Innovators of the Reformation

Following his wildly successful biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson set out to write a different type of book. “One of the things we biographers realize is that we distort history a little bit,” Isaacson said in an NPR interview. “We make it sound like there’s some great individual in a garage or a garret who has a light-bulb moment and all of a sudden innovation happens. But when you look at innovation, especially in this day and age, it happens in teams–creativity is a collaborative effort in the digital age. I wanted to get away from writing about the singular individual.” The title to his next book articulates this shift: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

As we near the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we must be aware of our propensity to rewrite history after this “great individual” narrative. Just as there would be no Steve Jobs without dozens of previous innovators, there would be no Martin Luther without a host of other players. Consider these:

Gutenberg. About 75 years before Luther published his 95 Theses, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg introduced the first printing system in Europe, enabling the mass production of books and pamphlets. Without this technology Luther’s 95 Theses would have remained in the hands of his fellow professors at the University in Wittenberg and a few friends to whom he sent them. But one of those friends translated the work from Latin into German and printed copies for distribution. To Luther’s shock, within a month of sending the 95 Theses to a select group, most of Christendom was aware of them.

Erasmus. One of the greatest minds of Luther’s day was the Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Like his fellow humanist scholars, Erasmus held to the motto “Ad fontes”–back to the sources–and did key work on religious texts in Latin and Greek. For reasons that remain lost to history, Erasmus decided to include the Greek text of the New Testament alongside his updated version of the Latin. In 1516 he published Greek New Testament.

For more than a thousand years up to that point, the church had taught almost exclusively from the Latin translation of the Bible. Key points of church doctrine, such as the practice of penance to be right with God, hinged on questionable translations from the original Greek into Latin. Because of Erasmus’ work, Luther studied the New Testament in Greek and made the issue of repentance–a better translation than “penance”–the focus of his 95 Theses. Luther would also use the second edition (1519) of Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum as the basis of his translation of the Bible into German.

Frederick the Wise. For all of his conviction and pluck, Martin Luther would have been hunted down and executed for his teachings were it not for one man–Frederick the Wise. Frederick had founded the University of Wittenberg and, though he was unsure about Luther’s teachings, resented the unfair treatment the church gave to one of his professors. Following the trial when Luther was declared a heretic, Frederick staged a fake highway attack and kidnapping of Luther and secretly hid him in his castle in Wartburg. There Luther was able to translate the Bible into German and stay safe while his movement gained momentum. Frederick diplomatically stalled the efforts of the the pope and the emperor to find Luther.

Without the work of an inventor, a scholar, a savvy politician, and dozens more, none of Martin Luther’s reforms would have gained traction. As we look at the contemporary need for reformation in the church and revival in the world, let us carry out our vocations in service to God’s kingdom and trust that he can make us part of a mighty collaboration in our day.

Pastor Chris

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