3. Confluence of Causes

3. Confluence of Causes

Is there anyone who does not agree that modern mass media communication makes a difference in the spread of information and ideas today? And so it was with the Reformation of 1517. There were many factors that contributed to the explosive spread of the Reformation of 1517 across Europe. The confluence of two of those causes was critical. Those were Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and Johannes Gutenberg’s inventions for rapid book printing.

New Mass Media Production and Distribution

Printing Press 2

The printing press and movable type had improved to the point of being practical about 60 years before the Reformation. In 1455, about 200 copies of Gutenberg’s Bible were made and so began the print media revolution. Unfortunately, Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible was in Latin, therefore it was not readable by the general population of that time. But, Pre-Reformation German Bibles in the official German government language had been printed.

“After the invention of the printing-press, and before the Reformation, this mediaeval German Bible was more frequently printed than any other except the Latin Vulgate. No less than seventeen or eighteen editions appeared between 1462 and 1522.”

The new mass media process of printing expanded rapidly. By 1500 A.D. over 200 European cities had movable type printing presses in operation.   For its time, that was equivalent to the modern explosion in electronic media communication.

A Translation in the Language of the People

Like other reformers before him, Martin Luther saw the need to make the Bible, the word of God, available to everyone. To that end he translated the Bible into German. Luther’s translation of the New Testament was first printed in 1522. His translation differed from the previous German versions in two ways. Luther went back to the original Greek and Hebrew texts rather than translate from the Latin language Vulgate translation. Luther also studied the everyday speech people were actually using to communicate and applied it in his translation.

He [Luther] combined the official language of the government with that of the common people. His genius for poetry and music enabled him to reproduce the rhythm and melody, the parallelism and symmetry, of Hebrew poetry and prose. His crowning qualification was his intuitive insight and spiritual sympathy with the contents of the Bible.”

The Results of These Two Causes Coming Together

Luther’s translation of the Bible was an instant best seller.  Between 1534 and 1574, the Hans Lufft printing house in Wittenberg Germany printed and sold over 100,000 copies, an enormous number for that age! That was only one of many publishers.

The confluence of rapid printing combined with an easy to understand and authoritative translation of the Bible helped to rapidly spread the Reformation across Germany.

Cochlaeus, the champion of Romanism, paid [Luther’s] translation the greatest compliment when he complained that “Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity.”

A Similar Confluence of Causes is Happening Today

Another similar confluence of the rapid spread of mass communication media combined with translations of the Bible is happening in our time. Internet access and cell phone coverage exists over much of our planet today. The Bible has been translated into over 900 different languages. Even more astounding is that access to all those translations is free and immediately available. Everyone who has access to the internet can down load an app and read the Bible in any of those 900+ languages.

Bible App (596x640)

The free distribution of the Bible in the native language of most people is now widely available. This is happening now at the 500th anniversary of the 1517 Reformation. Reading the Bible was a major factor that spread the 1517 Reformation across Europe. Could the 500th anniversary of the 1517 Reformation be celebrated with a present day back to the Bible movement combined with spreading the Bible to all people on the planet?


  1. Rev. John Randolph Riddle

    Doug, in answer to your last question, as a long-time student of history and especially God’s works of providence in the history of the Church, I believe the time is “ripe” for another Reformation of the church. God says in Psalm 118:8 “It is better to trust in the Lord than to have confidence in man” and the visible church has had far too much confidence in man and a Christian-friendly American culture, rather than trust in Almighty God. So, it’s my personal view that God is allowing our confidence in man to become nothing more than the “ashes” that it is and in doing so, reminding God’s people – as He did with the 1517 Protestant Reformation – that trust in anyone or anything other than Him and His unchanging Word is vain and foolish!

  2. Pastor Tim

    Doug, I love your research, it is right on. It still amazes me that in God’s providence, things happen at the right time in history to further God’s plans. Another prime example of this is the timing of Christ’s arrival within history. With the historical background of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, is a Greek speaking world that was ripe for the rapid growth of the message of the Gospel itself to spread beyond political and social borders. God is in control of the uncontrollable. He is not limited to supernatural means but also uses human inventions and abilities to work for His Glory. I agree whole-heartedly with Rev. Riddle’s comment, “To trust in anyone or anything other than Him and His unchanging Word is vain and Foolish!”

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