I am going to cruise straight on, even though some very good questions (and answers!) were provided in the comment stream of “Is there a liberal Christian theism? I.” I do not want to look closely at those questions and answers here, for in a sense they anticipate and pre-empt many things that I want to say now (as I supposed, when I let the first instalment go without this conclusion, they might).
I want to begin, then, with the oft-quoted passage from Augustine’s commentary on Genesis, part of which I uploaded and linked in my first instalment of this post on liberal Christian theism. The importance of Augustine for my purposes (and for the purposes of those who wish to deny that scripture is to be read literally) is simply that, in his commentary, Augustine suggests that, where the facts are known to be otherwise than they are depicted in scripture, it must be that scripture was intended to be read symbolically or figuratively. Thus, it is suggested, even those who first accepted the authority of the Bible were aware that it does not aim at the truth of science, but at religious or theological truth, and the Bible’s errors of fact are not justly held against the Bible as a source of religious enlightenment and truth.
Let us, then, consider Augustine’s position more closely. The issue is joined at the very beginning of his commentary; and the issue concerns the way in which scripture is to be read. Since it is sacred scripture, the assumption is that it provides us accessible truth. After all, that is what scriptures are for: to delimit the range within which the truth must be sought. Were the first Christians to have included all hitherto available writings, the task would have been impossible. If there is a religious truth to be known, the sources of that truth must be suitably circumscribed. Interestingly enough, whilst there have been official declarations as to the extent of the canon of Christian scriptures, no final answer can be given as to the exact parameters or limits of the scriptures, and many different canons of scripture are accepted by Christians. The most enduring and widespread of these several canons is the so-called Western Canon, accepted almost without dissent in the Western Church since the fourth century, recognisable today in the Bible accepted by both Protestants and Catholics as holy. There is a slight divergence of opinion here, since the Roman Catholic Church includes a number of books not included in the Protestant canon, often called by Protestants the Apocrypha, and known to Catholics as deuterocanonical (a second tier of the canon). These are the so-called “inter-testamental” writings, which have never been accepted as canonical by the Jews. In the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion, the church recognises these writings, according to Article VI,
for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.
Thus Protestants accept, as binding, the closing of the Jewish canon, whilst the Roman Catholic Church (as well as the Eastern Orthodox churches) accepts as canonical all those books included in the so-called Septuagint, the original Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which includes also the deuterocanonical books. In the Roman Catholic Church the canon was considered closed only in 1546, at the Council of Trent, when the books included in Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) were accepted as canonical. This decision, of course, was deliberately made in response to the Protestant rejection of the deuterocanonical books as part of the inspired canon of scripture. (A brief account of the formation of the Christian canon is available on the website of the Westar Institute — of Jesus Seminar fame).
By the time Augustine wrote, the Western Canon was, to all intents and purposes, closed, and he could assume that precisely those books included by Jerome marked the bounds of Christian scripture. Indeed, it is said of Augustine that
[h]e was the first major figure in the Church to set forth a list which included all of the disputed Old Testament books without making any distinction between the fully canonical Hebrew books and the lesser books derived from the Septuagint. [see here, with quotations from On Christian Doctrine and The City of God]
So, when Augustine wrote about scripture, the bounds were set, the sources of Christian doctrine, and the truth about God and man, were assumed to incorporate just these writings, and no others. But this, surely, is in itself a problem. The idea that, before the truth of the contents of a list of writings is known, they can be marked out, as, in themselves, containing all relevant truth (regardless of the scope of that truth) is deeply problematic. So, even if we were to conclude that Augustine provides us with a methodology for the interpretation of scripture that does not run afoul of knowledge arrived at independently of scripture, narrowing the scope of our investigation for the attainment of the truth about God and humanity to specific writings, named before that investigation has been undertaken, is already to have prejudiced the outcome.
