Objectivism and History
Christianity is a historical religion. It makes historical claims about miraculous events that allegedly confirm its truth claims. In order to verify these truth claims one must first establish the objectivity of historical fact.
This leads the discussion naturally into the whole question of whether or not there is such a thing as an objective historical fact, that is, whether history is really knowable. First, let us examine the arguments against the objectivity of history. Following this we will discuss whether or not miracles can be part of history.
An Evaluation of Objections to the Objectivity of History
There are several arguments that have been advanced against the position that history is objectively knowable. We will examine those arguments crucial to the central historical claims of Christianity.
Several Objections Against the Objectivity of History Considered
Charles Beard has offered at least eight arguments against the objectivity of history.1 If these arguments are valid, it will make verification of Christianity via a historical method impossible.
The Subject Matter of History Is Not Directly Observable
The subjectivists argue that the subject of history, unlike science, is not directly observable. The historian does not deal with past events but with statements about past events. It is this fact which enables the historian to deal with facts in an imaginative way. Historical facts, they insist, exist only within the creative mind of the historian.
The documents do not contain facts but are, without the historian’s understanding, mere ink lines on paper. Further, once the event is gone it can never be fully recreated. Hence, the historian must impose meaning on his fragmentary and secondhand record. “The event itself, the facts, do not say anything, do not impose any meaning. It is the historian who speaks, who imposes a meaning.”2
There are two reasons offered as to why the historian has only indirect access to the past. First, it is claimed that, unlike a scientist, the historian’s world is composed of records and not events. This is why the historian must contribute a “reconstructed picture” of the past. In this sense the past is really a product of the present.
Second, the historical subjectivists assert that the scientist can test his view whereas the historian cannot. Experimentation is not possible with historical events. The scientist has the advantage of repeatability; he may subject his views to falsification. The historian cannot. The unobservable historical event is no longer verifiable; it is part of the forever departed past.
Hence, what one believes about the past will be no more than a reflection of his own imagination. It will be a subjective construction in the minds of present historians, but it cannot hope to be an objective representation of what really happened.
The Fragmentary Nature of Historical Accounts
The second objection to the objectivity of history relates to its fragmentary nature. At best a historian can hope for completeness of documentation, but completeness of the events themselves is never possible. Documents at best cover only a small fraction of the events themselves.3 From only fragmentary documents one cannot validly draw full and final conclusions.
Furthermore, the documents do not present the events but only an interpretation of the events mediated through the one who recorded them. So at best we have only a fragmentary record of what someone else thought happened. So “what really happened would still have to be reconstructed in the mind of the historian.”4
Because the documents are so fragmentary and the events so distant, objectivity becomes a will-o’-the-wisp for the historian. He not only has too few pieces of the puzzle but the partial pictures on the few pieces he does have are not the original but were painted out of the mind of the one who passed the pieces down to us.
The Selective Nature of Historical Methodology
As was suggested, the historian does not have access to the events of the past but merely to fragmentary interpretations of those events contained in historical documents. Now what makes objectivity even more hopeless is the fact that the historian makes a selection from these fragmentary reports and builds his interpretation of the past events on a select number of partial reports of the past events. There are volumes in archives that most historians do not even touch.5
The actual selection among the fragmentary accounts is influenced by many subjective and relative factors including personal prejudice, availability of materials, knowledge of the languages, personal beliefs, social conditions, and so on. Hence, the historian himself is inextricably involved with the history he writes. What is included and what is excluded in his interpretation will always be a matter of subjective choice.
No matter how objective a historian may attempt to be, it is practically impossible for him to present what really happened. His “history” is no more than his own interpretation based on his own subjective selection of fragmentary interpretations of past and unrepeatable events.
So it is argued that the facts of history do not speak for themselves. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them; it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”6 Indeed, when the “facts” speak, it is not the original events that are speaking but later and fragmentary opinions about those events. The original facts or events have long since perished. So, according to historical relativism, by the very nature of the project the historian can never hope for objectivity.
The Need for Structuring the Facts of History
Partial knowledge of the past makes it necessary for the historian to “fill in” gaping holes out of his own imagination. As a child draws the lines between the dots on a picture, so the historian supplies all the connections between events. Without the historian the dots are not numbered nor are they arranged in an obvious manner. The historian must use his imagination in order to provide continuity to the disconnected and fragmentary facts provided him.
