Without the printing press, the protestant reformation might never have gotten off the ground – at least not so quickly and with such geographical reach. This observation has been made by many scholars over many years. No doubt, the press helped to disseminate reformation ideas far and wide in a short period of time. Likewise, the ability to mass-produce new bible translations in the languages of ordinary people should be seen as one of the great, positive outcomes of the reformation era. The reformation enabled much higher levels of biblical literacy among some christians and generated a deep and rich tradition of hymnody – perhaps the surest sign of genuine reformation. These aspects of the protestant legacy should, most certainly, be celebrated.
However, the printing press transformed the way christians interact with the bible in other, perhaps more problematic, ways – ways that the original reformers would have never wanted. Namely, prior to the mass-production of bibles beginning in the 15th century, all christians encountered sacred scripture as, first and foremost, a liturgical script. They understood themselves as participants in a great drama authored and directed by the Triune God – the God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Prior to the printing press, the bible was conceived in sacramental terms – as the very fabric, so to speak, of a sacramental order where God ‘s presence (both his grace and judgment) is mediated by material things.
A sacramental perspective meant that christians looked for God’s grace to be mediated through an encounter with saints and sinners, through fellowship with other believers, through seasons of feasting and fasting, through baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death – and especially in the “dual table” of Word and Eucharist where christians feast on the presence of God who comes to commune with them.
When earlier christians engaged the bible in liturgical prayer and worship, the clear goal was to enter into the real presence of the Triune God. Moreover, when christian theologians wrote commentaries or preached homilies on texts of sacred scripture, they worked with the hope of building trust and understanding among the people who needed to believe and see that God is truly present in their midst. It is no exaggeration to say that, for the ancient church (and the synagogue before that), the Word of God encountered in the liturgical assembly provided the clear gravitational center for both prayer and scholarship.
How different things are, at least among most protestants, in our own time. In the most ironic twist of fate, the bible is almost entirely neglected in non-liturgical protestant worship services. If this statement seems puzzling to you, then you clearly have not attended a typical evangelical church lately.
While it would be foolish to regret the invention of the printing press, we can now see that the mass-production of bibles took place amid a constellation of other negative developments and that the bible’s sacramental character has been, for many years, neglected. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, typical protestant doctrines of scripture (focusing on clarity, necessity, authority, inspiration, etc.) were developed in a problematic metaphysical milieu (that of enlightenment modernity) and have never fit well with a more ancient and participatory epistemology where the knowledge of God is understood as assimilation to God.
In a series of future posts, I’d like to explore some of the negative developments responsible for obscuring the sacramental character of scripture. While the final points may change a bit, I anticipate writing about the following developments:
1. Whereas word and sacrament constituted two dimensions of one unified channel of grace for more than 1,000 years, the two were gradually torn apart. Developments in Roman Catholic sacramental theology are as much to blame as developments in protestant thinking.
2. Scripture becomes untethered from the divine economy re-presented in liturgy.
3. Scripture becomes captive to the polemical agendas of both protestants and catholics during the reformation and counter-reformation eras. The polemical agenda for scripture-studies fit well with what Rusty Reno and John O’Keefe have called the referential theory of meaning and others have referred to as epistemological foundationalism.
4. Scripture becomes captive to an increasingly nominalist understanding of the relationship between God and humankind. In the process, participatory metaphysics are forgotten, the sacramental fabric of the universe is obscured, and scripture is no longer conceived as an utterly sacramental means of grace, analogous to the eucharist.
My general thesis is that the doctrine of scripture developed improperly during and after the protestant reformation and that a more helpful approach will tether scripture to the sacramental economy of God’s grace best re-presented in the church’s historic liturgies.