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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
The lack of repentance in the church remained throughout the entire time of the first two woes until the city of Constantinople fell in 1453. We would have expected no less, since the church’s pattern had already been set prophetically by King Saul, who likewise remained unrepentant.
The revelation given to John then turns to one of the most important innovations ever to come to Europe—the printing press—which allowed the Scriptures to be produced inexpensively for the average layman. No longer were the Scriptures contained in huge, hand-written books chained to the front of a cathedral and written in a language that was unknown to the common people. The word of God quite suddenly became “a little book which was open.” Revelation 10:1, 2 says,
1 And I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven, clothed with a cloud; and the rainbow was upon his head, and his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire. 2 and he had in his hand a little book which was open.
We have already seen how the Osmani (or “Ottoman”) Turks came to power after the Mongols left the region and returned to Mongolia. The Ottoman Turks learned about gunpowder from them and soon developed its military use in cannons. Their first great use of gunpowder came in the siege of Constantinople in 1453, where their cannons breached the walls of the city onMay 29, 1453. At the same time in history, the printing press came into use in Europe, turning the Bible into a LITTLE book.
The Printing Press
Asimov’s Chronology of the World, edited by Peter Stearns (2001) p. 206, says,
“Printing utterly changed the world and it (along with the fall of Constantinople, the end of the Hundred Years War, and the discovery of the American continents—all of which took place in this period) marks the transition from medieval to modern times. Printing, one must surely suspect, was the most fundamental of these changes.”
Asimov recognizes that of the three huge historical events in those days, “printing… was the most fundamental of these changes.” The availability of books—especially the Scriptures—brought learning and changed the world.
The Chinese were printing on paper since the 8th century. Using wood blocks for each page, they produced a complete 130-volume set of classics in the 10th century. They also invented the art of movable type printing as early as 1041 A.D., but they had used clay rather than wood or metal. Furthermore, because the Chinese did not have an alphabet, the printing press was not so practical for them, because they had to make a separate mold for every word in their language.
According to Asimov’s Chronology of the World, page 206, it says this about the printing invention:
“The Chinese had this notion before the Europeans did, and the news of it may have reached Europe in Mongolian times. The point is, though, that even if the concept was not original with the Europeans, it was more widely employed by them. This was not because the Europeans were more intelligent or ingenious than the Chinese. . . but because the Europeans had the alphabet and the Chinese did not.”
The Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 1200’s most likely brought this idea to the West along with the use of gunpowder. No one knows exactly how Johannes Gutenberg came upon the idea of carving letters that could be put together into words in order to stamp them upon paper. It seems too coincidental that he would think of this within two centuries of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad.
The Muslims themselves knew about the art of printing, but they banned its use in 1493. The Encyclopedia of World History, says on page 127,
“A Muslim ban on printing in Arabic and Turkish remained in effect until the 18th century and kept the new technology from spreading to the Muslim population earlier.”
This ban on printing caused the Ottoman Empire to lose its technological advantage in the world. They have never recovered from this self-inflicted wound. In Europe printing allowed scientific works to be shared among other scientists quickly, and this dramatically increased the pace of scientific thought and invention.
The Book was Little
Revelation 10:2 says that this little book was OPEN. This is a reference to the Bible being opened to the common people through the printed page and through the efforts of men who began to translate the Bible into the common language of the people. These two factors changed history.
Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, began building the first wooden press in 1436 using metal movable type. It was completed in 1440. In 1450 he printed the Constance Mass Book. He then began working on the Bible itself. The Gutenberg Bible was being printed from 1452 to 1455 even as Constantinople was being besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Translations Open the Book
The fall of Constantinople brought thousands of refugees into Europe. Many of them were Greek-speaking theologians, carrying with them Greek copies of the Scriptures. Suddenly, the Latin Vulgate had competition. Men could now translate the Bible into English directly from the Greek text instead of relying upon the Latin version.
In 1462 the attack on Mainz by soldiers of the Archbishop of Nassau, forced printers to flee that city. In this manner their printing skills became spread over Europe. By the year 1500 there were over 1000 printing presses in 250 cities of Europe, including 60 in Germany. By that same year over 9 million copies of 30,000 different books had been printed.
In 1466 William Tyndale translated the New Testament directly from the Greek text now available to him. He also translated the Old Testament directly from the original Hebrew into English, and his complete translation was published as The Coverdale Bible in 1536, just after Tyndale and his assistant, Rogers, had finished the translation of the Old Testament.
