The Evolution Of Church Architecture

Following the Constantinian era, church buildings passed through various stages. (They are too complex for us to detail here.) To quote one scholar, "Changes in church architecture are the result of mutation rather than a steady line of evolution." These mutations did little to change the dominant architectural features that fostered a monopolizing clergy and an inert congregation.24

Let's quickly survey the evolution of church architecture:

After Constantine, Christian architecture passed from the basilica phase to the Byzantine phase.'' Byzantine churches had wide central domes and decorative icons and mosaics.126

INorrington, To Preach or Not, 29.1. D. Davies writes, "When Christians began to build their great basilicas, they turned for guidance to their Bible and were soon applying all that was said about the Jerusalem Temple to their new edifices, seemingly ignorant of the fact that in so doing they were behaving contrary to the New Testament outlook." Davies goes onto say that the cult of the saints (revering dead saints) and its steady penetration of church buildings finally set its seal upon the outlook of the church as a holy

I place, "towards which Christians should adopt the same attitude as Jews to the Jerusalem Temple and pagans to their shrines" (Secular Use of Church Buildings, 16-17). Oscar Hardman writes, "The Roman system of administration and the architecture of its larger houses and public halls lent suggestive guidance to the church in the grading of its hierarchy and the subsequent defining of spheres of jurisdiction, and in the building of its places of worship" (History of Christian Worship, 13-14). Boggs, Christian Saga, 209.

Mark 14:58; Acts 7:48,17,24; Galatians 4,9; Colossians 2,14-19; Hebrews 3-11; I Peter 2,4-9. White, Pmtestant Worship and Church Architecture, 51, 57. Krauthei mer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture.

Norman, House of God, 51-71. The Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom), which opened in AD 360 and was rebuilt in AD 415, is touted by the Eastern church to be the perfect embodiment of a church building.

Byzantine architecture was followed by Romanesque architecture.' Romanesque buildings were characterized by a three-story elevation, massive pillars supporting round arches, and colorful interiors.'" This form of building arose shortly after Charlemagne became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day AD 800.

Following the Romanesque period was the Gothic era of the twelfth century. Gothic architecture gave rise to the spellbinding Gothic cathedrals with their cross-ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and flying buttresses."' The term cathedral is derived from cathedra. It is the building that houses the cathedra, the bishop's chair.'"

Colored glass was first introduced to church buildings in the sixth century by Gregory of Tours (538-594). The glass was set into the narrow windows of some Romanesque churches. Suger (1081-1151), abbot of St. Denis, took colored glass to another level. He adorned the glass with sacred paintings. He thus became the first to use stained-glass windows in church buildings, placing them in his Gothic cathedrals.'"

Great panels of tinted glass came to fill the walls of Gothic churches to emit brilliant, bright colored light. 133 Rich and dark colors were also employed to create the effect of the new Jerusalem. The stained-glass windows of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have rarely been equaled in their beauty and quality. With their dazzling colors, stained-glass windows effectively created a soulish sense of majesty and splendor. They induced feelings associated with the worship of a mighty, fear-inspiring God.13'

Short, History of Religious Architecture, ch. 10. Norman, House of God, 104-135.

For details see Short, History of Relig/ousArchitecture, ch. 11-14, and Otto von Simson's classic volume The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Kra utheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 43. Durant, Age of Faith, 856.

von Simson, Gothic Cathedral, 122. Frank Senn writes, "More space between the pillars could be filled in with larger windows, which gave a lightness and a brightness to the new buildings that the old Romanesque buildings lacked. The windows could be filled with stained-glass, which could tell the biblical stories or employ the theological symbols that were previously painted on the walls" (Christian Liturgy, 214). Durant, Age of Faith, 856.

^ Norman, House of God, 153-154; Paul Clowney and Teresa Clowney. Exploring Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 66-67.

As with the Constantinian basilicas, the root of the Gothic cathedral is completely pagan. Gothic architects relied heavily on the teachings of the pagan Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught that sound, color, and light have lofty mystical meanings. They can induce moods and help bring one closer to the "Eternal Good."135 The Gothic designers took Plato's teachings and set them to brick and stone. They created awe-inspiring lighting to elicit a sense of overwhelming splendor and worship.'""

