How did Luther design the first protestant church building?

Yesterday, we visited Hartenfels Castle in Torgau. It is now used by the government as an administrative building.

It used to be the seat of “Elector John Frederick the Magnanimous.” In the 16th century, a church was built in it – designed intentionally to be “evangelical,” the watch-word of the Reformation.

The design has a couple of odd features. In order to explain these feature, I have to first explain a few things about kingship and the scriptures.

Why did I say the castle was the “seat” of the Elector? Why didn’t I say “home”? Because it was designed to create awe in any who passed by or entered it. Because it was where power was housed. Because it was where decisions of national importance were made.

But it was also a home, because the Elector (king of the state of Saxony) lived in it with his family.

Rulers, kings, make proclamations in architecture. In the placement of the church, and in its design, John Frederick made a bold statement.

Through the building, he made a proclamation of faith. He proclaimed that he was with Luther. He was a protestant. He was no longer a Catholic, like his sovereign, the “Holy Roman Emperor,” Charles V.

Emperors want homogeneity. They want everyone to bow to them. They want everyone to subscribe to the same religion, which they call “faith.”

“Christian” emperors said people must have faith in them and abide by their decisions, because God, through “the church,” legitimized their rule.

The reformation put paid to those dreams. Christians, “Pro-testament” protestors, would no longer lend legitimacy to any king other than Christ. It was no longer by faith alone (in the king).

It was now Luther’s “by faith alone, by grace alone, by scripture alone,” (3 solas).

The 3 solas gives relief to kings, for they are as human as the rest of us. They gain peace before God, just like everyone else.

But the 3 solas remove their ability of kings to do as they like. The 3 solas bind kings to mandates laid down in teachings drawn from the scriptures.

I didn’t say bound by the scriptures (although, ultimately, this is true), because the Bible is a collection of books penned over the centuries, each for a specific purpose, in a specific slice of time.

Jewish rabbis made that knowledge of specificity and purpose practical by always reading texts under the control of the thought that “there are 70 facets to Torah, and we must live in that tension.”

Biblical teaching must be drawn out by every generation, in community reading of the scriptures. And the ruler, the king, must obey!

It’s probable that the kings of the day (Electors) didn’t really understand all that they were getting into. It’s probable that the theologians of the reformation didn’t understand all the results which would follow when people began reading the Bible in the tense space between the 3 solas.

Now let me return to the design of the church. There are two points which may be thought of as centres.

As a person enters, he or she faces a pulpit – the first centre – placed above the people, on the long side of the building.

To the left of the entrance is an altar – the second centre. Behind the altar is an organ, with the pipes prominently displayed.

The pulpit depicts the three solas with paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The paintings depict things Jesus did. Jesus chased the money changers out of the Temple. This proclaims, “Faith alone.” Jesus debated the teachers about the scriptures. This proclaims, “Scripture alone.” Jesus condemned sin and forgave the adulteress. This proclaims, “Grace alone.”

Unlike Catholic churches, the altar doesn’t have a reliquary (place to put bones of saints) beneath it.

The altar is supported by four angels, symbolizing God. The message is profound: God and man are united in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.

The organ proclaims the centrality, to faith, of singing. Our response to God’s grace is to sing his praises. There’s also another aspect to singing: songs encapsulate our beliefs.

Singing was especially important at the birth of the reformation, due to the high level of illiteracy. Teaching, learning, and singing songs was central to the promotion and exercise of faith.

It is for that reason that another man is celebrated in accounts of Luther and his friends who pushed the reformation forward.

That other man is Johann Walter, whom our guide in Torgau told us about, as we passed a museum dedicated to him and to Georg Spalatin.

Spalatin was a close friend of Luther, educator of the Elector Frederick’s children, and the Elector’s political secretary. He was in the heart of power.

What are the two odd features in the church? Well, although it’s austere compared to its Catholic cousins, it sits within the compound of the castle. So, it’s not quite “open to the public.” And, it has a special entrance for the Elector – on the upper level (there’s seating on two levels). I’ll leave it to you to reflect on why these features are odd.

One other thing. There were no hourglasses in the pulpit. What’re you talking about, you ask?

Earlier, also in Torgau, we visited St Mary’s church, in which Luther’s wife Katarina von Bora is buried.

The pulpit there has three hour glasses, which were used to time the sermon. Not to urge the preacher to be short. Rather, to urge him to be long. Preachers were paid more if they preached longer sermons!

The original pulpit is no longer used. A lectern has been placed beside the altar table. It’s at the same level as the congregants. And the congregants now seat facing the altar and lectern. I’m fairly certain that now, the preacher gets paid more if he says less.

Luther dedicated the Hartenfels Castle church on 5 October 1544. His words included these:

My dear friends, we are now to bless and consecrate this new house to our Lord Jesus Christ … that nothing else may ever happen in it except that our dear Lord Himself may speak to us through his Holy Word and we respond to Him through prayer and praise.

That is what we long for in every church building we visit. Sadly, the buildings now are more monuments and tourist magnets than centres for penitence, absolution, and keeping earthly powers subject to God.

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