"Do you think that history is objective?" A colleague recently asked me that question, referring to an old debate among historians.1 It is an important question for our postmodern age, and one that touches both on the nature of history and the nature of truth.
Some historians have stressed the objective and scientific nature of history. By sifting through the documentary evidence, they contend, the neutral historian can tell history "as it really happened." Though the desire for an objective standard is commendable, this approach is both humanistic and naïve.2
The Fallacy of Scientific History
Scientific history is naïve because it ignores the limitations of finite and fallen human historians. Everyone approaches the past with a certain perspective, with presuppositions based upon background, experience, and convictions. These presuppositions, whether correct or not, are the spectacles with which we view the past. No one functions as a neutral and disinterested observer.
Furthermore, there is no complete record of the past. Historical documents deal with only a tiny fraction of all the events, deeds, thoughts, and intentions of human history. Comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge is impossible for the time-bound historian.3 (Indeed, in our information-laden age it is increasingly difficult for the historian to keep up with the information in just one field of specialization.)
Scientific history is also humanistic. Autonomous man, equipped with reason and a scientific methodology, and attempting to stand apart from God, is supposed to be able to survey the "brute facts" of history and reconstruct the past. Rushdoony offers this telling critique:
Attempts have been made to find meaning at least in "the facts" of history. But ... there are not self-contained facts: every fact points beyond itself and is not capable of comprehension in terms of itself only [M]eaning always escapes man when he seeks it in the realm of creation rather than God. Because all things are made by God, nothing is understandable in terms of itself, but only in terms of God the Creator.4
Other historians have argued that history is largely subjective or relativistic.5 Like beauty, history is in the eye of the beholder. Subjectivist approaches invariably lead toward political correctness and political activism.
History becomes a "morality play that parades as history," as Rushdoony notes. "The humanistic historian thus has revived universalism on new terms: his abstractions are the realities, the universals, the true order of reality...." What is more, these historiographies are essentially religious, moving "in terms of a secular, Utopian and statist faith." Rushdoony further emphasizes the statist ends of the politically-correct historian. "[M]an plays god and remakes history in terms of total planning and control. Rationalistic, anarchistic and 'scientific' historiographies are only the half-way houses to the enthronement of man the god-like planner." 6
Is it possible, then, that history is objective? I told my friend that that there is an objective history, and that it is described in Matthew 25. The Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, the nations will be gathered, and He will separate them to the left and to the right. When the books are opened on Judgment Day, there will be a perfectly objective standard for all human history. Until that day, we may pursue history objectively by following scriptural principles.
First, the Christian knows that there is truth and that God has established absolute standards. Certainly, our understanding has limits, our judgments are not perfect, and our knowledge of history is not exhaustive. But because God has revealed truth in His Word, we may be assured that true knowledge is possible.
In 1989 I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in history. The dissertation focused on Harry Rimmer, a prominent early twentieth-century Presbyterian apologist who was a pioneering creationist. One of my professors, a Sixties-retread, was obviously disturbed by Rimmer's apologetic focus. During the middle of the dissertation defense, the professor jumped up from the table with a clenched fist and declared, "There are no absolutes!" This was, of course, a silly and inherently self-contradictory statement (though I didn't feel that it was my place, at the time, to point it out). Unfortunately, many historians operate under this assumption: there are no absolutes. Thus, everything is meaningless.
No relativist lives consistently with his philosophy. My professor emphatically believed that there were absolutes in the area of politics. He never missed an opportunity, for instance, to berate Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right for failing to meet his standards. The professor was a good teacher, and he always treated us fairly. But by his relativistic standards, he could just as easily have been a sadist.
A Christian worldview is foundational for a proper understanding of history. Rushdoony notes that "Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, and truth is His infallible and enscripturated word.… [A]part from Him, the universe quickly falls apart, in human thought, into a world of illusion or brute factuality, with every fact unrelated to all others. The denial of the Triune God is the denial ultimately of meaning, community, nature, family, life, culture, and of all things, and the collapse of man's existence into hell, total unrelated-ness and meaninglessness."7
History is objective and can be objectively known because it is ordained by God. Biblical Christians do not believe that God sits back, watches the unfolding of human history, and then offers His particular interpretation of it. God does not put a divine "spin" on autonomous details of history. Rather, God is the author of history.
Human beings can thus know history truly, although we cannot know it exhaustively. Though finite mortals, we have the true and perfect standard of God. God saw His creation and pronounced it good. Jesus Christ came in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4); all things were created for Him (Col. 1:16); in Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17); and Christ's redemptive work was the central point of history.
Scriptural Methodology and Example
Scripture also gives us an objective methodology of history in the prologue of Luke (Lk. 1:1-4). Writing to Theophilus, Luke notes that many had written about Jesus. Luke intended to check sources, interview eyewitnesses, and carefully investigate things from the beginning. His desire was to write a careful account and give the exact truth about the life of Christ.
Scripture gives excellent examples of historical objectivity. The account of David's life is no "court history" where the intent is to "puff" the king. We see the positive side of David, as well as his grave failures. Scripture gives a full picture of David, recording his thoughts and intentions, in addition to his words and deeds.
It is important to note that Biblical history is not hagiographical (referring to a glorified history of the "saints"). Biblical history is honest and candid, dealing with the good and the bad. Christians are sometimes too eager to baptize the past and give a rosy and pristinized reading of history. We must not succumb to that temptation. Christian historians must write history with the same directions that the carbuncled Cromwell gave his portrait painter: "Paint me warts and all!"
Finally, Christians can be confident that nothing of God's history is lost. Historians often bemoan the lack of or loss of historical material. When records of his remarkable career were destroyed, Rev. Dan Graham simply said, "God knows." Known to God are all of His works, and all of human history. Everything is recorded in the Lord's books (Ps. 56:8,139:16; Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:12).
Let me close with an historian's dream of heaven. I do this reluctantly, knowing that we attribute to our heavenly existence the things we most enjoy here. (My friend Dr. Jack once described a surgeon's view of heaven: "bright lights... and cold steel!") Scripture teaches that God has the books, that every thought and deed will be revealed, that the nations and individuals will be judged, and that there will be perfect judgment. I like to think that on the Day of Judgment God will explain all things. All of Job's unanswered questions, for instance, will be resolved. All of the perplexing developments of history will be explained. God will show how and why He worked all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). He will explain how He worked all things together for the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph. 1:6). It will be the greatest history lesson of all time, and it will be one we never tire of celebrating.
1. Those interested in the debate on "The Problem of Historical Objectivity" may check Ronald Nash, Ideas of History (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969), II:159-227.
2. The best example of "scientific history" was the 19th century German historian Leopold van Ranke.
3. My godly grandmother will turn 100 in two months. She has lived through most of the 20th century and has had a full life. But there is only a small documentary record concerning her life; she has not left a "paper trail." We have family photographs, a few letters and documents, and many memories. Grandma can remember much, but she will often say, "I had forgotten that." We do not have access to the majority of the events of my grandmother's life, and this side of heaven, there can be no full accounting for the history of Marion Schultz. We have even less information on the vast bulk of humanity stretching over millennia.
4. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 126-127.
5. The best advocates of the subjectivist approach were highly influential in the early 20th century, such as historians Carl Becker and Charles Beard.
6. ibid., 114, 132-133.
7. ibid., 72.