f The Wittenberg Door: The Loss of Symbolism

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Loss of Symbolism

One of the things I love about the Reformed church is the symbolism, especially the symbolism involving the pulpit. The pulpit comprises a lectern standing upon a raised platform. Being the most important piece of “furniture” in the church, it is positioned in front of the congregation, with all pews facing it. Its symbolic importance can be summarized as follows:

  • It’s central—The pulpit’s central placement is important because it is from there that God addresses His people via the preached word. Therefore, it commands the most prominent place in the church.

  • It’s raised—The pulpit is elevated because it is upon the lectern that the minister’s bible rests, symbolizing the word of God being over the people.

  • It’s solid—The lectern is made of solid wood, symbolizing the sure foundation upon which God’s word stands. Moreover, it’s large enough to obscure most of the minister’s body, thus keeping the focus on the word. For this reason, Reformed ministers stay behind the lectern, so as to stay behind the word of God.

So Goes the Pulpit, So Goes the Glory of God

Overall, the pulpit represents what the church service is to be primarily about—God’s people coming together to worship Him, and, as mentioned, God addressing His people through the preached word.

Things have changed, though. Pulpits are considered outdated, and even stifling. Like nature, the church abhors a vacuum. In the pulpit’s place sprung the Plexiglas stand, allowing the “minister” to be seen in all of his glory. But this too is seen by some as cumbersome. Why let anything stand in front of the minister, hindering his ability to work the crowd like a Vegas lounge lizard?

Too harsh? Perhaps. But the transition from the pulpit to more modern elements is symptomatic of a greater problem: a shift from the glory of God to the glory of man; a shift from the minister as an empty vessel placarding Christ, to the minister as a personality and centerpiece; a shift from the preached word as a Means of Grace to the advent of a new sacrament—the minister himself.



Blogger Jay Mumper said...

I find the rationale for a raised pulpit completely backwards. Is there some kind of magic in raising a man speaking about God above others in the room that glorifies God? I doubt it. I also find the comparison of pastors seeking to more closely communicate with their congregations as "Vegas lounge lizards" as an elitist put-down to those who see fancy robes, high pulpits and "speaking down to the heathen" as the outdated methods to be avoided due to their utter ineffectiveness in helping others find God, accept Salvation, become filled with the Spirit and have their lives changed.
Perhaps the correct symbolism here is that the Lord of Lords I know removed his everyday clothing, wrapped himself in a towel, knelt on the floor and washed feet of his disciples. Try that from your pulpit...

5:59 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

I agree with most of the symbolism except the centrality. I think that the table is central (as in many churches, with a pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other). While the word proclaimed is a vital part, the table of grace and sacrament can also be considered--and I think should be--central. Without the table, there is no sermon; without the table, thanksgiving is not imagined quite as fully; without the table, grace is not embodied; and without the table the radical welcome of God's grace through the church seems to be absent. This piece of "furniture" is both sign and symbol of God's grace revealed in Christ, and the church remembers and reenacts the gospel thereupon. Of course, one might say--and I would agree--that it is not an either/or situation, but it is both/and! Maybe we should remember to think holistically and fully about the church's liturgy and remember the sign and symbol of all aspects of the order. That's all.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

I can appreciate your understanding of the symbolism of the pulpit. It certainly does carry a lot of meaning. However, a few comments and questions.

Where does the sense of symbolism of the pulpit come from...Scripture or Reformed tradition? Does one preaching to an African tribe sitting/standing on sand because they don't carry around a heavy wooden pulpit negate what he's doing?

In regard to the pastor being shown in all his glory...frankly, no pastors I know would want to be seen in all their glory.

Let's not elevate symbolism to be something sacred instead of something helpful and meaningful (unless it is considered a sacrament in Scripture). What symbolism ought not be is a tool to look down upon others with, which is what I'm afraid is being done with this post. Can we be helpful in helping others understand significance without leaving those outside of one's particular understanding feeling lesser and judged? I hope so.

8:08 AM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Greetings, Jay. It’s difficult to respond to your comments because they do not provide an honest representation of what I wrote, nor do you provide any substantive challenges or alternative views. I do, however, have a few things to say.

First, I’ll take your question at face value, so no, I don’t believe that there is any “magic” in a raised pulpit. What I said was that since it is upon the lectern that the Bible sits, the elevation represents God’s word being over His people.

I am curious, though, if you really believe what you wrote. Since you said that I have it “completely backwards,” is it really your view that the Word of God should be beneath the people? In other words, under foot?

In my post I clearly explained why I likened many of today’s “super apostles” (to use Paul’s term) to entertainers (i.e., Vegas lounge lizards), so I’m not going to go over that again here. But I am interested in your caricature of me, and of those who share the concerns expressed in my post: According to you I am an elitist, who likes fancy robes, likes to talk-down down to the heathen, and so forth. How did you divine these things from what I wrote?

