Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, but it could never have happened without Johannes Gutenberg.
Gutenberg died on this day in 1468, but his legacy can never be underestimated. Although the world and the media we engage with today are increasingly digitised, we still rely on, and delight in, printed books on paper. Gutenberg is the man who made it all possible. His development of the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation and ushered in the modern era of history. Here are three ways Gutenberg shaped our world today.
1. He started a revolution
Gutenberg developed a simple idea. Cut letters from small pieces of metal, run the pieces over with ink and print the letters on paper. 'Moveable type' meant those letters could be rearranged to print various texts quickly and uniformly. Repeat the process, print several pages, and soon you have a book. Before this idea came along, the usual way to copy something was to do it by hand – a process that was tedious, time consuming, and prone to scribal errors. Books and pamphlets were also made by cutting letters out of wood, and hundreds of years before Gutenberg Chinese innovators had printed using letters made of baked clay. But Gutenberg's printing press in Mainz, Germany, was the real ancestor of printing today. In August 1456 the press produced the world's first printed Bible, the Gutenberg Bible. It was the Latin Vulgate version, an ornate and luxurious edition.
The press spelled the beginning of massproduction, and the possibility of printing anything cheaply, quickly and in vast quantities. Before, Christians just didn't have the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves. Many couldn't read Latin, or even English, and they didn't have access to the written word anyway. After the printing press, they now had a motivation to learn to read, and the press transformed literacy and education all across the world.
Furthermore, the printing press enabled a revolution not just in technique, but in ideas. Through written words that could be shared widely and clearly across the world, an idea that was once locked away in a distant monastery could now be brought to your home. Say, for example, that you wanted to organise a protest against the Catholic Church, calling out its flaws and rearticulating essential theological truths to the masses – now you could. Bible's, books, pamphlets, propaganda: such works were the staples of the Protestant Reformation. They made the radical teachings of leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin and many others widely available, and rest of course is history.
2. He transformed Bible reading
Our modern understanding of the Bible – that it's a printed book that we study and pray through individually – is an entirely modern innovation, a luxury not enjoyed for at least 1500 years of Church history. The press was in many ways a great gift to the Church, enabling the Bible to become the world's bestselling printed book to date. The words that once only existed in a few select Latin editions are today available in more than 636 languages, with a further 1,142 languages that have access to the New Testament and some other portions of scripture.
With mass printing and advancing scholarship came new opportunities: Bibles of various, diverse styles and translations were now made easily available. Today it means that there are Bibles for theological conservatives, liberals, and those in the mainstream. There are Bibles that focus on literal translations and others that focus on accessibility, and there are Bibles that focus on young people, women, men, social justice, and many other categories. Such diversity is something to celebrate, but it should also be asked whether these myriad approaches have also damaged our approach to the Bible.
3. A mixed legacy?
For better or for worse, the Bible has become individualised, and while its mass availability has brought light to many, it has arguably also increased division. The printing press brought the Bible into one's home, but did that distract from the idea that scripture should be read in and as a church community? It nourished the spiritual lives of many, highlighting the importance of personal devotion to God and daily discipleship, but in doing so did it also increase divisions in the Church? With 'personal' reading of the Bible comes 'personal' interpretation and a tendency to contest with others about the meaning of Scripture. The negative splintering effect of that can be seen in the hundreds of conflicting denominations that emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Personal, convicted study and debate is important to Christian life, but if faith becomes dominated by 'me and my Bible', then we may well have lost our way.
Guttenberg didn't 'invent' the idea of printing all by himself, but his significant innovation certainly represents a transformation in the way people would communicate. In doing so he dramatically shaped the life of the Church. Johannes Gutenberg died on February 3, 1468, and his grave is now lost. Nonetheless, his legacy is everywhere.