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Wars Over the Printed Word

James Simpson’s book, Burning to Read, is a lively and detailed study of the early-sixteenth-century reformers (here described as “fundamentalists”) who believed the Bible and not the papacy to be the sole authority in matters of religious faith. His object is not merely to offer a new look at an old controversy but to argue that historians have long been under the delusion that the reformers can be regarded as the ancestors of modern liberal thought. On the contrary, says Simpson: for their insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible they deserve to be called the ancestors not of modern liberalism but of modern fundamentalism, which, as we are all aware, exists in many pernicious forms. The purpose of his book, then, is, first, to offer a fresh, authoritative account of a spectacular increase in Bible-reading some five hundred years ago and, second, to suggest that the threat of modern fundamentalisms is as great as, and may even derive from, the threat of an earlier fundamentalism to the authority and the inherited, extra-biblical wisdom of the Roman Church.

Unlike earlier heresies, which had to make their way without its help, the new religions of the Reformation had at their disposal the power of a fifteenth-century technology, the printing press. We are told that in 1517 Martin Luther wrote out his ninety-five theses in Latin and published them by affixing them to a church door in Wittenberg; but he was dismayed to learn that they were very soon translated into German, printed, and published everywhere.

Lutheranism is therefore rightly described as the child of the printed book. It is estimated that between 1517 and 1520 the writings of Luther alone sold over 30,000 copies. His German translation of the Bible appeared in 1534, and its defiance of the ecclesiastical opposition to vernacular versions of Scripture inspired the printing of translations in many other European languages.

That the introduction of printing powerfully affected not only religious practices but the life of the age more generally—its politics, economics, and culture—has always been recognized, though a fuller understanding of its revolutionary implications had to wait for Marshall McLuhan’s “probes” into the subject in The Gutenberg Galaxy,1 and for Elizabeth Eisenstein’s masterly study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.2 An immediate benefit of the new technology was liberation from the constraints imposed by manuscript circulation, which called for the slow and expensive labor of scribes. Less obviously, and with consequences no one could have imagined at the time, the printing press provided the archetypal model for later forms of mass production. But in the sixteenth century, its importance was that it made possible, almost from the outset, the relatively cheap production, in vast numbers, of more or less identical vernacular Bibles, often with explanatory glosses. To study the Bible had been the privilege of the few who knew Hebrew and Greek, or those, more numerous, who could read the Latin of Saint Jerome’s fourth-century version. It now became available to all who could read their own language.

Supplying this new demand ensured that printing, though in some respects managed locally like other trades of the period, soon became big business. The master printer, often himself a scholar and probably pious, might run his shop and rule his workmen benevolently, but his enterprise “required considerable capital”—a successful printer “would be at once printer, publisher, bookseller and even papermaker and binder.”^3 Bibles were sold from door to door (in this respect rather like the medieval “indulgences” against which Luther so fiercely campaigned4 ) but also at great fairs, of which the modern Frankfurt Book Fair is a thriving descendant.

As M.H. Black tersely remarks, the printer was animated by “the two strongest motives: idealism and love of gain.” These motives may seem incompatible, but the tradesman who prospered by selling Bibles could be credited with some measure of courage and disinterest: he could not assume that his industry would be rewarded by a quiet life. His plain biblical texts could be regarded by hostile authorities as a cover for new theologies and contagious heresies. His publications might be burned, and he ran some risk of being burned himself. It seems that what Black calls his “idealism”—his willingness to risk so much to make available to his customers the book on which their hopes of eternal life might depend—must have been a motive at least as strong as profit.

The political implications of the conflict of authority—crudely, Bible versus Pope—and its attendant, essentially theological differences grew ever more complex and intense, and would result in catastrophic wars. On the particular issue of Bible translation, the Roman Church, on behalf of which the Pope pronounced infallibly on doctrinal matters, affirmed the authority of Saint Jerome’s Latin version, condemning vernacular versions and proclaiming the traditional rights and privileges of popes, one of which was that they could claim to be what Luther ironically called the “lords of Scripture.” As the only authorized interpreters they of course differed irreconcilably from the reformers, who believed in the authority of Scripture alone. On this issue the price of disagreement could be a matter of life and death, for to the popes the idea that the Bible should itself be its own sole interpretative authority—the doctrine of sola Scriptura—was a heresy that merited death at the stake.

James Simpson’s title may strike some readers as a joke out of place, but perhaps it reflects his true feelings about the reformers. Not that he underestimates their achievements, deplorable though he finds them; indeed he devotes a whole chapter to applauding their heroism. It is, as he remarks, a “somber and…selective litany of horrors and repressions.”