What I did write about was my concern for the shift in many of today’s churches from a place where we gather to worship God and to hear His word to a place of man-centered entertainment—and I used to the loss of the pulpit as an indicator of that shift.

It’s clear we disagree as to the value of the pulpit symbolism, but I really don’t know why, and it would be ungracious and inappropriate to guess. Your comments, however, are another matter: I believe them to be an example of the shift I'm concerned with—a shift that often reveals itself in emotional fervor rather than thoughtful expression.

Instead of challenging my ideas with well-reasoned arguments, you chose instead to misrepresent what I wrote and to call me and other such Christians names. I think we all, as servants of Christ, can do better.

One other thing, your comment about washing peoples feet at the pulpit. Does your church really practice this? In other words, does your pastor really wash everyone’s feet each Sunday? Or were you just being snide?

Robert, good comments. There is certainly much in the liturgy that I left out. Thanks for making the point.

Hello, Joshua. Symbolism is used through-out Scripture (just think of all the symbolism used in the temple), so I think that it’s not only appropriate, but valuable, as I wrote in my post.

Regarding preaching to folks in primitive circumstances, if it’s evangelism, you do it wherever and in whatever circumstance you can. If it’s a church service, I think it would be wise for the pastor and elders to use what symbolism they can, accompanied, of course, with an explanation as to the meaning.

On another note, one line in your comment troubles me:

What symbolism ought not be is a tool to look down upon others with, which is what I'm afraid is being done with this post.

You should have left off the second part. Up to this point you spoke to what I wrote, which is appropriate. In the second part you questioned my motives, which, given the concerns you’ve expressed, isn't. Here’s why: You must first show that someone is wrong before you can ask why he’s wrong. In other words, you must first show that a man is a thief before you can ask why he’s a thief. So you must first show that something in my post advocates the disrespect of others before its appropriate to inquire as to my motives.

The rest of your final paragraph I can give a hearty amen to. Thanks for weighing in.

(By the waym, funny comment about the pastor not wanting to be seen in “all is glory.”)

12:41 PM  
Blogger Scott Furrow said...

I am a pastor who appreciate symbolism, including the symbolism of the pulpit, or "Bible Stand" as some would call it. One day, I plan to have a "pulpit" so to speak built that will just hold my Bible - I'll even put my notes somewhere else.

But in your post, the line "So Goes the Pulit, So Goes the Glory of God" is exactly why I am not currently using a pulpit and it is exactly why important traditional symbols are being rejected. This is a false assumption with zero Biblical support.

I recently stopped using our wooden pulpit, not for any particular reason, just some necessary adjustments to the platform. Temporarily, I started using a simple music stand. But because of some remarkably unbiblical remarks such as this about the pulpit, I'm not planning to bring it back any time soon. I am an expository preacher and hold to the truth of Scripture. Unfortunately, for some people, traditional symbols (as well as being entertained) have replaced the purpose of the assembly.

Symbolism is important as long as it is useful and understood and does not rise to the level of superseding Scripture, false doctrine or idolatry. Sadly, the symbolism of the pulpit is no longer understood and rarely even explained - but that's the way it is. To suggest a western preaching tool (which is all the pulpit practically is) is somehow necessary for any culture to use in preaching is not true, and teachings like this are a distraction from the commands and teachings of Christ and the apostles.

2:39 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Greetings, pastor. I admit that the heading you mentioned is controversial when taken alone, but when the context is considered I believe it’s appropriate: That the loss of liturgical symbolism—not to mention the confessions, creeds, and catechisms— is often a symptom of the shift from a service where Christ is placarded before the congregation in all His saving glory to a man-centered, live your best life now, self-help extravaganza (complete with laser and light shows, where available). Perhaps there is a better heading, but it’s the best I’ve come up with. (I am open to suggestions, though, if you have any.)

I find it interesting the reaction against what I wrote, or, more accurately, what others think I wrote.

Another controversial heading would be So Goes the Creeds, So Goes the Christian Mind. Wouldn’t that cause an uproar?!?! Here’s the context: Creedal churches (mostly in the past, but today can still be found in the OPC, RCUS, etc.) exhibit a faith that not only includes the emotions but also the intellect. Since the Second Great Awakening, the intellectual side of the faith (worshiping God with our mind) was largely abandoned for the sake of a completely experiential faith. The creeds and so forth don’t do much work in the “warm-and-fuzzy” department so they were abandoned.

As a result of this shift (which is related to the other shift mentioned in my post), Christians have largely lost the ability to think discursively. So instead of well-reasoned, charitable responses, Christians typically misrepresent what I wrote (or simply don’t take the time to understand it, or to consider it charitably), draw unwarranted conclusions, or attack me personally—In other words, the responses are often characterized by emotion tinged with anger rather than thoughtfulness imbued with love.

I respectfully ask, pastor, that you take a second look at what I wrote and consider the possibility that you might have judged it too quickly.

Thank you for stopping by.

7:04 AM  

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