Symbol or Symbology?

By Pastor Chip Hammond
    In 2009 Dan Brown’s fanciful book the Da Vinci Code was published, causing a stir among those who took Brown’s “historical research” at face value. I read the book and felt compelled to write a “facts sheet” with documentation to correct some of Brown’s more bizarre claims. As it turns out, the book didn’t have quite the effect of “destroying Christianity” that some predicted it would, and my little paper may been an exercise in rehearsing historical facts for my own benefit, were it not for a neighbor who had read the book, and who had stopped by because what he read had upset him. I spent several days talking with this man, and was delighted to find out the following fall that he had become a Christian and had joined Purcellville Baptist Church. I think we may be talking again soon, for the man has recently discovered R.C. Sproul.
    In Brown’s book, the main character, Robert Langdon, is professor of symbology at Harvard University. This is the first clue that Brown’s tale is a completely fictional one. If you were to call Harvard University and tell them you wanted to apply for admission into their symbology program they would laugh at you, not only because Harvard doesn’t have a symbology program, but because there is no such thing as symbology. Symbology is a fictional discipline roughly related to the study of symbolism, semiotics, and iconography.
    Christianity does indeed have symbols, and there are instances of symbolism in all churches, including Bethel Church. Over the years, however, I have heard a fair amount of speculation on Bethel symbology, the difference being this: symbolism is a purposeful and deliberate arrangement of things for a specific reason; symbology is reading “deeper meaning” into things that have none, or for which there is no purposeful or deliberate reason.
    I have been at Bethel now longer than the two previous pastors combined, and for more than half of her history. I have read through Bethel’s session minutes from the very beginning. I have had extensive conversations about the history of Bethel Church with previous pastors, church members, and members of presbytery, and I have read everything I have been able to get my hands on about the history of the church.
    Below I’ve compiled a list of things that fall either into the category of symbolism (things being a certain way for a certain and specific reason) or symbology (reading deeper meaning into things that don’t deliberately have any). See if you can determine whether the statement reflects true symbolism, or is “symbology.” (There are ten of them to symbolize completeness.)

  1. The chancel (the place in the church were the pulpit and communion table are located) is in the east, so that when seated the congregation faces east in anticipation the return of Christ (cf. Matt 24:27).
  2. The bread on the communion table during most of the month is leavened bread to show that Christ who knew no sin became sin for us; when we celebrate communion the bread is unleavened to show that Christ’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because he was without sin (2 Cor 5:21).
  3. When things other than the communion elements are placed on the communion table (such as during weddings), the table is turned around so that the words “This Do In Remembrance of Me” are not displayed with anything but the communion elements.
  4. The offering plates are placed on the small dedicated tables to either side of the communion table, rather than on the communion table, because the table depicts what Christ has done for us and what we can in no way add to, or pay for.
  5. There are no crosses in the sanctuary (save the subtle Celtic cross that serves as a handle for the baptismal font, and the subtle crosses that serve as handles on the communion vessels) so that there is no temptation to worship the cross.
  6. The platform of the chancel has three steps to symbolize the Trinity.
  7. The ceiling of the new chancel area comes to a peak to direct us heavenward.
  8. The musical ensemble occupies the balcony to underscore that only the preaching of the word should be center and visible in the church.
  9. The carpet of the sanctuary is red to symbolize the blood of Christ.
  10. The deacons most often give the prayer for the offering, because the diaconal office most closely corresponds to the office of Old Testament priest (the office of teaching elder to prophet, and the office of shepherding elder to king).

