Mar 25, 2015

The Symbol of the Burning Bush in Church History

6 Min Read

Why does the Reformation Study Bible use the symbol of the burning bush? Dr. Aaron Denlinger from Reformation Bible College explains the history of this iconic image and its connection to the Reformation.

"He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed." (Ex. 3:2)

In 1583, a small company of Huguenot ministers and elders gathered in the northwestern town of Vitré for the twelfth national synod of the fledgling Reformed Church of France. The bulk of their time together was devoted to solidifying relations with Reformed churches in neighboring countries and to passing judgment on questions concerning baptism and marriage that had arisen in particular churches since their previous synod. In the midst of these more pressing matters, those present reached the somewhat curious decision that their church ought to have an official seal, something that might be affixed to official rulings of their synods, thus serving as a mark of the authenticity and authority of those rulings to individual congregations throughout the nation.

We have no details about who exactly proposed or designed the seal eventually adopted by these Huguenot leaders, but we do have contemporary descriptions of its appearance. At its center was the burning bush depicted in Exodus 3—that bush from which God spoke to Moses and ultimately revealed His name, "I am who I am." In the midst of the bush, the name of Yahweh was engraved in Hebrew letters. In a circular pattern around the bush appeared the Latin phrase Flagror non consumor—"I burn, [but] am not consumed."

The decision to incorporate the burning bush into the French Reformed Church's official seal was likely influenced by remarks made by Reformer John Calvin in his commentary on the book of Acts. Commenting specifically upon Acts 7:30, which references Moses' encounter with God in the wilderness of Sinai, Calvin had observed that the burning bush constitutes an especially appropriate metaphor or image of the church militant throughout the ages. The church is continually subject to, in Calvin's words, the "fire of persecution," yet—in keeping with Christ's promise (cf. Matt. 16:18)—it is ever kept "from being consumed to ashes," sustained not by its own strength but by the presence of God in its midst.

Calvin's description of the church and the sufferings it must endure, symbolically represented by the burning bush, would have resonated deeply with the Huguenot leaders gathered in 1583. The Reformed faith was illegal in France, and French Reformed believers had been subjected to severe treatment in the preceding decades. Persecution had peaked eleven years earlier with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, an episode in which thousands of Reformed Protestants in Paris and other major cities throughout the country had been slaughtered for their convictions. Thus, the image of the burning bush—pointing, at least in Calvin's treatment of it, to both the suffering that God's people endure and the sustaining presence of almighty God—would naturally have appealed to them as an apt emblem for their church.

These Reformed leaders may also have had polemical motives for incorporating the burning bush into their church's seal. The pre-Reformation church had discovered its own significance in the burning bush, suggesting that it served as a type or prophetic picture of Mary, the mother of Christ, who—just as the bush burned but remained whole—gave birth to the Son of God but remained forever a virgin. This supposed analogy between the burning bush and Mary had been exploited in medieval religious art; so, for instance, a famous painting by the fifteenth-century French artist Nicolas Froment, now housed in Aix Cathedral, depicts Mary holding the infant Jesus at the center of the burning bush. When the Huguenot leaders at Vitré embraced the burning bush as an emblem of their church, they were perhaps simultaneously taking a jab at the excessive devotion to Mary that characterized their Roman Catholic contemporaries, devotion regularly justified on the basis of rather tenuous biblical references to Mary's role in the economy of salvation.

For that matter, they may also have been taking a jab at the idolatrous veneration their Roman Catholic peers gave to religious images, since—as noted—Mary's supposed relation to the burning bush was frequently represented in artwork adorning the worship spaces of their Roman Catholic contemporaries. Interestingly, these French Reformed believers felt no qualms about redeploying the burning bush as an icon with religious significance in official church correspondence or, eventually, in their own places of worship. Presumably, their comfort with this particular religious image stemmed from the sense that it was rather unlikely to become an object of idolatrous worship.

Whatever the precise motives for adopting the burning bush as their church's seal, that decision on the part of French Reformed leaders in 1583 was of lasting consequence. The burning bush has figured in the official emblem of the French Reformed Church ever since. And, significantly, Reformed churches in other countries eventually followed the lead of the Huguenots, incorporating the image into their own official seals and emblems.

In Scotland, this happened largely by accident. Shortly after Presbyterianism was reestablished in 1690, the Church of Scotland (the Kirk) tasked an Edinburgh printer named George Mosman with printing records of their annual general assemblies. Mosman took the liberty of including on the title page of the first and subsequent published Acts of the Assembly a circular image of the burning bush, complete with the superscribed Latin phrase Nec tamen consumebatur ("yet it was not consumed") and set—at least in one early version—against a square backdrop with Scottish thistles in each corner. Kirk authorities apparently took no exception to this, presumably because they were familiar with the use of the burning bush symbol by the French Reformed Church, and because they deemed it an appropriate emblem for their own church in light of both the sufferings they had endured and the divine protection they had enjoyed throughout the preceding century. Indeed, the burning bush had figured as a literary image of the Kirk and its perpetual trials in the writings of prominent Scottish Covenanters such as Samuel Rutherford. Informally and unofficially, then, the burning bush became and has remained the symbol of the Church of Scotland, eventually gaining official status. One of the more intriguing places the image has appeared in the history of the Scottish Kirk is on the minted coins, called "communion tokens," that kirk sessions of centuries past entrusted to those who were duly examined by their leaders and thus admitted to the Lord's Supper.

As Presbyterianism spread throughout the world from the seventeenth century onward—especially via Scottish emigrants—it typically carried with it some version of that symbol embraced by the Scottish Kirk. Today, the burning bush figures into the official crests of Presbyterian Churches in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), and southern Africa (South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). Churches with more immediate historical relationships with the Scottish Kirk, such as the Free Church of Scotland and United Free Church of Scotland, have also retained some form of the burning bush emblem. However, the burning bush has not figured into the official crests of Presbyterian denominations in the United States or Presbyterian churches elsewhere founded predominantly through American influence, such as those in South Korea.

But the image of the burning bush with all that it signifies—the suffering of the church in this age, the abiding and preserving presence of God in the midst of the church, and, ultimately, the self-revelation of God to His people—still retains a presence in the Reformed world in the United States. It appears in several outreach projects of Ligonier Ministries, the Christian educational ministry founded by R.C. Sproul. So, for example, one discovers the emblem of a burning bush on the daily Bible study pages of Tabletalk magazine. The image figures even more prominently in the design of the revised Reformation Study Bible. Employed in these specific contexts, the emblem of the burning bush serves to connect Reformed Christians worldwide who utilize these resources to a long tradition of Reformed believers who have embraced and found comfort in that image, and to remind them that God is with His people (Deut. 31:8; Matt. 28:20), and ultimately sustains them, through times of trial and of joy, through His revealed Word.

Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.