In his famous Preaching and Preachers (1971), D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones concedes that some of the most significant figures in history weren’t necessarily talented orators: “The rhetorician is tied to his preparation, he is declaiming something which he has prepared very carefully. The most notable example of a rhetorician in recent history was the late Sir Winston Churchill. He is often called an orator; but he was not an orator, he was a rhetorician.” Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers, based upon a series of lectures he gave at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1969, is itself a testament to the rhetorical power of print literature to “get people to act.” The print medium has served the modern church well in the delivery of the Gospel, even without the personal presence of a pulpit.
Between 1520 and 1525, with the gift of the recently invented German printing press (Johannes Gutenberg), sixty or so Catholic writers produced more than 200 pamphlets against the German Reformer Martin Luther and others. However, thanks largely to Luther’s animated writing style, Protestant pamphlets outnumbered Catholic pamphlets five to one. In fact, Luther himself published twice as many as all his Catholic opponents combined! Concomitant with the Protestant Reformation was a printing reformation that saw the first publication of the Greek New Testament in 1516 by humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Just six years later, Luther himself published the first German New Testament, translated while in exile in Wartburg Castle. For the first time in human history, the Bible could be read in the vernacular by common people. Advocating the perspicuity of Scripture Luther asked, “if Scripture is obscure or equivocal, why need it have been brought down to us by act of God?” The power of print was nothing short of social and ecclesiastical revolution.
John Calvin also employed the print medium to codify Reformed theology in his famous The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he too believed in the gift of writing for the benefit of the church: “it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word…For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determined what he ought especially to seek in Scripture.” Calvin also embraced the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture along with the new printing movement.
The power of print also reached the American church as well during the Great Awakening. Publisher and Deist Benjamin Franklin, for example, fostered an unlikely friendship with Calvinist and methodist revivalist George Whitefield, helping augment Whitefield’s celebrity status in the colonies. Before coming to America, Whitefield also utilized the newspapers in England. According to Harry Stout, “as he had mastered the London pulpit, Whitefield eventually mastered the London press. In advance of virtually all his clerical press, he sensed the potential of the press and exploited it fully.” The fires of Reformation and revivalism were both stoked by the power of print in America. Those fires continue to burn today.
With the rise of online Christian resources like The Gospel Coalition and the influence of publishing houses like Banner of Truth in the Calvinist resurgence, the print medium appears alive and well in the church, continuing the rich legacy of Protestant reading. Today’s church carries the same message it did five hundred years ago, and it seems the same Gospel outlets are still at its disposal.