A Critical Absence of the Divine: How a ‘Zero-Sum’ Theology Destroys Sacred Space
Economists use the language of a ‘zero-sum game’ to describe a transaction in which one person’s gain is directly tied to another person’s loss. The outcome will always be zero, with one side coming out in the negative and the other side coming out in the positive, unless both sides come out at zero.
By contrast, a non-zero-sum situation is that in which the aggregate gains and losses of the interacting parties can be more than zero.
The ancient Gnostics didn’t know about game theory, but they tended to treat God’s glory as if it was a zero-sum contest between God and creation. The glory of God, they seemed to think, could only be maintained by denigrating the created order, or at least denying that anything of spiritual value could be derived from the creation. In fact, the Gnostics adopted such a low view of the material world that they ended up denying that Christ even had a physical body. It would be beneath the dignity of the Divine Being, they thought, to have his glory mediated through material flesh. For precisely this same reason the Gnostics were deeply suspicious of the sacraments. Spiritual growth was directly correlated to being disencumbered with materiality, so that final salvation for the Gnostics involved eternal release from the physical body. (To read more about the Gnostic heresy, see my review of Against the Protestant Gnostics and my article ‘Tears in Things’.)
In this article I will suggest that one of the temptations of the reformed theological tradition has been a tendency to operate with similar ‘zero-sum’ assumptions. What I am calling a ‘zero-sum’ approach (though the economic metaphor is only a metaphor and should not be pressed too closely) manifests itself in a number of ways, not least in the tendency to view the glory of God and the glory of creation as if they exist in an inverse relationship to each other, so that whatever is granted to the latter is that much less that is left over for the former. Or it can manifest itself in the tendency to see grace as being (in some sense) in competition to the secondary causes embedded in the created world. Finally, I will argue that this has direct ramification in the reformed understanding of space.
Before going any further, however, an important point about method must be made.
Implicit Theology and the Social Imaginary
The history of ideas is never so straight-forward as simply uncovering the doctrinal statements of faith from a period or social group and then taking those to be an accurate reflection of what the laity (or even the clergy for that matter) really believe. Religious cultures have always been animated by the dynamic substrata of unofficial spirituality. To uncover the dominant narratives energizing a religious culture we must consider praxis as well as creeds, the assumptions of the laity as well as the teachings of the clergy, the plausibility structures that beliefs connote as well as those certainties that they denote. Indeed, historians are now coming to understand that the most influential ideas animating a culture are those which are often invisible to an outside observer by virtue of being only tacitly articulated; ideas which may percolate slightly beneath the surface so that they color and modulate everything else yet are never met in a distilled form. Such ideas can exercise a formative influence on the unconscious schemas, probability structures and collective imagination that contribute to the social experience of a group, even if they remain elusive to direct analysis.
When I refer to the “ideas” that give shape to cultures, I am using “idea” in the broader sense that Tom Wright meant when he wrote about worldviews in The New Testament and the People of God or that Charles Taylor has described as the “social imaginary” in A Secular Age or that James Davison Hunter articulated with the language of pre-reflective frameworks in Desiring the Kingdom. In short, what we are dealing with are not ideas that exist as disengaged concepts in a person’s mind or can be reduced to a set of propositions on paper, but unstated understandings that are, if you will, part of the ‘background’ to how a people make sense of their world. Such “ideas” or “worldviews” exist as implicit understandings and may or may not ever be explicitly articulated or cognitively recognized. They are, as Taylor describes it, the largely unfocussed background which gives cohesiveness to group experience, “something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. (A Secular Age, p. 171)
This is not to say that the ideas embedded in the social imaginary do not bubble up into specific truth-claims and statements that can be assessed. They do. Yet as James Davison Hunter rightly points out in his discussion of this phenomenon in To Change the World, “they mostly can be expressed as aphorisms or old adages but people rarely if ever grasp them within consciousness as a series of recipe formulations. Rather, they are embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and within various myths that often reinforce common ideals.” (page 33)
Cultural practices and artifacts do not “express” these nascent understandings, as if the idea necessarily exists prior to its incarnation in praxis. It is more that practices become ‘carriers’ of tacit understandings. Such understanding form what Tom Wright has discussed as a “grid of interpretation and expectation” by which we perceive the world. (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 41) These interpretations and expectations include the way people “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.” (A Secular Age, p. 171)
In trying to understand the zero-sum assumptions that tincture reformed theology, attentiveness to background understandings are just as important, if not more, than those ideas that come to us clearly expressed in a distilled form. This approach is challenging, however, for reasons identified by Hunter when he remarked that “for most of us, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate life exist ‘prereflectively,’ prior to conscious awareness. That is, our understanding of the world is so taken-for-granted that it seems utterly obvious….Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes us and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping.” (To Change the World, p. 33)
What I want to ask, then, is not whether any specific reformed thinker or movement would explicitly affirm that the glory of God and the glory of creation exist in an inverse relationship, or whether they would affirm that grace is in competition to the secondary causes of the material world. Quite likely very few thinkers would be comfortable affirming these propositions, at least worded like this. Rather, what I want to ask is whether there is any sense in which these notions have tinctured the reformed tradition in the more affective and pre-cognitive level described above, leaking out into other areas even if they are rarely met with in a distilled form.
