In alot of ways, my continuing journey with narrative theology is saving the Old Testament for me. The tradition within which I was raised in my faith, Churches of Christ, have traditionally upheld a “dispensational” understanding of Scripture. This hermeneutic has been passed down from Alexander Campbell, one of the Restoration Movements patriarchs. This “dispensational” view is not to be confused with Dispensational Premillenialism, that is an altogether different ideology.
The dispensational hermenuetic which I was indirectly taught (I don’t ever remember anyone addressing this matter directly) basically understands the Bible and the corresponding theology divided into dispensations. I am no expert in this area, to be sure, so this may not be totally accurate to Campbell’s theology, but this is the way it was “telephoned” to me through my tradition. The Old Testament is part of the old dispensation. This dispensation was subject to the Mosaic Law. The old dispensation continued through Jesus’ death on the cross (meaning that the people living at the time of Jesus were subject to the Old Law) until the Day of Pentecost. At Pentecost, a new dispensation began, the dispensation of grace or the Spirit.
It seems to me that Campbell’s original intent for this hermeneutic was sold out by Campbellites in subsequent generations as an anachronistic argument for the Movement’s most fundamental beliefs: baptism by immersion and a cappela worship. These were fundamental tents by which I was trained. What about the theif of the cross who Jesus promised would be in Paradise? He wasn’t baptized . . . what does that say about its essentiality? Well . . . goes the argument . . . he was living under the old dispensation and so was not subject to the new dispensation’s baptismal necessity. What about instruments and the psalms? The old dispensation . . . the most signficant text within this hermeneutical structure is from Hebrews where the “old law [here read: dispensation] was nailed to the cross].
I don’t want ramble incessantly about all this. The critical thing to see is what this did to our (and my) understanding of the Old Testament. Think of what it would do to a person’s understanding and appreciation for the Old Testament to read it this way. It became simply a rich pool for Vacation Bible School stories with little more than moral lessons for today. Surely we have saddened God by our underappreciation and undervaluing the great theology present in the story of Israel. We must be warned, however, that to go there is to undo some of those time-honored treasures (most noteably the two aforementioned).
I have been leading a small group through Genesis and now Exodus over the past six months. Using Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on Genesis as my guide (see side bar), I have found myself falling in love with narrative theology. I am reading these two books as I have never read them (or heard them explained) before. They are incredibly rich in theology. As I stated at the beginning, they have helped save me. I was much more familiar with Genesis (after all, how many of us start our “read through the Bible campaign there and don’t get much further), but Exodus has just absolutely blown my mind. Theological riches are everywhere – and not just the blatant ones (ie. Passover, the Ten Commandments).
What about the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law? What does theology is there in the fact that a foreigner comes to give Moses advice on running God’s nation?
What about Miriam leading the company in worship? What does that say to our 0verly patriarchal churches?
What about all the Egyptians killed? What does that say about the wrath of God? Is this the kind of God I want to serve?
What about all the other nations? Why has God chosen Israel? What of the salvation of the Chinese and other Eastern people who are not mentioned or dealt with in Scripture?
There is so much richness here that I have never dealt with because I was sheltered from these difficult questions (was it Marcion who decided the God of the Old Testament was a different God than that of the New Testament?) Is there any wonder why?