Among the external resources available to the church, the printed page stands first. The invention of printing from movable type was one of the right-angle turns in history. Marshall McLuhan aptly gives his book about how we have been molded by “the print technology” this title—The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man. That is what we all are—men and women who in one way or another have been conditioned through the printed page.

The origin of movable type is a complicated story. Here is an invention wholly independently at different times and with different results in Occident and Orient. Asia was first. Block printing in China goes back to the eighth century A.D. and printing from movable type to the eleventh century; yet results were not the same in China as in the West, because with its thousands of ideographs Chinese is not an alphabetical language. Therein lies one of the reasons for the difference between China and the West. Typography in Europe also began with block-printing, which was used as far back as the fourteenth century. But it is Johann Gutenberg in Germany who is generally credited with the invention toward the middle of the fifteenth century of printing from alphabetical type.

So there came into history a vast expansion of the “dimension of repeatability,” as McLuhan puts it. This quick, manifold repeatability of the written word has opened the door to modern civilization. And though we stand today on the verge of a new era through mass electronic communication, the printed page will endure. It will endure because it is the unique extension of one of our most important capabilities as human beings—the use of words to convey thought and feeling—and because it makes the verbal products of the human mind available for continuing study and reflection rather than flashing them electronically on our consciousness.

Behind the first printed book in the Western world, commonly taken to be the Gutenberg Bible of 1455–56 (though we have a few smaller pieces of printing from about ten years before that), there stood the written word. And behind the written word stands the alphabet: and behind the alphabet stands our unique faculty of speech; and behind our speech stands our capacity for thinking; and behind our capacity for thinking stands our creation in the image of God; and behind all these stands the Word. For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.… All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made.”

As Herbert M. Butcher says, “Communication is the primary fact, for God communicates Himself.… It was through this that everything came into being.” Supremely and historically, the divine self-communication took the form of a human being, the Man Christ Jesus, the Word who invaded history in the stupendous miracle of the Incarnation. There, in the self-communication of the living God through the actual events of the birth, teaching, deeds, and, paramountly, the death and resurrection of his Son, lies the divine model of communication.

“But what,” someone asks, “has this to do with the printed page?” Well, it was not by chance that the unknown genius who invented the alphabet came, not from the people of Egypt, or India, or China, but from the Semites of Syro-Palestine. Moreover, God chose a Semitic people, the Hebrews, for revealing himself step by step through the centuries. To them he began to commit scriptural revelation as far back as the time of Moses and continued to do so through the prophets and other inspired writers until the fourth century B.C., thus preparing in written words as well as mighty acts the way for the incarnate Word. Then when Christ had come, God continued until the close of the first century to use the written, alphabetical word—now for the inspired record of his revelation through his Son.

Article continues below

The Bible is still the most influential and most widely read piece of communication the world has ever known. Why? Because in it God speaks to man. Like paper impressed with a watermark, every page of Scripture in some way points to the incarnate Word. As James Stewart says, “It was a favorite dictum of the preachers of a bygone day that just as from every village in Britain there was a road which, linking on to other roads, brings you to London at last, so from every text in the Bible, even the remotest and unlikely, there was a road to Christ.” When we follow that road we find the cross. Malcolm Muggeridge speaks truly when he declares, “One thing at least can be said with certainty about the Crucifixion of Christ; it was manifestly the most famous death in history. No other death has aroused one hundredth part of the interest, or been remembered with one hundredth part of the concern.” And, he might have added, the reason for this is that only through Christ’s death and the inevitable sequel for his resurrection can men enter into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

The influence of Scripture has reached into literature, law, government, art, music, modern science (the basic concepts of which can be traced to the Reformation)—in fact, the whole of our culture. Public education found its first motivation in the century following Gutenberg’s invention of printing. The Reformers insisted on the establishment of schools so that the people could know how to read God’s Word for themselves. The biblical impetus to literacy, which is the key to the vast realm of human knowledge, has continued ever since in a chain reaction now at its height as throughout the world language after language is reduced to writing so that people can learn to read the Scriptures in their own tongue. Today, at least one book of the Bible has been translated into 1,337 languages or dialects. And it is expected that by the year 2000 there will be translations in all the as-yet-unwritten tribal languages of the world. The implications, just on the literacy and educational levels, stagger the imagination.

Let no one say, This may be all very well, but in what some call a post-Christian age the influence of the Bible is petering out (as the writer of a poorly researched article in the Wall Street Journal maintains.) This is simply not true. In a single year (1967), more than 104 million copies of Scripture were circulated—a ration, according to the American Bible Society, of one copy for every thirty-three persons living today. Consider that a single New Testament translation, the Today’s English Version, first published in 1966, attained a circulation of ten million copies its first year and a half—one for every twenty people in the country. Add to that the millions of sales of the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible (New Testament) and other recent translations, such as those of Kenneth Taylor, and all contemporary best-sellers are left very far behind. The Bible remains the most influential and most enduring of all books. In this secular age not only does its circulation stand at its highest level in history but also for the first time Roman Catholics are joining Protestants in the effort to make it accessible to all.