Furthermore, the historian is not content to tell us simply what happened. He feels compelled to explain why it happened.7 In this way history is made fully coherent and intelligible. Good history has both theme and unity which are provided by the historian. Facts alone do not make history any more than the disconnected dots make a picture.
Herein, according to the subjectivist, lies the difference between chronicle and history. The former is merely the raw material used by the historian to construct history. Without the structure provided by the historian, the mere “stuff” of history would be meaningless. The study of history is a study of causes. The historian wants to know why; he wishes to weave a web of interconnected events into a unified whole. Because of this he cannot avoid interjecting his own subjectivity into history.
Hence, even if there is some semblance of objectivity in chronicle, nonetheless there is no hope for objectivity in history. History is in principle nonobjective because the very thing that makes it history (as vs. mere chronicle) is the interpretive structure or framework given to it from the subjective vantage point of the historian. Hence, it is concluded that the necessity of structure inevitably makes objectivity impossible.
The Historian Cannot Avoid Value Judgments
To borrow Dray’s words, the very subject matter of history is “value-charged.”8 The facts of history consist of murders, oppression, and so forth, that cannot be described in morally neutral words. By his use of ordinary language the historian is forced to make value judgments. Further, by the very fact that history deals with flesh-and-blood human beings with motives and purposes, an analysis of history must of necessity comment on these.
Whether, for instance, one is called a “dictator” or a “benevolent ruler” is a value judgment. How could one describe Hitler without making some value judgments? And if one were to attempt a kind of scientifically neutral description of past events without any stated or implied interpretation of human purposes, it would not be history but mere raw-boned chronicle without historical meaning.
Once the historian admits what he cannot avoid, namely, that he must make some value judgments about past events, then his history has lost objectivity. In short, there is no way for the historian to keep himself out of his history. He cannot be other than he is, and he is a person with perspectives and prejudices expressed in a value language by which and through which he views the world. In this sense objectivity is unattainable. Every writer will inevitably evaluate things from his own subjective perspective and by his own choice of words.
Historians Cannot Avoid World Views
Every historian interprets the past in the overall framework of his own Weltanschauung. Basically there are three different philosophies of history within which historians operate. There are the chaotic, the cyclical, and the linear views of history.9 Which one of these the historian adopts will be a matter of faith or philosophy and not a matter of mere fact. Unless one view or another is presupposed, no interpretation is possible.
The Weltanschauungen will determine whether the historian sees the events of the world as a meaningless maze, as a series of endless repetitions, or as moving in a purposeful way toward a goal. These world views are both necessary and inevitably value oriented. So, it is argued, without one of these world views the historian cannot interpret the events of the past; but through a world view objectivity becomes impossible.
A world view is not generated from the facts. Facts do not speak for themselves. The facts gain their meaning only within the overall context of the world view. Without the structure of the world-view framework the “stuff” of history has no meaning. Augustine, for example, viewed history as a great theodicy, but Hegel saw it as an unfolding of the divine. It is not any archaeological or factual find but simply the religious or philosophical presuppositions which prompted each man to develop his view.
Eastern philosophies of history are even more diverse; they involve a cyclical rather than a linear pattern. But without some overarching viewpoint there would be no framework in which to interpret specific events. And once one admits the relativity or perspectivity of his world view as opposed to another, the historical relativists insist that he has thereby given up all right to claim objectivity. If there are several different ways to interpret the same facts, depending on the overall perspective one takes, then there is no single objective interpretation of history.
Every Historian Is a Product of His Time
Besides the conscious use of philosophical frameworks, the historian is subject to unconscious programming which makes him a product of his time. It is impossible for the historian to stand back and view history objectively because he too is part of the historical process. Hence, historical synthesis depends on the personality of the writer as well as the social and religious milieu in which he lives.10 In this sense one must study the historian before he can understand his history.
Since the historian is part of the historical process, objectivity can never be attained. The history of one generation will be rewritten by the next, and so on. No historian can transcend his historical relativity and view the world process from the outside.11 At best there can be successive, less than final historical interpretations, each viewing history from the vantage point of its own generation of historians.
Therefore, there is no such person as a neutral historian; each remains a child of his own day.