Here are the answers:

  1. Symbology. In Exodus 26 it is prescribed that the Holy Place of the tabernacle be in the west. This was almost certainly a polemic against worshiping the waxing sun. In Egypt, the land from which the Israelites had been delivered, the worship of the sun god, Ra, was prevalent (which is why the Egyptian word for the king [“great house”] is PhaRAoh). However, by the fourth century of the Christian era, it was common for churches to be oriented toward the east because of Christ’s words, “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt 24:27 NAS). While there is a historical symbolism in Christian congregations facing east, this was not a consideration in the construction of Bethel’s building. Evergreen Mills Road runs north and south, and the property being on the East side, the building was constructed to face toward the road.
  2. Symbology. When I came to Bethel Church communion was celebrated very infrequently. The plan established by the session and in place called for communion to be celebrated quarterly, but in practice it was often only celebrated yearly. One of the first things I did was to persuade the elders of a more frequent communion. Celebrated as infrequently as it was, there was no tradition for the elements, so I instituted the use of matzo, the traditional unleavened bread used for the Passover and in the institution of the Supper by Jesus. In the Old Testament purging of the leaven was symbolic of doing away with sin (viz. Exod 12-13, cf. 1 Cor 5:6-8). Among the earliest Jewish churches, matzo was still used for the Lord’s Supper, but the gentile churches which celebrated the Lord’s Supper without the background of the Passover used leavened bread, a practice in evidence in Paul’s day (1 Cor 10:17; “loaf” [artos] without qualification usually refers to leavened bread, as opposed to “unleavened bread” [azumos, 1 Cor 5:8]). Because communion was celebrated so infrequently when I came to Bethel, the communion table had come to be used for all manner of decorations, a practice I sought to slowly and (I hope) sensitively change. Eventually Jean Withnell began baking beautiful loaves of bread to display with the communion cup on weeks that we don’t observe the Supper. This leavened bread makes the symbolism of the bread and cup visible (no one would see a piece of flat matzo sitting on the table) and is completely consistent with the practice of the church of using leavened or unleavened bread from the earliest period of the Christian. While the bread itself is symbolic, the display of the bread is illustrative, the interplay between leavened and unleavened bread having no deliberate significance.
  3. Symbolism. Christ said, “This do in remembrance of me” of the Supper only. He did not say it of lighting unity candles, making offerings, or anything else. The communion table is traditionally sanctified (that is, “set apart” from a common to a very specific use) to communion only. Because of Bethel’s history, the communion table is not entirely “sanctified” – it ends up being used for other things, but the words properly apply only to the Lord’s Supper. Thus when the table is used for other purposes, the table is turned around so that the words “This Do In Remembrance of Me” are not displayed.
  4. Symbolism. I donated these tables to the church in 2008 so that the offering plates would not be placed on the communion table, lest it be inadvertently conveyed that we contribute to our redemption, or pay for it.
  5. Symbolism. This has to do with a narrow segment of Puritanism present at the founding of Bethel. In some pockets of the Reformation, there was a fear that any Christian iconography might lead back to a Roman Catholic idolatry. For this reason, in such churches not only crucifixes with their images of Christ, but plain crosses were purged from architecture and accouterments. (Rev. Edwin Urban, Bethel’s founding pastor, donated the baptismal font to the church, and I was told that Andy Smith, Bethel’s first deacon, wanted to cut the Celtic cross off the top of it!) As one who honors the histories of individual churches, I have not wanted to change this tradition of not displaying the cross. Although I don’t share exactly the sentiments of either extreme of the Puritan tradition, having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I am sensitive to the concern. Several years ago an interesting event happened that had an effect on the church’s iconography. A person who came to the church for quite a while told me that their family was leaving because they were concerned that Bethel was ashamed of being identified as “Christian.” Shocked, I asked how they drew that conclusion. They pointed out that there was no Christian iconography anywhere in the building (specifically crosses), and that while Jesus might be lauded and extolled on Sunday, the building could as easily be used as mosque or synagogue on Saturday, or for a meeting of the atheist’s club at other times of the week. This eventually led to the procurement of banners that proclaim “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords.” The banners contain no pictures of either Christ or the cross. It is the text of God’s own word (Rev 19:16), the title being applied to Jesus Christ and identified with God (1 Tim 6:15). Thus even without crosses, there is no question what the purpose of our sanctuary is.
