The Pulpit or the Altar - Which?

Is there a Rome-ward trend in Protestantism?

L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry.

Sharply divergent principles and con­cepts concerning God, Christ, sin, salva­tion, the ministry or priesthood, worship, and the church separate the Roman Catholic Church—and those ritualistic Protestant state churches that follow closely in her steps—from the out-and-out evangelical Protestant churches with which we identify ourselves. These dis­tinctions have, however, become increasingly blurred in recent decades. In fact, this has be­come one of the tangible evidences of the Rome-Ward trend in Protestantism—the predicted reaching across the separating gulf by Protest­ants to clasp hands with their ancient spiritual foe.

PULPIT CENTRAL IN PROTESTANTISM.—The Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches, and certain others, make the altar central in their church architecture and in their services. They place the pulpit to one side, on the periphery, with a lectern on the opposite side to give balance. This is often described as the divided pulpit. On the contrary, in the out-and-out Protestant churches the sacred desk, or pulpit, is central on the rostrum, with the en­trance to the pulpit for the ministers from the side. This pulpit-centered arrangement visual­izes the central place accorded to the preaching of the Word of God. Such a concept is the heart of Protestant faith, hope, life, and practice.

In the Roman Church the celebration of the mass at the altar is central in the whole scheme of Romanism, and of papal architecture. The communicants bow in adoration of the host en­shrined on the altar. The priests similarly bow and genuflect before the altar, making the sign of the cross. This practice is likewise followed in Established, or Episcopalian, high-church services.

Although the Protestant Episcopal Church does not celebrate the mass, it does practically everything else, especially in high-church cir­cles. Its altar has a cross, and sometimes a crucifix adorns it with a simulation of the cruci­fied Christ. The same is true with many Luth­eran churches. Candles, of course, form an in­tegral part of the liturgical picture. Even in some Lutheran churches the minister at times turns his back to the congregation and prays toward the altar, with its cross and candles.

ALTAR CENTRAL IN CATHOLICISM.—For the Catholic the altar is pre-eminent. It is the place where the mystical sacrifice is offered. The sac­rifice of the mass is, for him, an awesome con­tinuation and consummation of the divine sacri­fice on the cross. Thus the "real presence of the host," or "Jesus in the tabernacle," calls for the adoration given to God alone—the worship of latria. So, for the Catholic the "real pres­ence" of Christ is to be found in the "blessed Eucharist" (the host kept in the monstrance) on the altar. That is why the priest goes to the central altar, kisses the altar, unveils the chalice, washes his fingers, signs the oblations, elevates the host, and elevates the chalice. This is all done at the altar.

Catholicism charges that the essence of the Protestant revolt was the rejection of the mass at the altar. It contends that the suppression of the continual sacrifice of the mass is the heart of the Protestant repudiation. On the contrary, Catholicism holds that the daily sacrifice of the mass at the central altar is the essence of Roman Catholicism. And that portrayal pre­sents the inescapable truth. These alternatives are undeniable.

The Development and the Retention

Not until the second century were Christians permitted to erect churches. But from A.D. 202 onward there were church edifices. In 305 Dio­cletian ordered them all razed to the ground. However, under Constantine they were rebuilt, and great numbers of new ones added. Many old pagan temples were changed into churches. Then the A.D. woo expectancy, of the end of the world, paralyzed all building for a century.

The growth of the papal perversion was gradual—that of the nave for the worshipers and the chancel for the clergy. In the early church there was so little liturgy that there was little call for separation of clergy and people, up until the third and fourth centuries, when persecution ceased under Constantine. Then the semicircular apse was designed for the altar, the presbyters, and bishop. In front, and cen­tral in the scheme, came the altar. The choir held the readers and the singers, and was sepa­rated from the nave of the church by a parapet. It also encompassed the pulpits, which were placed to the side.

When preaching was relegated to a place of secondary importance, between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, interest in the mass and ritualism increased markedly. The church became ornate with paintings, sculptures, frescoes, tap­estries, and colored glass windows. Bernard of Clairvaux (two of whose hymns are in our Hymnal) carried on a crusade against this churchly magnificence. But it became effective only under the Protestant Reformation, which attacked the heart of Catholic worship—the mass at the central altar. But the Lutheran and Reformed churches on the continent and the Established Church in Britian went only part way in reform. While they rejected the mass, they still held to various Romish forms, includ­ing forms of architecture—with the altar still central. Lutheranism clung to consubstantia­tion, and to Considerable ritualism. Anglican­ism, particularly in the high-church branch, was still amazingly similar to Rome in her wor­ship and forms.