The Selection and Arrangement of Materials Is Subjective to the Historian
Once the historian takes his fragmentary documents (p. 286), which he must view indirectly through the interpretation of the original source (p. 285), and takes his selected amount of material from the available archives (p. 287), and begins to provide an interpretive structure to it (p. 287), by the use of his own value-laden language (p. 288), and within the overall world view that he presupposes (p. 288).
Then he not only understands it from the relative vantage point of his own generation (p. 289) but he must select and arrange the topic of history in accordance with his own subjective preferences (p. 290). In short, the dice are loaded against objectivity before he picks up his pen. That is, in the actual writing of the fragmentary, secondhand accounts from his own philosophical and personal point of view there is a further subjective choice of arrangement of the material.
The selection and arrangement of material will be determined by personal and social factors already discussed. The final written product will be prejudiced by what is included in and by what is excluded from the material. It will lack objectivity by how it is arranged and by the emphasis given to it in the overall presentation. The selection made in terms of the framework given will either be narrow or broad, clear or confused.
Whatever its nature, the framework is necessarily a reflection of the mind of the historian.12 This moves one still further away from objectively knowing what really happened. It is concluded, then, by the subjectivists that the hopes of objectivity are finally dashed.
Attempts to Preserve the Objectivity of History
Despite these seemingly formidable objections to the possibility of historical objectivity, there have been some staunch defenders of the objective position. We will at this time consider their counterarguments in an attempt to determine whether or not there is an objective basis for believing in historical miracles that allegedly support Christian truth claims.
The Problem of Indirect Access.
If by “objective” one means absolute knowledge, then of course no human historian can be objective. This we will grant. On the other hand, if “objective” means a fair but revisable presentation that reasonable men should accept, then the door is still open to the possibility of objectivity. Assuming this latter sense, it can be argued that history can be just as objective as some sciences.13
For example, paleontology (historical geology) is considered one of the most objective of all sciences. It deals with physical facts and processes of the past. However, the events represented by the fossil finds are no more directly accessible to the scientists or repeatable than are historical events to the historian. True, there are some differences. The fossil is a mechanically true imprint of the original event and the eyewitness of history may be less precise in his report.
But the historian may rejoin by pointing out that the natural processes that mar the fossil imprint parallel the personal filtering of events through the testimony of the eyewitness. At least it may be argued that if one can determine the integrity and reliability of the eyewitness, one cannot slam the door on the possibility of objectivity in history any more than on objectivity in geology.
The scientist might contend that he can repeat the processes of the past by present experimentation whereas the historian cannot. But even here the situations are similar, for in this sense history too can be “repeated.” Similar patterns of events, by which comparisons can be made, recur today as they occurred in the past.
Limited social experiments can be performed to see if human history “repeats,” and widespread “experiments” can be observed naturally in the differing conditions in the ongoing history of the world. In short, the historian, no less than the scientist, has the tools for determining what really happened in the past. The lack of direct access to the original facts or events does not hinder the one more than the other.
Likewise, scientific facts do not “speak for themselves” any more than historical facts do.14 First of all, if “fact” means original event, then neither geology nor history is in possession of any facts. “Fact” must be taken by both to mean information about the original event, and in this latter sense facts do not exist merely subjectively in the mind of the historian. Facts are objective data and data are data whether anyone reads them or not.
What one does with data, that is, what meaning or interpretation he gives to them, can in no way eliminate the data. There remains for both science and history a hardcore of objective facts. The door is thereby left open for objectivity. In this way one may draw a valid distinction between propaganda and history: the former lacks sufficient basis in objective fact but the latter does not.
Indeed, without objective facts, no protest can be raised either against poor history or propaganda. If history is entirely in the mind of the beholder, there is no reason one cannot decide to behold it any way he desires.
This brings us to the crucial question as to whether “facts speak for themselves” because they are objective. An argument might be advanced in favor of an affirmative answer as follows: It is self-defeating to affirm that there are any facts without meaning since the very affirmation about the allegedly meaningless fact is a meaningful statement about the fact. Therefore, all facts are meaningful; there are no so-called bare facts. But this argument does not really prove that facts speak for themselves.
It does show that facts can and do bear meaning. But what it must prove (and fails to prove) is that facts bear only one meaning and that they bear it evidently. The fact that no meaningful statement about facts can be made without attributing some meaning to the facts does not prove that the meaning emanated from the facts. It is possible that the meaning was assigned to the facts by the one making the meaningful statement about them. Indeed, only “mean-ers” (i.e., minds) can emanate meaning.