  6. Symbology. Although some churches historically have had three steps to symbolize the Trinity, this was by no means universal. I have been able to find no evidence that the original chancel platform was constructed with three levels for that reason, although there may have been a vestige of the idea left over (that is, the architect may have designed it with three steps because that is traditional, but he didn’t know why it was traditional). When the sanctuary was expanded the original plan was to simply replicate the chancel platform. However, we discovered that the old chancel platform did not meet current code – each step exceeded the allowable height. We had the choice of either lowering the platform or adding an extra step to raise it. Because the sanctuary was now larger, the architect recommended against lowering the platform, a course with which Elder Glenn Taylor and I agreed. Neither Trinitarian symbolism nor a denial of the Trinity played any part in the consideration.
  7. Symbology. You can tell a society’s values by which community buildings have the greatest investment. At one time in both the east and the west, these were church buildings. The Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and (in an odd way) the Reformation helped to change this. When Bethel’s original building was constructed, use and cost were the issues (in the medieval period, money was almost no object when it came to the construction of churches). The engineered trusses for the original building have a steeper pitch on the outside (roof) than the inside (ceiling), and a catwalk runs along the top for wiring, necessitating a truncated peak. In ancient churches, ceilings came to a sharp or arched peak, to give an impression of being directed heavenward, but this was not a consideration in the original construction of the building. When the new building was constructed and attached to the original building, the “link” had a lower roof that was trussed in a cathedral ceiling in the vestry (ante-room to the chancel, traditionally where vestments [robes] and church records were kept). Although we wanted a high ceiling in the event we sometime in the future expanded the sanctuary, we did not specify a ceiling that came to a peak. To the degree that this makes you feel directed toward heaven, this was a providence on God’s part, a happy accident on ours.
  8. Symbology. Almost thirty years ago, Bethel’s ensemble was started by Susan Felch, the wife of Bethel’s second pastor. Originally the ensemble gathered with their instruments around the piano, but in time so many musicians joined the group that they could no longer fit in that location. The ensemble was moved to the balcony (which had been constructed without pews to allow for future growth of the church, although I can’t image how pews would ever be gotten up there) where the sound system had been situated years before, and found a home there. Many of our musicians like not having to be in front, but there is no principle involved. The choirs of Israel led the people in procession and were visible to the congregation (see Neh 12). Pipe organs were often placed in balconies because there was no better place for them. At times musicians play with the piano in the front. Bethel does not currently have a choir, but has had one in the past, has seasonal choirs, and may have one again in the future. The idea that the musicians are hidden from view for some principled reason is pure symbology.
  9. Symbology. According to Loudoun Carpet (who does most of the carpeting of churches in the county) there are basically two colors that churches use, “church red” and “church blue” There is no evidence that the founders of the church had “church red” carpet installed to symbolize the blood of Christ. A conviction that the church should change as little as possible prompted us to keep the same color carpet. The church changing as little as possible, however, is itself symbolic. So much of our culture is changing, in flux. Stability in the place of worship (in our case, keeping the expanded sanctuary as much as possible like the original sanctuary) is for many people a comforting symbol that in a world of no absolutes or stability, the foundational aspects of the church do not change.
  10. Symbolism. This was instituted several years ago after the session spent a year studying the topic of worship, and instituted changes to make our service conform more closely to biblical norms of worship. This seems to be a prompting of the Holy Spirit, for we have noted with a joyous confirmation that most other OPC churches have “vectored in” on services of worship that look remarkable like ours, all independently of one another.

    Symbology is not terrible. If facing east as you worship reminds you that you are awaiting the return of Christ; if the unleavened bread reminds you that Christ knew no sin, and the leavened bread reminds you that he became sin for us; if you feel that the peaked roof of the chancel seems to direct you heavenward; or if the red carpet reminds you of the blood of Christ, all of these things are good. There is evidence that much of what became traditional and symbolic in church architecture started as a “happy accident” and was later incorporated deliberately. But it is also important that we not fool ourselves or others by perpetuating the idea that things are symbolic which in fact are not.