Suppose I desire to put a nail into the wall. We have three objects: a nail, a hammer, and the person. Using the language of causality, we could say that the hammer is the secondary cause (or means) and the person wielding the hammer is the primary cause.
Animated by a zero-sum approach, many influential thinkers within the reformed heritage have found it necessary to de-emphasize the role of secondary causation in mediating God’s grace to man. To reapply the hammer analogy, they want God to bang the nail into the wall Himself in a way that bypasses the hammer. This is because grace that is thought to be unmediated is looked upon as more real than grace that comes through natural agencies. A few examples should make my point clear, the first being drawn from the thought of Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards’ on Creation
Animated by the type of zero-sum approach described above, Jonathan Edwards who went so far as to argue that there is no such thing as secondary causation at all. Instead of creating and sustaining a world in which physical stuff has its own causal efficacy, Edwards asserted that God is actually recreating the universe from scratch in every millisecond of time God. Because this happens so fast it appears to us that things have an independent existence. What we take to be a chain of cause and effect is actually merely the occasions of God’s direct intervention (hence, this idea is known as ‘occasionalism’). As Edwards articulated in Original Sin,
“God’s upholding created existence, or causing its existence, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment, because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him; and not in any part, or degree from its antecedent existence.”
I have dealt with Edwards’ thought in more detail for my Jonathan Edwards’ society article ‘Was Jonathan Edwards a Gnostic?’ For the present article it is sufficient to point out that the notion of secondary causality was deeply problematic for Edwards, since it threatened God’s absolute sovereignty. Similarly, Edwards had the tendency to view the glory of God and the glory of creation as if they exist in an inverse relationship to each other, so that whatever is granted to the latter is that much less that is left over for the former. In his sermon ‘God Glorified in Man’s Dependence’ he ties God’s glory to man’s emptiness in an inverse relationship, writing, “God hath made man’s emptiness and misery, his low, lost and ruined state, into which he sunk by the fall, an occasion of the greater advancement of his own glory.” The lower man is, the higher God becomes. Or again, “It is certainly what God aims at in the disposition of things in redemption…that God should appear full and man in himself empty, that God should appear all, and man nothing.”
I don’t want to deny that there is a sense in which this is true. Certainly by meditating on our depravity we become more conscious of our dependence on God and His grace. Only a person who knows how sick he is can fully recognize his need for a doctor. However, is it not also true that the Bible invites us to contemplate God’s glory through a sustain meditation on the glory of creation, including man? Is there no sense in which God can be glorified by dwelling on the fact that even sin could not completely eradicate the divine image? (Calvin articulates this aspect well in his Commentary on Genesis when discussing the death penalty.) After all, God’s glory and creation do not exist in an inverse relationship; rather, the former helps to establish the latter, as Psalm 8 so clearly shows.
Jonathan Edwards was not alone in this zero-sum approach to creation. In the beginning of the chapter on prayer in his book The Sovereignty of God, Arthur Pink significantly noted that “Throughout this book it has been our chief aim to exalt the Creator and abase the creature.” The subtext of Mr. Pink’s arguments is that both these projects are related to each other inversely, so that the more the creature is debased the more the Creator is exalted, and visa versa. It is as if we approached an artist who had painted a wonderful landscape and proceeded to exalt him by telling him how horrible his painting was.
