|Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris France|
The blood (and bones) of the martyrs is the seed of the church
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” So wrote the church father Tertullian at the close of the 2nd century, even as Christians were perishing under the reign of emperor Septimius Severus.
Throughout church history, Tertullian’s words have been a constant reminder that God works in unexpected ways, using the Persecution of His church to strengthen and expand her.
More recently it has been impressed upon me that while it is true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, this is also true of their bones.
At least, that is what a friend of mine recently suggested after returning from a European tour in which he and his family visited numerous ancient churches. He noted that many of the churches his family saw were built directly on top of the graves of martyrs and saints, often with the altars (or, as a Protestant like myself would say, the communion tables) situated strategically right over the bones of these holy men and women of the faith.
My friend had been particularly moved when he and his family visited St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Here one is able to look through a steel grate behind the altar down three floors to the very tomb of St. Peter. He also told me about his moving experience in the Roman Catholic church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris France, where the bones of St. Helena (Constantine’s mother) are situated in a small prayer chapel directly beneath the altar.
These churches reflect an ancient tradition. Ever since the time when Christians met in the catacombs, the liturgy of the Eucharist was celebrated, quite literally, on the tombs of the martyrs. When the early Christians were able to start building churches, they carried on this tradition, building their altars directly over the tombs of the martyrs and saints who had gone before. This was to proclaim physically what we know to be true spiritually, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
But it also proclaimed that the blessed Eucharist is the heart of the Christian life, and thus the worthy location for those whose bones we wished to honor. The idea that our burial rites acknowledge a certain location or activity as being central to life is presupposed in secular burial rituals. It is typical that people ask to be buried under, or to have their ashes scattered over, those places they identify as being central to their life. By burying saints under the Eucharist table, the early Christians were acknowledging that the Eucharist is the central activity in the life of the church.
It is interesting that in many Eastern Orthodox churches this practice still continues, with relics of saints and martyrs embedded within their altars of their churches.
The Pulpit as Center
After returning from Europe with the tombs of so many holy martyrs fresh in his mind, my friend was listening to a program about George Whitefield (whose biography I have written up here.) He was struck by the fact that Whitefield asked to be buried under the pulpit of Old South Presbyterian Church, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. As we talked about this, we were struck by the fact that Whitefield’s request seems to represent an important paradigm shift that occurred throughout the 18th century as the ‘center’ of Christian worship (or at least Protestant worship) was migrating from the Eucharist to the Pulpit.
During the time of Whitefield, and actually stretching earlier into the era of the Puritans, Protestant worship was coming to be increasingly more about preaching and doctrines, with the celebration of the Eucharist increasingly occupying a secondary role. A whole constellation of practices and assumptions were beginning to bud which saw human identity as primarily cognitive. According to this narrative, what we think is the defining feature of who we are. This new paradigm is one which James K. A. Smith diagnosed in his 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom. Referring to the rationalist modalities that began to grip the Protestant imagination in the post-Enlightenment world of the 18th century, Smith suggested that
“this rationalist picture was absorbed particularly by Protestant Christianity (whether liberal or conservative), which tends to operate with an overly cognitivist picture of the human person and thus tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian. . . . It is just this adoption of a rationalist, cognitivist anthropology that accounts for the shape of so much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on messages. ... The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas.”
Of course, doctrines and ideas have always played an important part of Christian worship. What changed in the centuries following the reformation was more a question of what is the center of worship? If our implicit operating assumption is that we are primarily defined by what we think, then we will view church as first and foremost a vehicle for preaching the Word, for giving doctrinal instruction and for equipping the saints for another week of thinking correct thoughts. This is in contrast to a more sacramental and liturgical view of worship (and indeed, of life) which recognizes that love for Christ must be cultivated not primary through hearing correct doctrine, important as that is, but through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desires and, in so doing, shape our identity in ways that are often pre-cognitive.
Reformed Theology and the Primacy of the Cognitive
What James K.A. Smith has described as a cognitivist anthropology found particular vibrancy in the reformed tradition in general and Puritanism in particular, which tended to give attention to God’s utter transcendence in a way that mitigated against those tangible gestures of piety embedded in materiality. This de-materialization involved investing the sacred with what Mellor and Shilling have described as “a linguistic and textual character” resulting in “the ‘discursive symbolisation’ of religion.” In their book Re-forming the Body Mellor and Shilling suggest that within the reformed communities, the prioritization of “the cognitive commitment of individuals…rendered profane those embodied social bonds the Catholic Church had sacralised”, resulting in “an altogether more abstract” conception of religion.
