The Reformation as Media Event (Part 4)- The Cure of the Reformation

The following excerpt is the fourth portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores the ways in which the printing press produced the cure of the Reformation. A 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. The book can be purchased here and the video can be viewed here.  

Cure of the Reformation:  Here This Book Made Me Stand

In light of the new paradigm of perspective bestowed by the press, Luther’s famous speech at the Diet of Worms proves the Reformer’s internalization of the individualistic values in his theology.  From January 28 to May 25, 1521, this deliberative assembly of the whole German Empire addressed Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.  This was Luther’s ultimate trial, in which he had to answer for his writings and his convictions.  At the conclusion of Luther’s trial, between April 16th and 18th, in what is perhaps the most well-known of all Luther’s writings, the thirty-eight-year-old monk finally stood and answered definitively:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore, I am neither willing nor able to recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against one’s conscience.  So help me God. Amen.

Luther’s entire rhetorical strategy here is driven by the effects of his personal reading of Scripture and claims its legitimacy by an appeal to the private and individual conscience.  From a Scriptural point of view, the term conscience is only mentioned 30 times in the King James Version, and all of these are in the New Testament.  In the NIV translation, there are 34 mentions of conscience, and 28 of them are in the New Testament.  A content analysis of conscience in Scripture, however, reveals it to be a somewhat malleable private identity that can — and sometimes should — be flexible in deference and consideration to another believers weaker conscience.[1] I Corinthians 10:25-29, for instance, is all about the flexibility of conscience in deference to the conscience of another that might be weaker, in regards to food offered to foreign idols.  In these handwritten letters, that would have been read to an audience under acoustic conditions, Paul is primarily teaching a variation on Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  The point about eating foods offered to foreign gods is to protect your brother’s conscience — not your own — in order not to cause offense.  So, if Scripture makes clear that conscience is personally malleable for the good of the other, what drives Luther to make his entire rhetorical strategy rest on the claim that it is neither right nor safe to violate conscience?  I would argue that it was the effects of his literacy itself, the effects of the form of Scripture in the medium of a printed book, and not the content of Scripture, that created what Neil Postman called a “hardening of the categories” into a perceptual alley that allowed Luther to perceive only his private, individual, point of view.  McLuhan writes that, “Perhaps the most significant of the gifts of typography to man is that of detachment and noninvolvement – the power to act without reacting.”[2]  In the later gloss to Luther’s speech, it is most likely Philip Melanchthon who added the line attributed to Luther, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”  This is about as succinct a way of stating “this book has given me the ability to act without reacting” as possible.

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

[1] C.f. 1 Corinthians 8, which is primarily about the eating foods offered to idols.

[2] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 173

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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 founder of Metaphilm and co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have nine children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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