Of the 21 ecumenical councils of the Church, at least five of those councils were directly associated with the burning of books - the penultimate, Constance, is not only associated with the burning of books, but also the burning of the heretic who wrote several of them:
Council of Ephesus - Although the 431 AD Council did not itself require the burning of Nestorius' works, "The bishops who were suspected of being favourable to Nestorius were deposed. An edict of Theodosius II, 30 July, 435, condemned his writings to be burnt. A few years later Nestorius was dragged from his retirement and banished to the Oasis."
Council of Chalcedon - "The writings of the Eutychians were to be burned; their authors, or those who spread them, were to be punished with confiscation and banishment. Finally Eutyches and Dioscurus were both banished."
Council of Constance - "In this session forty-five propositions of Wyclif, already condemned by the universities of Paris and Prague, were censured as heretical, and in a later session another long list of 260 errors. All his writings were ordered to be burned and his body was condemned to be dug up and cast out of consecrated ground (this was not done until 1428 under Bishop Robert Fleming of Lincoln)....
John Hus’ books were burned by order of the council (24 June)…. He refused to retract anything and so was condemned as a heretic, deposed, and degraded, and handed over to the secular arm, which in turn condemned him to perish at the stake, at that time the usual legal punishment of convicted heretics. He suffered that cruel death with self-possession and courage and when about to expire cried out, it is said: "Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us!" His ashes were thrown into the Rhine."
Council of Trent – The council (1545-1560) did not need to expressly order Luther’s writings burned, because, following the pontifical bull Exsurge Domine (15 June 1520), book burnings of Luther’s writings took place in Louvain, Antwerp, Ghent, Utrecht, Bruges, Hertogenbosch, and Deventer. The pontifical vice-chancellor of Rome, the Legate of the Low Countries, Jerome Aleander, boasted of having burnt 400 of Luther’s books, 300 of which were seized in bookshops and 100 from individuals. Tyndall’s Bible was similarly burned. And no wonder: Exsurge Domine confirmed that heretics can licitly be burned, and ordered that all heretical works, where ever they might be found, also be burned.
(If it's any consolation, the Protestants burned books and heretics with equal zeal. Consider the fate of Michael Servetus, for instance, who was burned along with his book by Calvin, or Martin Luther, who famously burned the papal edict condemning his heresies. And it isn't just a Christian thing. The Buddhist emperors of China burned Taoist books with the same zeal).
And the Church didn't restrict Herself to burning just quasi-Christian people or books. During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Muslim theology books were burnt, including hundreds of copies of the Koran. Indeed, in celebration of the removal of the Moors from Spain, there was a grand book burning of at least 5000 Muslim volumes at Bibarrambla.
And it wasn't just the Koran that burned. During the Middle Ages, the Talmud was frequently targeted for the fire by Church authorities precisely because of the numerous blasphemies concerning Christ and the Blessed Virgin that it contains. Throughout Europe, the book was formally put on trial and censored or burnt, in much the same way Terry Jones tried and burnt the Koran.
As the Renaissance unfolded and the printing press dramatically increased the number of books, the number of book burnings carried out by the Catholic Church also dramatically increased.
Of the 15 to 20 million books printed before 1500, 12 million were in Latin. By 1530, there were more books in the vernacular than in Latin. The printing press permitted a modern Tower of Babel. Politically, it fractured Europe into various vernacular "nations" which contributed to the rise of the nation-state. Theologically, it allowed pretty much anyone to set out their own musings in an easily disseminated format. The Church tried to crack down on this via book burnings, but without much success.
The Point of the Flames
And here we must entertain the question of prudence. When there is no printing press, where there is no such thing as paper, a book is a very expensive undertaking. It requires much vellum or papyrus, both of which require intensive labor for production - vellum not only requires labor, but large herds of sheep or cattle, for vellum is made from their skin. Even today, real vellum is expensive and hard to find. And, once the vellum is located, you have to find someone literate to hand-copy the book that you want made.
In a society in which even the leaves of books are expensive, the skill it takes to inscribe those leaves with the correct encoding of ink is a very expensive and arcane hobby, much like the skill of flying a helicopter is today.
Most people don't know how to pilot a helicopter because they have no likelihood of ever owning or using one. Helicopters are too expensive. Similarly, in a pre-printing press society, books are simply too expensive, they require too much labor to produce for most people to own one or even learn the skills associated with correctly using one.
So, when a book is burned in such a society, the ideas expressed in the book will probably not long survive the fire. That was the theory, but it rarely worked in practice.
