Johann Gutenberg’s imprint on history, and God’s imprint on Gutenberg


Guess I’m feeling controversial these days. Here’s another post that wanders into contested territory: the theological interpretation of historical events. It’s my take on Johann Gutenberg.

I’m interested here not so much in the way Gutenberg changed the world with his invention of the printing press, or the way his invention really made the Reformation possible . . . That’s all textbook stuff.

But did you know that Johann was something of a huckster–and that many of the first documents printed on his press were those indulgences that so troubled Luther? Or that he pushed so hard to get his invention up and running that he overextended himself financially and lost all profit from it? Or that in the wake of this personal disaster, he seems to have turned to the begging friars–the Franciscans–becoming a lay camp-follower?

In other words, there was more to this guy than we learn in the textbooks, and I think his story provides great grist for theological reflection:

A God’s-Eye View of Gutenberg
The rise, fall, and redemption of the Father of the Information Age.
By Chris Armstrong

August 24, 1456. On or near this day, the great Bible from Johann Gutenberg’s press emerged complete from the bindery in Mainz, Germany. Few events merit the breathless statement, “and the world would never be the same!” But the creation of the first book printed with movable type is one of them. Thinking about this event and how it has contributed to the spread of the Gospel around the globe, I muse, “God surely worked through Gutenberg!”

But then I hesitate. Historians, even Christian ones, don’t like to say too much about where the finger of God descended to do this or that on earth. Historical rules of evidence, the precious tools that keep history from straying over into fiction or propaganda, simply can’t be applied to the actions of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Spirit. Writing history from a Christian perspective is, to use the apt image of that most evangelical of evangelical historians, Richard Lovelace, like watching a football game in which half the players are invisible.

But the historian can occasionally lay down his manuscripts and ascend to the pulpit to say a few words in the role of theologian or exhorter.

A historian may be overawed, for example, by the fingerprints of God he sees all over the historical fact that Christ lived, died, and rose just in time for the pax romana. What else are we to make of this? The relative peace, the network of roads, and the far-flung ethnic diversity of the Roman empire so clearly set the stage for “the Way” to explode within a single century from a small Jewish sect to a creed for all nations. This was no surprise to God, who sees the end from the beginning!

Or we may marvel at the surpassing greatness of the power of a God who could build the persecuted, underground Chinese church into a millions-strong body. And that, not during the heyday of Western missions, but in the black oppressive chill of communism’s rise, after the missionaries had been expelled.

Or we may wonder at the historically unlikely fact that the religion hypocritically professed by American slave-owners became the instrument of spiritual and eventually physical liberation for their human chattel.

We may ponder these things, and we should. History-writing is always a moral and even a spiritual task, because humans are moral and spiritual beings. So especially no Christian historian can afford to remain dull or indifferent to these colossal providences, though they remain stubbornly outside of the realm of “confirmability.”

In Johann Gutenberg and his revolutionary machine, we seem to meet another of those providences. Surely Gutenberg is one of the very few most influential people in the history of the world. In his personal life, however, the working of providence seems less straightforward. In the end, I’m going to argue, God may have worked more good for Johann Gutenberg out of a personal crisis the brilliant inventor brought on himself than out of his great invention.

Johann was, from any angle, an extraordinarily gifted individual. And from his youth, he made good use of those gifts: his exceptional mechanical skills, his ability to organize large projects and convince people to finance them, and even his membership in a wealthy, influential family.

His family held a hereditary position related to the minting of money, supplying the archiepiscopal mint with the metal to be coined and sitting as legal functionaries in the prosecution of forgery cases. At the very least, Gutenberg inherited from this connection an advanced knowledge in metal working. And this he put to use in stints as a goldsmith and a gem cutter—vocations requiring the utmost skill and attention to detail.

We need not guess at his technical gifts, in any case. His Bible was made from the type he himself designed and cast, and it renders in metal, with exquisite detail and balance, the fine calligraphy of the medieval scribes.

But as he honed these gifts, Johann seems also to have developed an impetuous personality. As a young man, he was sued for breach of promise of marriage by a young girl in Strasbourg. And in his business life, we see that same impulsiveness: Once he was sure his movable type could revolutionize printed communications, nothing could stop him from making that revolution happen in the shortest possible time.

Gutenberg was so sure of the potential of his invention that from the mid-1440s on he poured all of his resources into his dream. He built his press and perfected his type at enormous expense—in both his own time and money, and the resources of more than one investor.

How the bubble burst

In 1450 he gained the backing of a prominent burgher, Johann Fust. And with Fust’s help, the famous 42-line Gutenberg Bible (so named because it fits 42 printed lines in every column) was published in the mid 1450s.

