Thursday, March 16, 2017

A technological or theological Reformation. . .

Erasmus, never known for humility, once boasted of his influence by comparing himself with an obscure country preacher whose sermons were heard by only a few people in one or two churches while his books were read in every country in the world.  Though we might consider his pride and boast unbecoming, Erasmus was not far from the truth.  A.G. Dickens once famously quipped that Luther's doctrine was not Justification by Grace Alone but  'Justification by Print Alone.'  Though it would surely be unfair to suggest that the Reformation was a product of its technology, no one in their right mind would deny the benefit of the printing press to the success of Luther (and those who came after him).

Luther certainly depended upon the printing technology of the day, cutting edge as it was, and yet it may be said that perhaps only 5-10% of the German speaking people actually could read.  The nearer benefit of the printing press to the cause of the Reformation was not universal access but portability.  Without email, texting, or the social media, Luther was able to extend the reach of his words and no one was more concerned about this than the Pope.  What this offers to us is not only an appreciation of how the Reformation grew but the great record that has been passed down to us.  It seems Luther could not cough without someone recording it and publishing it as something profound or heretical.

As we make our way through the Reformation Anniversary (though some have wondered if perhaps the real date of to be commemorated is not so much the shot across the bow -- the 95 Theses -- but the more considered position of the Reformers in the Augsburg Confession), the printing press will loom large in our remembrance.  For though the number of the literate may have been small, it seems that those who could read did read -- aloud -- and extended the reach of Luther well beyond the educated of the day.  Luther not only knew about this but seems to have counted upon it.  He was an earthy man whose words seems to have been designed for the ears of an earthy people.  It was not that Luther could not write as a Latin scholar but that he chose to write, speak, and preach in the more ordinary context of the common man.  Luther's translation of Scripture into German marked the merger of this erudition and familiarity with the language of the people.  Luther’s German New Testament literally became the first bestseller in the world, appearing in forty-three distinct editions between 1522 and 1525 with some one hundred thousand copies issued.

Of course, over time, it was not only the translation and dissemination of the Bible, but the mass printing and usage of hymnals, catechisms, prayer books, study Bibles, commentaries, and martyr stories that would transform Christian theology and spirituality.  Not all of this has born good fruit.  Though the Reformers challenged the the medieval Catholic Church and its unrelenting grip over Scripture and doctrine, the outcome was not uniformity or unity.  It was said that even a simple layperson, armed with Scripture, was equipped to match pope and council.  However boldly asserted this doctrine of the primacy of Scripture, the outcome was division as had never been seen before.  As some have noted, Protestantism did not do away with the papacy but made everyone a pope to decide what Scripture said, what it meant, and what doctrine it confessed that must be believed.  That said, I do not know anyone on any side who wants to go back in time and erase the printing press from the record of achievements. 

While there was certainly disagreement among the many Reformers on many matters, they overwhelmingly believed that they represented the ongoing Catholic tradition and not sectarian schismatics.  Indeed, the Augsburg Confession insists that the Lutherans were the legitimate bearers of that Catholic tradition of doctrine and life.  Their sense of continuity with the church that went before, especially of the early church, and their attention to the wider orthodoxy of the early
church and Eastern Christendom led them to read the Bible in concert with the Catholic exegetical tradition of the church.  These Reformers, led by Luther, not only showed a deep familiarity with the preceding exegetical tradition, they used it respectfully and critically in their own exposition of the sacred text. Unlike today, sola Scriptura was not nuda Scriptura but Scripture as the source and norm and Scripture within the context of the faith and the faithful who went before.  In this way, the Scriptures were understood as the church's book and not primarily the possession or domain of the individual or his or her reason.  In one sense, the publishing goal of the Lutheran Reformers was less to promote what was new or novel than it was to show their abiding fellowship with the church that went before and the catholicity of their confessions against the Roman position.

Are there too many books today?  Perhaps.  Who gets to decide?  Were there too many books in Luther's day?  Not in the minds of the Lutheran Reformers.  Yet again, who gets to decide?  The technology that fueled the theological reformation was itself revolutionary and, while Luther and the other Reformers took the lead, Rome was not above using the new found ability to distribute information for its own cause.  No one, not even Gutenberg, could have predicted the flourishing of the industry and its scope.  Even so, perhaps one of the cautions both of those who wrote and produced the works of the 16th Century Reformation would be that not everything that has been printed, should have been printed.  I cannot argue with that point even though I wonder, "who gets to decide?"  That, from a guy who regularly posts his unrefined meanderings for a world to read. . . or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the days when printing was difficult, expensive, and time consuming, the editors/printers were somewhat discriminating as to what they would print. No one wanted to waste time, money, and effort on printing trash.

Today is different. People with nothing but misinformation seem to dominate the field, publishing the greatest volume with no investment at all in knowledge, rational thought, accuracy, or truth. Thus, what was once a very selective process that filtered out all but the best, today publication has become an open sewer for error of every sort.