Tyndale had said, “I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope.” Again he asked, “By what right doth the pope forbid God to speak in the English tongue? Why should not the Sermons of the Apostles, preached no doubt in the mother-tongue of those who heard them, be now written in the mother-tongue of those who read them?”
Tyndale was finally burned at the stake. We read in the book, History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin, by J. H. Merle d’Aubigne,
“In August 1536 Tyndale appeared before the ecclesiastical court. ‘You are charged,’ said his judges, ‘with having infringed the imperial decree which forbids any one to teach that faith alone justifies.’ The accusation was not without truth. Tyndale’s Unjust Mammon had just appeared in London under the title: Treatise of Justification by Faith Only. Every man could read in it the crime with which he was charged.”
On October 6, 1536 Tyndale died joyfully as a martyr for the Word of God. J. H. Merle d’ Aubigne continues,
“The joy of hope filled his heart; yet one painful idea took possession of him. Dying far from his country, abandoned by his king, he felt saddened at the thought of that prince, who had already persecuted so many of God’s servants, and who remained obstinately rebellious against that divine light which everywhere shone around him. Tyndale would not have that soul perish through carelessness. His charity buried all the faults of the monarch; he prayed that those sins might be blotted out from before the face of God; he would have saved Henry VIII at any cost. While the executioner was fastening him to the post, the reformer exclaimed in a loud and suppliant voice, ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!’ They were his last words. Instantly afterwards he was strangled, and flames consumed the martyr’s body.”
The Bible rapidly became an open book. It was no longer merely a priestly book that was closed to the laity. All of this was a direct result of the “strong angel” sent by God to change the course of history.
As we said earlier, The Coverdale Bible in 1536 was Tyndale’s translation. It was presented to King Henry VIII to get permission to distribute it in England. Continuing,
“Henry ran over the book: Tyndale’s name was not in it, and the dedication to his Majesty was very well written. The king regarding (and not without reason) Holy Scripture as the most powerful engine to destroy the papal system, and believing that this translation would help him to emancipate England from the Romish domination, came to an unexpected resolution: he authorized the sale and the reading of the Bible throughout the kingdom. Inconsistent and whimsical prince! At one and the same time he published and imposed all over his realm the doctrines of Romanism, and circulated without obstacle the Divine Word that overthrew them! We may well say that the blood of a martyr, precious in the eyes of the Supreme King, opened the gates of England to the Holy Scriptures….
“For centuries the English people had been waiting for such permission, even from before the time of Wycliff; and accordingly, the Bible circulated rapidly…. This great event, more important than divorces, treaties, and wars, was the conquest of England by the Reformation…. Whoever possessed the means bought the book and read it or had it read to him by others. Aged persons learnt their letters in order to study the Holy Scriptures of God. In many places there were meetings for reading; poor people dubbed their savings together and purchased a Bible, and then in some remote corner of the church, they modestly formed a circle and read the Holy Book between them. A crowd of men, women, and young folks, disgusted with the barren pomp of the altars, and with the worship of dumb images, would gather round them to taste the precious promises of the Gospel. God Himself spoke under the arched roofs of those old chapels or time-worn cathedrals, where for generations nothing had been heard but masses and litanies. The people wished, instead of the noisy chants of the priests, to hear the voice of Jesus Christ, of Paul and of John, of Peter and of James. The Christianity of the Apostles reappeared in the Church.”
The Coverdale Bible (1536) was followed by the Geneva Bible (1560) and the King James Bible (1611). Just as important as their publications was the fact that they were “authorized” by the monarchs, so that it was no longer illegal to read the Scriptures. This is what truly “opened” the little book, as prophesied by John.
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation
While there were important background events that brought about the Protestant Reformation, including the degeneracy of the Roman Popes themselves, the Reformation really began in 1517. Asimov’s Chronology of the world, pp. 209-210 says,
“Wyclif and Hus had inveighed against the corruption, venality, and luxury of the Church, and they had been silenced; however, as long as abuses continued, other reformers were sure to arise.
“To raise money, the Church was now selling ‘indulgences;’ that is, documents assuring that dead souls in purgatory would be released if living relatives would only pay the prices set for such indulgences….
“An Augustinian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), was offended by this rank conversion of spirituality into a money-making device and by various other flaws that he saw in Church administration and behavior. On October 31, 1517, he nailed 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony—the usual way of challenging others to debate with him over the various points of view he was expressing.