B.B. Warfield on Salvation
The elimination of means is not limited to the complex metaphysics of Jonathan Edwards, but tinctures practical areas ranging everywhere from worship to the doctrine of salvation. A good example of the latter is B.B. Warfield’s approach to salvific grace.
In his discussion of sacerdotalism, Warfield happily separates the work of instrumentalities with the work of God’s Spirit as if the two exist in an inverse relationship. Similarly, in their discussion of Warfield in The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson write that the key question separating sacerdotalism and evangelicalism is the question of divine grace comes to us “immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities – the church and sacraments.” (The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, p. 415.) However, only if we have first bought into zero-sum assumption about grace is it necessary for it to work independently of means. These authors seem to think that immediate grace is superior to mediated grace, and because of these they cannot seem to acknowledge that faith in the evangelical view is also an instrumentality. Thus, Zaspel and Ferguson ask, “Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?” Their answer to their own question is that evangelicalism “sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace.” If consistently applied, this sweeping away of every intermediary would include not only a rejection of sacramentally-mediated grace, but also a rejection of parental and ecclesial nurture as instruments of saving grace. As Zaspel and Ferguson note,
“The point at issue is the immediacy of God’s saving activity…The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation, to look to God himself for grace rather than to any means of grace.”
The key word here is ‘immediacy.’ Zaspel and Ferguson follow Warfield in arguing that if salvation is dependent on the ministry of the church then it depends on man. However, we might equally say that if salvation depends on faith then it is dependent on man. If someone replies that this is not the case with faith because faith is a gift, then one could certainly ask: are all other means of grace not gifts by virtue of being mediated?
The problem is precisely that Zaspel, Ferguson and Warfield are treating grace as if it operates on a zero-sum scale. Remember, in a zero-sum exchange, whatever is gained by one party of a transaction is that much which is necessarily lost by the other party. A zero-sum mentality towards grace assumes that God can only be properly honored at the expense of the creation, and where this orientation is operational it feels compelled to limit or deny altogether the important role of instrumental causation in the outworking of Providence. The zero-sum mentality is thus highly uncomfortable acknowledging that God’s decrees are outworked through secondary means, and prefers to emphasize the type of “immediate dependence” upon God that bypasses as much human instrumentality as possible.
This same mentality can be seen no less in popular evangelical approaches to justification and sanctification. When the modern evangelical says, “only the Holy Spirit can engineer a change of heart,” nine times out of ten what he really means is that “only the Holy spirit independent of any instrumentality can work change in a person’s heart.” This antipathy to instrumentality remains a deeply Gnostic notion, since at root it questions the spiritual legitimacy of God using the elements of this world as conduits of His grace.
A Zero Sum Approach to Parenting
As Edwards’ ‘occasionalism’ so clearly indicates, the impulse to make man ‘nothing’ involves having to minimize or completely deny the role of secondary causation. I frequently come across similar manifestation of this error in parenting conferences. In the particular reformed subculture that I inhabit, I often hear teachers telling dads and moms that all the good works they do as parents are completely useless if they do not have ‘faith’ in their children’s future salvation. (For example, in THIS blog post Douglas Wilson talks about how parenting is by faith and not by works, a position I have interacted with in the comments section of his subsequent post.) I have sometimes heard extraordinary language is used to denounce the efficacy of good parental works from teachers who think that if our works can lead to godly offspring then we are depending on ourselves rather than God. Since godly parenting is ‘impossible’ and ‘beyond us’ and ‘outside our ability’ (all concepts that I have heard invoked) the solution is not to parent by works but by ‘faith.’
By thus stressing the complete impossibility of godly parenting, these teachers hope to encourage greater God-dependence. The problem, however, is that God-dependence should be assumed both for things that are possible, like breathing, and for things that are impossible, like walking on the water. We are dependent on God for each breath we take, yet no one claims that it is impossible for us to breathe. That is because God has made the world in such a way that secondary causes, such as me inhaling air, have their own natural efficacy and operate according to fixed laws. It is through the outworking of these secondary causes that God’s decreed will for the world is achieved.