The dissidents “championed the authority of the book above customary practice” (that is, in defiance of the doctrines and ceremonies of the Church). The devout reader was his own priest; no other was needed. He owed no deference to the Pope. The Christian was free. There was room for disagreement on such matters. Though he favored the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524–1526, and taught that the citizen owed obedience to the state, Luther also “trumpets the theme of liberty”: “No law, whether of men or of angels, may rightfully be imposed upon Christians without their consent, for we are free of all laws.”5

There seems to be a certain sleight of hand in Simpson’s praise of the reformers, for he intends to show that they were grievously misled, and that far from being the freedom-loving ancestors of modern liberalism, they were really the ancestors of modern fundamentalism. He is of course aware that this word came into use only in the twentieth century, and was originally applied to a movement in American Protestantism that called for “strict adherence to certain tenets (e.g. the literal inerrancy of Scripture) held to be fundamental to the Christian faith…[opposed to] liberalism and modernism.” The term can be used to refer to a strict adherence to principles as well as to the letter of Scripture. The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to explain that the term is also applied by extension to other religions, especially Islam, that insist on obedience to ancient doctrine and concede nothing to social and political liberalism. It is not normally applied to the early-sixteenth-century reformers, but Eisenstein used it so, and Simpson follows her, defending himself thus: “The word does nevertheless designate a movement based on the literal inerrancy of Scripture; and many forms of that movement are vibrant in many parts of the world today.” He adds that his use of the word is “designed to connect sixteenth-century debates with contemporary issues.”

That is, as we’ve seen, the program of his book: to correct what he thinks a major historiographical error: the assumption of modern liberal thinkers that their liberties derive from the sixteenth-century reformers. They are pleased to believe that they count among their ancestors men so zealous in their determination to achieve Christian liberty and free access to the Bible that they were willing to die in the fire rather than renounce it. But Simpson thinks it was the reformers rather than their supposed oppressors who got it wrong, and that far from being protoliberals they were really the forebears of those dangerous modern sects that also believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Their ecclesiastical opponents, less heroic but usually much grander—some as important as Thomas More—avoided the errors that the literalists, for reasons Simpson will provide, could not escape.

To connect modern fundamentalism with sixteenth-century debates in this way, simply because both proclaim scriptural inerrancy, has its dangers; one recalls Fluellen’s proof in Henry V that the towns of Macedon and Monmouth are alike because both have rivers and “there is salmons in both.” Styles of belief in literal inerrancy may vary as contexts differ. But to Simpson the reformers were fundamentalists avant la lettre. By using the term in a rather elastic way he can claim for his historical exercise a special relevance to our own day.

His obsession with this notion goes some way to spoiling his book. Scholars with deviant opinions are given a hard time. David Daniell, whose voluminous writings on William Tyndale offer a different and perhaps more old-fashioned view of these matters, is rarely mentioned without some polemical thrust, though one must suppose that Daniell’s work has been of some use. But this is Simpson’s confrontational habit. His dispute with modern historians is not really essential to his historical argument, which has less to do with modern fundamentalisms than with the conflict, in the early years of the sixteenth century, between two attitudes toward reading.

He is especially interested in the idea that solitary Bible-reading was harmful to the student. Thus a deluded person could study his printed text with full but false confidence that no authority other than his own, or, as he himself might say, its own (for he might well follow Luther’s view of Scripture as “its own interpreter”), had any control over his reading. When not distracted by his “presentist” concerns Simpson has much of interest to say about this different view of authority and the alleged dangers of treating the Bible as self-explanatory or susceptible to naive interpretation.

Arguments about authority, so fierce in the Reformation period, have continued in one form or another, and may indeed be the main reason for the usual failure of ecumenical efforts. John Henry Newman, a famously strong intellect, began life as an evangelical but declared in his Apologia that “the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it…. If we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church; for instance to the Catechism, and to the Creeds”—which are, of course, not part of the text claimed to be inerrant, but elements of a form of inherited wisdom to which the Scriptures are supplements. The Bible could not do the work alone, without relation to the dogmas, ceremonies, and imagery hitherto considered to be at the heart of Christian worship and conduct. Scripture is merely one part, though an important part, of the living tradition.

  1. 1

    The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962).

  2. 2

    The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, two volumes (Cambridge University Press, 1979). (An abbreviated version, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1983, is less satisfactory.) Eisenstein regards “the age of incunabula as a major historical great divide” in which one can view “the advent of printing as inaugurating a new cultural era in the history of Western man” (Vol. 1, p. 33).

  3. 4

    Indulgences could now be printed and published for mass sale (Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Vol. 1, p. 375).

  4. 5

    Behind this apparently political declaration there is a crucial theological issue; Luther held that faith renders works superfluous, so that actions demanded by external authorities were irrelevant to the conduct of the believer.

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