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 (The demand for paper was of course unprecedented.) 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.

The value of Simpson’s book lies in its treatment of the situation that arose when this belief was challenged and it could be said that the Book had replaced the Mass. This was seen as harmful in least two ways. First, the opponents of sola Scriptura, upholders of the older “formularies” and the older theology, were forced onto the defensive; second, the solitary reader of Scripture, without knowing it, risked great spiritual and psychological damage.

Like Newman, Simpson denies that the “sacred text” could, unaided, teach doctrine, and maintains that readers during the Reformation who thought it could were soon in trouble. They had to reconcile their idea that the Bible was enough in itself with theological considerations that necessarily intervened between them and the plain text. In particular, they were asked by the reformers to believe that, contrary to Catholic doctrine, man was to be saved by faith alone, and not by works; and this dogma left the reader helpless, for his Bible text alone could not give him the faith that could ensure him a place among the elect.

Furthermore, influenced by Luther, Calvin, and other sources of Reformation doctrine, the reader would already, as he read, have in his head an even darker teaching: that however he might try to alter the case, his fate was predestined, that God had already made his decision in respect of each soul. So “Scripture was not useful as a source of direction about how to live in the world”—even if one could describe Bible-reading as a “work” it didn’t count because “works” were useless anyway.

Luther felt so strongly about the irrelevance of works that he omitted from his Bible the Epistle of James; it flatly and inconveniently disagreed with him. “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead…. I will show thee my faith by my works” (James 2:17–18). According to Simpson’s account of this problem, the suspicion that their Bible-reading was ultimately useless or even harmful must have caused the faithful serious psychological damage. They brought to their reading two prior convictions: one, that they were very likely damned already; and two, that they themselves could do nothing about it, being entirely dependent on the grace of a God who had made up his mind on the matter ages ago, before Adam sinned, possibly even before the Creation.

The Bible, with its austerities and condemnations, thus became “a tightrope of terror across the abyss of damnation” and a source of “fear and self-loathing”—what Richard Hooker called “a snare and a torment to weak consciences.” For how could the injunctions of Scripture help a Christian so abject that he could do nothing but rely on God’s grace to do the saving work? Varying interpretations of these intractable issues brought on not only personal anxiety but disputes, “a vulnerability to schism” in the reform communities. The whole business of Bible-reading was perilous to the soul, the conscience, and the psychological health of addicts.

This is not what the poet George Herbert thought about the Bible: “Infinite sweetness!… Precious for any grief…a mass of strange delights….” And Simpson himself provides evidence that a Bible reader might claim to feel pleasure rather than pain. A certain Thomas Bilney testifies that one sentence in an epistle of Paul’s “did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that immediately I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness.” This may have been at least as common a response as despair. Nor is there apparently much evidence of addicted readers kicking the habit. Even under the Catholic Queen Mary, not noted for her clemency to reformers, the Bible was still read, and the dangerous transfer of allegiance “from sacrament to Scripture” didn’t cease.

This book says too little about ways in which sensible people might accommodate the new bibliolatry with a respect for tradition. Thomas Cranmer, for instance, was certainly not a Romanist. He accepted the reformers’ argument that the seven Catholic sacraments should be reduced to two, baptism and the Eucharist. (The remaining five, still endorsed by Rome and including penance, confirmation, matrimony, and extreme unction, were rejected as lacking scriptural authority.) Cranmer, who ran Henry VIII’s campaign against the claim of the Pope to supremacy in England, stated expressly that the Scriptures were for “all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen…and all manner of persons of what estate or condition so ever they be”; all “may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do….” You could have the Bible as well as the two remaining authentic sacraments.

Cranmer produced the Book of Common Prayer during the reign of Edward VI, between 1547 and 1553, a strongly Protestant period, and probably more should have been said of him here, not only because he was a writer of exceptional power but because he took seriously the evangelical attitude toward the Bible while preserving much of the medieval Mass, and providing carefully, not violently, reformed doctrine in what became the Thirty-Nine Articles of faith later adopted by the Church of England.