The Heart of Protestant Worship

Only the nonconformist branches of Protes­tantism, such as the Baptist, Presbyterian, and like churches, and later Methodism—in revolt against the formalism of the Established Church—made a complete break with Roman­ism's conceptions, with repudiation of the cen­tral altar. The pulpit then, for a time, became central in nonritualistic Protestantism.

For such Protestants the Scripture is su­preme over the church, for the church was cre­ated by the Word of God. God reveals Himself primarily through the Bible, and not through the liturgical rites of the church. The Word is therefore the supreme authority for the Prot­estant, the Spirit working through the Scrip­ture. Hence the pulpit, logically and rightly, has a central place in the worship of Protes­tantism. And that central place of preaching is symbolized by the pulpit in the center of the rostrum. This principle is aptly and concisely stated by Dr. Harry M. Taylor, minister of the Calvary Methodist Church, East Orange, New Jersey, in the current winter number of Reli­gion in Life:

"The Catholic insistence on the centrality of the Body and Blood of Christ was the primary reason for dividing the pulpit. The pulpit and the lectern were given subordinate and peripheral roles, signifying clearly that the Scripture and the sermon are less im­portant than the Sacrament. The counterinsistence of the Reformers upon the centrality of the Word, the Bible as Light and Guide, was responsible for the placement of the pulpit in front center."—Page 120.

Many Protestants are unaware of the origin and real significance of the changes that are taking place in Protestant worship, as revealed in this changing church architecture, Many a fundmentalist, for instance, is unaware of the Roman Catholic origin of his futurist concept of an individual Antichrist to rule and ruin for three and a half literal years at the end of the age. But the fact remains, nevertheless, that it was projected about 1585 as a Jesuit-inspired counterinterpretation, devised during the Coun­ter Reformation to parry the deadly force of Protestant prophetic interpretation which pro­claimed the Roman apostasy to be the predicted Antichrist. It was designed to divert that ap­plication and to relieve the pressure by getting Antichrist out of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the employment of architects with the liturgical bent and concept of church worship has led some to accept the church blueprint with the pulpit to the side instead of central in the scheme.

Glorification of Cathedral Concept

In a recent Church Building Guide (1946), issued by the Interdenominational Bureau of Architecture, many church interiors are exhib­ited, representing Methodist, Baptist, Congre­gationalist, Christian, Protestant Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. In every instance the altar is central. Cathedrals are glorified as the embodiment and triumph of the church—the greatest heights to which the church may aspire, the evidence of true spirit­uality, and the medium for making a tremen­dous and dazzling impression upon the soul. Then follows a discussion of early medieval, Rahanesque, and Byzantine architecture, how monastic orders were responsible for the great building impulse, then the rise of Gothic archi­tecture in France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy and England. Virtually all the noted church buildings that are lauded are Roman Catholic structures.

The following interes.ting but subtle argument is propounded : We cannot have an effective Christianity without a church building erected to worship God. And the basic purpose of the church is to celebrate the Lord's supper; hence the prime necessity of the table. So the house of God began in the upper room for the celebra­tion of the supper. Therefore, the table is "the first and most important piece of church furni­ture." In the catacombs the sarcophagus of the martyred saint was often used as an altar. In fact, the altar goes back to 3700 B.C., to Jacob's altar. That is the reasoning in this 1946 Prot­estant Architectural Guide.

Avoid Appearance of Compromise

We need to watch our own church architec­ture as verily as we do our church worship and doctrine, lest we be unwittingly lured into litur­gical forms and emphasis by the very architec­tural structure that houses our congregations. The mere placing of the pulpit in the center of the rostrum, or to one side, is not, as we have seen, a trifling, optional matter. It is not just a question of taste or preference, or a question of location. It is not that simple. The two con­flicting positions of the pulpit stand for wholly different, mutually antagonistic philosophies, not only of worship but of the gospel provi­sions, the fundamental relationship and func­tion of the minister, and of the church itself.

This question would become' realistic were one to see a Seventh-day Adventist church built on liturgical lines, with the only steps to the platform directly in front and at the head of the central aisle, with the communion table surmounted by silver candlesticks, placed in the center of the rostrum as the central object, in lieu of the altar usually found in liturgical churches, with the pulpit to one side, and a lectern to balance on the other side. With it goes such terms as the "sanctuary" for the pulpit of the church, containing the communion table, pulpit, and so forth. It is a trend that may well disturb those who sense the issues at stake.

We repeat for emphasis: This is more than an architectural variation. It is unwittingly an actual patterning after the fundamental charac­teristic of the Roman Catholic church and the liturgical churches that follow her in this con­cept of the centfality of the altar, and is the subordination of the centrality of the pulpit for which we stand historically and in principle. That is the underlying issue. Let us keep our pulpits central. Let us avoid the appearance of compromise with Babylon.

L. E. F.

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L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry.

May 1948

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