Pre-Reformation Rumblings: Gutenberg and Gansfort

The Fifteenth Century by Nicholas Needham | Reformed Theology Articles at Ligonier.org.

TT-July-2015Last Monday we began to reference this month’s issue of Tabletalk, this one focusing on the 15th century of the church and “the eve of the Reformation.” At that time I gave you the link to this opening featured article by church historian Nicholas Needham, an article that gives us the “big picture” of this century of Christ’s church.

Today I want to pull a couple of sections from it so as to highlight two ways in which God was preparing the way for the great Reformation of the 16th century. One item is a technological advance; the other is an obscure Dutchman.

Here is what Needham says on these two pre-Reformation matters.

The Printing Press Revolution

From the closing decades of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance overflowed into the rest of Europe. One of the main reasons that humanist ideals spread so effectively from their Italian heartland was the invention of printing by movable type. In about 1450, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395–1468) of Mainz, Germany, set up the first such European printing press, and the first book he printed was the Bible. By 1500, more than two hundred presses were operating throughout Europe.

We can hardly overstate the cultural revolution this effected. Gone were the days when scribes had to copy books by hand. For the first time, a publisher could make thousands of copies of a book easily and quickly and then put them into mass circulation. This meant that ideas could spread more swiftly; it also meant that literacy became more highly valued.

Wessel Gansfort (1419–89)

Born at Groningen in the Netherlands, Wessel Gansfort studied in various universities before lecturing in Heidelberg and Paris. He was a pioneer humanist and an expert in Greek and Hebrew. In theology, Gansfort was at first a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, but he later turned to Augustine of Hippo as a safer guide. He went back to Groningen in about 1474 to act as spiritual director in the Mount St. Agnes monastery.

Gansfort’s preaching and teaching attracted a wide circle of admirers. As John of Wesel did, he made probing criticisms of medieval Roman Catholic doctrine. He denied the infallibility both of the papacy and of general church councils. He defined the church as the entire company of believers, not the organization headed by the papacy. He accepted the sacrifice of the Mass, but he also maintained that Christ was present in the bread and wine for believers only. A strong Augustinian, he upheld salvation by God’s sovereign grace, rejected indulgences, and even taught a doctrine of justification by faith, though it was somewhat confused.

Gansfort was more fortunate than John of Wesel in escaping the Inquisition; he died peacefully. None of Gansfort’s writings were printed until the Reformation, when Luther issued an edition with an admiring preface by himself.

If you want to read further, follow the Ligonier link above.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks again for this historical perspective.

    Like


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