As a result, the reforming ideas of the Renaissance were able to flow across Europe relatively easily, and in their wake, the even more radically reforming ideas of Luther, Zwingli, and others. We might say that printing enabled the Reformation to “go viral” in a way that simply would not have been possible in a previous age. The new information technology turned out to be God’s gift to His people.
We can discern the alignment between the printing revolution and the spread of the Reformation in a single fact: it was cities and universities that first embraced the Reformation. In England, for example, London fast became the nation’s hotbed of Protestantism. Here were the great printing presses. Here, too, was a thriving port where merchant ships could bring in Protestant literature from Continental Europe.
A similar phenomenon greets us if we look at sixteenth-century Switzerland. The Swiss Confederacy was made up of thirteen member states called cantons. Four of these were city cantons: Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen. The other nine were agricultural cantons based around farm and village, dominated by five central forest cantons. Is it a mere accident of history that the Reformation was victorious in all four city cantons, whereas the forest cantons remained the strongholds of Roman Catholicism? The cities, with their centers of higher learning and their printing industries, were the ideal places for Reformation thought to be disseminated.
Likewise, in Germany, the majority of the free imperial cities (self-governing cities with no higher allegiance except to the Holy Roman Emperor) turned Protestant. This was not some superficial political conversion, as the Emperor Charles V discovered to his cost when he tried to reimpose Roman Catholicism on the cities by armed force in the late 1540s. The people of the German cities remained defiantly Protestant. The sword could conquer their territories but not their souls. Charles eventually had to admit defeat and withdraw.
We should also set Luther and Zwingli in their context as outstanding but not isolated figures of Protestant reform. Luther would have been only half the man he was without Philip Melanchthon. It was Melanchthon rather than Luther who provided the linguistic expertise of the German Reformation. His knowledge of Greek was a phenomenon, and it may very well have been Melanchthon who first saw and insisted that in the New Testament, the Greek word for “justify” means to “declare righteous” in a law-court sense, rather than to “make righteous” in a sanctification sense. This became the keystone of the doctrine of justification by faith. It was certainly Melanchthon who wrote the Augsburg Confession, which became the international Lutheran standard of doctrine. Luther was well aware of his debt to Melanchthon as his most intimate coworker:
I am rough, rowdy, and stormy, born to fight armies of devils and monsters. My job is to get rid of stumps and stones, hack away thistles and thorns, clear away wild forests. Then along comes Master Philip, gently and softly, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts that God has so amply granted him.
Other coworkers with Luther included Johannes Bugenhagen, who played a key part in helping reform the church in Denmark; Justus Jonas, who left his mark as a hymn writer; Nicolaus von Amsdorf, a professional scholastic theologian who embraced the Reformation; and several others well known in their own day, although eclipsed now in the shadow of Luther. Great as he was, Martin Luther was not a one-man band.
Neither was Zwingli. He was ably assisted by men such as Leo Jud, Oswald Myconius, and Johannes Oecolampadius. After Zwingli’s early death in 1531, he was succeeded by the brilliant Heinrich Bullinger, who became the “grand old man” of the Reformation, dying in 1575.
Other parts of Europe had their own great Reformers. Martin Bucer in Strasbourg (now in France, but then in Germany) tried to combine what was best in Luther’s Reformation with what was best in Zwingli’s. The result proved highly attractive to a certain young Frenchman named John Calvin, who as a second-generation Reformer was a disciple of Bucer. Today, we may argue about who is a genuine Calvinist, but Calvin himself was nothing if not a true Bucerian.