- Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents
James Simpson's Burning to Read argues that the Reformation is the ancestor, not of modern liberalism, but rather of modern fundamentalism, with its insistence on the literal truth of scripture and its propensity for violence. Simpson gives evangelical reformers credit for having the courage to oppose abuses of the church and to provide translations of the Bible in vernacular languages. Evangelicals saw themselves as heroic prophets, condemning Roman Catholic authorities who sought to maintain control over scripture in order to sustain their own power. Some scholars, Simpson complains, have accepted this view of the Reformation and stopped there. Simpson proceeds, in contrast, to argue that evangelical doctrine and styles of reading had predominantly destructive consequences. First, evangelicals believed that a primary function of scripture is to demonstrate that "righteous works are simply out of fallen human reach" (85). Love of scripture thus paradoxically is founded on hatred of it, since the Bible leads us toward self-loathing. Moreover, martyrdom is among the primary signs of election. So the predominant emotions attendant upon evangelical Bible reading are, in Simpson's [End Page 1002] terms, anxiety and paranoia. In subsequent chapters Simpson successfully critiques the evangelicals' emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture and the claim that such meaning is eminently clear. In order to explain the history of disputes over scriptural interpretation, evangelicals maintained that only the elect can interpret correctly, while Roman Catholics are blinded by idolatry. One sign of election is a feeling of certainty, which fueled a self-righteousness that contributed to violent condemnation of Catholics and of other factions in the evangelical movement.
Simpson upholds Thomas More as a proponent of more sophisticated reading practices. More recognizes that the meaning of an utterance depends on "verbal, pre-textual circumstance" (232). Even more importantly, More develops an awareness of the role of presuppositions in hermeneutics. Only an enlightened faith can guide us toward valid interpretations, and such faith is nurtured by "the historical existence of an institution with continuous presence and an ever-fresh, inspired understanding of Scripture" (250).
If evangelical reading practice is the culprit in promoting religious violence, what accounts for the fact that More himself strongly supported violent suppression of heresy? Simpson recognizes this challenge to his argument, and he sees More's defense of persecution as tragic: ". . . he makes the case for just war, and then applies it to the defense against heresy, since heretics, if allowed to convert others, will produce 'common sedition, insurrection and open war'" (2633–64). Moreover, in the later years of his career, More "adopted the textual practice and the exclusivist, distrustful, and utterly self-convinced textual assumptions of those opponents" (271). In other words, Simpson argues that religious warfare and intensified persecution of heresy were caused in large part by "a new, immensely demanding, and punishing textual culture marked by literalist impersonality" (282). This culture began with the evangelicals but eventually infected even their opponents.
Simpson successfully demonstrates that Luther, Tyndale, and other early Reformation leaders have sometimes been excessively idealized. His critique of their simplistic hermeneutic is entirely persuasive. Nonetheless, his polemical approach sometimes leads him to overstatement. One example is the claim that the doctrine of salvation by faith meant that "Scripture was not useful as a source of direction about how to live in the world" (69). Surely this statement overlooks the fact that grace enables the saved to practice good works that are at once a sign of election and an expression of gratitude for divine favor.
I learned a great deal from this book, but I am also left with some questions. Are evangelical reading practices the primary cause of religious persecution and warfare, or are they manifestations of preexisting psychological and sociological conditions? How are these factors related to emergent nationalism and other political changes in Europe? How would our conclusions about these questions be affected by studies of periods of history earlier or later than the one...