What about the Christian use of the printed page for purposes other than the circulation of the Scriptures? When in 1517 Luther nailed his ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, it was a printed, not handwritten, Latin page he posted there. He meant those Theses, which were a profoundly biblical document, to be a challenge to scholarly debate. But they were soon translated into German and surreptitiously circulated all over the land. So the Reformation may be said to have begun through the printed page. What a literature it gave rise to! There were the writings of scholars like Melanchthon and Erasmus; there was Calvin’s Institutes, the towering classic of Reformed theology; there were the works of Luther himself. There were also those of his Catholic opponents like Eck, and there were many pamphlets or what we today call tracts. This stirring period of church history was a time of intense literary activity.

Article continues below

Christians have kept on using the printed page. As they have done so, world literature has been immeasurably enriched. Examples from among many that could be cited come readily to mind, ranging from Pascal, Milton, and Bunyan to modern and contemporary writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Browning, Unamuno, Mauriac, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, James Weldon Johnson, and Flannery O’Connor.

There is, however, a special way in which Christians have long been using the printed page to persuade others of the truth of their faith. This is the kind of writing known as the tract. Such literature comes under the head of propaganda. Although the word gained a disreputable connotation during the First World War, there is nothing essentially ignoble about propaganda. It is simply the use of words to persuade others of a point of view. Gorham Munson refers to it as a garden hose. As through a hose there may pass pure water from a crystal spring, or contaminated water from a river like the Potomac, or fluid from a cesspool, so propaganda may present the clear truth, or a muddy mixture of lies and truth, or a poisonous stream of prejudice.

The Chinese proverb, “One picture is worth more than ten thousand words,” sounds good. But unless the picture is a masterpiece of a Rembrandt or a Renoir, it is not true. Even in this electronic age, words, far more than pictures, are the most potent of all means of affecting human beings. The perennial battle for the minds of men is still being fought by words—some of them violent and crude, others strong and healing.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is a tract of the most exalted kind. As Munson says, “The sixth book of the New Testament is probably the greatest letter in all literature and reveals the height to which propaganda in the noble sense can attain.” Paul’s example has been followed by many Christian leaders through the ages. Even before Gutenberg’s invention of printing, the tracts of John Wycliffe together with his translation of the Bible into the vernacular looked forward to the Reformation and established English prose. The Reformation itself became what one historian calls “a pamphlet warfare.”

It was John Fox in the English Reformation who declared, “God has opened the press to preach and by this printing as by the gift of tongues the doctrine of the Gospel sounds to all nations and countries under heaven.…” John Wesley, the leader of the great revival in eighteenth-century England, left 233 written works, many of them pamphlets or tracts. Here is an excerpt from Wesley’s diary for December 18, 1745: “We have within a short time given away thousands of little tracts among the common people.… And this day ‘An Earnest Exhortation to Serious Repentance’ was given at every church-door in or near London to every person who came out, and one left at the house of every householder who was absent from church.” Wesley’s use of tracts probably led to the formation in England of the Religious Tract Society in 1799. Similar societies were established in other European countries, and in 1825, the American Tract Society began its work. In his History of Christianity, Kenneth Scott Latourette says, “In 1832 the American Tract Society adopted a plan to place some of its literature in every religiously destitute family in the United States. In 1847 most of its 267 colporteurs were in the Mississippi Valley, in much of which frontier conditions still prevailed.”

Article continues below

That word frontier points to a challenge for our Christian use of the printed page today. Geographically, America has only one remaining frontier, sparsely populated Alaska. Sociologically and spiritually, however, frontiers lie all around us, with explosive ones in every city and in every state. For this is a day of frontiers between young and old, between rebels and the establishment, between white and black. But while education, politics, and the mass media-cannot by themselves transcend these barriers between people, the Bible can cross every frontier and the Christ whom it proclaims can reconcile men to one another and to himself through his redeeming love. It is his truth that makes men free from the barriers that shut them off from accepting one another as members of the common brotherhood for whom Christ died. And that truth can be dynamically presented in writing.

Using the printed page to persuade men to receive the message set forth in the Scriptures entails an awesome responsibility. It is that of telling the truth. Here we must look again at the divine model of communication through the incarnate Word and the written Word. Complete and perfect trustworthiness characterizes this communication. Because propaganda, even with the highest aims, can easily be made a medium for distortion, every writer who makes use of it, whether in a tract, religious essay, or apologetic work, must hold unswervingly to the criterion of truth.

Truth is the most spacious word we can use apart from the Name of Deity himself. Commitment to it must be the hallmark not just of tract, sermon, or essay but of every kind of Christian writing from editorial to newspiece, from novel to poem. Because the Christian message is everlastingly true, in Christian writing the medium must indeed be the message. For the Christian writer, editor, or publisher, this means a conscience for truth in the use of facts. It means checking every reference, every statistic, every implication. It also means cultivating a style that has the authentic ring of reality. With John Bunyan, who said in that most honest of autobiographies, Grace Abounding, “God did not play in convincing of me, the devil did not play in tempting of me.… wherefore, I may not play in my relating of them but be plain and simple and lay down the thing as it was,” the Christian writer cannot be content with anything less than striving as best he knows how to “lay down the thing as it was.” In the language of today this means to “tell it like it is.” For to express the truth is the unchanging goal of Christian writing.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.