The Reformation as Media Event – Introduction

Second Nature Journal will be releasing Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece The Reformation as Media Event in an introduction and seven subsequent sectionsA version of this paper was published in The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible in April 2017, which was itself a print version of a talk given in 2016 at the Wheaton Theology Conference. Each section explains one of the key “ingredients” Schuchardt sets forth as essential for understanding the relationship between the Protestant Reformation and the medium of the printing press. The following excerpt serves as the introduction to the forthcoming segments. 

If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records, ask new questions of them, and use all the resources of archeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.

– Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change[1]


For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

– St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:6

The 500th anniversary of the German Protestant Reformation presents an opportune time to reconsider the question of causality in regards to one of the most significant and momentous upheavals in Christian history. Particularly so, as it effected Europe, the West, and subsequent global Christianity.  The discipline of Media Ecology, emerging in 1968, offers a unique framework for explaining cause due to its interdisciplinary concern with reading the “total field” of evidence in order to arrive at new understandings of cultural patterns. Media Ecology, as it sheds light on the historical event of the Reformation, may be best understood in terms of Aristotles’ philosophical study of the four causes, and specifically the study of formal cause.

For Aristotle, there were four causes which were to be studied in science:  material, formal, efficient, and final.  Formal cause represented the essence of a thing and final cause was an object’s purpose.  Contemporary natural and social sciences have generally discarded these two types of causes and reduced everything to matter and energy (material and efficient causes).[2]

Media Ecologists study formal causality precisely so that we can know where technological determinism ends and human agency begins. What we are claiming is that formal causality is essential to understanding material, efficient, and final cause, as well as for grasping the limits of human actors in historical change.  Aristotle argued that, “we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its explanation.”  Of Aristotle’s four explanations — material, formal, efficient, or final explanation – formal explanation is described as a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving.  The arrangement, shape, or appearance of a thing is its form, or formal qualities.  One of media ecology’s key insights, as articulated by Robert Logan, is that societies imitate their technologies:


  1. The dominant tools or technologies of a society create patterns of usage that infiltrate or penetrate the social structures of a society,
  2. These patterns change those structures, and
  3. The social structures come to imitate or replay the patterns by which these dominant technologies are organized.[3]


So for the Gutenberg Bible, for instance, we see the layout of the Bible in the 36 line[4] or 42 line Bible as consisting of two columned rows of either 18 or 21 lines.  This then became the cultural pattern of organizing pews inside churches starting in the 16th century, organizing rows of seats inside classrooms starting in the 18th century, and perhaps finally, having its last manifestation in the, organizing pattern for the arrangement of barracks at German concentration camps[5] in the early 20th century. This same phenomenon might be observed in our own time in the way that the simple aesthetic of Apple and the iPhone has spread beyond that specific brand and become the standard for visual appeal.

For McLuhan, the real message “of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”[6]  In other words, McLuhan’s interests lay in understanding how technological forms produce effects that shape our cultural, behavioral, and psychological patterns, as well as the ways in which they shape our internal perceptions of these patterns as right, good, obvious, or inevitable.  For McLuhan, the “spell” of a new medium can occur immediately upon first contact by the human ability to instantly “adopt” and thereby internalize our technologies as the new normal.  History reveals we have never been much good — until now — at making a study of technology’s profound formal effects.  McLuhan’s aphoristic sound bite can, and should, be read in reference to this understanding of causality:  the medium is the message.  This paper will seek to address the question of the Reformation’s formal causality, and along the way will attempt to illuminate the ways in which these formal qualities may challenge long-held notions of historical causality in the identities of particular historical agents, as well as reveal a few long-hidden blind spots of significance for theological reflection.  This intersection of Media Ecology with the interests of theology should prove more fruitful than jarring, more understanding than agitation.  But the jarring may occur nevertheless:  “Most people” McLuhan wrote, “are quite unable to perceive the effects of the ordinary cultural media around them because their theories about change prevent them from perceiving change itself.”[7]  If theology is faith seeking understanding, then we may deepen our understanding by studying the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther wrote to a dying Johann Tetzel in 1519 and bade him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”[8]  Though it was not Luther’s opinion, the father of the Protestant Reformation was the Printing Press.  That is to say, the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation was the Printing Press.  That simple declarative statement should strike you as immediately violating of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s concern that historical arguments about the printing press should regard it as an agent of change, not as the agent of change, “because” she states, “the very idea of exploring the effects produced by any particular innovation arouses suspicion that one favors a mono-causal interpretation or that one is prone to reductionism and technological determinism.”[9]  And yet, I hope to demonstrate that the printing press’s effects are actually multi-causal, expansionist, and liberating from the very forces of technological determinism it so fears.  In general, most arguments about “technological determinism” are themselves misunderstandings about Aristotle’s material explanation, as though an old screw-type wine press, a goldsmith’s carefully crafted type pieces (of lead, antimony, and tin), water-powered paper mills producing linen pulp sheets, dog-skinned inking pads, and a vegetable-based ink could, in and of themselves, cause a historical revolution. To look seriously at the new medium is to look deeper than immediate causality from a historian’s point of view, and to consider its role in necessary and sufficient causation.  But to consider the new communication technology is also to look at its biases — specifically to consider the epistemological, psychological, and intellectual biases of perception that the form of the technology engenders for all whom encounter its effects. And to be clear, the effects we claim for the printing press do not serve the purpose of granting the Reformation’s primary historical agency to Gutenberg nor attempt to take agency away from Luther.  Gutenberg had no more understanding of the effects of his invention than anyone else of his day; but I hope to demonstrate that his invention, in many senses made way for, and in some senses created, a man like Martin Luther.