The articles are famous for their openness to interpretation (Cranmer allowed it, John Henry Newman exploited it) and they offered some hope to the abject reader. They do maintain that “we have no power to do good works…without the grace of God by Christ preventing [coming before] us,” but they also hold that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”

So, in horribly difficult times, it was not impossible to justify Bible-reading and yet sustain an anti-Romanist, vernacular yet still Catholic, Church of England. A politician as well as an archbishop, Cranmer, in his very complexity, represents a middle way between the evangelicals and the traditionalists, the two sides of which Simpson wants to choose only one in pursuit of his thesis. When Mary Tudor tried to restore Roman Catholicism in England, Cranmer was deemed a heretic and duly burned for it. He was by no means an amiable character—long service to Henry VIII made that virtually impossible—but nothing suggests that he would have accepted the notion that Bible readers were necessarily “abject” and “terrified,” as well as incapable of finding much they could understand. As for that crucial doctrine of “faith alone,” he could hardly have approved of Simpson’s proposition that

a culture that insists on written and only written contracts is, historically, a culture in which faith can no longer be taken for granted…. Thus, evangelical “faith alone” culture…manifests signs of a “no faith” culture.

The most famous direct confrontation of radicals and traditionalists is probably the controversy between Thomas More and William Tyndale, and Simpson appropriately ends his book with an account of this protracted quarrel. They were an ill-assorted pair: Tyndale the voracious, fanatical, exiled scholar; More, the great humanist, friend of Erasmus, and author of Utopia—a man of humor, learning, and civility, destined for martyrdom, and on occasion a fierce and scurrilous opponent. He hated the evangelicals or “fundamentalists,” Tyndale most of all. His opinion of the role of Scripture, as summarized by Simpson, was like Newman’s three hundred years later: the Bible was not an “independent entity” but “a partial and subsidiary resource of the Church. Outside that set of resources, an independent Scripture would collapse.”

It isn’t quite clear that this is true, since there have been sects that have remained committed to the literal reading and survived, but it is a view that Simpson expounds with sympathetic clarity. He has much less sympathy with Tyndale’s opinions.

It would be hard to deny Tyndale’s greatness—his biblical translations provided the foundations of many others, including the King James version of 1611. He translated the New Testament from the Greek original, not the Latin Vulgate approved at Rome; and he taught himself Hebrew in preparation for translating the Old Testament. His sixteenth-century English was extremely durable, and still underlies most modern Bibles in that language. However, he is famous for some eccentric lexical choices: “washing” for “baptism,” “congregation” for “church,” “penitence” for “penance” (the latter a Romanist notion, a sacrament, and too closely associated with indulgences). Probably his most famous choice as a translator was “love” for the Greek agape, where the Vulgate read caritas, “charity,” in 1 Corinthians 13.

In a work of 1529 More condemned Tyndale as a heretic. Tyndale replied in 1531, and in 1532 More published his long Confutation of Tyndale, deploring, among other things, Tyndale’s new or odd words, especially his preference for “love” over “charity,” and his dismissal of “penance.” It is worth noting that the Geneva Bible of 1560, very much the people’s Bible of the day, and also Shakespeare’s, preferred “love”; and although the King James version chose “charity” it is Tyndale’s “love” that everyone remembers.

We have not entirely lost the notion that controversy may be robust without insult, and More’s extreme animosity to Tyndale may be a little hard to understand. Certainly Tyndale was a tough theological opponent; he believed in justification by faith alone and was implacably hostile to the ecclesiastic tradition More was defending, so there was much to displease More in Tyndale’s writings; and contemporary disputants were often rough-tongued. Tyndale suffered years of exile and died at the stake in Antwerp. More, condemned as a traitor rather than as a heretic, died on the block. Theology and politics were dangerous and related occupations in those days.

Tyndale said he would prefer the translated Bible to appear in a plain text. Simpson naturally thinks this a disastrous idea, believing, as we have seen, that “evangelical reading” produces abjection, self-loathing, “moral authoritarianism…[and] schism,” and that its practice had “powerful consequences that extend into twenty-first-century Western modernity.” Of course he is asserting that modern fundamentalism is a consequence of early modern Bible-reading, but also wishes to condemn printed Bibles as heralding an age in which nothing is binding unless it appears in print, as if in a legal contract. And so the mutual trust represented by the nonverbal or nonwritten aspects of ecclesiastical tradition founders. It need not have been so, and the man who represents, at the most critical moment, the most intelligent opposition to this decadent trend was, says Simpson, the “exceptionally prescient” Thomas More.