But by this time Gutenberg found himself overextended, and when Fust called in the loans, the brilliant inventor/printer had to forfeit his press along with all of the beautiful calligraphic type fonts he had created.

Here is the irony we so often find in the lives of innovators: Gutenberg invented the single most important machine in the modern era. His press made the Reformation possible by providing the means for instantaneous and widespread dissemination of Martin Luther’s reforming ideas in books and broadsides. Beyond this, his invention created the information age. But he never profited from that invention.

That is not to say, as Victorian romanticizers used to tell the story, that Johann Gutenberg died a forgotten pauper. People in his own time did recognize his brilliant contribution to the world, and he was honored with noble titles and given a pension by the church.

But in stark contrast, for example, to the millionaire founders of Apple Computers® or Google® [and we can now, in 2010, add Facebook® and perhaps Twitter®], Gutenberg never realized a penny in profit. Caught up in the vision of his world-changing invention, he pushed too far, too fast—and his invention and all its profit were taken from him.

We can imagine how this blow crushed him. Though he set up other presses with other partners, nothing emerged from them that approaches his Bible (and a psalter printed at about the same time) in beauty and importance.

The rest of the story

We get few clues about Johann Gutenberg’s spiritual state through all of this. But we do get a few. We know, for example, that before he built his press, he became involved in a religious project for the city of Aachen. The city fathers planned to exhibit Aachen’s extensive collection of religious relics to thousands of pilgrims. They turned to Gutenberg to create the molds for the so-called “pilgrim-mirrors.” These were small, decorated, framed mirrors that the pilgrims held above their heads to catch a better glimpse of the relics and to collect (and bring back to their relatives) some of the rays of blessing thought to emanate from those relics.

We also know that when he was not printing Bibles, Gutenberg used his press to create the “indulgences”—essentially, get-out-of-purgatory-free cards—sold by the papacy to raise money for lavish building projects. Yes, these were the same sort of indulgences that so infuriated Martin Luther that he nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg. And yes, those were the same theses that were printed on Gutenberg’s invention and blanketed the land, spurring the Reformation. Isn’t history delicious?

The point is, Gutenberg did not scruple at some of the borderline hucksterism of late medieval Catholicism.

After his financial ruin, however, and after his last few years of life, which he spent living on a pension provided by the Archbishop of Mainz, we discover a small fact about Gutenberg that may point to a late spiritual transformation. It is this: records suggest he died a Franciscan tertiary.

What does this mean? Simply that, yearning for a deeper discipleship, Gutenberg joined the famous “friars” of his day as a lay member—not cloistered, but out in the world, dedicating himself to prayer, devotion, and good works. Having failed in accumulating the rewards of this world, he turned to the next.

God of the second chance

“From above”—the theological perspective that seeks the finger of God in history—what are we to make of the strange career of the Father of the Information Age?

We know God builds his church. He builds it so the gates of hell cannot stand against it. And we know that to build this church, he uses gifted people—who are also flawed people. They may use their gifts to the full in the service of the Lord, like the men in the parable of the talents who invested their earthly master’s money. But then they may also get themselves in trouble because of the sin that remains in their hearts—as it does in all of our hearts.

And this is where God’s love shines even brighter: he also loves those gifted leaders enough that when they get themselves in trouble because of some sin, he does not turn away from them or discard them. He continues to work patiently through the messes they have made, to redeem them and draw them back to him.

So, yes, Johann Gutenberg had character flaws. Caught up in the hucksterism of a troubled late-medieval church and filled with visions of the great things he could do with his gifts, he became inflated with the grandeur of it all and began pushing with all his might to bring those visions to fulfillment as soon as possible. (Growing up as he had in a wealthy family, he likely dreamed, too, of reaping great profit from his invention.) But his impetuous action spun out of control, bringing him to financial ruin and the loss of everything he had worked for.

I’m reminded of the character of Doctor Octavius in the Hollywood movie Spiderman 2, who is a gifted and brilliant man but opens the door for disaster when he tries to push his insights into the physics of fusion too far too fast. There’s that temptation in all of us to get so full of a vision that we push on ahead of God.

We may look at Gutenberg and say: he created a machine that has changed history, blessing millions of people. What a shame this gifted, brilliant inventor and businessman didn’t reap the rewards of that creation!

But after Gutenberg’s financial crisis, it seems God turned him to a better way—the way of the Franciscan povorello or “poor of spirit.” He became a lay fellow-traveler with them, dedicating himself to the pursuit of a deeper devotion to Jesus and a humbler service of those around him. We may guess that it was the very events that seemed such a disaster in his life that triggered this decision.

That’s just the kind of God we serve—a God who ministers grace to those who have only themselves to blame. He hovers over them as they lose the world, then picks them up and restores to them that which is far more precious: their soul.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor for Christian History & Biography magazine.

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