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.