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A man of the millennium

Johannes Gutenberg was a primary contributor to the Reformation’s cultural explosion

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Want an example of our culture’s quick slide into secularism? Go back just 22 years and reread Time magazine’s notable decision to supplement its long-popular Man of the Year selection with People of the Millennium.

Time’s editors boldly featured Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) as the individual who most shaped our world’s culture during the years between 1000 and 1999.

Such a choice would, of course, be virtually unthinkable these days. In today’s climate, even a fleeting ­reference to a “Gutenberg Bible” would stir an unconquerable fuss. To award someone the honor and prestige of a “Man of the Millennium” designation would make you guilty of hate speech, racism, or, at least, condescending exclusivism.

The folks at Time back in 1999 were audacious in suggesting that the uniqueness of the Bible was precisely what catapulted Gutenberg and his Bible into a bestseller mode in many parts of the world. Nothing like it had ever been seen. Superficial historians like to promote the idea that technology—and especially the winepress converted into the printing press—was the key that produced such widespread acceptance. For more than five centuries, Gutenberg has been symbolized with the silhouette of a man wrestling with the lever of a hand press. But the richness and reality of Gutenberg’s contribution to world culture is so much more than just a machine.

A sovereign God was working out a scenario that included several strands of technology.

To be sure, a sovereign God was working out a scenario—through Johannes Gutenberg—that included several strands of technology. Gutenberg was in that Renaissance era when everything was new. Besides the printing press (a subject I love and will come back to!), Gutenberg also focused intensely on three other developments: (1) new kinds of paper, (2) new kinds of ink, and (3) the explosive use of movable type.

The use of movable type was almost certainly a bigger breakthrough than any of the other three. Prior to Gutenberg, Bibles were printed on European presses—but at a turtle’s pace. Each page came from a block of wood, tediously carved in a reverse image. The wood blocks were secured in the bed of the press, inked, and then fitted with a sheet of paper or vellum. The enormous pressure necessary for a good image also took its toll on the wood blocks—which meant stopping production until a replacement of a cracked or broken page could be provided.

Gutenberg’s greatest technological contribution was his insight that a combination of metal letters, locked into a frame and placed face-up on the bed of the press, provided a much more versatile tool for printing the hundreds of pages that Bible production required. The type used for one page could be sorted into handy cases and then reused for the next page—still a tedious process, but nothing like what had been required during centuries of carving wooden blocks. And as a former professional jeweler, Gutenberg was savvy to the makeup of various metals and introduced the use of alloys that strengthened the quality and durability of the type he introduced to a worldwide audience.

But profound as all those technical developments may have been, they were not Gutenberg’s main contribution. There’s little or no particular evidence that he was as progressive in his theological outlook as those like Luther and Calvin, who came less than a century later. But he apparently had the good sense to feel the role that printed Bibles might play in the cultural explosion of the coming Reformation. And he was faithful in applying that insight to his life calling. By one hard-to-believe report, the Cambridge University Library in the year 1424 had only 122 volumes on its shelves—a figure matched by tens of thousands of personal libraries a century or two later.

Only a huge cultural stretch would ever let us predict that Time magazine might nominate as its Person of the Year someone whose influence was this profoundly shaped by Biblical values. Hard to imagine? If it happens, don’t expect our culture to show much understanding.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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