Inhabiting the Strange New World Within the Bible
Posted on January 6, 2015
This is a strange article about a strange book creating a strange world. But its very strangeness is a life-and-death matter.
Let’s begin by noting a short exchange between Jesus and his disciples recorded by Luke:
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:5-6)
This exchange is bristling with truth and meaning. It’s potentially life transformational. Our Lord had just exhorted the disciples to forgive their brother if he repents, even if he sins seven times a day. It’s possible that their request “Increase our faith!” is a direct response to that exhortation. The meaning then would be: “Lord, it’s exceedingly hard to forgive those that sin against us even once. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive up to seven times daily. For that kind of forgiveness, we must have more faith.” Or, there simply could be an unstated ellipsis in the narrative. In verse 5, Luke could be starting a new sub-narrative.
The Strange New World
Still, the broad meaning is clear enough. The disciples implore the Lord to increase their faith. He responds by employing a metaphor about a grain of mustard seed. But he didn’t, strictly speaking, answer their question. Before we can grasp the significance of his answer, however, we need to re-orient our thinking to what Karl Barth once called “the strange new world within the Bible.” I don’t mean by this the strange old world of the ancient Near East, something entirely different. Of course, in our postmodern West, we’re far removed culturally and historically from the context in which the words of Luke 17 were first uttered. This distance poses challenges for interpreting the Bible. Thoughtful interpretation must take account of that ancient context and not read the Bible as though it were written last year in Los Angeles or London. We’re far removed from the Palestine of 2000 years ago, and biblical interpretation must investigate what the passage might have meant when it was originally uttered. But, if you’ll think about it, that ancient context was in some fundamental ways just as removed from “the strange new world within the Bible” as we are. How is that? Let’s answer in terms of our passage by contrasting what we find hard to believe with what the ancients found hard to believe.
Two Species of Unbelief
Why is faith hard in our world? It generally reduces to things like metaphysics, theodicy, psychology, and neuroscience: “How can we believe that God exists given the suppositions of our scientifically oriented society?” Or: “We all know that the ancients believed in the supernatural, but we no longer need supernatural explanations for the mysteries of the universe.” Or: “How can we believe in God when there’s such evil and suffering in the world?” Or: “If God exists, why do bad things happen to good people?” Or: “Isn’t belief in God just a self-invented opiate to deaden the emotional pain of this life?” Or: “Isn’t theism just a belief — like all other beliefs — induced by chemical reactions in our brain?” These are serious modern questions that tend to foster unbelief, but they’re not the questions of the ancient world. Consequently, we need to ask, what was the problem of unbelief among the ancients that faith at that time needed to overcome? How could they not believe?
We get one clue in our narrative. Their problem was what we might term existential unbelief in contrast to what I’d like to term today’s speculative unbelief. It’s hard to imagine moderns (including Christians) concerned much about getting more faith to forgive those who have sinned against us (though we should). On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine the ancients needing faith to believe in God on the grounds that they can’t see him — they believed in gods and the supernatural and the routine interface between what we would call the distinction between the supernatural and natural realms. That wasn’t an intellectual problem for them. Their problem was trusting a God that wasn’t whimsical and mercurial like all the pagan gods; a God that governed the entire universe, sending rain on their crops so that they and their children wouldn’t starve; a God that cared enough to provide a warm place to sleep on a cold night; a God that would heal leprosy and protect from bloodthirsty tribal armies. Their faith is often not our faith, and their unbelief is often not our unbelief. This is part of what I mean when I say that to grasp this passage (and similar ones), we must inhabit the strange new world within the Bible: the interpretive distance is (a) historical, (b) existential, and (c) spiritual. Let me explain.
If we observe biblical interpreters who neglect the historical and cultural distance between the biblical text and our time, we know that they’ll likely misinterpret the text. For example, we observe some Christians who read that Paul requires women to be “covered” in public worship (1 Cor. 11), and they immediately conclude that women today must wear veils in church (that’s not even self-evident from the passage). We’d first ask them to consider what “covering” meant in the ancient world; why Paul would have demanded it; whether that command is transcultural; and if so, what its practice would look like today. That is one of the tasks of faithful biblical interpretation, and it’s a common understanding among thoughtful biblical interpreters.
The Context of the Biblical World
But we might be less aware of the existential differences between our world and the world of the Bible, as well as the differences between the ancient world and the world of the Bible. The biblical world was removed from the ancient world, as I said before, just as it is from our world, because the biblical world presupposes the ubiquity and greatness and goodness of a sovereign God. This, after all, is how the Bible starts. “In the beginning, God….” It starts not with an argument or apologetic, but a self-verifying assertion. This gracious, omnipotent, ever-active God is the ontological and conceptual context for the entire universe. This context, the strange new world within the Bible, was just as distant from the ancient world as it is from us. It’s an alien world, not historically, but spiritually. And its alienation from sinful humanity spans all of post-Fall human history. For autonomous humans to put their full confidence in this God was just as hard 2000–4000 years ago as it is today. Most of the ancients didn’t have a problem believing in the supernatural, but they did have a problem surrendering their lives to the God of the Bible. Alternatively, we moderns are inclined to reason: “There’s no good evidence that God exists, but if he exists as the Bible says, we’d probably need to be fully committed to that kind of God — good thing he doesn’t exist!” This is simply to say that human autonomy is a transcultural, perennial problem.
