11 December 2013

Christianity, History & Bias

This book by Sir Herbert Butterfield, though dated, is packed with a perspective which fascinates me and much of with which I agree - at least from what I've been able to read in excerpts. I just ordered it and I suspect it's contents will be a frequent topic for discussion and reference here in the future.

Every historian and writer of history is biased - some admit it, others feign complete objectivity. I found this comment by an Amazon reviewer intriguing:
Butterfield's amendatory poignant insight questions common perception toward the understanding of history. He argues that historical knowledge is skewed when it's done non-theologically, i.e., outside Christian worldview. History is, according to Butterfield, a fulfilling prophecy of God's sovereignty; Christianity is therefore an historical religion (3). Furthermore, Butterfield enumerates several misconceptions about study of history. For example, new evidence makes history seem evolving yet historical events remain true (14f); history is always biased so that only unbiased truth, i.e., Christianity, can reveal real event (17ff); even though history is a science sometimes it cannot be reconstructed scientifically, because God's authority lies beyond human logic so history must be understood holistically rather than through mere science (22f).
And then there's this review on Butterfield's views regarding presentism (something many modern historians are guilty of) and his once widely read The Whig Interpretation of History:
According to him, the historian rather than viewing himself as a chivalrous knight ready to avenge and punish the unrighteous in the past, should instead look more to the position of reconciler, trying to understand people and events of the past from the historian’s limited point of view. To Butterfield the Whig interpretation was dangerous because it tried to make historical study the voice of God. It divided the world into friends and enemies of progress, “equated with the visible manifestation of God’s favor upon certain people and places in the past.”
And this:
It is not the task of the historian to pass sentence on the sins of the past but to investigate and describe the differences. Rather than the voice of God, history was presented as the servant to the servants of God; because history was used by all the other disciplines and in turn needed to learn from them before offering an explanation of the past.
And this:
Whig historians, according to Butterfield, used their passion and imagination not to better understand and investigate but to present their previously decided conclusion . . .

If this does not describe what so many modern historians attempt to do, I don't know what else does. I'd heard of Butterfield and read some things about him in the past, but have never read any of his books. I'm really looking forward to reading Christianity and History, as well as The Whig Interpretation of History.

I also found this comment from Wikipedia quite intriguing:
Butterfield thought individual personalities more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study.
I've always thought biography was the best way to truly understand and study history. This observation would seem to affirm that belief.

Herbert Butterfield
Based on what I've read so far, I believe Butterfield will validate some things I believe and challenge others. I'll save one of his most controversial assertions (and one with which I agree) for a later post.


E.J. DAgrosa said...

Sounds interesting! Also, if you haven't already Richard, you should check out a book by one of my favorite historians Christopher Dawson called "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture".

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

EJ - Indeed! Thanks for the recommendation.