Color is one of the most powerful emotive factors available. Thus the Gothic stained-glass windows were employed skillfully to create a sense of mystery and transcendence. Drawing inspiration from the grandiose statues and towers of ancient Egypt, Gothic architecture sought to recapture the sense of the sublime through its exaggerated heights."'

It was said of the Gothic structure that "the whole building seems chained to earth in fixed flight. . . It rises like an exhalation from the soil. . . . No architecture so spiritualizes, refines and casts heavenward the substance which it handles."' It was the ultimate symbol of heaven joining the earth.'"

So with its use of light, color, and excessive height, the Gothic cathedral fostered a sense of mystery, transcendence, and awe.'" All of these features were borrowed from Plato and passed off as

Basilica, Romanesque, and Gothic church buildings are a human li! von Simson, Gothic Cathedral, 22-42,50-55,58,188-191,234-235. Von Simson shows how the metaphysics of Plato shaped Gothic architecture. Light and luminosity reach their perfection in Gothic stained-glass windows. Numbers of perfect proportions harmonize all elements of the building. Light and harmony are images of heaven; they are the ordering principles of creation. Plato taught that light is the most notable of natural phenomena—the closest to pure form. The Neoplatonists conceived light as a transcendental reality that illuminates our intellect to grasp truth. The Gothic design was essentially a blending together of the visions of Plato, Augustine, and Denis the pseudo-Areopagite (a noted Neoplatonist). White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 6.

Neil Carter, "The Story of the Steeple" (unpublished manuscript, 2001). The full text, which is documented, can be accessed at http:// I. Turner, From Temple to Meeting House, 190.

The baroque architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries followed the path of the Gothic in inducing the senses with its harmonious richness and decoration (Clowney and Clowney, Exploring Churches, 75-77). J. G. Davies states that in the West during the Middle Ages, cathedrals were regarded as models of the cosmos (Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 220). White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 131.

For a detailed discussion of the historical specificities of Gothic architecture, see Durant, Age of Faith, ch. 32. Although antiquated, Gothic architecture made a reappearance among Protestants with the Gothic revival in the mid-nineteenth century. But Gothic construction ceased after World War II (White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 130-142; Norman, House of God, 252-278).

attempt to duplicate that which is heavenly and spiritual.'" In a very real way, the church building throughout history reflects man's quest to sense the divine with his physical senses. While being surrounded by beauty can certainly turn a person's heart toward God, He desires so much more for His church than an aesthetic experience. By the fourth century, the Christian community had lost touch with those heavenly realities and spiritual intangibles that cannot be perceived by the senses, but which can only be registered by the human spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:9-16).

The main message of Gothic architecture is: "God is transcendent and unreachable—so be awed at His majesty." But such a message defies the message of the gospel, which says that God is very accessible—so much so that He has taken up residence inside of His people.


In the sixteenth century, the Reformers inherited the aforementioned building tradition. In a short period of time, thousands of medieval cathedrals became their property as the local rulers who controlled those structures joined the Reformation.'

Most of the Reformers were former priests. Hence, they had been unwittingly conditioned by the thought patterns of medieval Catholicism.' So even though the Reformers did some remodeling to their newly acquired church buildings, they made little functional change in the architecture.'

Even if the Reformers wanted to bring radical changes to the practice of the church, the masses were not ready for it.' Martin Luther was quite clear that the church was not a building or an insti-

Senn, Christian Liturgy, 604.

White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 64. The first Protestant church building was the castle at Torgua, built in 1544 for Lutheran worship. There was no chancel, and the altar had become a simple table (Turner, From Temple to Meeting House, 206). White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 78.

Jones, Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship, 142-143,225. (nterestingly, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen a major revival of medieval architecture among all Protestant bodies (White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 64). White, Pmtestant Worship and Church Architecture, 79.

tution.1" Yet it would have been impossible for him to overturn more than a millennium of confusion on the subject."'

The central architectural change that the Reformers made reflected their theology. They made the pulpit the dominant center of the building rather than the altar table.'" The Reformation was built on the idea that people could not know God nor grow spiritually unless they heard preaching. Thus when the Reformers inherited existing church buildings, they adapted them toward that end.'"

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