Similarly, there is a natural efficacy within the cause and effects that make up godly parenting. Just as breathing can put oxygen into the body if there is no competing causal influences (like a machine in the corner of the room which allows an evil villain to remotely suck all the oxygen out of my room), so training up a child in the way that he should go can lead to the child not departing from it when he is older (Proverbs 22:6) if and only if there are no competing causal influences (which there sometimes are).
Now here’s the rub: it is not theologically problematic to acknowledge that parenting is by works in this sense unless we start with the assumption that good works are autonomous from the life of faith and God’s grace, which of course they are not if they are truly good (and therefore Spirit-directed) works. However, those whose thinking has been tinged by the zero-sum approach, think that they are increasing the role of God’s grace in parenting by decreasing the efficacy of secondary causes like human works. It is the same error that Jonathan Edwards fell into in his discussion of divine sovereignty, and is a tendency that Michael Horton has helpfully diagnosed, though in a different context.
These are only a few examples of the way zero-sum assumptions tend to act like sugar cubes in a cup of tea: they flavour everything even if you never meet it in a distilled form. The result is ironically that God’s sovereignty is lessened because there are too many occasions where it is seen to be threatened.
A Zero-Sum Approach to Prayer
This same zero-sum mentality crops up in many different places. Earlier in the month I asked a young theological student if he thought that asking God to bless our meal made any actual difference to the food. He said that it couldn’t possibly make a difference because then a human work would be achieving something. His words echoed Arthur Pink’s discussion of prayer in The Sovereignty of God, in which he took violent exception to an article on prayer where the author had declared that “prayer changes things, meaning that God changes things when men pray.” This also echoes Jeffrey Meyers‘ approach to prayer in his lecture on the Eucharist in the 2010 Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference: “The Necessity of the Reformation”. Significantly almost Meyers’ entire argument against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist rested on the fact that it involved manipulating God through a human work. If carried to its logical extension, this approach comes very close to Jonathan Edwards’ complete elimination of secondary causality. If human work cannot achieve anything, if human work cannot be the instrumental means of causing God to do certain things (‘manipulation’ is simply a pajorative way of talking about secondary causality), then I am left wondering what the purpose of supplicatory prayers even is. Even though the reformed tradition has the categories for a robust theology of secondary causation (how many times have you heard that if God wills an end, He also wills the means to that end?), we tend to be uncomfortable with God working through means. Our default modus operandi is to think we are giving more to God by granting less to creation. The notion that God can be manipulated by human works is deeply problematic, even though the doctrine of God’s sovereign decrees ought to immediately situate such works in a context that renders them compatible with, rather than in competition to, our understandings of Providence.
The Problem of Creation
One of the areas where zero-sum assumptions tend to leak out the most is when Protestant theologians have dealt with the subject of images. In their polemics against the proliferation of images within Roman Catholic worship, both the English Puritans and the Continental Calvinists had a tendency to veer towards the type of disembodied Gnosticism that they would have discountenanced in any other context. The result has been to denigrate the created order and to create a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical.
For example, when the English Bishop Gervase Babington (1549/1550 – 1610) took up the subject of images, he “stressed the incorporeal nature of God – a ‘spirit incomprehensible’ – and argued not only that he could not be seen but that he did not have a body in the human sense. Where the scripture spoke of Christ having parts such as feet, hands and face, these were merely temporary forms in which he appeared to men and in which ‘he lay hid even when he was seen’…Ultimately, worship of God must be either spiritual (rightful) or material (false), it could not be both.” (Julie Spraggon, Puritan iconoclasm during the English Civil War, p. 12.) The spiritual and the physical are set up to have an inverse relationship with each other.
