Scriptural texts can be “God’s word” and simultaneously metaphorical, analogical, and/or allegorical – and therefore require critical tools to delineate metaphorically-intended from literally-intended texts. The argument that those who worship the biblical God must take all scripture literally is unnecessarily restrictive. It restricts:
1) God. It restricts God from “writing” or “inspiring” poetic, allegorical, non-literal texts. “For God to be God, God must be a literalist”, or something like that, seems to be the thinking here. Theoretically God can communicate as easily through metaphor as through literalness. It is up to the reader – armed with current critical data – to decide the specific nature of a particular text.
2) It restricts theologians who employ the critical interpretive tools disallowed them by the literalist imperative. Modern theology without critical apparatuses is no longer theology but blind speculation pre-determined by sectarian bias.
3) It restricts Christians. The literalist imperative stamps all non-literalist Christians as fakes, which is an extremely skewed, inaccurate, and harshly judgmental scenario. It arrogantly evaluates for Christians how they **must** view the Bible, whereas in historical actuality Christians have always developed and applied their own adaptations in reading and interpreting scripture.
This practice goes back even to New Testament times and the Patristic age. Yes, some Christians were and are fundamentalists, but many are non-literalists, and this perspective itself has biblical precedent. Not only does scripture advise the reader to “test the text” and “the word of those who purportedly speak the word of God”. From the Psalms where the Psalmist tells Yahweh that He has broken His covenant; to the Book of Job where Job wrestles with God’s word and eventually with God “Him”self; to Jesus’ agony in the garden and his “lama sabachtani” on the cross, the Bible – even when viewed as “God’s word” – is itself replete with examples of questioning God and “His” word.
The literalist argument as usually phrased seems to ignore the advances into, and the acceptance of, critical biblical schoalarship in mainline congregations. Or rather: the argument disparages modern biblical literacy, claiming that its acceptance is a token of unfaithfulness to the word of the deity whom Christians worship. The argument consigns all Christians to a fundamentalist backwater, on the pain of heresy. It makes the phrase, “enlightened Christian,” an oxymoron. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, it narrowly defines God as a heavenly fundamentalist, whose word can be properly understoond only by earthly fundamentalists.
Granted, as early as New Testament and Patristic times scripture was viewed allegorically. Truly critical studies are a relatively recent invention, going back only just a bit before the Enlightenment.
Allegorical and literal interpretion always coexisted in Christianity, but it was only with the dawn of critical scholarship and critical historical studies and methods that the Church (as well as society in general) had an objective “scientific” means of understanding scripture. Considering the relative recentness of modern critical studies, it is safe to say that these Enlightenment-based disciplines have been, and remain, the primary means of nurturing Christianity’s age-old process of adaption and renewal. It is critical understanding, not biblical literalism, that has brought the Church into the era of modernity, and it is critical understanding that will nourish the Church’s future.