We’ve all heard the fundamentalists trying to seize the high ground of biblical literalism. What this rhetoric often masks however are two simple truths: (1) that the Old Testament and New Testament differ from each other in important respects, so consequently (2) there is a trade off between biblical literalism and biblical unity whichever way you interpret the Bible.
Reformed Christians, for instance, tend to emphasise the sovereignty of God and the unity of scripture. They suggest the differences between the two testaments are more apparent than real as “God does not contradict himself” and any apparent contradictions can be harmonised when we look deeper. They advise that when one is faced with many clear verses apparently teaching one ethic and few unclear verses apparently teaching another ethic, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the former as being God’s word for us. The clearer scripture relativises the unclearer scripture. There is much merit to this approach I think.
Anabaptist Christians, however, have critiqued this method for its tendency to domesticate the radical teaching of Jesus. For instance, when one is faced with the apparent contradiction between the wars of YHWH in the Old Testament and the “love your enemies” teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, should we allow the former to correct the latter? Or shouldn’t it be the other way around, even when it seems to buck the Old Testament status quo and even when it seems cryptic? Is Jesus not the revelation of God? If so, it is Jesus we should take most literally. Let lesser revelation be relativised. As you may gather, I favour this approach.
Dispensationalist Christians, the fundamentalists, would critique both approaches as insufficiently literal. What about YHWH’s promises to Israel they ask? What about the prophecies? Can you allegorise them away so easily? We should treat New Testament and Old Testament, clear verses and unclear verses with equal seriousness! Superficially this sounds sensible. However, what such a position commits them to is this: they can’t do it without dividing up scripture to an insanely complicated degree and denying the applicability of every scripture to everyone at everytime. Way beyond the simple divide between New Testament and Old Testament. This is what fundamentalists don’t tell you. They affirm different ethics for different “dispensations”. And since Jesus belonged to a past dispensation, his teaching, however literal, in important respects no longer applies for Christians of this dispensation. This is a literalism that casts the literal teachings of Jesus to one side in the name of literalism.