This year, the world celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a time that began when a previously unknown monk nailed 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This simple act effectively altered the course of history and unloosed the gospel message for the masses.

At the time Martin Luther penned his theses, Johanne Gutenberg’s printing press had existed, used primarily to print volumes for the elite, for nearly 70 years. However, within two years, the printing press set the stage for the Christian publishing movement that would flourish beyond any expectation and genuinely change the world—all at the leading of that unknown monk.

Luther’s method to disseminate the gospel was to write in the language of the common people, German, when at the time most literature in Germany was in Latin. His idea was for the common man or woman to be able to pick up a copy of one of his works, typically a 1,500 word pamphlet, and read truth that was largely hidden at the time because of inaccessibility. What followed was faithful theological literature becoming accessible on a large scale and even Scripture itself being available for the first time to people who had only heard bits and pieces that priests and church leaders read.

“God graciously used Gutenberg to get gospel-centered resources into the hands of anyone who could read. In a sense, this set the course for Christian publishing done the right away,” said Justin Taylor, a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D., 2015) graduate of Southern Seminary and executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway Publishing, in a recent interview.

Printing Press

Taylor noted that the publishing effort of the day was “collaborative.”

He explained, “If there was no author or publisher, there would be no publishing. If there was no typesetter, there would be no publishing. If there were no salesmen to make the sales transaction, there would be no publishing. And finally, if there was no one to buy it—and then to read it and recommend it to others—there would be no successful publishing. That same basic paradigm basically exists today.”

The Reformation’s greatest tool

Eric Geiger (M.A., 2002; D.Ed., 2005), Southern Seminary alumnus and president of LifeWay’s B&H Publishing and Trevin Wax (M.Div., 2009), LifeWay’s Bible and reference publisher who is also a Southern alumnus, both noted how they consider publishing perhaps the “greatest tool of
the Reformation.”

Similarly, Taylor called publishing a “providential means to an end” in the Reformation. And one of the founders of Southern Seminary Magazine and founding publisher and editor of Preaching Magazine, Michael Duduit (M.Div., 1979),  added: “I think the re-emergence of biblical truth is the primary achievement of the Reformation, but in terms of methodology, publishing would stand out,” said Duduit, who is also a Southern alumnus. “It’s no accident that the Reformers were pointing people back to Scripture at the same time that a new technology emerged to aid in distributing their teaching. Publishing enabled the Reformers to have a much wider impact on their age.”

Truth unchained

Another one of Reformation era publishing’s greatest effects on publishing, says Wax, was the “unchaining” of Scripture.

“Printing and the Reformation go hand in hand because this is how these ideas were able to be disseminated and how the sort of chain that the leadership in the Catholic church had on scriptural teaching was able to be broken,” Wax said. “The chains around Scripture were broken because of publishing and because people were able to see the Bible for themselves, translate the Bible and then disseminate the truths that they found in the Bible throughout Europe.”

Geiger added: “The Bible became accessible to the common man and common woman, and the Lord used that to awaken people to his race, to cause people to feel confident that they could understand the Scripture, that they could understand theology which then emboldened them to share the gospel with other people.

“So unchaining the key doctrines of the faith from only being held by the priest or the clergy and that being spread—it’s beautiful to think that the Lord used Gutenberg and the press for that to happen.”

Not only was the Scripture itself made readily available to anyone who could read, in their own language, but now books and pamphlets abounded in a way they never had before. In fact, more than 300,000 copies of Luther’s 95 Theses were distributed to people hungry for the truth. In this sense, Gutenberg’s press was one “tool” used to spread the Reformation.

Lasting effects

The effects of this Reformation era thinking that each individual should be able to assess God’s Word and theologically strong writing in their own language and in a way that appeals and speaks to them is still influencing evangelical publishing today.

“Printing and the Reformation go hand in hand because this is how these ideas were able to be disseminated and how the sort of chain that the leadership in the Catholic church had on scriptural teaching was able to be broken.”

