Six Centuries and Counting
If I were to ask you to name the most important invention of the last thousand years, what would come to mind?
If you are considering our current era, you would probably say the internet. But if you are thinking about the previous era, you might say the internal combustion engine. And other nominations would likely percolate toward the top: electricity, antibiotics, and air travel.
Speaking of inventions, I also asked ChatGPT to give me its top ten inventions list. It told me that the rankings are subjective but still took a stab at it. Its number one choice confirmed my hypothesis: the printing press.
Of course, books existed before the printing press but were tediously limited by hand copying. Then the year 1450 saw a technological explosion. At that time, Johannes Gutenberg broke through the barrier with the introduction of his movable type printing press. It quickly transformed a snail’s pace process into mass production. The impact of this invention has rocked the world, right up to our day.
We are now approaching six centuries since that pivotal moment, and you would be hard-pressed to come up with a more important invention when you consider that all subsequent technological advances have depended on that breakthrough. The resulting rapid dissemination of information paved the way for the democratization of knowledge in the modern world.
In the providential wisdom of God, the printing press arrived on the scene just before the Protestant Reformation. It is hard to imagine the latter without the former. Without copies of the Scriptures, as well as theological books and pamphlets, the Reformation would likely have been relegated to a regional event in history.
By God’s design, the printed word continues to be one of the most effective vehicles for spreading truth geographically as well as historically, down to subsequent generations. Mass-printed books have been crucial to the widespread fulfillment of 2 Timothy 2:15. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Or, as the King James Version translates the first part of this verse, “Study to show thyself approved . . .” (my emphasis).
As Johannes Gutenberg is said to have proclaimed, “It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow inexhaustible streams. Through it, God will spread his Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star, it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”
The Role of Books
Over the years, I’ve collected quotes recognizing the important role of the printed book as it relates to spreading gospel-centered truth. Here are a few:
1. The Essentiality of Books
Paul is inspired, yet he wants books; he has been preaching nearly thirty years, yet he wants books; he has a wider experience than most people, yet he wants books; he has been caught up into heaven and heard things which it is unlawful to utter, yet he wants books; he has written the major part of the New Testament, yet he wants books.1 —C. H. Spurgeon
2. The Influence of Books
If religious books are not widely circulated among the masses in this country, I do not know what is going to become of us as a nation. If truth be not diffused, error will be; if God and His Word are not known and received, the devil and his works will gain the ascendancy; if the evangelical volume does not reach every hamlet, the pages of a corrupt and licentious literature will.2 —Daniel Webster
3. The Versatility of Books
. . . printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized.3 —Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
4. The Penetration of Books
The printed page is a missionary that can go anywhere and do so at minimum cost. It enters closed lands and reaches all strata of society. It does not grow weary. It needs no furlough. It lives longer than any missionary. It never gets ill. It penetrates through the mind to the heart and conscience. It has and is producing results everywhere. It has often lain dormant yet retained its life and bloomed years later.4 —Samuel Zwemer
5. The Continuity of Books
There are two things in the entire history of missions that have been absolutely central. One, obviously, is the Bible itself. The other is the printed page. There is absolutely nothing else in terms of mission methodology that outranks the importance of the printed page. Meetings come and go and personalities appear and are gone. But the printed page continues to speak.5 —Ralph Winter
6. The Sanctifying Power of Books
What I have learned from about twenty years of serious reading is this: sentences change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember 99 percent of what I read, but if the 1 percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99 percent.6 —John Piper
7. The Gift of Books
Printing is the last and also the greatest gift of God. By it he wanted to have the cause of the true religion become known and spread in all languages at the end of the world in all the countries of the earth.7 —Martin Luther
The Remaining Challenge
As critical as printed books are, there is a global-sized problem.
Many of us completely take for granted our access to Bibles and good books. The purchase of a physical copy of a Bible or a theologically sound book is just a few clicks away, or at most, a short drive to a bookstore. Our bookshelves are creaking from overload.
This is not the case for a majority of the world. Many regions suffer from a great lack of biblical resources. Because of this, church leaders and God’s people often fall prey to biblical illiteracy, false teaching, and weak churches.
Several barriers continue to hinder access:
- The technology of mass printing has still not functionally reached all global regions.
- Shipping books and Bibles internationally is prohibitively expensive.
- The affordability of books is a major challenge in many nations which struggle economically.
- Good books and Bibles are not readily available in all the needed languages. Skilled translation is a massive ongoing task.
- For many languages, skilled and qualified indigenous authors are few.
Many will suggest digital books as the answer, but the reality is that globally, and even in the West, the vast majority prefer physical copies. Additionally, in the Global South, digital bandwidth and appropriate devices are often very limited. Try reading a whole book on your phone and you will relate to their struggle.
Crossway is on a mission to resource the church to the ends of the earth. Solid biblical literature and Bibles are vital to the spiritual health of God’s people across the globe. You can partner with us in this great task:
- Pray regularly for God’s provision to sustain the translation, publishing, and distribution of vital resources.
- Take our survey about your global missions engagement.
- Support the Global Ministry Fund or the One Million Bibles Initiative through your generous giving.
The printing press has been around for hundreds of years now. But not all are enjoying its impact. Will you partner with us to hasten the fulfillment of Habakkuk 2:14?
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
- C.H. Spurgeon, “Paul–His Cloak and His Books”, Sermon no. 542. Preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on 2 Timothy 4:13, November 29, 1863.
- Library of American Biography series, in a biography written by Henry Cabot Lodge, titled "Daniel Webster" (Vol. 1, Page 53).
- Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 169.
- Paul Akin, “Missionaries You Should Know: Samuel Zwemer”, IMB, April 30, 2019, https://www.imb.org/2019/04/30/missionaries-you-should-know-samuel-zwemer/.
- Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., “Two Musts of the Great Commission” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 336-337.
- John Piper, “1 Percent of a Book Can Change Your Life”, interview by Tony Reinke, Ask Pastor John, no. 1910, March 8, 2023, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/1-percent-of-a-book-can-change-your-life.
- Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 109.
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