At the heart of almost every controversy in the church lies a deceptively simple question: “How do we read the Bible?” It shouldn’t be surprising that different Christians (and parties of Christians) interpret the Bible differently. We’ve been doing that for a very long time. Where it becomes urgent is when one party “unchurches” another because they approach the Bible in a way that they do not accept. Conservative and fundamentalists are especially prone to this, but no “party” is exempt. “We know how the Bible is to be read. No other way will do.”
Sometimes the “literalist” approach is offered as though this is the way that the church has always, until the invention of historical criticism, operated. However, anyone who has ever read the early Church Fathers knows that they often went in for esoteric allegorical interpretations of scripture which look frankly barking to a modern reader. Similarly, although Luther had a very “high” view of the inspiration of scripture, his remark about James being “an epistle of straw” (and his antipathy towards the Book of Revelation) is well known.
Modern fundamentalism is every bit as ‘culturally conditioned’ as historical criticism and Alexandrian allegory. All are products of particular times and places, and like every other human endeavour subject to the effects of sin. What is remarkable is that despite the way the scriptures have been used (and misused) acros the generations, they still have power to change lives and lead people to salvation. That should surely be enough for us.