Ever since the inhabitants of Babel erected a tower to "reach to the heavens," civilizations have followed suit by building structures with pointed tops.'' The Babylonians and Egyptians built obelisks and pyramids that reflected their belief that they were progressing toward immortality. When Greek philosophy and culture came along, the direction of architecture changed from upward and vertical to downward and horizontal. All of this suggested the Greek belief in democracy, human equality, and earthbound gods.'"
However, with the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the practice of crowning buildings with pointed tops reemerged. Toward the end of the Byzantine period, Catholic popes drew inspiration from the obelisks of ancient Egypt.'" As religious architecture entered the Romanesque period, points began to appear on the surfaces and
"Of all the great teachers of Christianity, Martin Luther perceived most clearly the difference between the Ecclesia of the New Testament and the institutional church, and reacted most sharply against the quid pro quo which would identify them. Therefore he refused to tolerate the mere word 'church': he called it an obscure ambiguous term. In his translation of the Bible, he rendered ecclesia by 'congregation' He realized that the New Testament ecclesia is just not an 'it,"a thing,' an 'institution,' but rather a unity of persons, a people, a communion Strong as was Luther's aversion to the word 'church,' the facts of history prove stronger. The linguistic usage of both the Reformation and the post-Reformation era had to come to terms with the so powerfully developed idea of the church, and consequently all the confusion dependent upon the use of this 'obscure ambiguous' word penetrated Reformation theology. It was impossible to put the clock back one millennium and a half. The conception 'church' remained irrevocably moulded by this historical process of 1500 years." Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), 15-16.
101 Martin Luther, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 53-54. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 82.
Clowney and Clowney, Exploring Churches, 72-73. The altar table was moved from the lofty position of "altar" and moved down the chancel (clergy platform) steps, giving it a position of less prominence. The pulpit was moved closer to the nave where the people sat, so as to make the sermon a fixed part of the service.
W See Genesis 11:3-9. Carter, "The Story of the Steeple."
Zahi Havass, The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990), 1; Short, History of Religious Architecture, 13, 167.
corners of every cathedral built in the Roman Empire. This trend reached its pinnacle during the era of Gothic architecture with Abbot Suger's construction of the cathedral at St. Denis.
Unlike Greek architecture, the characteristic line of Gothic architecture was vertical to suggest striving upward. By this time, all throughout Italy, towers began to appear near the entrances of church buildings. The towers housed bells to call the people to worship.'" These towers represented contact between heaven and earth."'
As the years passed, Gothic architects (with their emphasis on verticality) sought to add a tall spire to every tower.'" Spires (also called steeples; spires is the British/Anglican term) were a symbol of man's aspiration to be united with His Creator."' In the centuries that followed, the towers grew taller and thinner. They eventually became a visual focal point for the architecture. They also reduced in number, from the double-towered "westwork" to the singular spire that so characterized the churches of Normandy and Britain.
In the year 1666, something happened that changed the course of tower architecture. A fire swept across the city of London and damaged most of its eighty-seven church edifices.'" Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was then commissioned to redesign all the churches of London. Using his own stylistic innovations in modifying the Gothic spires of France and Germany, Wren created the modern steeple.'" From that point on, the steeple became a dominant feature of Anglo-British architecture.
Later the Puritans made their church buildings far simpler than their Catholic and Anglican predecessors. But they kept the steeple and brought it into the new world of the Americas."'
Charles Wickes, Illustrations of Spires and Towers of the Medieval Churches of England (New York: Hessling & Spielmeyer, 1900), 18.
Clowney and Clowney, Exploring Churches, 13.
Durant, Age of Faith, 865.
Clowney and Clowney, Exploring Churches, 13.
Gerald Cobb, London City Churches (London: Botsford, 1977), 15ff.
Viktor Furst, The Architecture of Sir Christopher Wren (London: Lund Humphries, 1956), 16. Because the churches of London were so tightly sandwiched between other buildings, little room was left for emphasis on anything other than the spire itself. Consequently, Wren established the trend of building churches with relatively plain sides featuring a disproportionately tall and ornate spire on one end. Paul Jeffery, The Gty Churches of Sir Christopher Wren (London: The Hambledon Press, 1996), 88. Peter Williams, Houses of God (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 7-9: Colin Cunningham, Stones of Witness (Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 60.
The message of the steeple is one that contradicts the message of the New Testament. Christians do not have to reach into the heavens to find God. He is here! With the coming of Immanuel, God is with us (see Matthew 1:23). And with His resurrection, we have an indwelling Lord. The steeple defies these realities.
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