It is not at all clear in what sense an objective fact can mean anything in and of itself. It is a subject (e.g., a mind) that utters meaning about objects (or about other subjects), but objects as such are not subjects that are emitting meaning. This is so, unless we assume that all objective facts are really little minds transmitting meaning or transmitters through which some other minds or Mind is communicating.
But to assume this would be to invoke one particular worldview over another in order to prove that “facts speak for themselves.” And even then it could be argued that the facts are not speaking for themselves but for the Mind (God) who is speaking through them.
It seems best to conclude, then, that objective facts do not speak for themselves. Finite minds may give differing interpretations of them or an infinite Mind may give an absolute interpretation of them, but there is no one objective interpretation a finite mind can give to them. Of course, if there is an absolute Mind from whose vantage point the facts are given absolute or ultimate meaning, then there is an objective interpretation of the facts which all finite minds should concur is the ultimate meaning.
If theism is the correct world view (as was argued in THEISM – All you want to know), then there is an objective meaning to all facts in the world. All facts are theistic facts, and no nontheistic way of interpreting them is objective or true. Hence, objectivity in history is possible, since in a theistic world history would be His-story. Objectivity, then, is possible within a worldview.
The Problem of Fragmentary Accounts of History
The fact that accounts of history are fragmentary does not destroy its objectivity any more than fragmentary fossil remains destroy the objectivity of geology. The fossil remains represent only a very tiny percentage of the living beings of the past. This does not hinder scientists from attempting to reconstruct an objective picture of what really happened in geological history. Likewise, the history of man is transmitted to us by only a partial record.
Scientists sometimes reconstruct a whole man on the basis of only partial skeletal remains—even single jawbones. While this procedure is perhaps rightly suspect, nonetheless one does not need every bone in order to fill in the probable picture of the whole animal.
Like a puzzle, as long as one has the key pieces he can reconstruct the rest with a measurable degree of probability. Of course, the reconstruction of both science and history is subject to revision. Subsequent finds may provide new facts that call for new interpretations.
But at least there is an objective basis in fact for the meaning attributed to the find. Interpretations can neither create the facts nor can they ignore them, if they would approach objectivity. We may conclude, then, that history need be no less objective than geology simply because it depends on fragmentary accounts. Scientific knowledge is also partial and depends on assumptions and an overall framework which may prove to be inadequate upon the discovery of more facts.
Whatever difficulty there may be, from a strictly scientific point of view, in filling in the gaps between the facts, once one has assumed a philosophical stance toward the world, the problem of objectivity, in general, is resolved. If there is a God, then the overall picture is already drawn; the facts of history will merely fill in the details of its meaning.
If this is a theistic universe then the artist’s sketch is already known in advance; the detail and coloring will come only as all the facts of history are fit into the overall sketch known to be true from the theistic framework. In this sense, historical objectivity is most certainly possible within a given framework such as a theistic worldview. Objectivity resides in the view that best fits the facts into the overall system, that is, in systematic consistency.
The Problem of the Selection of Material
The fact that the historian must select his materials does not automatically make history purely subjective. Jurors make judgments “beyond reasonable doubt” without having all the evidence. If the historian has the relevant and crucial evidence, it will be sufficient to attain objectivity. One need not know everything in order to know something. No scientist knows all the facts and yet objectivity is claimed for his discipline. As long as no important fact is overlooked there is no reason to eliminate the possibility of objectivity in history any more than in science.
The selection of facts can be objective to the degree that the facts are selected and reconstructed in the context in which the events represented actually occurred. Since it is impossible for any historian to pack into his account everything available on a subject, it is important for him to select the points representative of the period of which he writes.15 Condensation does not necessarily imply distortion. The mini can be an objective summary of the maxi.
There remains, however, the whole question as to whether the real context and connections of past events are known (or, are knowable). Unless there is an accepted framework or structure for the facts, there is no way to reconstruct in miniature what really happened. The objective meaning of historical events is dependent on knowing the connections that the events really had when they occurred.
But the events are subject to various combinations depending on the structure given to them by the historian, the relative importance placed on them, and whether prior events are considered causal or merely antecedent. Hence, there is really no way to know the original connections without assuming an overall hypothesis or world view by which the events are interpreted. Of course, objectivity of bare facts and mere sequence of antecedent and consequent facts are knowable without assuming a world view.
