We have noted that a church building is architectural speech. But in order to speak truly as a church, it needs to speak gospel.
Made out of brick, and steel, and wood, and so forth, the architectural vocabulary is limited when it comes to doctrines like propitiation, substitutionary atonement, and so on. The task with such is to avoid speaking of a false propitiation, by building an altar instead of a table, for example. But there is one doctrine of the gospel which architecture can declare very plainly, and without ambiguity.
A church building is architectural speech, and so if it is to be a Christian church building it needs to be the gospel in stone. Obviously, it cannot be as specific and defined as a sermon can be, and it does not have symbolic meanings assigned to it by Scripture, as the elements of the sacraments do—water, bread, and wine. But everything in this world speaks, and so we have to take care to speak the truth.
The first step in speaking the truth is to avoid lies, above all, lies that we might want to speak to ourselves. The apostle John says that if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. This means that a church building needs to declare the glory of God, without veering into the pride of man. The building must not be a monument to ourselves. It must not say, or imply, that we “have no sin.”
The apostle Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith.” He tells him in the next breath to “lay hold on eternal life.” In Ephesians, we are told that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. The language of Scripture concerning our pilgrimage here on earth is frequently martial language. It is agonistic.
Our sanctuary, when built, is a sanctuary to be used by the church militant. We are not yet in glory, although we ascend to glory every week to worship with the church universal. Nevertheless, we are bi-locational. Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, which was, obviously, in Ephesus. But they were also in Christ, in the heavenlies. They were located both on earth and in heaven.
We do not usually have trouble being unselfish about things we don’t care about. If something is not connected to us, and is happening on the other side of the world, then the way of renunciation is easy. We let things go quite handily when they are things we never came in contact with.
But when it gets close, and it has the kind of price tag that makes us pay attention, all of a sudden we have opinions. These opinions are important, we think, because they are expressed concerning something that is clearly important.
Now it is important to note that there is nothing whatever wrong with having opinions, or offering a perspective. That is what God wants us to do—that is why He gave us our eyes, so that we might see with them. He is not trying to mortify what we see.
In the beginning, John tells us, was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
We are told other things about the Second Person of the Trinity elsewhere in Scripture—He is the icon of God, He is the wisdom of God, He is the Son of God, He is the light from God, and so on. But there is a peculiar primacy given to the Word. This is that which defines all else.
This is why, in the Protestant tradition, it is common to have the pulpit here, like this, in the central position—as a testimony to the centrality of the Word. But it is not enough to give the Word a visual and spatial centrality, and then walk away satisfied. No, the Word is to have more than symbolic centrality—although it should have that as well.
Cultures pass through aesthetic phases as they rise and fall, and the last phase is the phase of decadence. It is the phase in which sensate spectacle is glorified, and it is a sign, not of glory but of decrepitude.
Our generation is in the thick of this last phase. Our culture is attracted to the sensational and insists upon spectacle. If you want to see everything that is wrong with our aesthetic understanding, just consider a half time Super Bowl show, or a Taylor Swift concert.
We have already seen that simplicity in worship (and in architecture) cannot be contrasted with beauty, as though it were an alternative to it. Simplicity is an aesthetic trait, and those who think that a building or a liturgy is automatically beautiful because it is complicated, with the maximum number of gold filigrees on it, are not being aesthetically wise. But it is simplicity that is aesthetically valuable, not laziness.
Simplicity is beautiful when it is elegant. Complexity is beautiful when it is understated. The lines should be clean, not cluttered. Simplicity as an element of beauty is not to be used as a convenient excuse to remain unchallenged, staying with what you are used to. The space we worship in should be human, which means that we are simultaneously at home there, and challenged to rise above our current level.
As we pray and plan concerning our church building, we want to remember that we worship the God of all beauty. We want the beauty of the Lord to rest upon us as we undertake this task. “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: And establish thou the work of our hands upon us; Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Ps. 90:17).
But biblical aesthetics is not for children, and we must not fall prey to false dichotomies. I have heard, for example, people assuming that beauty should be contrasted with simplicity. But this is fundamentally wrong-headed, because simplicity is a central aesthetic value. Beauty contrasts with ugly, not with simple.
Both with architecture and with liturgy, there are some who assume that “if one’s good, two must be better.” The liturgy gets cluttered up with bright colors and shiny objects, and the architecture of the church looks, at the end of this process, like a gingerbread architect on acid did the whole thing.