Architecture and The Theology of Spaces: Part I

From the moment God gave directions about the building and the furnishing of the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting, architecture and theology were married forever within the context of worship. Over time, the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob moved from the Tabernacle to Jewish Temple and during the captivity, the Jewish Synagogue. After Jesus Christ, that worship moved to the Christian gathering, and more importantly the theology of the presence of God moved from the Holy of Holies within the Temple, into the heart of the redeemed believer (1 Corinthians 6:19). The question that arises from this transformation is how has the theological influence on the architecture of worship changed along with it?

While there were very specific biblical requirements for the Temple, there were none for the Synagogue. Christian worship likewise had no biblical physical requirements. However, one thing is very obvious about Christian worship, from the very beginning and for its first two hundred plus years, its architecture was very informal. Since people met in houses or any available structure that allowed them to gather for worship in the midst of persecution; very little concern was placed on architecture. People stood or sat on the floor, since most worship meetings occurred in the house’s upper room, which was an open space used for dining and most people sat on the floor or reclined while eating.

For over two hundred years, Christian worship was almost a family affair, in private homes. There appeared to be no “theology of spaces” involved. One reason might be the Christian view that the new temple was the human heart and that a Christian’s body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). The veil separating the Holy of Holies had been rent, the Jewish Temple was destroyed, and God had taken up residence in the heart of his people. Wherever two or more gathered, the place not being significant, there was Christ in their midst.

It was not until the late third century when the Church began to grow and then in the early fourth century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire that things changed. However, these changes were not for biblical reasons. They were for political and sociological reasons. The Church had become too important to be consigned to homes. It now was out in the public eye and it wanted a public presence, befitting the official religion of Rome who still shined with much of her former glory. The Church needed grand structures for grand events, with all of the pomp and circumstance befitting its place in the Empire.

While biblical models would be mined from ancient examples, it is important to remember that there was no biblical warrant. God did not command, like he had done for the Hebrews, any demand for a specific physical space for the Church. All such practices and traditions which built up in the Church since the late third century were done for other than biblical reasons. They are the traditions of the Church, which soon split between East and West, and developed competing requirements for sacred spaces, a foreshadowing of what would come with the Reformation and its own multiplication of requirements along with its additions and deletions from what came before.

Yet throughout the centuries of Christian worship, there has never been a biblical requirement for the place where Christians worship. All requirements came through the governance of the Church who made them, whether Roman, Eastern, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or any other denomination or expression of the Christian faith.

So, how did we get to where we are? Why do we have pews, altars, stained glass or clear glass, organs, railings, rood screens, baptisteries, lecterns, bell towers, choir lofts, and all the other accoutrement of our worship spaces? What, if anything, is important and what is not? I do not have the answers at the moment, but hopefully I will learn some of the reasons why over the next year as I investigate this area.

There is one scripture that I feel God has given me to help me remember what I should not forget during this search. Like it was for Elijah, it is important for me to remember something fundamental about the God with whom I have to do.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 1Kings 19:11-12

God was, is, and always will be in his word, even when it is merely a whisper.

See also Part II.

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