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John Wilson

Flagitious Corruptions

How perverse, when these flagitious corruptions are manifest, not only to defend them, but cloak their deformity, by impudently pretending that they belong to the genuine worship of God!

—John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church

John Calvin's 1543 manifesto, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, included a sweeping attack on the use of images in worship. There Calvin argued that gross superstition—"the idolmania with which the minds of men are now fascinated"—could be rooted out only "by removing bodily the source of the infatuation," that is, by prohibiting all images from the church. Calvin explicitly denied that a distinction can be made between the proper use of images in worship and the superstitious or brazenly idolatrous substitution of the mere image for the transcendent God.

The Reformed rejection of images continues to be influential even after the passage of nearly 500 years. In 1965, Eerdmans published a beautiful, stout, heavily illustrated book called Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches. The authors were Donald J. Bruggink, a minister of the Reformed Church in America and a professor of theology, and Carl H. Droppers, an architect and professor of architecture.

Here I am picking out just one theme from this splendid book. If you turn to page 565 of Christ and Architecture, you'll find a photo of a church interior. The caption on the facing page reads as follows:

Note the honest use of concrete block as the interior surfacing, the honest use of precast beams and precast slabs of the roof. There is no attempt here to cover this basic material with older, more acceptable, materials. The materials are honest. At the same time note the use of concrete for pulpit, font and organ support. There is no pretense; these materials are doing the job well without camouflage of any sort.

It is easy to poke fun at such rhetoric—the honest use of concrete block in this church will remind many readers of public restrooms they have known—but in part that is because we are rarely forced to spell out the assumptions that underlie our own attitudes toward worship. Most believers have strong but largely unexamined convictions about what is and is not right and fitting for worship: in music, in the use of images, in the design of the worship space. And the less such convictions are examined, the more dogmatic they tend to be.

Three recently published books—each of which merits a full review—remind us of the extent to which notions of what is right and fitting are entangled in the particulars of time and place. Catharine Randall's Building Codes: The Aesthetics of Calvinism in Early Modern Europe is a brilliantly suggestive study of Calvinist architecture in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century France. Protestants were persecuted during this period, even after the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but nevertheless, Randall writes,

Calvinist architects designed and constructed the vast majority of architectural structures built from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries in France. While institutionally marginalized in many respects, Calvinists paradoxically populated an elite corps of artists, artisans, and architects responsible for monumentalizing Catholic demonstrations of power. So pervasive was their presence that it is difficult today to find architectural manuals penned by Catholic contemporaries or to view buildings erected by major Catholic architects.

Some of these French Calvinists openly avowed their faith; others practiced what Calvin termed Nicodemism, or dissimulation. But all of those whom Randall treats were "subversive" in the subtle details of their architecture. What will be most valuable for all but a handful of specialist readers is the way in which Randall sets the designs of these architects in the larger context of a Calvinist understanding of space. "The spatial terms used in the Institution," Randall writes, "sketch the visionary architecture of a redeemed world." She notes how Calvin's sense of "redeemed space" was played out in Geneva in a "strategy … to redetermine space by occupying it":

By calling Geneva the "City of Refuge," [Calvin] destabilizes it linguistically, intending that its city-space remain "uprooted" (deracine, a term describing those seeking refuge), as a demonstration that the City of God can never be attained on earth. Calvin always seeks an ideal space, an elsewhere, the space of a "different country."

Randall's book is full of this kind of provocative reflection. Here Calvinist theology is no "epiphenomenon" but rather the source of "recipes for re structuring the world."

A handsome volume of essays edited by Paul Corby Finney, Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinist Tradition, and John Dillenberger's wide-ranging book, Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe, belong on the shelf next to Randall's book.

The essays in Seeing Beyond the Word offer luminous details on almost every page, and they are complemented by a lavish selection of illustrations. Open the book at random, and you may land in an essay on "The Reformed Churches of France and the Visual Arts," by Raymond A. Mentzer, Jr. Under the heading "Furnishings," Mentzer observes that

Beyond the removal of the statues, painting, and ornate windows that adorned pre-Reformation churches, perhaps the most conspicuous change was the introduction of pewing. It was a brave and often frustrating endeavor to impose discipline by making people sit and listen attentively to the pastor's sermon. … No longer did anyone dare to wander about as had been possible in the medieval church where seating was generally limited to bishops, canons, and a handful of persons from the social and political elite.

Or the reader may turn to this observation in James White's magisterial essay, "From Protestant to Catholic Plain Style":

Underlying the rejection of hallowed vessels (and sacramentals in general) is the intention to sacralize all of life, including the most mundane elements of everyday life. It is just possible that the visual impact of the Reformed wooden trencher and cup (Zwinglian innovations) at the communion meal said more to the faithful than the new words of the Reformed rite. In other words, a new locus of the sacred was being forged, not in the remote, the expensive and precious, the inaccessible, but in the ordinary things of everyday life.

One may be skeptical of "the intention to sacralize all of life," and certainly the broken-up soda crackers and little plastic glasses of grape juice by means of which I first received Communion did not send that message, but White's comments give us a penetrating insight into the world of the Reformers and what their innovations signified in their context—a point that White emphasizes at the outset, citing Calvin himself.

Dillenberger provides in counterpoint a sense of what was lost in the determination to sweep away flagitious corruptions:

The wounds of the reformations have not healed, nor has a new way of seeing been incorporated in the life of the churches. …

We live in a visual culture, but it is hardly a disciplined seeing. We are taught to hear, to read, and to think. But with respect to seeing it is still possible to like what one likes, without having been taught to see. The visual as the bible of the illiterate or the unlearned, as the older tradition expressed it, has been transformed into the visual illiteracy of the learned.


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