As we can see from the examples above, the very first ecumenical council of the Church burned Arius' writings, but that really didn't stop his ideas from spreading. The Church spent the next several hundred years trying to stamp out the heresy, and never really succeeded. Today's Jehovah Witnesses teach pretty much what Arius taught all those centuries ago.
So if book burning didn't even work back then, how effective is it going to be today, when printing presses around the world can turn out books faster than anyone can burn them? Indeed, what is the point of book burning at all, given that the Internet makes it literally impossible to touch the source text?
Book burning, both then and now, is a statement, a declaration of war against a specific idea. Just as certain people fight hard to keep "unsuitable" books out of the science classroom, so other people fight hard to keep "unsuitable" books out of other classrooms. Whether we are talking about the banning of a textbook on intelligent design or the burning of a book by Mohammed, we are ultimately discussing the attempt to condemn a certain set of ideas.
Now, many people say that, rather than burn or ban books, we should engage and refute the ideas expressed within them. And we should, indeed, engage and refute ideas. But engagement and refutation have many aspects.
Know Your Enemy
For instance, to someone raised in a Western Judeo-Christian culture, an idea is engaged and refuted by using Aristotelian logic. But for someone raised in an Eastern non-Judeo-Christian culture, Aristotelian logic has no special compulsion.
Islam, for instance, famously teaches that Allah is not rational, that rationality is beneath Him. Allah is greater than rationality, He is not bound by laws of any kind, not even His own word. In the war to maintain His glory - and all Islam sees it as a war between Allah and the forces of darkness - Allah is the greatest of deceivers.
So, when we demand that Westerners should "engage and refute" Islam, we implicitly demand that Muslims adopt Western Judeo-Christian standards of debate, that they adopt and treasure Western Judeo-Christian concepts of value and culture. We imagine seriously orthodox Muslims use the same Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian standards we use.
Now, sure, Islam preserved the Greco-Roman heritage for us (although, it should be noted, they did not preserve Aristotle's Logic for us - we always had that book), but Islam never really used any of those books. What time they spent with the Greco-Roman classics was largely spent trying to make those works cohere to Islamic thought, much as Aquinas spent years trying to baptize Aristotle.
The difference? Aquinas ultimately showed that Aristotle's work could, indeed, be baptized. Muslims never managed that for Islam. That's why they ultimately never really did anything with the foundations of Greco-Roman thought. Islam stagnated because it couldn't think it's way out of the hole its theology had placed it in.
Precisely because Islam does not see Allah as a rational being, it is irrational for us to assume that logical debate will win over orthodox Muslims. The natural law may, indeed, be written on their hearts, but as Aquinas points out, that doesn't mean it is easy to discern or clear.
A priest friend once told me, "In order to start a conversation with some people, you must first break green lumber over their heads." Burning a Koran is certainly the theological equivalent of that attention-getting action.
Becoming a Soldier of Christ
But it isn't just a matter of getting attention. Given the Muslim propensity for irrational violence, the act of burning the Koran is a very personal declaration of war. It places the person doing the burning at very real and central risk of becoming a target for Muslim violence.
In short, the burning of a Koran makes you a soldier in the current war. Just as the Internet has made burning books old hat, so Islam has made travel to the Army recruitment center unnecessary. In this war, you don't have to pass a government physical or train in a government boot camp to become a combatant. Just burn a Koran, and you're in.
In fact, you don't even need to do that. Simply being a living, breathing non-Muslim makes you a combatant. In this sense, there is a real logical consistency, a real and positive motivation for burning a Koran. Muslims have already demonstrated that every non-Muslim is a target, that civilian casualties are not only not to be avoided, civilian casualties are to be encouraged.
So, when a civilian burns the Koran, he or she is not just saying, "The Koran is a blasphemous book", rather, he or she is saying, "I realize that you recognize me as an enemy combatant. I realize that you consider me worthy of nothing but enslavement and slaughter unless I convert to Islam. I refuse to convert."
Now, in agreeing to see themselves as a soldier, the civilian who burns the Koran has, in a very real sense, accepted at least some of the premises of Islam. Such a person essentially agrees that there is such a thing as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. Such a person agrees that we who are non-Muslims are in that house.
So, in this sense, the burning of a Koran is a very Muslim act. And, for this very reason, a Christian might say "I cannot burn a Koran, for I do not accept that there should be such a House of War. I do not accept the Muslim worldview." And this is a view that is also accurate. It cannot be discounted or downplayed.
By burning a Koran, we tell the Muslim radical, "Here I stand. You shall not pass."
It may not be prudent, it may not be useful, but it is a stand worthy of respect.