Revisionist History

U.S. News & World Report tells us about “The Birth of Fundamentalism“–in 16th century England! It’s a review of James Simpson, Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents.

Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents, takes a very close and scholarly look at the way that 16th-century English Lutherans—and particularly the leading Reformation scholar, William Tyndale, who was ultimately executed for translating the Bible into English—made the personal reading of the Scriptures not only the crucial struggle for salvation but also the exclusive path to religious truth. Jettisoning tradition, clerical authority, and the hope of salvation through works (those hated Catholic pillars of faith), the Protestant turn to justification by faith and to the sole authority of the Bible is often seen as the beginning of the liberal tradition and a move toward the Enlightenment.

But Simpson (a Protestant himself) makes a powerful case for the paradoxical opposite: In this apparent liberation of the individual believer lay the seeds not of liberalism and the Enlightenment but of rigid, literalist fundamentalism. The great Protestant leaders set things going in this way by fostering an approach to reading that denied the ambiguous or figurative elements in the biblical text and insisted upon one fixed and correct meaning in any and all of its parts.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this stretch. “Fundamentalism” had already been removed from its true historical context by Martin Marty and others who want to apply the term even to non-Christians–including Muslims and Hindus. Now Fundamentalism is applied anachronistically to thinkers who lived 400 years before it began!

Who are “Fundamentalists” for these authors? Anyone who believes that the Bible has authority, and not the church.

The argument, as laid out above, is that these Protestants who argued for sola Scriptura, and freedom of religious conviction, are not the forefathers of liberals, despite that apparently individualistic streak. That’s well and good. And yes, they do have much in common with “Fundamentalists,” in that they accept the Word of God. But to equate 16th century Protestants with “Fundamentalism” is both anachronistic and simplistic.

2 thoughts on “Revisionist History

  1. I don’t see it that way, Bill. I think the author makes a helpful and valid point that the logical conclusion of divorcing Scripture from the body of discernment of the Church as a whole turned out to be “an anarchy of interpretations.” Perhaps the author’s reference to “fostering an approach to reading that denied the ambiguous or figurative elements in the biblical text and insisted upon one fixed and correct meaning in any and all of its parts.” is confusing here.

    In my view, there is much in Scripture that, upon reflection, sheds light on what comes before or afterward. For example, I recently saw an early Christian altarpiece which pictured Abel and Abraham and Isaac as forerunners of the ultimately “acceptable sacrifice” of Christ. The metaphorical, the abstract, the underlying meaning of Scripture can be brought to light as well as the concrete and straightforward commandments.

    But a fundamentalist reading of Scripture, with what is often a restricted and tight horizon, is more likely to focus on a couple of major issues that are easily distinguished and acted upon with much important nuance lost in the process.The Fundamentalist church to which my son belongs considers that they reject any “interpretation by men” of the Bible — that they let it speak for itself. But the expression of their faith is an almost-exclusive focus on the Great Commission and many cultural manifestations of dress and behavior that emphasize their uniqueness as a body of people among in the huge ocean of a lost society and millions of “espoused” Christians who aren’t truly authentic Christians because they don’t share the same viewpoint of what the Word really says.

    Although God’s Truth is always true, it is larger than any individual reading of it will reveal. This is the problem that is intriguingly addressed in the article and review.

  2. Well, let’s take a step back and ask, “What is Fundamentalism, in its proper historical perspective?”

    It’s a movement that arose in the early 20th century, especially in Presbyterianism, in reaction to Modernism–to a specific approach to the Bible that was being offered in the seminaries of the day. Modernism said you couldn’t trust Scripture, because it was written by fallible men, and that you shouldn’t therefore be bound to historical Christian teachings about Jesus and his mission.

    The term comes from a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals of the Faith, which were identified as the inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and bodily return. This is what Fundamentalists held to. This is what set them apart from Modernists, who rejected these teachings. Now, Modernist teachings did enter Catholicism, too, and were opposed by many popes (Catholic Encyclopedia).

    Fundamentalism was at first a battle within major seminaries, like Princeton, but it lost that battle and Fundamentalism withdrew. When, in the 1950s, some, such as Billy Graham and Harold Lindsell, sought a re-engagement with the world, “Evangelicalism” and “Fundamentalism” then became terms used to distinguish between different strains in conservative Protestantism.

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