This heightened premium on states of cognition dovetailed with the rise of new ecclesial communities throughout Europe that were held together, not primarily through ritual eating (administered through the Eucharist table) but through cognitive assent to doctrinal formulations (administered through the pulpit). In Re-forming the Body, Mellor and Shilling describe this paradigm shift:
“Centred upon an essentially individual and cognitive engagement with a radically transcendent God, Protestantism made the sacred sublime insofar as it could only be apprehended indirectly, through the Word of God, and not directly through the fleshly body…. Protestantism abstracted religion from much of people’s everyday lived experiences by dislocating faith and the sacred from ritual forms encountered through the sensuous body, and turning them into cognitive ideals.”
This emphasis on the cognitive over the physical that came to characterize reformed theology would be marked by the tendency for the cerebral to swallow up the sacramental, for the invisible to absorb the incarnational. Sermons became the de facto “ordinary means of salvation,” with longer and more didactic preaching needed to convince the Puritans that their faith was really genuine. As Diarmaid MacCulloch pointed out in The Reformation when discussing the Puritans:
Observations of the way in which the Prayer Book was used had increasingly disenchanted Puritans with liturgical approaches to God. They became convinced that preaching was the only way in which Christians should in normal circumstances receive God’s truth: Calvin said similar things, but had never been so categorical in asserting that a sermon was ‘the ordinary means of salvation’. Now they felt it a matter of scandal that there were not enough sermons in England – a major proof of the Church’s corruption.
The Puritans were tracking with the template set by Calvin in Geneva, where many of the English Puritans had fled there during the reign of Mary Tudor. In his book Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, William Dyrness explains what a Sunday in Geneva looked like:
“Sunday services in Geneva were to begin with sermons ‘at break of day’ at St. Peter’s (Calvin’s parish church) and St. Gervais, then again at the usual hour at all three churches. At noon the catechism was to be taught to children at all three churches. At three o’clock there would be a third sermon at St. Peter’s and St. Gervais. Additionally at St. Peter’s, services were to be held three times a week, on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. For these services ministers were appointed – this schedule needed, at the beginning, five ministers and give coadjutor ministers.”
In one sense, this heightened valuation of preaching was indicative of the reformed tradition’s greatest strength. Reformed theology has always emphasized the importance of the intellectual dimensions of our faith, offering a robust theology that takes seriously Christ’s mandate to love God with all our minds (Mt. 22:37). However, whenever a good thing is emphasized, there is the risk that it will be elevated to the exclusion of other equally important dimensions. In his book The Communion of Saints: radical puritan and separatist ecclesiology, 1570-1625, Brachlow suggests that this overweighting of the cognitive or scholastic dimensions of the faith occurred when Beza mediated Calvinism to the larger Protestant world, leading to “a serious though subtle transformation under the impact of the rationalizing process of protestant scholasticism.” One of the corollaries to this rationalizing process was a devaluation of the Eucharist within the Protestant traditions touched by Calvin’s canopy
Devaluing the Eucharist
In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee suggested that at the time of the Reformation certain trends were put in place that eventually resulted in this dialectical balance between matter and spirit being lost. In particular, he suggests, the role of the Eucharist began to be subservient to the preaching of the Word within the theology of the magisterial reformers. That this was true in the case of Ulrich Zwingli (1484 –1531) has been well established. However, Philip Lee also finds Calvin occasionally colluding with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper as well as the Gnostic devaluing of the material realm. The Eucharist, as important as it was within Calvin’s system, remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write, “since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.” Calvin thus made himself vulnerable for later generations to suggest that, as Lee put it, he “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.” Lee continues, pointing out that
It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology. Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace….
A similar point was made by William Dyrness , again in his Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, when he observed that, “The objects of the sacraments have no intrinsic importance, either aesthetically or theologically - these aspects have been stripped away. Rather the performance of the preached word enacted in the sacraments becomes a unique mediation of grace, and it is the theological center of Calvin's cultural-aesthetic identity.”
It was not only in the theology of the Eucharist that we find this dephysicalizing impulse. The Swiss reformer had no hesitation invoking the distinctly Platonic idea of the body being a prison, thus making the integration of spirit and matter deeply problematic. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father and Stephen his to Christ they meant only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian.” In the same section Calvin writes, “It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull…” Elsewhere Calvin made a particular point of pointing out that “it is not necessary that Christ or for that matter his word be received through the organs of the body”, thus giving a degree of credence to those scholars who have identified a Platonic drift to Calvin’s approach to the material world.