One of the great temptations we contemporary Christians experience is to ask how the Bible — an ancient book, assuming an ancient worldview and experience — can be relevant in our postmodern world. This has things precisely backwards. We should be asking how we Christians inhabiting postmodernity can — must — inhabit the world of the Bible. We shouldn’t be laboring to make the Bible more relevant. We should be laboring to change our thinking and acting to bring them into greater conformity to the biblical world.
Our Hyperactive God
This is precisely how Jesus led his disciples. When they asked him to increase their faith, he didn’t instruct them on how to do that. They wanted greater faith so as to act in a more virtuous way in forgiving those who sinned against them. Jesus is saying, “If you inhabit a new world, the biblical world, you’ll understand that greater faith isn’t a problem.” In short, he invited them to more deeply inhabit the world of the Bible — the world of the God who is so great that even a faith the size of a puny mustard seed can remove a deeply entrenched mulberry tree. The Lord chose that tree as an example because its tentacular roots seem almost impossible to extract from the ground. His answer wasn’t to tell them how to increase their faith; rather, it was to increase their knowledge of the greatness of God,  the God of the strange world within the Bible.
This invitation highlights several truths for us to consider.
Holism, not dualism
First, please note that Jesus was employing a metaphor, not so much an analogy. At least, he wasn’t saying, “Just as a mulberry tree could be powerfully uprooted in the physical universe, so God could powerfully accomplish exploits in the ‘spiritual’ (non-physical) universe.” No. In too many cases, Jesus had asked his Father to answer very physical, tactile prayers — healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and miraculously providing tax money.
Our current way of thinking is often very different from this. The evangelical church in many quarters is profoundly dualistic — it looks down on the human body, on physical healing, on the arts and technology and economics, on creating wealth, on caring for the poor, all these considered, at best, sub-spiritual and, at worst, distractions from the Faith. But to assert Jesus’ Lordship is to assert his Lordship in all of life, not simply the so-called “spiritual” part, “spiritual” interpreted (wrongly) as non-physical.
When Jesus invited the disciples to inhabit the world of the Bible, he was inviting them to exert faith in the God who is interested not just in peace and joy in one’s heart, but also in food on our table, a roof over our heads, money to help not just our family but also Christian ministries and the needy, and a God who is interested in all else of the physical, tactile earth. The world of the Bible is presided over by the God who governs everything, and therefore is interested in everything.
Piety: vertical and horizontal
Second, this means that the biblical world cannot be limited to merely vertical piety. This, too, is a vexing evangelical problem. These words by Scott J. Hafemann must sound strange to many modern evangelicals:
The primary matrix of God’s self-revelation is … not private religious experience, but the events recounted and interpreted in the Scriptures that establish and maintain [covenant] relationships…. History, not the heart, is the locus of divine revelation.
Strange indeed — a strange biblical world. We live in a post-Kantian world increasingly obsessed with “the inward turn,” with the private conceptual world that we all inhabit: how we are feeling, what our moods are, what arguments convince us, what our choices will be, what we define as true and beautiful. But God didn’t call his people to him, and Jesus did not shed his blood and rise from the dead for us, simply to create an interior relationship with the Triune God. Already in Genesis 1 God made clear to Adam and Eve that he created them not merely to commune with him (vital though that communion was, Gen. 3:8) but also to exercise loving stewardship over the rest of his creation as his deputies (Gen. 1:28–30). This is to say that God isn’t interested only in a warm, personal relationship with you and me; he’s also interested in bringing all things under his loving but kingly authority manifested in his Son. When we interiorize Christianity under the guise of passionate devotion, we are in reality, if unintentionally, undercutting the Lordship of Jesus Christ and stepping out of the biblical world. That world, the world that Jesus invited his disciples to inhabit, is a world in which all people, all creation, brings honor and glory to him.
It sometimes seems that many evangelicals are interested in only vertical piety, while Social Gospel liberals are interested only in horizontal piety. The fact is that both are wrong. Our piety must be holistic. It must encompass all of life.
A commanding faith
Third, God makes himself vulnerable to the commanding authority of belief in himself. Notice that Jesus told his disciples that they could speak a commanding word to the mulberry tree, and it would obey. We might get skittish when we hear this language, because it reminds us of some of our more radical Pentecostal brothers and sisters, or even the prosperity or health-and-wealth gospel crowd, whose religion looks suspiciously like North American self-help narcissism. In many cases, that is precisely what it is. But, of course, this is not what Jesus is denoting at all. You’ll notice that Jesus is not recommending that his disciples command magical money or oceanfront houses or late-model Lamborghinis. He’s telling them that they can employ faith in a big God to command God to work for his glory.