Leo Jud’s 1541 catechism also emphasized the invisibility of God without making any qualification to take into account the incarnation. Puritan iconoclasm of the 1640s was often marked by a similar character. Even John Calvin, though generally more measured than the English puritans, tended to separate the spiritual from the material when dealing with this topic, in a way quite distinct from, if not at odds with, his treatment of the incarnation. For example, in the chapter of the Institutes titled, “It is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God”, Calvin itemizes the various times God appeared in material form (when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove) yet omits to even mention the incarnation. Had the revelation of Christ itself been included as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that while God “from time to time showed the presence of his divine majesty by definite signs, so that he might be said to be looked upon face to face” yet “all the signs that he ever gave forth aptly conformed to his plan of teaching and at the same time clearly told men of his incomprehensible essence.” (Institutes, I.XI.III, p. 102)
Or again, when Calvin writes that “God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him” (Institutes, 1.11.1, p. 100) it is difficult to imagine what Calvin thought the incarnation was, if not form being attached to God. Later in the same chapter Calvin writes that “the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues but that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty.” (Institutes, I.XI.IV, pp. 104-105) Again this is difficult to reconcile with Calvin’s understanding of the incarnation, for if a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would have been insulting since Christ was a visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6-7). (I have dealt with this in more detail in my article ‘The Holy Spirit and the Animated Cosmos.‘)
This failure to do business with the reality of the incarnation crops up again and again and is one of the casualties of the zero-sum approach. We feel that God’s majesty is preserved to the degree that it is separate from the physical order, so that spirit and matter begin to be viewed as having an inverse relationship. (For more on this topic, see my post ‘Are Calvinists Also Among the Gnostics?’) The implications of this are felt in our lives as families, as William Dyrness realized in his book Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life. Dyrness observed that
“Calvin sought to purify the heart precisely by removing distracting images. But in doing so, he inadvertently discouraged the shaping of objects that stimulate the imagination and fire the heart, thus diminishing the scope of the very inner life he meant to celebrate. …if we are discouraged from shaping outward expressions of inward grace or sculpting objects to contemplate, how can we be stimulated to make a beautiful life for ourselves and our family?”
(I hope my readers know that my point here is not to defend the practice of liturgical images. That is a large topic and one which I have begun to explore here. My comments above are merely to observe how some of the reasons animating the anti-image movement involve zero-sum assumptions about grace and creation.)
The Empty Church
The zero-sum approach has had enormous implications in the reformed approach to space and sound, as evidenced in our church buildings and music. I have addressed the question of music in my earlier post ‘Luther, Calvin and Music’ so here I will confine my observations to the question of space.
William Dyrness writes that in the medieval cathedral, “every act and object has intrinsic and deeply theological meaning.” He contrasts this with Calvin’s rearrangement of the sanctuary of St. Peter’s in Geneva symbolically transferred the focus away from the physical space of worship to the people who were gathered there, away from the location to the events that occurred in that location. Clearly there were numerous benefits that accompanied these emphases, but Dyrness argues that it also left reformed worship detached from materiality:
“While the focus on the vent of worship gave worship a dynamic and living character, it could also give it a vaguely disembodied feel… As Calvin made clear, no physical mediation is necessary for God to work (though in fact the ear is clearly the privileged organ); union with Christ is accomplished inwardly by the Holy Spirit. His reaction against the medieval practices of worship made him highly suspicious of any external or spatial symbolism. The elements of the communion, for example, had meaning only in the performance of the Eucharist; they carried no symbolic weight outside of this context.”
In my article ‘From Eucharist to Pulpit’, I pointed out that this had ramifications for church buildings during the week. For Calvin, who did not recognize physical spaces as being sacred apart from the use, there was no point in a lay person coming into a church to pray during the week since the action he is performing can be conducted just as efficiently anywhere. Calvin thus urged that places of worship be locked during the week, only to be opened during times of public worship. He wrote, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished…” To Calvin church “was the stage on which the performance of worship was played out, and when that was finished, the place had no further role to play…. Worship was everywhere, but it was nowhere in particular. The space of worship was in practice abolished. …This emptiness is the reverse side of the positive impetus to see one’s Christian vocation, and the glory of God, diffused throughout all of life, as Calvin liked to say.”
Behind these impulses is the assumption that the spiritual potency of God and creation are quantitatively distinguished rather than qualitatively distinguished, so that if too much is afforded to the latter, then insufficient will be left for the former. This zero-sum approach to our world works to flatten it out, to deprive us of any sense of the sacred being attached to material things. Glory and spiritual potencies are conceived, if you will, like pieces of a pie, and who wouldn’t want God to have all the pieces? Calvin could not bring himself to anoint sick persons with oil in case meaning inadvertently attached itself to the oil rather than the prayer.
The seventeenth century Dutch separatist pastor Francis Johnson captured the new mood when he declared,
“Now there is not any one place holy, and peculiarly consecrate to the ministrations of the Lord’s Supper, as there was of old for sacrifice only at Jerusalem. So as now therefore a place being a general circumstance that peteyneth to all actions, commodious and necessairie for people to meet in together, and to be kept from injurie and unseasonableness of the weather.”