One of the areas where this Platonism played out was the approach that Calvin and his followers took towards the church building. For Calvin, who did not recognize physical spaces as being sacred apart from the use, there was no point in a lay person coming into a church to pray during the week since the action he is performing can be conducted just as efficiently anywhere. Calvin thus urged that places of worship be locked during the week, only to be opened during times of public worship. He wrote, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished…”
Though correlation does not imply causation, there may be some credence to William Dyrness’ suggestion that the disembodied approach to matter which became a feature of Cartesian dualism should be understood as an outgrowth of Europe’s Calvinist heritage. In his 2011 publication Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, Dyrness compares the way Calvin “wanted to…empty the worship space, so that it could be filled with God’s word” with the way Descartes attempted to empty his mind of all material encumbrances. Dyrness continues, noting that
“If any external mediation is unnecessary [within Calvin’s theology] and the Spirit only works within, there is a threat to traditional understandings for what the church had known as sacraments (or sacramentals). To put it another way, the sacraments now can only picture this inward work. Although in his understanding of signs Calvin sought to counter the minimalism of Zwingly, in the end nothing external can be essential to this process. We are not encouraged, as with Bonaventure, to move from mediation on the beauty of creation to the reflection of that beauty within and above us. (Incidentally, as near as I can tell, it was around this time that people began to close their eyes during corporate prayer to better focus their minds.) As a result, though Calvin probably did not intend this, over time it became the case that people, especially in the Pietist stream of this tradition, had no way of finding any substantial theological meaning in any external object or act. There was no longer anything for their eyes or their feelings to hold and indwell.
“Descartes was key here. I believe that one can argue that he was working in the shadow of this Calvinist heritage when he said in 1642, ‘I am certain that I cannot have any knowledge of what is outside of me, except by what is in me.’ The view that we should have more confidence in what is in our minds than what is before our eyes led to what Charles Taylor calls a ‘mediational epistemology’ (the notion that knowledge is mediated through ideas in our minds), and to the split between public and private religion, seen perhaps in its earliest form in Descartes. This distrust of the unity of sense and spiritual knowledge was surely one of the conditions, if not the cause, of his splitting inner and outer knowledge. Such a view tends to privilege the ear over the eye, and, as a result, language over other symbolic forms.”
In reviving the descendants of the Puritans in the American colonies, Whitefield was able to draw on this shared narrative in which the Eucharist had become merely an adjunct to the preaching of the Word. Whitefield’s request to be buried under the pulpit and not the Eucharist table is symbolic of the important paradigm shift that had occurred. The Church for 1,500 years had built countless Altars, where the sacred offering of the body and blood of Christ was consecrated, over the graves and tombs of Martyrs and Saints. But now, by the mid 18th century a profound shift was taking place in the Protestant West. Where the offering of the Eucharist had previously been the center of Christian Worship, preaching and teaching had now become the primary focus, with Eucharistic celebration being merely an adjunct to that.
From Whitefield to the Present
Since the age of the revivals, much of the hyper cognitivism would migrate from the intellectual to the subjective. While contemporary evangelical culture (especially within the self-consciously non-traditional evangelical churches) has been shorn of the intellectual integrity that was integral to the scholasticism of the reformers, they have retained the basic rationalistic impulse. This is best seen in the salvific role that knowledge is thought to play within different sub-traditions of the American evangelical community. In some groups, this is felt in the assumption that in order to be saved by the gospel one must first understand the gospel. There is also the tendency, especially in churches that are self-consciously ‘reformed’, to make doctrinal exactitude on certain key doctrines a necessary condition for salvation. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this, which I have dealt with here, is when the ability to articulate justification in broadly sola fide categories is elevated to being a necessary condition to salvation. In other groups, one finds this rationalism at work in the Wesleyian assumption that one cannot be saved if one does not possess personal assurance of salvation, thus rendering deeply problematic the salvation of children or mentally handicapped individuals.
Towards a Recovery of Sacred Space
The ancient churches that my friend visited in Europe suggest to us that perhaps the reformation threw the baby out with the bathwater. When Protestants can once again see the Eucharist table as the center of Christian worship, we will be on the road to recovering a true sense of the physical as sacred.
That reformed Protestantism is uneasy with the notion of sacred space was impressed upon me earlier in the year when I read Terry Johnson’s Reformed Worship. Johnson writes with approval of when the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah dedicated a new church building in 1891 and deliberately refrained from calling it a ‘sanctuary.’ Instead they called it a ‘church building’ or ‘church house.’ Johnson comments, “God’s presence is in heaven. There are no holy buildings, holy places, or holy things through which God’s blessing is uniquely mediated….”