God is no talisman, but he invites (no, requires) his people to exercise commanding faith. In other words, God has placed within the hands of his people the privilege and responsibility of directing his power in the earth. Let’s not be diluted by a sense of spurious humility. Let’s not ask, “Who am I to make great claims in the Lord’s name”? When we think this way, what we are really asking is for God not to demonstrate his greatness in the earth. This fact leads to my final application:
No absentee landlord
God longs to display his great love for his people by responding in spectacular ways to their requests. When he answers such massive requests, he exhibits both his power in the universe, as well as his love for his people.
Matthew Henry makes a fascinating point when commenting on the Lord’s Prayer: “[W]hereas the Jews’ prayers were generally adorations, and praises of God, and doxologies, John taught his disciples such prayers as were more filled up with petitions and requests.” The Jews of that era were inclined to pray by holding their palms upward, looking to the heavens, and telling God how great he is. I imagine that no believer who wishes to please God would oppose such prayer. God is worthy of all of the praise we can give him.
Henry implied, though, that this isn’t how Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. He told them that, after giving God his due worship, they should actually ask him to do things in the earth. To tell God how great he is without asking him to demonstrate his greatness in the earth is to pray half of prayer. When we ask God as our gracious Father not just to provide for our very physical needs but also to unleash his kingdom’s will in earth as it is in heaven, we’re offering a spectacular request. Think about it for a moment. The will of God is done impeccably in heaven. And Jesus instructs his disciples, and us, to ask that that same impeccable will be accomplished in our sinful world.
But prayer isn’t limited to prayer for kingdom advancement. Again and again Jesus tells his disciples that what they ask in his name, he will do it (Mt. 7:7; Lk. 18:1ff.; Jn. 14:14). Now, he either meant what he said, or he didn’t. Nobody believes that God promises to answer every single request, because God as a loving Father will not do for us what would be harmful to us. It’s remarkable, however, that by actual count, we’re informed that God answered about 70% of the prayers his people prayed as recorded in the Bible, and there could have been many more answers we’re not told about to the recorded prayers. In the words of Grant R. Osborne, “God is sovereign and can say ‘no,’ but we should not expect God to reject our requests.”
If this is the case, it is strange indeed why Christians don’t pray more frequently. Why don’t we ask God to get us a better job, to provide the money to pay our legitimate bills, to heal broken relationships with friends and family, to heal our bodily ailments, to get us better sleep, and find the right spouse. And why do we pray such anorexic prayers when Jesus said that to inhabit the biblical world is to exercise faith in the God who specializes in doing such spectacular things that he alone will get the glory? Why not prayer that God will reroute a hurricane or avalanche, that he will heal our sister of pancreatic cancer, that he will supply 3 million dollars to launch a distinctly Christian movie studio? Answers to paltry prayers might lead spectators to think that our God is a paltry God. Answers to spectacular prayers tend to lead spectators to recognize that our God is a spectacular God (at least the idolatrous apostate Jews thought so).
God is, if I may use the expression, truly hyperactive in our world. He is incessantly moving, changing situations and people, forgiving sin, healing cancer, judging the wicked, throwing down the mighty, exalting the lowly, sending storms as well as sunny weather, protecting children, inspiring joy, eroding mountains and creating new ones, guiding the sea’s tides, preserving what we call “universal laws,” and much else. God is not an absentee landlord. He is hyperactive in our world, his world,
This is the biblical world, the real world. Inhabiting the biblical world is inhabiting a world where God is constantly glorified, constantly active, constantly undertaking on behalf of his people. Let us not be guilty of trying to import God into our own world but, rather, let us inhabit the strange new world within the Bible.
 The Bible doesn’t include non-verbal clues that would help us to understand meaning: intonation, gestures, silences, and body language. God intentionally hasn’t left us with any of these in the Bible, of course, and this means that we must leave room for flexibility in interpretation, particularly in narrative, where non-verbal communication is most likely. See Anthony C. Thiselton, “Semantics and New Testament Interpretation,” New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, I. Howard Marshall, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 75–104.
 Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 28.
 This is precisely how Christians in the precritical era interpreted the Bible: “[S]ince the world truly rendered by combining biblical narratives into one [grand narrative] the one and only real world, it [the biblical world] must in principle embrace the experience of any present age and reader. Not only was it possible for him [the precritical Christian], it was also his duty to fit himself into that world in which he was in any case a member, and he too did so in part by figural [figurative] interpretation and in part of course by his mode of life. He was to see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era’s events as figures of that storied [biblical] world,” Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), 3.
 Leon Morris, Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 256, emphasis supplied.
 Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship,” Central Themes in Biblical Theology, Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 21.
 Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 5.
 Grant R. Osborne, “Moving Forward on our Knees: Corporate Prayer in the New Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 53/2 (June 2010), 257.