For many Christians, it would be hard to imagine a formal worship setting which did not involve some sort of altar as the visual center. Yet, the majority of Protestant denominations have historically expressed at least some reservations about this practice. The altar is a required feature of a Roman Catholic church and is typically a central feature of Lutheran and Anglican churches; Baptists and Evangelicals consistently reject the idea of a fixed altar in their church architecture; and in between fall many Protestant churches where you can observe a lot of local variation in practice between “high church” and “low church” congregations. So what gives with all these differing practices? Why does the altar elicit such strong feelings?
The concept of an altar seems to be one which predates recorded history and is found in most of the world’s religions. At its most elementary, an altar is some sort of surface or structure (e.g., a stone or a table) on which are placed offerings to a deity. In some religions, such as Hinduism, a small ‘house altar’ is a feature of the believer’s home or business. In ancient religions, a central altar in a temple was also employed for animal sacrifices (or human sacrifices in some pagan religions).
The first altar recorded in the Bible is the one Noah constructed for a sacrificial offering (Genesis 8:20), and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are all recorded as building and using them. With the giving of the Law on Sinai, God dictated that only two altars were to be used, one for incense and one for sacrifices, both of them located in the tabernacle/temple and administered by designated priests according to detailed rules elaborated in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
From this, one can start to get the idea of why the concept of an altar might evoke ambivalence in Christian thought. On the one hand, Jesus spoke of bringing our gifts to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). On the other hand, the altar is also intimately associated with the offering of sacrifices and the special priesthood needed to conduct them. But those requirements ended with Christ’s death on the cross, the one-time sacrifice which forever paid the guilt of mankind. As children of the New Covenant, we are granted direct access to God without the need of priests and all of the associated sacrificial rules and regulations; altars are unnecessary for our worship.
Early Christians typically gathered in homes and made no attempt to provide an altar as such for their worship. However, they did practice the rite of the Lord’s Supper and used a table in emulation of the way Christ and His disciples first practiced it. When Christianity was legalized and it became possible to build fixed churches for worship, a table for celebration of the Lord’s Supper became a central feature. Over time, this table became more elaborate and also picked up a new meaning as the place where Christ’s sacrificial death was ‘re-presented’ by a special priesthood. During Medieval times, the altar became regarded as a holy object by virtue of its association as the place of Christ’s ongoing sacrifice, and also because of the practice of embedding relics of saints in it.
With Luther’s reformation of Roman Catholic practices, the New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers was restored and the idea of the Lord’s Supper as an on-going sacrifice of Christ was rejected. However, Luther and his followers tended to be pragmatic on the subject of the altar and retained it as a fixture of church architecture. Other reformers, such as John Calvin, took a dim view of altars because of their connection to sacrifice and priesthood and some banished them entirely in favor of a simple table which was brought in for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. (Ironically, some groups which today object strongly to the use of an actual altar continue to use the term in the practice of the “altar call.”)
The Lutheran view of the altar is ‘complicated.’ As a general statement, we regard it as more of a symbol than as possessing any intrinsic holiness or as a necessity for the true worship of God. But we do locate it centrally in our churches and employ it in our liturgy. Our practice blends two ancient traditions: as an altar on which we place our offerings to Almighty God, and as the table around which we gather to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the one eternal sacrifice for mankind.