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Columnists Remarkable Providences

Read for yourself

Read for yourself

Technology changed the world only after theology led the way

Now that readers have taken WORLD's quick tour of the past millennium, here's one more comment about the Life magazine top 100 that I mentioned last week: Life's editors viewed the past through today's secular lens when they listed only five events connected to Christianity.

Two of the events, the Crusades and the dedication of the cathedral at Chartres, were surely medieval highlights. One, "Pentecostalism catches fire" (1906), is a surprising choice, considering that no other religious events from the past 400 years are mentioned. But Life was right to make its No. 1 and No. 3 draft choices the Gutenberg Bible's printing in 1455 and Martin Luther's starting of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (Columbus elbowed his way into the No. 2 spot.)

I might reverse the Gutenberg/ Luther placement, however, because the printing of Bibles without the Reformation would not have been nearly as significant. Technological innovation creates possibility, but worldviews determine how inventions are used. In the mid-1400s the demand for big Latin Bibles was growing-monasteries, kings, and businessmen wanted them-but Bibles were usually for show rather than tell.

The printing of Bibles, while meeting demand hard to satisfy through hand-copying, created potential for change. Yet the pre-Reformation church discouraged laymen from reading the Bible, lest they become befuddled. Most people were illiterate, and the animus against Bible reading took away a powerful incentive to change that.

Early post-Gutenberg developments in England showed the limited effect of technological change by itself. Printing began there in 1476 when William Caxton, given privileges upon good behavior, set up a press in Westminster. Others followed, but were careful to avoid publishing works that might irritate king or prelates. Regulations limited the number of printers and apprentices. Royal patents created printing monopolies. Importation, printing, and distribution of threatening books-such as English translations of the Bible-were prohibited.

In this policy England remained in line with other state/church countries during the early 1500s-but then came the providential sound of a hammer on a cathedral door, and the beginning of a theological onslaught (aided by journalistic means) that changed Europe. The Reformation made the printing press far more significant than it otherwise would have been, at least in the short run.

The effect of Martin Luther's 95 theses and his subsequent publications is well known, but one aspect often is missed: Luther needed that new technology. His primary impact was not as a producer of scholarly work, but as a very popular writer of vigorous prose that could be distributed quickly because of printing presses. Between 1517 and 1530 Luther's 30 publications probably sold well over 300,000 copies, an astounding total at a time when illiteracy was rampant and printing still an infant.

Luther knew the importance of getting Bibles in vernacular languages into laymen's hands, and he worked hard at producing a masterful German translation. Luther so understood the need to reflect accurately exactly what God had inspired that, when he wanted to picture the precious stones and coins mentioned in the Bible, he first examined German court jewels and numismatic collections. Similarly, when Luther needed to translate accurately Old Testament sacrificial procedure, he visited slaughterhouses and gained information from butchers.

The pre-Luther church emphasized collective theological instruction, but when Luther and other Reformation leaders put the Bible into the hands of individuals they also promoted individualism. Christians had the opportunity to find out for themselves what God was saying, if they could read. That was a wonderful incentive: Literacy rates began to skyrocket everywhere the Reformation took root, while remaining low wherever it was fought off. Purchases of the Bible (and a requisite printing of more) paralleled the advances.

Some who learned to read came up with strange scriptural interpretations, as the established church had feared. But many more stopped going through the motions, and instead came to grips with both their sin and God's mercy. As Luther wrote, "God's favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror.... In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith."

We need technology, but need to realize that there is no health in it; apart from Christ, we build vessels and sail in them to our own destruction. Only when we become aware of our corruption and God's redemption can we then see that material progress is part of God's kindness. Carts are wonderful things if we don't put them before horses.