“Luther had going for him what previous reformers had had—nationalism. Wyclif had appealed to English nationalists who objected to money forever flowing into the Italian coffers of the Pope. Similarly, Hus appealed to Bohemian nationalism, and now Luther appealed to German nationalism.
“However, Luther had, in addition, something Wyclif and Hus had not had. Luther had the printing press. Wyclif’s and Hus’s views were only broadcast with difficulty, so that a great many people knew little detail about their arguments. Luther, however, had the gift of vigorous and powerful prose that appeared as printed pamphlets. These spread the length and breadth of Germany much faster than they could be suppressed. In no time, everyone was aware of, and debating, the new views.”
Thus, we see how important the printing press was to the success of the Protestant Reformation. On page 213 of the same book, we read about Pope Leo X, who was the Roman Pope during this period of history:
“Leo apparently had no comprehension of the seriousness of the situation and was satisfied with excommunicating Luther. He dismissed the whole thing as just another argument among monks, not understanding the vast change that the printing press had brought to such arguments.”
Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther in 1520. Luther in turn burned the papal “bull,” as it was called. The next year King Henry VIII of England wrote a book refuting Martin Luther’s views. For this, Leo X awarded him the title, “Defender of the Faith.”
But events in England soon led to a break from Roman Catholicism and the establishment of Protestantism in that nation. Henry VIII wanted a male heir to the throne, but his wife, Catherine of Aragon had given him only one daughter named Mary. He claimed that his lack of a male heir was God’s judgment upon him for marrying his brother’s widow. Thus, in 1527 he applied to the Pope for a divorce.
It was a case of very bad timing. There had been a dispute between the Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of Spain. The pope unwisely made an alliance with the French king during a time when Charles V was in control of Italy. The commander of the French forces (Charles, duke of Bourbon) fell out of favor with his own king and so turned traitor and joined forces with the Emperor Charles V. He then led his French army (mostly Catholics) into Italy and sacked the city of Rome, taking the pope prisoner. Charles of Bourbon himself was killed in the first battle, but his troops sacked Rome without him. Asimov’s Chronology of the World says on page 213,
“Rome received far worse treatment at the hand of Christian soldiers (some were Lutherans, but most were Catholics) than ever it had received at the hands of Goths and Vandals 11 centuries before.
“The sack of Rome is considered to mark the end of the Italian Renaissance.”
Thus, Henry VIII appealed for a divorce from Catherine at the time when Pope Clement VII was the prisoner of the Emperor Charles V. Thus, the Pope was in no position to grant Henry’s request to divorce Catherine. Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, so he certainly would not allow the pope to grant the divorce.
These events meant that the pope was preoccupied with his very survival at the very time that trouble was brewing in England. Because Henry was not granted the divorce, he divorced her without papal permission and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. She gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, later in 1533.
In 1534 the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, appointing the king and his successors Protector and only Supreme Head of the Church and the Clergy of England. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England. It was more of an act of state, rather than a true reformation of spiritual ideals.
Nonetheless, for all of its faults, it provided a relatively safe haven for Protestants to develop their ideas and to spread them into the rest of Europe.
The Timing of the Reformation
As for timing, I find two dates (1517 and 1534) most significant. The Apostle Paul was commissioned on his first missionary journey in 47 A.D. at the beginning of the great famine throughout the Roman Empire mentioned in Acts 11:28 that was prophesied by Agabus. Paul’s ministry finally ended with his execution in Rome in 64 A.D.
The time of Paul’s ministry (47-64 A.D.) was when the early Church really began to go beyond the bounds of Judaism and into the world at large. Three periods of 490 years later is 1517-1534 A.D. This time God brought a famine of hearing the Word (Amos 8:11) upon Papal Rome, due to the papal ban on reading the Bible. But among the Protestants, the Word was being translated, printed, and placed in their hands. They hungrily devoured its meat, and hence, there was no famine of the Word among them.
The same was true with the early Church when Paul preached the Word to the people from 47-64 A.D. Though he did not have a printing press, his ministry did mark the time that the Word began to go forth into the whole world.
Hence, these two dates, 1517 and 1534 are considered by historians to be the primary dates for the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Being 3 x 490 years after Paul’s ministry adds weight to this.
And, of course, the fourth period of 490 years from 1517 brings us to Oct. 31, 2007. This, I believe, marked a new beginning, or perhaps a new transition for the Church between 2007 and 2024.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.