Fundamentalists frequently claim that they believe as ancient Christians did: namely in literal Biblical interpretation. It is true that a lot of ancient Christians did so believe, but those earlier generations believed it in a far different way than do modern fundamentalists.
Fundamentalism – far from being a long-standing representative of unchanging Christianity – is a modern movement, a direct, conscious protestation against the European Enlightenment. Paradoxically adopting Enlightenment principles, however, modern fundamentalism states that “if X did not happen historically/factually, then X cannot be true”. Hence, ironically, Biblical literalism and Englightenment reductionism go hand in hand with their demand that “truth equal fact.” All of this devolves from Christian intellectual history (as so well delineated in the works of New Testament scholar and historian Marcus J. Borg):
The Christian attitude toward scripture actually unfolded in three historical stages (which also happen to roughly conform to stages in human psychological development):
1. First Period: “Pre-critical Naivete”: in a pre-scientific world, there was no particularly good reason not to take Biblical stories literally. But this was not fundamentalism. It was simply how most people believed prior to the advent of modern scientific thinking. Science had not yet come along to disqualify the literal factualness of Biblical narratives.
Interestingly, not all Christians even in those times took scripture literally. From Patristic times, scripture was freely and frequently interpreted allegorically in the Christian church.
2. Second Period: “Critical Thinking”: thinking conforming to scientific/Enlightenment models, which also happened to hatch the modern fallacy that Truthfulness = Factualness: “If it didn’t happen in history, it is not fact, and if it’s not fact, it can’t be true.” This fallacy is held by post-Enlightenment fundamentalists as well as their scientific/reductionist counterparts.
This perspective launched modern fundamentalism, which was no longer the old pre-critical, naive acceptance of scripture that was common to ages ignorant of scientific/Enlightenment thinking. Rather, it was – and is – a deliberate protest and eschewal of Enlightenment principles – although as mentioned it ironically adopts the Enlightenment’s “Truth = Fact” model. It is a strangely anomalous, abnormal, archane continuation of defunct, naive pre-critical literalism, because it blindly maintains that literalism, despite particularly good scientific, reasonable, evidential reasons not to so maintain it.
Thus the proposition / “Jesus walked on water” / is equally for fundamentalists and their scientific counterparts a matter of literal physical historical truth. Both agree that if Jesus did NOT walk on water, the story is worthless at best, a lie at worst. The only difference is that scientific reductionists lose nothing by denying the historical physical literalness of such tales, whereas fundamentalists lose their theory of the Bible’s literal inerrancy – and with it, salvation itself (unless of course they convert to liberal, non-literalist forms of Christianity – which would only be salvation-loss in another form).
3. Third Period: “Post-critical Understanding”: the enlightened modern person of faith understands that most spiritual truth is neither reducible nor expressible by “the physical/factual” – that in fact most of it can ONLY be successfully imparted through a specialized spiritual language that frequently uses metaphor, analogy, and allegory to convey its message. Therefore progressive Christians hold that the literal truth or factuality of Biblical narrativeis often secondary and peripheral to the “soul-truth” that it communicates.
Indeed, biblical literalists’ concretizing of Biblical mythical material actually falsifies its authorial intent and skews the narrative away from allegory toward the fatal shoals of the “Truth equals Fact” paradigm. In doing so, paradoxically, it is the literalists who often distort the Biblical message, and it is the non-literalists who often preserve it.