Setting that aside for the moment, let us look at what Augustine is thought to have achieved with respect to principles for the reasonable understanding of scripture, principles which ensure that conflict between scripture itself and known scientific or other facts about the world are not interpreted to scripture’s disadvantage. Thomas Dixon, in his book Science and Religion in the Oxford very short introductions series, speaks of Augustine’s principle of accommodation:
This stated that the Bible was written in a language accommodated to the limited knowledge of the relatively uneducated people to whom it was initially revealed. [For example,] [s]ince the reader of the Book of Joshua believed that the earth was stationary and the sun moved around it, God’s word was couched in terms that they would understand. [Kindle edition, c loc. 576-7]
Augustine puts the point a bit more clearly:
In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given. In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. [page 1; all page references to the excerpt linked here]
In other words, Augustine recognises that the truth provided by scripture is not necessarily connected to the historical reliability (and therefore to the scientific or literal truth) of the narratives of the biblical text, so that, for any text, the question immediately arises as to the particular “eternal truth” that is revealed by narratives that may force themselves upon our attention as obviously figurative or allegorical. Augustine’s justification for reading the scriptures allegorically is simply that Paul writes about the symbolic meaning of scripture, and Paul himself stands within the canon. Long before critical-historical hands were laid on scripture, then, it was already taken for granted that the Bible could not be accepted as a straightforward record of facts. That being the case, it was already necessary to impose canons of interpretation onto the text in order to derive its meaning for those reading it successively in different historical periods, for the same principle of accommodation would apply to those, like Augustine, who applied the knowledge of his own day to the interpretation of the scriptures.
However, it is important for us to notice how Augustine himself applies his principle of accommodation. Let us confine ourselves to one affirmation from the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” This is the opening sentence of the Bible. Augustine provides a very subtle and detailed exegesis of this text. He starts out with these striking questions:
Were heaven and earth made in the beginning of time, or first of all in creation, or in the Beginning who is the Word, the only-begotten Son of God?
And how can it be demonstrated that God, without any change in Himself, produces effects subject to change and measured by time? And what is meant by the phrase “heaven and earth”? Was this expression used to indicate spiritual and corporeal creatures? Or does it refer only to the corporeal … ? Or is the unformed matter of both the spiritual and corporeal worlds meant in the expression “heaven and earth”: that is, are we to understand, on the one hand, the life of the spirit as it can exist in itself when not turned towards it creator … ; and, on the other hand, bodily matter considered as lacking all the bodily qualities that appear in formed matter when it is endowed with bodily appearances perceptible by the sight and the other senses? 
No one can accuse Augustine of not asking penetrating and difficult questions. However, interesting as they may be, I do not want to linger over them. That is not the point of quoting them here. Notice how certain assumptions are being brought to the text. First of all there is the Word that was in the beginning, as the gospel according to John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So in the Christian Bible, Jesus, who, according to the author of the Fourth Gospel, is the Word of God, is thus he who was in the beginning with God, without whom nothing was made that is made. That is, the very first words of the Bible speak of him. Then, of course, there are various assumptions regarding the wholeness of spiritual and physical being, which, of course, will later be said to have fallen short of divine perfection due to wickedness and disobedience. The ideas of turning away from God and turning towards God contain, in embryo, the Augustinian (and later) doctrines of reprobation and election.
The point that I want to make here is that this is already a highly conscious and structured form of exegesis. Those who want to accommodate science to Christianity — and it is obvious that Christianity is meant when Christians speak of the close linkage between religion and science — use Augustine’s principle of accommodation for a use that Augustine himself did not envisage or encourage. For Augustine already uses this principle within what is already a highly theologised context. Recall what I said about fundamentalism in the first post in this series, that fundamentalism is not a literalism, but that, within fundamentalism, the Bible is ”read according to a fairly comprehensive collection of theological presuppositions in terms of which the Bible must deliver a specifiable saving message for which (it is held) evidence can be found in the words of the Bible correctly read.” If fundamentalists are literalists, they are literalists with respect to a particular range of (generally) Protestant doctrinal affirmations which, in their original context, formed a systematic theology. I have not done a detailed study of fundamentalism, and I do not know whether they can still be said to constitute such a theology, though it is well-known that these doctrinal affirmations, affirmed in various statements of faith, are used fairly discretely as tests of orthodoxy and faithfulness.
To consider in a bit more detail how Augustine’s structured exegesis of scripture works, let us look at his letter to Jerome (Letter LXXXII – 82) in which he responds to Jerome’s charge that he had interpreted scripture in such a way as to affirm things which Jerome held to be untrue. I am not interested in the original rift between these two giants of the early church (though it will come out, I think, in what follows). However, I am interested in the outcome, for it clarifies, as nothing else can, the way in which Augustine regards the truth of scripture, and the hermeneutic limits that are set to the interpretation of scripture, and how reason is factored into that interpretation.