More’s career, illustrious but precarious as all careers were under Henry VIII, ended in death when, faithful to his conservative beliefs, he denied the right of Parliament to make Henry VIII supreme head of the English Church. During his trial he argued that certain words he was alleged to have spoken should not be taken in their literal sense (“the real sense of the text,” as Simpson writes, “is not contained in the literal force of its words…. Interpretation that is both just and accurate is not a matter of the literal sense alone”). As we know already, Simpson admires and endorses this position, which means he has little time for that of the evangelicals, including Tyndale. They stick to the literal sense as far as they can, and in that, if in nothing else, resemble More’s judicial prosecutors.

Much of the blame for this dangerous evangelical simplification is attributed by Simpson to the technology of print; print, it is argued, excludes information that is gleaned by means other than itself. Hence the evil effect of the evangelicals’ embrace of the literal sense. More, who understood this, saw more deeply than others the implications of their “reading practice.” He believed, correctly, Simpson writes, “that only oral or unwritten context made sense of written texts.”

The fact that the Pope failed to use these arguments against Luther was mere belatedness; Rome would not catch up until the Council of Trent (1545–1563), where it was laid down that Scripture shared authority with nonwritten tradition—which is close to More’s position and Simpson’s. When called on by the King to do so, More had ghostwritten (in Latin) Henry’s attack on Luther, a work that won the King his title fidei defensor, defender of the faith. In that work the King and More defended all seven sacraments, as well as Purgatory and papal authority. Anybody taking that line would have to be a strong supporter of the claim that the Bible was best thought of as a supplement.

More was a distinguished lawyer as well as a theologian, and Simpson admires his legal skills. He defends him resourcefully, himself not lacking lawyer-like resources worthy of his subject. This is a fine piece of pleading.

In his final chapter Simpson asks how it came about that More, this admirable figure, should have been willing to torture and burn people who disagreed with him. Simpson does not deny that he did so but claims that his less attractive methods were really not his fault. He picked them up from his coarser opponents; or, to use a metaphor both More and Simpson find useful, they were diseased, and he was infected in the course of doing business with them. More spoke of his enemies as spreading a pestilence, and Simpson modernizes the diagnosis: both sides in the conflict were infected by “a textual virus of distrustful literalism.” In another effort at extenuation Simpson points out that other Tudor statesmen, Thomas Cromwell for instance, ordered more executions than More did.

What of Tyndale? He thought of More—the author of Utopia—as a maker of fictions that were, after all, lies. More had “hardened his heart against the truth, with the confidence of his painted poetry.” This habit of lying caused More’s defection from the party of truth; deep down he was of the heretics’ party without knowing it. Simpson adjudicates: the real truth of the matter is that both these men were “victims of a new, immensely demanding, and punishing culture marked by literalist impersonality.” And his final verdict on the More/Tyndale bout is this:

We have two models of reading on offer. Tyndale proposes a form of fundamentalism, while More proposes a consensual, historically grounded account of reading. This reading practice is premised on the limitations of the literal sense, and is generated by trust.

But it still depends on what you choose to mean by fundamentalism. You might say that a prelate or statesman who tortured and burned his opponents was showing a fundamentalist devotion to the text of the statute against heresy, much as witch-burners depended on a scriptural condemnation of witchcraft. Simpson distrusts naked text not only because he thinks it is psychologically damaging to the reader but also because it seems, by mimicking a written contract, to mark a failure of trust, whereas More and his like managed to use texts without any such implication. Simpson thinks many of our modern troubles arise from our having given up on trust and started behaving like fundamentalists, reading badly and for the literal sense, and presumably risking abjection or psychological damage of some other kind. It is all rather far-fetched, but interesting books very often are, even if, like More’s Utopia, they don’t tell it quite straight.

This Issue

December 6, 2007