To progress logically, which is to say in the visual, rational, and sequential orderly fashion that print media habituates us to and thereafter demands, we will attempt to digest seven key ingredients.  You will notice, however, that the effects of technological change are neither linear nor additive; they are circular and totalizing, which is to say acoustic and exponential.

The seven ingredients are these:

1.) The ways in which Johannes Gutenberg, a devout Catholic, was interested in manufacturing technologies of religious devotion, and how the Printing Press was a natural spiritual heir to the Pilgrim’s Mirrors he was previously producing.

2.) The ways in which the printing press produced the cause of the Reformation

3.) The ways in which the printing press produced the mindset of the Reformation

4.) The ways in which the printing press produced the cure of the Reformation

5.) The ways in which the Printing Press produced a multitude of other changes in religious and cultural life in Europe, and many other things independently of the Reformation, but part and parcel of its mindset and formal causality

6.) The ways in which the Printing Press produced the vast majority of the Counter-Reformation, including 13 of its major decrees, and its general sweep, leading Umberto Eco to point out that “Catholic fundamentalism cannot exist — and this is what the Counter Reformation was all about — because for Catholics the interpretation of the Scriptures is mediated by the Church”[10],

7.) The ways in which the printing press produced, in all of the above, the “technological determinism” that is the very reductionist, simplistic, and dismissive concept proposed by many contemporary scholars to buffer themselves against the percepts of the massively obvious changes that the new medium created.

Again, these ingredients work together to holistically alter one’s perception of reality. As Neil Postman put it, when you add a drop of red dye to a beaker of clear water, you don’t get a beaker of water with a drop of red inside[11] – you get a beaker of pink water.


To purchase The People’s Book and read the essay in its original version, click here

To view the video of the original talk, click here

Access parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or the full article


[1] 1963, Preface, v.

[2] Clark and Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition, p.8.

[3] Robert Logan, The Alphabet Effect, 218.

[4] The 36-line Bible is the Bamberg Bible, which some attribute to Gutenberg.

[5] The most famous concentration camp is Dachau, outside of Munich, as it was the first one built by the Nazis (on March 22, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was elected) and became a standard camp upon which most of the others were modeled.  Its grounds comprise two side-by-side rows of 17 long barracks each.

[6] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 24.

[7] McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, p. 83.

[8] The letter from Luther to Tetzel is lost, but this quotation is preserved in Emser’s Auff des Stieres su Wittenberg wiettende replica.…

[9] Eisenstein, 1985, xvii.

[10] Umberto Eco, Turning Back the Clock, p. 281

[11] Neil Postman, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” talk delivered in Denver, CO, March 28, 1998, accessed online at

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About the Contributor

Read Mercer Schuchardt

Read Mercer Schuchardt
Read Mercer Schuchardt is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of Second Nature and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College. He is the co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have ten children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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