After the invention of the printing press, a writing could be produced in large numbers much more quickly and economically than was previously possible, resulting in the ability to quickly propagate fresh viewpoints. As might be expected, the reformers’ ability to quickly publish their viewpoints and teachings played a significant role in shaping public opinion about the abuses of the papacy and the need for reform.
Beginning with the very first generation of believers, God’s people have made use of a number of cultural advancements to fulfill the Great Commission or spark new movements. Perhaps at no other time was this more apparent than in the first century when the good news that Jesus was the resurrected Lord began to spread throughout the Roman world. Astonishingly, a rather inconspicuous group of Jesus’ followers with little resources, political clout, or a message that would have been compelling to most Jews, Greeks, and Romans (1 Cor 1:23), “turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).”
We should certainly not dismiss the Lord’s providence or the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. However, without overlooking the Lord’s hand upon the church it is also apparent that early Christians were able to benefit from a number of recent cultural developments. Missionaries such as the Apostle Paul were able to make use of an extensive system of roads that were constructed primarily for the benefit of the Roman military, travel freely throughout large territories without fear of local military conflict, a benefit of the Pax Romana, and circulate Christian writings in a language that could be understood by many readers throughout the Greco-Roman world.
As we consider the developments that took place during the sixteenth century, we find a number of interesting parallels. The religious landscape was much different than in the first century Roman world, of course. Christianity was not a new movement at this point and virtually everyone west of the Ottoman Empire and north of the Mediterranean was associated with Christendom. Yet in this religious and political climate, a number of cultural developments took place which played a significant role in the progression of various reform movements throughout Europe. The migration of a large number of native Greek speakers to Western Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries certainly played an influential role in prompting fresh study of the Greek New Testament.
As Greek scholars fled West to avoid the invading Ottomans, they brought with them Greek manuscripts and their knowledge of the Greek language to areas where the Bible had only been studied in Latin for centuries. The political climate was also shifting. The papacy was arguably in a weakened state by the early sixteenth century, the result of two previous centuries of division and unrest, and the principle, cuius regio, eius religio, “to whom the reign, to him the religion” began to be applied more broadly in the sixteenth century, allowing local reform movements to take root. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Luther’s influence without the support and protection of Frederick the Wise or Calvin and Zwingli’s influence without the backing of local councils. The courage and personal sacrifice of those who sought reform during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries should certainly be acknowledged, though is also evident that a number of cultural changes took place at this time that provided fertile soil for numerous reform movements to bloom throughout western civilization.
The Printing Press as an Instrument for Societal Change
One of the most consequential developments that took place at the dawn of the Reformation era was the invention of the printing press designed by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg was not the first to develop a moveable-type press—this had been around for centuries in Asia—but the particular instrument he developed was greatly improved, more efficient, and made this technology accessible throughout western Europe beginning in the mid-fifteenth century. It is difficult to overstate the profound influence of the printing press on western civilization. Prior to Gutenberg’s groundbreaking invention, all writings were handwritten and were thus very expensive and time consuming to produce. Consequently, literature was difficult to acquire for those who were not wealthy or who were members of the clergy or scientific community. In addition, only a limited number of works were written in local dialects as Latin served as the lingua franca of theologians, scientists, and scholars throughout Europe.