The church building is thus reduced to its purely utilitarian function, but has no intrinsic value, and it is certainly not perceived as sacred space.
Can Stuff Be Efficacious?
Can a hug be efficacious in conveying grace? What about a handshake? Sharing the peace? Making the sign of the cross on oneself? What about putting the bones of saints under the communion table? Can things convey God’s grace to us? (And no, I’m not talking about saving grace.)
While each of these particulars would need to be examined independently, we have an a priori discomfort acknowledging that physical stuff and gestures can convey grace when zero-sum assumptions have flattened the physical world out from being a genuine conduit of spiritual energy. The surprising thing, however, is that when we turn to the Bible, we see all over the place that stuff works as conduits of God’s grace. I have already argued this in my article ‘Sacred Times and Seasons Part 2’), but it is worth going over the ground one more time.
The primary example of God’s grace coming through physical stuff is, of course, the temple. This was the place where Heaven and Earth intersected, where the spiritual and the material merged together and become one. We find this notion implicit in passages like 2 Samuel 7:12-17, as well as the various Psalms which speak of God literally dwelling in the temple in a way that God, though omnipresent, does not dwell in other places. The temple foreshadows the intersection of heaven and earth in the God-man and later in the church, both of which anticipate the final Eschaton when Heaven and earth are finally reconnected together in fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:10).
In these passages we are confronted with the notion that the ordinary materiality of our world can, under certain conditions, be taken up and transformed into something higher. We find this same reality operative in other sacred spaces in scripture, such as the Ark of the Covenant, Elisha’s relics (2 Kings 13:20-21) the garments of the apostles (Acts 19:12), or the transfiguration event (Mark 9:2-28), to name only a few. The point is that while all of the material world is good (Genesis 1:25) and in some sense spiritually-infused, certain sacred objects can become conduits of spiritual power in a way that sets them apart from ordinary things.
The Quest for Invisibility
Despite this strong Biblical precedent, the notion of physical stuff being efficacious, or of sacred space in general, is deeply troubling to us as evangelicals, who have an impulse to gravitate towards the invisible. When Michael Horton made the primacy of the ear over the eye an important motif in his theology of covenant (Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama), he was merely formalizing what tends to be implicit throughout our thinking: what is invisible is more spiritual than what you can see. Or again, in his Credenda Agenda article from Volume 11, Number 3, titled ‘Constant Voices’, Douglas Jones suggests that “We don’t live by sight as Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy suggest in their liturgies. We live now on the analogy of hearing…” The ear is the privileged organ for the good Calvinist. The Westminster divines were not even content with things being invisibility, and forbad “the making of any representation of God…inwardly in our mind…in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.”
I suggest that behind these impulses is again the type of zero-sum thinking that hopes to promote God’s glory by de-emphasizing the importance of creation, in this case the created things that we can see. The space in which we worship must be vacant, emptied sufficiently for God to fill it with what we can hear (namely, the preaching of the Word). This played out when Calvin made sure that St. Peter’s Church in Geneva was evacuated of all distracting influences (the pulpit and the table were all that remained, and the table was only set up on communion Sundays). As for the church building itself, we have already seen that that was locked at all times other than Sunday morning. The locked church, Dyrness, argues,
became a metaphor for a space that was symbolically vacant. In the worship spaces that resulted, there was no particular place or object or ceremony that, either by itself or in concert with other things, would inform one about God, salvation, or the Christian life. The centrality of the pulpit, of course, had a kind of symbolic significance as the place where the word of God was preached. But the pulpit itself had none of the symbolic or iconic significance that medieval images had, nor did preaching have the same intrinsic meaning that the liturgy had had earlier. Preaching ‘happened’ in relation to particular times, not particular spaces – indeed, some of the most famous preaching in this tradition took place outdoors. The sacraments, of course, continued to have theological and symbolic meaning, but they had no relationship, symbolic or otherwise, to the spaces in which they took place. Their meaning was related to their performance, and this was controlled by the preached word.
Objects and actions inevitably did come to fill Protestant spaces. Pews, pulpits, and tables – all these could become beautiful objects, but they had no intrinsic religious significance and the space they occupied had a strictly utilitarian function….