Although Johnson’s bold statements might be challenged by numerous examples of holy objects in both the Old and New Testaments, one can at least be sympathetic with his concerns. After all, this type of spiritual reductionism is often motivated by a sense of wanting to affirm all the world as being uniquely holy. Certainly this was the case with the reformers, who attempted to reintroduce the sacred into everyday life. Objecting to the bracketing of the sacred to circumscribed spheres of vocations and activities, both Lutheran and reformed traditions affirmed the glory of the mundane and the splendor of the ordinary. This led to a new sense of worldly affirmation that reached its height in the Puritan movement. However, it is easy to miss the fact that such affirmation was possible, in part, because they lived in a world that already had a clear concept of sacred space. But this concept was, to a large extent, parasitic on the paradigms they were rejecting. The institution of the holy church, the food of the sacred Eucharist, the time of concentrated days and the spaces hallowed by acts of worship, all enabled the concept of the sacred to have coherence within the social imaginary of the reformers and their immediate descendants. After all, one could extend the sacred to every day of the calendar because the population already possessed a tacit understanding of what it meant for a day to be sacred, an understanding that was, if you will, ‘carried’ in the Christian holidays that the reformed tradition rejected. Or again, one could extend the notion of sacred space throughout all of God’s creation because there was already an understanding embedded deeply within the affective unconscious of what it meant for a space to be holy, an understanding that derived from certain physical spaces (churches and sites of pilgrimages, for example) that for centuries had been set apart and hallowed for special purposes. All of the world could approximate a cathedral because cathedrals existed and carried accessible connotations within the social imaginary. One could extend the idea of priesthood to every believer and grant to the laity the honor previously reserved for clergy because the social unconscious still remembered what it was like to have priests and the honor that the office invoked. Paradoxically, therefore, the plausibility structures necessary for the reformers to extend the sacred into all of life by the reformers included a whole constellation of structures and practices that they also rejected. The extension of the sacred was, to a large degree, dependent on the distinction between the sacred and the profane, since such a distinction allowed the former to have a network of implicit meanings and associations within the social imaginary of a whole society. But this very distinction would ultimately be undermined by the conflation of the two. Though done ostensibly with the aim of expanding the sacred, it had the effect of evacuating the world of any specific ‘carriers’ of sacredness, paving the way for the emergence of secular objects, like the flag or the original Declaration of Independence, to be treated as sacred in a way that many Protestants would never dream of doing to an icon or a saint’s relics.
As the concept of sacredness was stripped from all material reference points, the pulpit would come to be occupy the evacuated center, not because the material pulpit was seen to be sacred, but because it represented the invisible doctrines mediated to Christians by the sermon. It is significant that reformed theology has made much of the fact that such preaching reaches us invisibly through the mind independent of bodily organs. Calvin himself would note that
“In the preaching of the word, the external minister holds forth the vocal word and it is received by the ears. The internal minister, the Holy Spirit, truly communicates the thing proclaimed through the word that is Christ to the souls of all who will, so that it is not necessary that Christ or for that matter his word be received through the organs of the body, but the Holy Spirit effects this union by his secret virtue, by creating faith in us by which he makes us living members of Christ.”
Similarly, Jonathan Edwards shared the Calvinist antipathy to physically engaged worship. While he allowed that the physical body could be involved in the worship of God, since “there is an indissoluble, unavoidable association, in the minds of the most rational and spiritual, between things spiritual and things bodily”,
Edwards argued that the more mature we become, the less involved our physical body must be in worshiping God:
“I acknowledge, that the more rational a person, the less doth his disposition of mind depend on anything in his body; and that if he practises gestures of body in worship, where there is no necessary and unavoidable association, it tends to make him, or to keep him less rational and spiritual.” …Wherefore the weak and beggarly elements are rejected, and the childish bodily ceremonies cashiered, as being fit only for children, and unworthy of those who are come to riper years; and the worship that is now required of [us] is only that which is manly, rational and spiritual.”
The logic of believing that “it is not necessary that Christ…be received through the organs of the body” (Calvin) or that “the more rational a person, the less doth his disposition of mind depend on anything in his body” (Edwards) could only be realized in a sacramentalism that either downplayed the centrality of the Eucharist or else reinterpreted it in purely cognitive terms, or both.
It is precisely this shift from the bodily to the cognitive that, I suggest, helps us to understand why Whitefield asked that his relics be placed under the pulpit of Old South Presbyterian Church, instead of underneath the Eucharist table.
Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 1)
Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2)
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