnly “dedicated.” The great high priest of the New Covenant has passed into the heavens beyond the gaze of men and, because priest and sanctuary belong inseparably together, it is there in that realm invisible that the true sanctuary of the New Covenant is to be found. Roman Catholicism is at least consistent in its anachronism of continuing both human priesthood and earthly, altar-focused sanctuary. But what shall we say of the sons of the Reformation who confess Christ alone as priest and recognize that earthly altars have no proper role in Christian worship and yet are prone to a “sanctuary” mentality with respect to their church buildings?

It is not simply by using the word “sanctuary” for the worship auditorium that Bruggink promotes the common fallacy. That usage might be dismissed as merely a popular, if misleading, convention, similar to calling the building as a whole a “church.” It is rather that he seems to assume that the configuration of furnishings in the worship center necessarily possesses a particular symbolical significance. Hence his insistence that church architecture is burdened with its own peculiar set of theological imperatives. He says, for example: “Because we preach and celebrate the Sacraments at the command of our Lord, the furniture which we use to obey his command inevitably becomes a reminder, a symbol, of that Christ-commanded action” (p. 457). “To set forth the God-ordained means by which Christ comes to his people, the Reformed must give visual expression to the importance of both Word and Sacraments. Because the Word is indispensable, the pulpit, as the architectural manifestation of the Word, must make its indispensability clear” (p. 80, all capitals in original). And succinctly, “Both architecture and liturgy must be determined by theology” (p. 23).

Expediency, Not Principles

The plain fact is that church worship has no necessary connection with an architectural structure of any kind or with any furniture, whether pulpits, tables, or fonts. Judgments on matters of church architecture, as on all other cultural adjuncts of Christian worship, properly proceed from the recognition that what the Scripture has not prohibited is lawful, though not always expedient. Decisions will then turn around such general considerations as functional efficiency and aesthetic appeal, ample leeway being thus afforded for wide variety of taste and charitable difference of opinion. If, for example, as an altogether indifferent choice based on expediency we decide to make use of a pulpit, there is patently no sound basis for scruples that this pulpit must by theological necessity be located here or there, or somehow made to dominate its setting. Heresy in this matter does not consist in placing the pulpit in an inconspicuous corner rather than in some central spot. The heresy is insisting that there is any particular spot where the pulpit must be placed.

Near the end of Bruggink’s discussion the following summation is given: “Christ’s commands concerning the Word and Sacraments inevitably involves (sic) pulpits, fonts, and tables which become symbols of those functions. Pulpit, font, and table are thus the basic symbols of the Christian faith” (p. 457, original all capitals). Clearly evident here are the serious consequences of approaching questions of church architecture in terms of inevitable symbolism and thus of mandatory theological answers. Rather than in terms of expediency, the divine ordinances of worship become overlaid with superstitious human scruples. A new system of liturgical, symbolism is invented, the unique validity of the divinely appointed sacramental symbols — the water, bread, and wine — is circumvented, and their simplicity confounded. And notice further how the infusion of symbolic significance into the pulpit, as “the architectural manifestation of the Word,” obscures the formal difference between the sacraments and the Word — respectively symbolic and non-symbolic means of grace.

Our quarrel at this point is not with the particular arrangements of the furnishings recommended by Bruggink, as such. Some of them are quite interesting and attractive, and if followed would improve the general architectural quality of the worship centers in many of our church buildings. Our contention is, however, that such recommendations ought to be presented not as Sinaitic models but as advantageous options to be judged according to considerations of expediency within a context of liberty and without any pretext of special sanctity.

In Part II, Droppers defines the role of the architect in relations to the church’s building committee. From the latter the architect requires a well thought out and thorough statement of the church’s program. This should be a description of functions, not suggestions for specific spatial solutions. It is the architect’s task to translate these programmatic objectives into a design and building. However, Droppers does provide basic information concerning structural possibilities and problems of the construction process.

Architect’s Role

Priority in the determination of the architectural solution is given to simplicity of structural system. The sample model of a church on which Droppers himself collaborated is a perfect expression of this approach — and of its serious inadequacies. This box type of building may keep a short-sighted treasurer happy, but it betrays indifference to major architectural concerns. Pure geometric shapes fail to provide a readable index to the complex variety of functions that are carried on within a church building. They do not possess the variety of scale implicit in the vastly divergent space requirements posed by those functions and consequently do not challenge the architect to cope with the important contemporary architectural problem of achieving satisfactory relationships among differing scales within a larger unity. Moreover, the premium placed on simple forms indicates a lack of appreciation for the claims made by the individual site upon the building. Such forms stand complete in themselves, unrelated to natural surroundings or other environmental factors. They do not participate in their particular setting but only violate it, perhaps disguising their defiance with decoration.

Nevertheless, church building committees will find the kind of orientation they are looking for in the convenient collection of useful information that Droppers provides — much of it in the form of effective charts — about all sorts of details confronting them, from soil and trees and parking, to interior features like pews and organs, heating and acoustics. It might not be a bad idea to publish an economy version of Part II by itself. It is less than a third of the whole and contains a condensation of the major observations of Part I. Interested groups might then secure several copies of this for committee members, whereas they might hesitate to purchase even one copy of the book in its present expensive form. It must be added, however, that much of the value of the volume consists in the inspiration of the abundant excellent photographs (largely of European churches) distributed throughout both parts of the book and instructively located in conjunction with relevant passages in the text.