Bad News About the Good News

Bad News About the Good News

Vanessa Persico

Harvard Professor of English James Simpson’s lecture on “Bad News Bible: Six Dark and Demeaning Paradoxes of Evangelical Bible Reading,” sponsored by the English department as part of its Humanities Colloquium series, did not focus on hypocrisies of contemporary evangelical Christianity in the U.S., as many audience members had expected.

Instead, attendees got a preview of Simpson’s upcoming paper on the contradictions of the way that Martin Luther and William Tyndale, the founding fathers of Protestantism, interacted with the text of the Bible in the 1520’s.

“I imply no necessary connection between this evangelical culture and the evangelical culture in the United States today,” he said, and then repeated after a pause, “No necessary connection.”

The first paradox that Simpson cited was that early Protestants were called to “hate the text to love it.” Lutheran ideology dictates salvation through being chosen specifically by God, and that no amount of good works can make up for not being a part of this “elect.” Yet, individual interaction with the Bible, a text full of exhortations to good works, is central to Luther’s doctrines as well, though all it does is hold up a standard of behavior that is beyond the sinful reader’s capacity.

“The model [the Bible] can only provoke despair at the reader’s powerlessness to fulfill the injunction,” Simpson explained. “Despair is part of the emotional dialectic of salvation.”

Simpson’s second paradox was, “Textual simplicity means textual ambiguity.” Tyndale criticized the way that Catholicism over-interpreted Scripture. However, Protestantism was born when Luther noted the dual meanings, which is to say the interpretability, of the Latin phrase iustitia Dei in the Bible: it could either indicate the justice that God practices, or a separate kind of justice that is God’s alone and not humanity’s.

“[The] evacuation of human standards in order to make way for the alien standards of the divine is the essence of Lutheran reading,” Simpson said; in other words, the words of the Bible must be stripped of extraneous worldly meaning — simplified — so that they can be empty — ambiguous — and ready for their true divine interpretation.Simpson stated, but never got around to explaining, the third paradox: “A culture of faith alone in the written word is a no-faith culture.”

The fourth paradox was that “the literal sense is not the literal sense.” Luther himself said that “scripture interprets itself,” and preached that the Bible is the literal word of God, inviting no “deep” reading. Yet the evangelical reader was still held to be capable of reading wrongly. Luther, Tyndale and similar figures wrote innumerable glosses, prologues, marginal commentaries and catechisms, in some cases longer than the texts being glossed, in order to ensure that the evangelical reader was reading “in the right spirit.”

Simpson phrased the fifth paradox two different ways: “Scripture interprets itself, but my interpretation is right,” or “the Scripture of an institution precedes the Scripture of any institution.” He explained that, when deciding who would mediate in the case of an interpretive disagreement, Luther and Tyndale stated that only members of the true Church — which Simpson called “an invisible institution” made up of those “elected” by God — could interpret Scripture correctly.

By that logic, Simpson said, “A church precedes the interpretation of a text that needs no church to interpret it.”

The sixth and last paradox was, “History is sacred; history is bunk.”

“[In Lutheran thought,] history as recorded in Scripture is not to be meddled with, regardless of its effect on the present,” Simpson said.

However, this is a tiny sliver of history, one true strand that should be viewed as sacred. The rest is merely to be taken as “textual divergence,” to the extent that Abraham, Moses, Joseph et al were considered Christians in spite of the fact that they were born, lived and died before Christ was born.

“[To Protestants,] most history was a mistake. Most history was just human tradition,” he said, explaining that “tradition” was a pejorative word in early evangelical thought.

Before the audience shrank substantially for the question and answer session, Simpson closed his talk by mentioning very hurriedly that there could be a link between this tradition of reading and current ways of reading the United States Constitution.

The question and answer session dealt with the idea of the “Great Protestant anxiety”: if a believer does not feel confident in his interpretation of Scripture, or cannot read it at all, he is immediately, according to Lutheran theory, damned because the “elect” knew instinctively how to read Scripture.