How the Printing Press Became a Source of Christian Disunity
The wonderful invention of the printing press also had far-reaching, unintended consequences.
I love books. When I retire, I aspire to read eight hours a day and may even build a personal library so big I’ll need one of those sliding ladders that runs along shelves 18 feet off the ground. Yes, I am deeply in debt to Johannes Gutenberg. As you probably know, Mr. Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, and this was one of the most important technological breakthroughs in human history. It closed what some call, “The Knowledge Gap.” Books became accessible to the masses for the first time ever, and that opened up a whole new world for millions.
To get an idea of what a difference this invention made, before the printing press, a Bible is estimated to have cost around $30,000 in today’s dollars, given the tedious process of writing by hand and the careful editing needed for each copy. Only a few decades later, Giovanni Andrea Bussi, bishop of Aleria, wrote to Pope Paul II: “In our time God gave Christendom a gift which enables even the pauper to acquire books. Prices of books have decreased by eighty percent.”
That massive increase in accessibility and affordability was a wonderful thing, to be sure. But the invention of the printing press also had far-reaching, unintended consequences. It sowed discord within Christian circles because for the first time, Christianity became a “do-it-yourself” belief system. It’s one thing to have access. It’s another thing to assume DIY religion and Bible interpretation was the way it was supposed to be.
The Bible itself indicates precisely the opposite, and does so over and over again. In reflecting on the parable of the sower the other day, I noticed something (Matthew 13:19): “The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.” Do we automatically understand the word of God upon hearing it? I suspect most of us think we do, but perhaps we’re deceiving ourselves. Then, we don’t even notice that the evil one steals the Good News from us. Jump to Luke 24:25-27 where Jesus says to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! ...Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” They had heard the Word – many times. But, they didn’t understand it until Jesus explained it to them.
Now, let’s take a look at Acts 8:30-31, where Phillip (the Deacon, not the Apostle) meets up with the Eunuch from Ethiopia in his chariot, who was reading Scripture. “Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” Remember, this eunuch was an educated man! He had to be, as he was in charge of the entire nation’s treasury! And yet, he wasn’t able to understand what he was reading on his own. He needed authoritative guidance.
In 2 Peter 1:20, we read, “Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation.” Did you catch that? “Know this first of all….” In other words, before you do anything, realize that understanding the Word is not do-it-yourself. Scripture could not be more clear on this.
Remember that Jesus didn’t give us a book. He gave us a Church (Matthew 16:18). But once that Church compiled the canon of Scripture once and for all in the late fourth century, the book itself said – immediately after describing qualifications of the Church hierarchy(!) – “…you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” Then, two chapters later (1 Timothy 5:22) it says, “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone….” Not just anyone can be ordained with Holy Orders. The Church must determine who is called, and who isn’t.
As if all of the above isn’t enough, St. Paul drives the home the point with this little gem from 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. How can over 30,000 different denominations and “non”-denominations be what Christ had in mind? How can we just accept this as a “normal” state of Christianity? Logic dictates that there’s only One.
Technology can be a gift. If used well, and in the accord with nature and with our proper relationship with God, the results are wonderful. Technology can also be misused, though. What appears to be “obvious” to the wise, can sometimes be anything but. The printing press allowed us to acquire exponentially more knowledge. But with that great knowledge also came great arrogance. On that note, I’ll let St. Paul again have the last word (1 Corinthians 1:19): “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.’”