The Role of the Printing Press in the Reformation
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-4, 14
When one enters any Christian home or church today he will find an abundance of Bibles. However, there was a time when Bibles were only in Latin, copied by hand, and owned only by the church. A Christian layman who owned a printed bible in his own language was denounced as a heretic and publicly burned by the church. Forgotten was God’s admonition to His people to “impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
By the end of the reformation, however, God’s word was available to both clergymen and laymen, rich nobles and poor farmers. The common people were given the holy Scriptures to read, interpret, and apply for themselves. God’s law became a part of nearly every home, and culture saw a goal shift from paganist to godly.
Several key instruments were used by God to cause this great reform of culture, but the most pivotal was in the form of written communication of the Word. First, the invention of the moveable-type printing press made it possible for Bibles to be owned by many common people, and also efficiently circulated the writings of the Reformers. Second, the diligent work of several Bible scholars produced translations of the Bible in many of the common tongues of Europe.
The Ignorance of the Church
The state of the church before the Reformation is described by John Foxe, in his famous Book of Martyrs:
“The law of God was seldom read and never understood, so Christ’s saving work and the effect on man’s faith were not examined. Because of this ignorance, errors and sects crept into the church, for there was no foundation for the truth that Christ willingly died to free us from our sins: not bargaining with us but giving to us.”
At this point in history we must admire God’s wisdom, for just as the church fell into ruin because of the ignorance of its teachers, and shortly after the burning of John Huss and Jerome, God gave his church the art of printing, which restored the truth of God’s word to the body of Christ and decried its false teachers.
The Printing Press
In Mainz, Germany, an invention developed under the hands of a man named Johann Gutenberg which would change the course of history forever. Gutenberg was a strong Christian who had a vision for all men, everywhere, to soon be able to own and read the Bible in their own homes. His own words will do best:
“God suffers because there are such multitudes of souls to whom His sacred Word cannot be given; religious truth is captive in a small number of little manuscripts, which guard the common treasures instead of expanding them. Let us break the seal which binds these holy things; let us give wings to truth that it may fly with the Word, no longer prepared at vast expense, but multiplied everlastingly by a machine which never wearies --to every soul which enters life!” (The Modern Age, p. 30)
Previous countries which had experimented with the printing press found it less economical than hand-copying. Korea, China, and Japan had all used wooden blocks for printing since the 700s, and Korea even used metal letters, but the great amount of characters which their languages used made the printing press impractical and expensive. But when Johannes Gutenberg combined movable metal letters with an oil-based ink and a wooden hand press, he created the first practical and widely used printing press. (Humanists and Reformers, p. 39)
This man “broke the seal to the treasure house and let the truth fly with the wings of the Word,” yet he died a penniless man. However, the effects of this invention, though small at first to a largely illiterate Europe, soon grew to massive proportions. All of culture was changed and became defined by this new invention. Information could be printed in mass quantities, people could analyze and study the Bible outside of the church, and reading now became the culture’s “conversation.” Literacy rates for sixteenth century Western Europe averaged from %5 to %10 of males and grew to %50 after the invention of the printing press. (Humanists and Reformers, p. 43).
Postman, a communications theorist, readily links a culture’s intellectual and social concerns to the form of communication it uses:
“In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture...It is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 9)
This was indeed true in the case of the printing press, as the culture undertook drastic changes economically, intellectually, socially, and religiously. I will describe a few of these religious changes below.
Priesthood of All Believers
Prior to the printing press, manuscripts were copied laboriously by hand and were only owned by nobility, princes, and scholars who could afford to pay for a scribe. People went to church to learn what the Bible said, but were given false doctrine. Many of the Reformers realized the error in the church, yet it was hardly possible to combat the error, as the common people couldn’t read the Scriptures and had no standard to measure the teachings by.
With the coming of the printing press, reading suddenly became a vital part of the culture. Bibles were distributed, theological schools opened, the Reformers’ works were published and eagerly devoured. Common people began to read and reason on their own. The result was a society that could now see the lies of the Roman Catholic Church, the foolishness of the “Divine Right” of kings, and the greatness of God’s gracious plan of salvation for His people. The Bible trained and educated the people until many could exclaim with David, “Oh, how love I Thy law!” because many now knew exactly what it said.
Historian John Foxe relates a few of the changes that took place in God's kingdom:
“Through the grace of God, men of wisdom were now able to communicate their thoughts accurately and widely so others could distinguish light from darkness, truth from error, religion from superstition. Knowledge grew in science and in languages, opening a window of light for the world and clearing the way for the Reformation of the church. (Foxe's Book of Martyrs, p. 65)
From Image to Text
For a culture that had been primarily “image” based, the rational and analytical nature of reading was at first a shock. One cathedral received the first printed book on its shelves full of hand-written manuscripts and an observing scholar exclaimed, “This book will destroy the building!” (Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris,1831)
He was correct in the sense that the people would no longer need the church’s images to understand the truth of the Bible. Gargoyles, statues of saints, candles, incense, stained glass, white and delicate cathedral walls, and rich tapestries had all been used to teach the people about eternal concepts. Gregory the Great, the first of medieval popes (590-604) referred to images as the “books of the uneducated.” (Humanists and Reformers, p. 43)
“If the printed book brought an end to the age of the cathedral, one of the ways in which it did so was by becoming the building. Printed paratexts took a wide range of textual edifices across the threshold and into even the humblest home.” (Agent of Change p. 81, eds. Baron, Lindquist, Shevlin) Now these humble homes could read and reason through these ideas in the clearer, more rational form of the printed Word. Luther called the coming of printing “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 32)
The business of the gospel, in this case, was to reach with long and sensitive fingers into every fiber of Renaissance culture, to the rich, the poor, the kings and plowboys, and confront them with the pure and unadulterated truth of the Word. Now there could be no ignorance without excuse. The reality and logic of the printed Word held a force that could not be counteracted easily. The preparation of “languages and letters” for the Word of God, as Luther called it, made it so that, as both he and Erasmus had hoped:
“The farmer might sing snatches of his Scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.” (Erasmus, quoted in The Modern Age, p. 31)
© 2009 Jane Grey
- Bainton, Roland H., The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Boston: The Beacon Press, 1963)
- D'Aubigne, J. H. Merle, D.D., History of the Reformation os the Sixteenth Century, editions I-V, (New York: Robert Carer and Brothers, 1882)
- Eby, Frederick, PhD., Ll.D, Early Protestand Educators, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1931)
- Edwards, Brian H., God's Outlaw (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2002)
- Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)
- Foxe, John, Foxe's Christian Martyrs, edited and abridged, (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, 2005)
- Gitt, Werner, In the Beginning Was Information, (Bielefeld, Germany: Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung, 2011)
- Hayes, Carlton J. H., Modern Europe to 1870, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959)
- Man, John, Gutenberg, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002)
- Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (London: Routledge, 1999)
- Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death,(New York: Penguin Books, 1986)
- Spitz, Lewis W., and Kenan, William R., editors, The Protestant Reformation: Major Documents, (Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1997)
- Thompson, Bard, Humanists and Reformers, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996)
- ____________, The Modern Age, (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book Publications, 1981)
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