But the objectivity of the meaning of these events is not possible apart from a meaningful structure such as that provided by an overall hypothesis or worldview. Hence, the problem of the objective meaning of history, like the problem of objective meaning in science, is dependent on one’s Weltanschauung. Objective meaning is system-dependent. Only within a given system can the objective meaning of events be understood. Once that system is known, it is possible by fair and representative selection to reconstruct an objective picture of the past.
The Problem of Structuring the Material of History
All the historian could possibly know about past events without assuming the truth of one interpretive framework over another is the sheer facticity and the sequence of the events. When the historian moves beyond bare facts and mere order of events and begins to speak of causal connections and relative importance, he has assumed an interpretive framework through which he is understanding the facts. Whether or not the facts are determined to have originally had the assumed causal connection and the attributed importance will depend on whether or not the assumed world view is correct.
To affirm that facts have “internal arrangement” begs the question. The real question is, How does one know the correct arrangement? Since the facts are arrangeable in at least three different ways (chaotic, cyclical, and linear), it begs the question merely to assume that one of these is the way the facts were really arranged. The same set of dots can have the lines drawn in many ways. The assumption that the historian is merely discovering (and not drawing) the lines is gratuitous.
The fact is that the lines are not known to be there apart from an interpretive framework through which one views them. Therefore, the problem of the objective meaning of history cannot be resolved apart from appeal to a world view.16. Once the skeletal sketch is known, then one can know the objective placing (meaning) of the facts. However, apart from a structure, the mere “stuff” means nothing.
Apart from an overall structure, there is no way to know which events in history are the most significant and, hence, there is no way to know the true significance of these and other events in their overall context. The argument that importance is determined by which events influence the most people is inadequate for several reasons.
First, it is a form of historical utilitarianism and as such is subject to the same criticisms as any utilitarian test for truth (see Chapter 6). The most does not determine the best; all that is proved by great influence is a great influence, not great importance or value. Even after most people have been influenced, one can still ask the question as to the truth or value of the event that influenced them. Significance is not determined by ultimate outcome but by overall framework.
Of course, if one assumes as an overall framework that the events which influence the most people, in the long run, are most significant, then that utilitarian framework will indeed determine the significance of an event. But what right does one have to assume a utilitarian framework any more than a nonutilitarian one? Here again, it is a matter of justifying one’s overall framework or worldview.
The argument advanced by some objectivists that past events must be structured or else they are unknowable is faulty. All this argument proves is that it is necessary to understand facts through some structure, otherwise, it makes no sense to speak of facts. The question of which structure is correct must be determined on some basis other than the mere facts themselves.
If there were an objectivity of bare facts, it would provide at best only the mere what of history. But objective meaning deals with the why of these events; this is impossible apart from a meaning-structure in which the facts may find their placement or significance. Objective meaning apart from a world view is impossible.
However, granted that there is justification for adopting a theistic worldview, the objective meaning of history becomes possible. For within the theistic context each fact of history becomes a theistic fact. Granted the factual order of events and the known causal connection of events, the possibility of objective meaning surfaces. The chaotic and the cyclical frameworks are eliminated in favor of the linear. And within the linear view of events, causal connections emerge as the result of their context in a theistic universe.
Theism provides the sketch on which history paints the complete picture. The pigments of mere fact take on real meaning as they are blended together on the theistic sketch. In this context, objectivity means systematic consistency. That is, the most meaningful way all of the facts of history can be blended together into the whole theistic sketch is what really happened. In this way theism can provide an objective framework for historical facts.
The Problem of Value-Laden Language
It may be granted that ordinary language is value-laden and that value judgments are inevitable. This by no means makes historical objectivity impossible.17 Objectivity means to be fair in dealing with the facts. It means to present what happened as correctly as possible. Further, objectivity means that when one interprets why these events occurred, the language of the historian should ascribe to these events the value which they really had in their original context.
Granting within an established world view the fact that certain things have a given value, then an objective account of history must reconstruct and restructure these events with the same relative value. In this way objectivity demands value judgments rather than avoiding them. The question asks not whether value language can be objective, but rather it asks. Which value statements objectively portray the events the way they really were?
Once the world view has been determined, value judgments are not undesirable or merely subjective; they are in fact essential and objectively demanded. If this is a theistic world, then it would not be objective to place anything but a proper value on the facts of history.
