Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The church is a mouth house, not a pen house

Written by: on November 8, 2012

When studying the scriptures, one learns as an important step to evaluate the development of the bible, the different traditions, that collected the numerous parts of the bible to the extent and canon that we oversee today.

Before entering the analysis of the written text, scholars always research old oral traditions, the underlying spoken histories that were passed from generation to generation before being set down on paper.  

The word of God, written down in the bible is the center and foundation of the Christian religion. Christianity in this sense is a “book-religion.” The term goes back to Friedrich Max Müller, who declared in 1870 Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and Daoism as the eight important “book-religions.” This determination was not a description in the first place, more a judgment, by devaluing all the other religions as “cults”, meaning bookless and illiterate religions, who are inferior.

By this division it is already obvious that Müller’s classification is not widely used any longer. Due to the arbitrary discrimination and devaluation Müller’s concept is criticized and refused in religious study today.

But what can we learn from the appraisal of religions based on scriptures, contrary to the underlying devaluation of religions without them?
It seems as if the foundation of a religion on a scripture or collection of holy texts enhances a religion, compared to a genuine oral tradition.

Perhaps this opinion is based on our general appreciation and pride about the development of our communication systems and media in general. It appears as if our cultural and communication-technical development from oral tradition to a written source (and in the next step printed outcome) leads us to general denial of oral traditions.

It is interesting, that this point of view can not be trivialized and generalized.

In their book “The social history of media. From Gutenberg to internet”, Asa Briggs and Peter Burke cross all the different steps of the emerging and evolving of media through the times.In their chapter about printing in its contexts they highlight the general assessment of oral communication versus printed or written communication.They present the situation in the churches as ambivalent.

On the one hand, they present the Christian churches as center hubs for oral tradition. By making the bible accessible to the people in bible readings or sermons, this oral traditions turn the communication into “oral literature.”

Peter Burke portraits the medieval times to the sixteenth century as a time for developing a preaching tradition with a “ecclesiastical rhetoric.” Oral literature became a widespread communication form that turned the pulpits of the Catholic churches into “mass mediums” (Zygmunt Bauman).

Especially during the reformation the role of the spoken word in the churches became more and more important. And particularly in the person of Martin Luther the ambivalence between the two traditions become obvious.

Luther declared the invention of the new printing press as “God’s highest gift of grace.” At the same time he announced the church as a “Mouth house and not a pen house.”

It is evident that the appreciation for a literature based religion goes hand in hand with a oral tradition of preaching, sermonizing and religious debating.


How do we benchmark the significance of oral and written traditions in our churches today (oral-based ministry vs. written-/printed based ministry?)


Are we temped to dissolve the ambivalence between the two traditions in an unreflected and arbitrary way, like Friedrich Max Müller did?


What is the impact of the new media on this assessment?

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