“Thus Calvin, insofar as he insisted on the uniqueness of the Word in mediating God’s presence, was unrealistically isolating the experience of hearing from the larger context of objects and actions in which this takes place. People move about in space, see and touch their environment, in ways that are not only practical but also affective.”
The antipathy to sacred spaces is at root anti -sacramental. It helped to set the itinerary not merely for diminishing the number of sacraments, but to qualitatively diminish the two that remained, so that these became mere adjuncts of the spoken word, with no intrinsic efficacy. (I discuss Calvin’s sacramental theology here) The physical world is thus stripped of the divine as the sacred migrates to invisible doctrines (reformed rationalism) or else to nationalistic liturgies of our common political life).
Dyrness thus puts his finger on the pulse when he suggests that “Part of the insistence of Reformed spirituality, as with Kierkegaard, is on what might be called the critical absence of the divine.” The zero-sum mentality thus inadvertently evacuates God’s imminence from creation at precisely that point where His attributes (whether grace, sovereignty or glory) are unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) perceived to be antithetical to, or in competition with, the materials of creation. While motivated out of an attempt to magnify God’s attributes, it ironically does the opposite through expanding the horizons of that which can diminish it. The effect is not unlike the paradigm shifts that occurs at the scientific revolution, disrupting the categories by which sacred space can be a viable concept.
This plays out in numerous areas, not least in the reformed approach to architecture. In his book Reformed Worship, Terry Johnson wrote with approval of when the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah dedicated a new church building in 1891 and deliberately refrained from calling it a ‘sanctuary.’ Instead they called it a ‘church building’ or ‘church house.’ Johnson comments, “God’s presence is in heaven. There are no holy buildings, holy places, or holy things through which God’s blessing is uniquely mediated…. This seemed to be better understood a hundred years ago than it is today. The point for us is that worship can never be a matter of getting our bodies in the right building at the right time for the right ritual.”
Now, of course, worship does involve more than getting our bodies at the right time for the right ritual, but does it involve less? God is transcendent in heaven, but is He not also present with the saints who gather to worship Him? So much Protestant architecture hinges on the assumption that while God is everywhere generally He is nowhere in particularly, a point that seems to be underscored by the steeples on Western churches which point away from earth. I consider this nothing other than architectural Docetism or Gnosticism.
Many within the reformed tradition are trying to recover from this by reasserting the importance of architectural beauty, and this would include some of the publications from Canon Press as well as the magazine Credenda Agenda. In Credenda Agenda’s Volume 11 Number 3, titled ‘A Theology in Stone: Dissing Architecrtural Gnosticism’, Douglas Jones wrote an article titled ‘Constant Voices’, which sought to recover the theology that underpinned the great Gothic cathedrals. Unfortunately, however, because the reformed tradition is generally weak on the concept of sacred space (thanks to our zero-sum assumptions), it is easy for us to miss the entire point of the medeival cathedral, which was not first and formost to express a message, or to proclaim ‘Hey, aesthetics is important to God’, but to visibly proclaim ‘this is sacred space.’ Everything about the cathedral (or Eastern Orthodox churches in a very different way) down to the smallest detail proclaims this. In a classic case of reformed anachronism, Jones turns the Gothic cathedral into a sermon and thus misses this central point. He quotes Frank Lloyd Wright who claimed “the house is an idea” and then goes on to agree with him, pointing out that “architecture wants to express something…a message is inescapable” and so forth. Now it is true that Gothic cathedrals were expressing something, but what they were expressing was that this space is sacred, that this is a place where heaven and earth actually intersect tangibly and visibly. Jones, on the other hand, wants the cathedral to express things that are invisible like movement, music and the spoken word. He writes,
As much as architects want us to see the movement in their buildings, it cannot come close to the expression of time and movement found in music. Music not only expresses time, it depicts the life of faith. We don’t live by sight as Rome and Eastern orthodoxy suggest in their liturgies. We live now on the analogy of hearing, and a more scriptural ecclesiastical architecture could reflect that powerfully, as Reformation architecture started to do. Instead of just a concern for exteriors, we should design our churches around music and the spoken voice.
Wow! Who would have thought to make cathedrals analogous to the primacy of the spoken word over what the eye can see? Answer: only a Calvinist.