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Monday Musings – The Kernel and the Husk?

The word inerrancy means “without error.” It is a word that, as far as I know, is only used in connection with Scripture. To believe in the inerrancy of Scripture is to believe that Scripture never communicates anything as fact that is contrary to fact. At Highland Park, we adhere to The Baptist Faith and Message as a statement of our core beliefs. The very first article of that statement pertains to the Scriptures, and it provides a beautiful expression of belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, even without using that term:

The Holy Bible is written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.

In Sunday’s sermon at Highland Park, we saw that this is how the apostle Paul viewed Scripture. In 2 Timothy 3:16, he writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The word “inspired” translates a Greek word that actually means “God-breathed” (see the NIV and ESV translations of the verse). Consider the implications of this. If Paul is right, then the very words of Scripture are God’s words. Thus, the Bible has God for its author. And we know from Scripture that God is not able to present as fact something that is contrary to fact – God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). To believe in the inerrancy of Scripture is to affirm the divine authorship of every word of Scripture and the implication that every word must, therefore, be true.

But is belief in the inerrancy of Scripture possible while maintaining intellectual honesty in our day and age? Is it really necessary that we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture in order to preserve a high view of Scripture and its authority? There are many who would answer “No” to both of those questions.

Adolf Von Harnack, a very well-known and widely read theologian and church historian of the late 19th century, offered an analogy to explain how Christians might affirm the authority and overall truthfulness of Scripture, even while admitting that it is filled with many factual errors. He likened Scripture – especially the teachings of Jesus – to an ear of corn, composed of both the kernels (the nutritious good stuff we all love) and the husk (the rigid, tough covering that we have to peel away to eat the yummy kernels). The kernel of Scripture is the simple and true central message of the Christian faith, unchanged and unchanging. The husk of Scripture is the historical circumstance of the human authors or speakers, as well as many of the historical details and conclusions of the text itself. In Harnack’s view, it is the job of the historian to discover – and the job of the average Christian to embrace – the kernel of  the message of the Christian faith and to separate it from the husk, which can be discarded without consequence.

This approach to the Bible has been attractive to many people. It seems like an easy way to hold onto the basics of the Christian faith without being “stuck” with some of the more embarrassing aspects of the message of Scripture – a world inhabited by spiritual beings called angels and demons, the latter of which can personally possess and control people; the existence of a super-powerful and ancient demonic being named Satan who is the enemy of God; a global flood; talking donkeys; parting sees; water turning to wine, etc. Those things were all a part of the belief system and worldview of the authors of Scripture, and that is why they are presented as actual fact. But we now know that worldview is inaccurate. So, we can discard all that stuff and just get to the heart of the message.

Needless to say, this approach to Holy Scripture is filled with insurmountable problems. Should this course be followed, it will result, not in the preservation of the Christian faith in a modern age, but in the entire forfeiture of it. Let me give you three reasons (many more could be given) why Harnack’s approach to Scripture and the Christian faith should be utterly rejected by the people of God.

First, the analogy itself is flawed. Harnack only takes into account the fact that the husk is to be discarded before the kernel is eaten. The analogy fails to account for the fact that the husk is an integral part of the ear of corn, without which no kernel could have grown. The husk is not a detriment to the kernel but the means by which we receive it, the means by which it is preserved. So it is with the historical details and worldview affirmations of Scripture. The “embarrassing” details of Scripture’s claims are not a detriment to the central message of the faith but the very means by which the message is delivered from God to his people.

Secondly, many of the details of Scripture that are perceived as an embarrassment to modern sensibilities stand at the very heart of the Christian message. For example, if there are no such beings as demons and the devil, then one of the major themes used to communicate God’s faithfulness to his people, the certainty of his promises, and the supremacy of Jesus Christ is totally destroyed. After all, Scripture’s story begins with a couple who lost paradise and communion with God because they caved in to temptation from the devil himself. God’s immediate response to this act of rebellion is to announce a promise in the midst of the curse – one day, the Seed of the woman is going to crush the head of the serpent. That is, God is eventually going to raise up someone who will defeat Satan fully and finally (see Genesis 3:15). When Jesus comes, one of the primary ways that He demonstrates He is the promised one sent from God is by exercising his authority over the devil and the devil’s kingdom. Jesus casts out demons, the devil’s minions, who have no choice but to obey the voice of Jesus, the Son of God. When accused of casting out demons by the power of the devil, Jesus responds emphatically that his act of casting out demons is actually a sign that the kingdom of Satan is being defeated and the promised kingdom of God has come. The strong devil guarded the spoils of his early victory over mankind until the fulfillment of God’s promise came; someone stronger invaded and took back the spoils, just as God had promised (Luke 14:10-22). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul speaks of Jesus’ finished work in terms of his triumph over rebel demonic powers, which Paul calls principalities, powers, rulers, and authorities (Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 1:18-23). It seems obvious that the kernel of this biblical theme is fulfillment of all of the promises of God for the redemption of his people through his victorious Son, Jesus Christ the Warrior King. However, If the existence of spiritual beings such as demons and the devil is disposable husk, how do we not lose the kernel? The kernel of Jesus’ victorious redemption as a warrior king is inconceivable apart from the reality of the kingdom of Satan and Jesus’ triumph over it.

A third reason Harnack’s kernel and husk approach to Scripture is to be rejected is that it creates a kind of “slippery slope.” Once you venture upon it, you can quickly lose your footing, and it’s nearly impossible to stop before the entire message of the Christian faith is lost. You may wonder, am I really abandoning the gospel of Jesus Christ if I say that I don’t believe Balaam’s donkey really, literally talked or if I don’t believe there was a flood that literally covered every high mountain under the heavens? Perhaps not. However, why do you deny the historical factuality of such biblical accounts? If you are following the path of Harnack, it is because your modern sensibilities tell you that such fantastic things are impossible, and it is therefore absurd to believe them. But I ask you, are any of those examples any more fantastic and contrary to modern sensibilities than believing that the eternal and unchanging God who created the heavens and the earth somehow crossed the infinite metaphysical divide between the eternal and the temporal to take upon himself a human nature, so as to live a fully human life in the fallen realm of time and space? Indeed, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, taught plainly in Scripture (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11), is far more absurd than talking donkeys or global floods. So, if modern sensibility urges you to reject the miraculous, what prevents you from denying the incarnation of the Son of God? What about the resurrection of Son of God? To reject such precious claims as these is an outright denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The logical trajectory of the kernel-husk approach to Scripture demands that claims about God becoming man and resurrections from the dead be rejected along with claims about donkeys, floods, and demonic hosts. They are all part of the embarrassing husk. Give Harnack credit for consistency. He recognized this, and did indeed reject the biblical teaching of the incarnation and resurrection of the Son of God. By the time Harnack was finished applying his method, the so-called kernel retained nothing of the distinctive claims of the historic Christian faith. It turns out, Harnack had not preserved the kernel, he had thrown it out with the husk.

As an alternative to Harnack’s approach, I propose a path of genuine belief that all that Scripture presents as fact is indeed fact. All of Scripture’s claims are true. I suggest to you that believing this does not require you to check your mind at the door of faith. In fact, operating on the assumption of belief in the truthfulness of Scripture is quite intellectually satisfying and plausible once we get past all of the logically poor arguments launched against the credibility of the Bible. But that’s another post…