In the same vein, Southern Seminary alumnus, Matthew Barrett (M.Div., 2008; Ph.D., 2011), sees Credo Magazine, which he founded and for which he serves as executive editor, as a means to “bridge the gap between the academy and the church.”

He started the magazine after noticing a disconnect between those in the local church and those in the academic world. However, like Luther, realizing that the deep truths of Scripture weren’t simply for the educated minority, he strives to provide a mixture of pastoral and theological articles each issue.

In addition, during the time Barrett spent in the pastorate before joining the faculty at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as associate professor of Christian theology, he said he took the “one foot in the academy and one foot in the church” approach he saw modeled at Southern by professors such as Bruce A. Ware and Thomas R. Schreiner and tried to emphasize the importance of reading good books to
his congregation.

Printing Press

Essentially, Cristopher Garrido (M.A., 2015), director of Spanish publishing at LifeWay, has taken a similar approach, striving to make not just well-known bestsellers available to the Latino community, but by also making perhaps lesser known titles that he sees filling a need available. He also focuses on finding key voices who already have a following in the Hispanic community and providing them with a larger platform.

Garrido, a graduate of Southern Seminary, sees the work he does as “God opening a door to meet a need in a more scalable way, not just me dedicating my life to writing a few books, but instead being the channel through which many more voices could be published and have a greater enduring impact in the Spanish speaking church.”

Evangelical publishing and the future

In the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation started, publishing has shifted formats, grown platforms and changed drastically. That’s a reality not lost on those in the middle of the industry.

“We have information at out fingertips. Just open your tablet or your laptop or your phone and you can just go on to a million websites and find the information you want. But in the 16th century, that wasn’t the case,” Barrett noted.

With the invention of the printing press, information began to spread. “Suddenly it wasn’t just the scholars, but the mother taking care of children in her home was reading through a short pamphlet that Luther had written on the doctrine of justification or the church, and Luther’s ideas started to revolutionize not just the church but even the family and all of life and society.” This impact is still seen today.

However, with the flow of information that has characterized the last 500 years, and even today the rise of the e-book and the popularity of articles and blogs, Christian publishing faces many challenges. Geiger sees one of these challenges as the decline in the “experiential, transformational impact” of deep reading.

He explained: “The opportunity today is that we can get words out there in a ton of different ways. We want to embrace that just like Gutenberg embraced the new technology. The opportunity, I sometimes worry, creates people just reading a bunch of surface things and not having the deep reading experiences that really forms them. … There’s just something special about a book.”

This availability of information has helped culture shift in a direction away from reading in general. Citing Pew Research statistics that even significant numbers of college graduates never read another book after graduation, Wax sees a challenge for evangelical publishers to fight against the pull to produce only “inspirational, feel good books with a bit of Scripture thrown in here and there.”

“As people who believe in the power of God’s Word, we need to be considering the need for a renewed emphasis on the life of the mind in the next generation,” Wax said. “That may be one way that we as Christians stand out, that we will be engaged as readers, as thoughtful, as empathetic, as really understanding the world around us, not simply reacting to the world around us.”

“With the flow of information that has characterized the last 500 years, and even today the rise of the e-book and the popularity of articles and blogs, Christian publishing faces many challenges..”

He added: “I’m hoping that Christian publishing will rise above the circumstances of just what the market demands and will look at how we can best serve the church to be strongest in the next generation.”

Likewise, Barrett is concerned for the “ethic” of the Christian publishing world. He sees a “divide” in Christian publishing with some companies producing material that is both helpful to the church and simultaneously harmful. Recognizing this ethic is a place these companies must start, Barrett argues.

Along those same lines, Taylor added, “I am confident that good publishing, grounded in the gospel, will continue to exist until Christ returns. But along with it will be Christian publishing that is not grounded in sound doctrine.”

Taylor continued, “In many ways, Christian publishing is now in a state where we can say ‘it is the best of times; it is the worst of times.’ There is more helpful material published than ever before, and also more compromised material. For those of us in publishing, I think we need to apply the words of Jesus: What is that to you? You follow me.”