The Technology of the Reformation

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
The Day Luther Went Viral
The Day Luther Went Viral
In 1398, Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. God, the author of history, gifted this young man with abilities that would not only change the world but also prepare the way for the spiritual explosion that was the Protestant Reformation. Johannes Gutenberg must surely rank among the illustrious inventors in human history. He is equal to Stevenson and his steam locomotive, to Ford and the Model T, to the Wright brothers and human flight, to Bell and the telephone, to Baird and the television and in more recent times to Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Gutenberg's contribution to humanity and especially to our Christian heritage was the printing press. While he did not set out to progress faith through his invention, God was moulding and shaping the gifts of this German, so that the dissemination of theology and, more particularly, the Bible, would never be the same again.

As a young boy, he entertained himself in his father's workshop carving the separate letters of his name out of soft wood. As he was lining the letters up to spell his name, the "H" fell from the table into a bucket of purple dye. Retrieving the letter, he wiped off the dye and left the letter on a piece of paper. As he removed the "H" and saw the shape printed on the paper, the impression upon his young mind would never be erased. The concept for the printing press with moveable type was born. It would take forty years before the concept would become reality.

In 1455, the now famous Gutenberg Press issued its first print run. It was certainly providential that an invention which would transform the dispersion of words would first print the Word of God. Gutenberg printed between 150 and 180 copies of the Latin Bible on paper. Each page had two columns of 42 lines and each Bible had a total of 1,282 pages. Only forty-nine copies, either complete or substantial, of the Gutenberg Bible remain, and they are among the most valuable books in the world.

Gutenberg, however, while being a brilliant inventor, was no business man. Accruing large debts, he lost his press and died in 1468, destitute and forgotten. But his invention survived, and printing became the technological revolution of the medieval era. Indeed, it was through this technology that medieval ignorance and superstition was overcome. The modern era of mass communication had commenced.

By the time Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, this technology was readily available everywhere, and the stage was set for the message of one man to capture Europe. Luther, however, had no intention of going to the printers with his arguments. In addition to nailing it to the door of the Castle Church, he shared it with close friends and colleagues. Crucially he also sent it, along with a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, to warn him of the activities of Tetzel. Luther anticipated a fair hearing; he was hoping for considered discussion, and he believed that reason would prevail. He was attempting to be helpful as the matter, in his judgement, was so clearly demonstrated in Scripture. In later life, he would share with the students of Wittenberg:

"I thought I had done the Pope a favour"

We can be certain that Martin Luther never handed his Ninety-Five Theses to a printer. An anonymous person leaked the document. It was certainly not in the interests of the Pope and his Archbishop to promote someone who was exposing their rather sordid business deal, which involved employing Tetzel to sell indulgences for the repaying of debts and for the building of a Cathedral in Rome. The truth was that Germans were growing rather tired of the Vatican's interference in their affairs. Germany was ready economically, politically and spiritually for someone to challenge the established order. It has been long though that someone sympathetic to Luther's arguments within the court of the Archbishop, handed the document to a printer, who instantly saw the potential of the monk's radicalism.

Everything about Luther was appealing to the German consciousness. From his self-deprecating description of himself as "an insignificant clod" through to his denunciations of the power of the Papacy in the matter of forgiveness, the Ninety-Five Theses hit a raw nerve. The Augustinian Monk's words were soon making their way across Germany, with artists embellishing the content with attractive woodcuts, so that even the illiterate could appreciate the import of the arguments. Luther himself was taken aback by the reaction, as he later reported that the document "went throughout the whole of Germany in a fortnight." In twenty-first century language, Luther had gone viral. As Tetzel's sales of the Papal Indulgence dramatically declined, the evidence was incontrovertible. Luther had many supporters. He could not be ignored. Neither could he himself ignore the movement that he had unwittingly produced!

In 1518, he decided to go to print with "A Sermon of Indulgence and Grace". While the Ninety-Five Theses were written in Latin, to be translated by a printer without the author's consent, this sermon was printed by Luther in German. In this work, he further developed his arguments, and the response was electric. In 1518 alone, it was reprinted fourteen times with each run producing 1,000 copies. There was an obvious demand for Martin Luther's writings. He was the small man confronting the power of empire. He was the German asserting the independence of the German peoples. As he did so, however, he gave the people the precious seed, the Gospel of Grace, and God was blessing his endeavours. As he published his second work of 1518, "Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses", it was apparent that the Wittenberg Doctor was no longer an unwilling leader. He accepted his position, granted by God, with the enormous responsibilities and challenges that accompanied it.

Wittenberg became a major publishing centre, as a result of Luther's prodigious works. Another book more precious still would be published at Wittenberg - the Bible. A business man by the name of Lufft would in Luther's home city publish 100,000 copies of God's Word for the German people!

...and so the printing revolution was used by God as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

"The LORD gave the word: great was the company of those that published it" - Psalm 68:11
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