The Birth of Fundamentalism

How a new approach to reading sacred scriptures laid the foundations for a powerful religious development.

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Religious fundamentalism has become one of the great cultural and political forces in the modern world. Associated with scriptural literalism and inflexible dogmatism, it has created divisions and hostilities within different religious traditions as well as among them. In its most extreme forms, it has led to acts of unspeakable violence. Little wonder, then, that scholars of religion have turned their attention to the subject—most notably in the University of Chicago's Fundamentalism Project, which under the direction of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, produced five volumes on different aspects of the phenomenon.

But even that large undertaking left many questions unresolved. Among them is whether the term can be applied meaningfully to so many diverse religious developments that may only superficially appear to be the same. Is Christian fundamentalism the same thing, at bottom, as Islamic or Hindu fundamentalisms?

While it may not offer a decisive answer to that question, a new book by James Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard University, offers insights into the rise of one fundamentalist tradition that may have valuable implications for our understanding of others.

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.

If liberalism had any forebears in this heated early-16th-century environment, when a century and a half of religious wars in Europe were getting underway, they were the Christian humanist opponents of that "evangelical" (as Protestant was then called) approach to reading. Humanists like Erasmus on the Continent and Thomas More in England knew that reading the Bible in that way did violence both to the truth of reading and to the truth of texts, even the truth of a special text such as the Bible. Precisely because they understood the inherently unstable quality of texts, the humanists appreciated the cumulative, time-tested wisdom of tradition, which among other uses could be applied, often liberally and creatively, to the reading and interpretation of sacred texts. Get rid of tradition, the humanists knew, and you would have an anarchy of interpretations—unless the faithful could be subtly convinced that there was one, absolutely correct reading of the text that could be discerned by those who were destined to be saved.

Which is precisely what evangelical scholars like Tyndale tried to do, first by arguing that the Bible was radically different from any other texts, particularly literary ones that indulged in the metaphorical and the ambiguous. Second, Tyndale and other Protestant luminaries (including Luther himself) convinced their evangelical followers that all good Christian readers of the Bible would come to the same correct interpretation of its passages, never acknowledging that the correct readings would also be the ones, that they, the Tyndales and Luthers, had deemed correct.

The replacement of the authority of centuries-old ecclesiastical tradition with the authority of those powerful Protestant readers and leaders demanded acceptance of the myth that the sacred text spoke univocally and unequivocally by itself. As Simpson shows, even a great humanist like More eventually lost confidence in his broad, humanist conception of reading. Succumbing to the literalist virus, he ended up repudiating the writing of his former humanist ally, Erasmus.

Simpson's rigorous examination of this important moment in English history sheds quite a different light on how liberal and fundamentalist currents within Christianity arose. More broadly, though, his analysis could be applied to the way "fundamentalist" readers of sacred texts in other traditions go about determining and fixing the correct meanings of those texts. The 18th-century Muslim theologian Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab—whose followers became so powerful in the land that became Saudi Arabia—was himself one of those who repudiated wide swaths of Islamic theological tradition in the name of returning to the unpolluted teachings of the sacred texts. He denied, of course, that he was imposing his own particular reading of those texts—a reading highly influenced by pre-Islamic Bedouin customary law—but merely returning to purity of the earliest followers (Salaf) of the Prophet Muhammad.

While Wahhabi-style salafism had little hold beyond the deserts of Arabia (except among the Saudi clan, who intermarried heavily with the Wahhabi clan), its influence has spread dramatically, even globally, during the past 30 or 40 years, thanks to Saudi oil wealth. That this has occurred along with a dramatic rise of mass literacy in the predominantly Muslim world is one of the unhappier coincidences of modern history. The narrow, puritanical Wahhabi approach to the reading of the Koran and other sacred texts has increasingly become the norm. And the tempering influence of the broader—and, yes, even more humanistic—Islamic theological and legal tradition has correspondingly declined.

Simpson's book imparts a valuable lesson to those who are concerned about the fundamentalist challenge within many of the world's faith traditions: Beware of those who say that the sacred texts speak for themselves.