Augustine first responds to Jerome’s suggestion that they should amuse (‘ludamus’ — let us amuse ourselves) themselves with scripture rather than fighting over it. Clearly, the division had struck deep. Augustine responds by saying that he does not take the field of scripture as something on which to amuse himself. Indeed, he says, in response:
I am by all means disposed to exercise myself in earnest much rather than in mere amusement on such themes. [350, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, Letters of St. Augustine, Letter 82, also accessible here]
And then he goes on to praise Jerome’s erudition and brilliance, but objects to the notion that he should subject himself to Jerome’s authority without question, saying that, while they might amuse themselves without offence, he wonders whether such amusement might be, after all, at his expense.
For I confess to your Charity [Augustine then says] that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture; of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to the truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. [loc. cit.]
This is a fairly fulsome declaration of the plenary authority to be accorded to scripture.
Whoever first held that the Bible is inerrant, it is clear that Jerome himself was not entirely in agreement. As Augustine says further in this same letter to Jerome:
But you will say it is better to believe that the Apostle Paul wrote what was not true [when in Galatians (2.14) he says that he stood up to Peter for requiring Christians to live like Jews when he himself was living like a Gentile], than to believe that the Apostle Peter did what was not right. 
Augustine, however, believes the contrary. Indeed, he goes on to say clearly that holding that the scripture might be in error is in fact a wicked error, one committed by the Manichaeans [loc. cit.], and he goes on, even more fulsomely to declare:
You say that it is incredible that Paul should have rebuked in Peter that which Paul himself had done. I am not at present inquiring about what Paul did, but about what he wrote. This is most pertinent to the matter which I have in hand, — namely, the confirmation of the universal and unquestionable truth of the Divine Scriptures, which have been delivered to us for our edification in the faith, not by unknown men, but by the apostles, and have on this account been received as the authoritative canonical standard. [351; my italics]
We need not explore how he squares what Paul did with what he wrote. Nor will I do more than point out that the apostolic origin of the New Testament texts is, with the exception of some letters by Paul, almost universally questioned by critical scholars of the New Testament text. It is enough to say that Augustine provides a convincing account of why Paul might justifiably have circumcised Timothy, despite his expressed condemnation of those who insisted that all Christians must be subject to the Halakah, though in the process he sets the stage for an anti-Semitism that would grow in intensity and fury as the centuries passed.
So, where does that leave us? For space is already running short on this second post in what now seems to be growing like Topsy, and in need of yet another instalment. I hope I have shown at least two things. First, that the content of scripture, the canon of scripture itself, is itself still fairly open-ended. While for Roman Catholics the matter has been settled by a decree of the Council of Trent, and its related anathemas, there is no comparable declaration by Protestantism, which has accepted the principle enunciated by the reformers, that the acknowledged limits of the Jewish canon of the Tanach, for the Old Testament, and the limits accepted by the Easter letter of Athanasius in 367 CE for the New Testament, should constitute the limits of the Protestant canon. Anglicans, as usual, occupy the middle ground, accepting the authority of the canon accepted by Protestants, but at the same time adopting the deuterocanonical works as edifying both for morals and manners (what we might call, today, lifestyle). And there is still the Eastern Orthodox approach to scripture, which traditionally has not bound the canonical books together in a single binding, but have used various books in the context of liturgy, devotion, and theological understanding in diverse ways, thus cutting the determinate link between canon and theological interpretation that has been common in the Western Church. The second thing that I hope I have shown or suggested (at least in outline) is that Augustine’s principle of accommodation is not one that is easily transferred from its theological context to do duty for a method by which science and scripture can be readily accommodated and made consistent one with another. What is left to discuss is the question of a liberal theism, and how the relationship of scripture to a more liberal Christianity is to be understood, and whether, in fact, a liberal Christianity is a possibility given Christianity’s own traditional self-understanding. Also what remains to be discussed is whether, given a positive answer to this question, Christianity so understood provides a plausible way forward for a Christianity of the future.