The Problem of an Overall World View
Those who argue against the objectivity of history apart from an overall worldview must be granted the point. Without a worldview, it makes no sense to talk about objective meaning.18 Meaning is system-dependent. Within a given system a given set of facts has a given meaning, but within another system, it may have a very different meaning. Without a context, meaning cannot be determined, and the context is provided by the world view and not by the bare facts themselves.
But granted that this is a theistic universe for the reasons already given (Chapter 13), then it follows that objectivity is possible. It is possible because in a theistic universe each fact has an objective meaning; each fact is a God-fact. All events in a theistic world bear a divine meaning; they all fit into the overall context of his ultimate purpose.
Hence, once one can determine what the facts are and can assign them a meaning in the overall context of the theistic universe by showing that they fit most consistently with a given interpretation, then he may lay claim to having arrived at the objective truth about history. For example, granted that this is a theistic universe and that the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth returned from the grave, then the Christian can argue that this unusual event is a miracle that confirms the associated truth claims of Christ.
But apart from this theistic framework, it is not even meaningful to make such a claim. Overarching hypotheses are necessary to determine the meaning of events, and a theistic hypothesis is essential to claim that any historical event is a miracle.
The Problem of Overcoming Historical Conditioning
It is undoubtedly true that every historian is a product of his time. Each person occupies a relative place in the changing events of the spacio-temporal world. However, it does not follow that because the historian is a product of his time that his history is also a product of the time. Simply because a person cannot avoid a relative place in history does not mean that his perspective cannot attain some meaningful degree of objectivity.
The criticism confuses the content of knowledge and the process of attaining it.19 It confuses the formation of a view with its verification. Where one derives a hypothesis is not essentially related to how he can establish its truth.
Further, if relativity is unavoidable the position of the historical relativists is self-refuting. For either their view is historically conditioned and, therefore, unobjective or else it is not relative but objective. If the latter, then it thereby admits that it is possible to be objective in viewing history. On the contrary, if the position of historical relativism is itself relative, then it cannot be taken as objectively true.
It is a simply subjective opinion which has no basis to claim to be objectively true about all of history. In short, if it is a subjective opinion it cannot eliminate the possibility that history is objectively knowable; and if it is an objective fact about history then objective facts can be known about history. In the first case objectivity is not eliminated and in the second relativity is self-defeated. Hence, in either case, objectivity is possible.
Finally, the constant rewriting of history is based on the assumption that objectivity is possible. Why strive for accuracy unless it is believed that the revision is more objectively true than the previous view? Why critically analyze unless improvement toward a more accurate view is the assumed goal? Perfect objectivity may be practically unattainable within the limited resources of the historian on most if not all topics.
But be this as it may, the inability to attain 100 percent objectivity is a long way from total relativity. Reaching a degree of objectivity which is subject to criticism and revision is a more realistic conclusion than the relativist’s arguments. In short, there is no reason to eliminate the possibility of a sufficient degree of historical objectivity.
The Problem of the Arrangement of Materials
There is no reason why the historian cannot rearrange without distorting the past.20 Since the original construction of events is available to neither the historian nor the geologist, it is necessary to reconstruct the past on the basis of the available evidence. But reconstruction does not necessitate revision; selecting material may occur without neglecting significant matters. Every historian must arrange his material.
The important thing is whether or not it is arranged or rearranged in accordance with the original arrangement of events as they really occurred. As long as the historian incorporates consistently and comprehensively all the significant events in accordance with his overall and established world view, he has not sacrificed objectivity. Arranging the facts in accordance with the way things really were is being objective. It is neglecting important facts and twisting facts that distorts objectivity.
The historian may desire to be selective in the compass of his study. He may wish to study only the political, economic, or religious dimensions a specific period. But such specialization does not demand total subjectivity. One can focus without losing the overall context in which he operates.
It is one thing to focus on specifics within an overall field but quite another to totally ignore or deliberately neglect or distort the overall context in which the intensified interest is occurring. As long as the specialist stays in touch with reality rather than reflecting the pure subjectivity of his own fancy, there is no reason why a measurable degree of objectivity cannot be maintained.
Conclusions Regarding the Objectivity of History
There are several general conclusions to be drawn from the foregoing analysis of the subjectivity-objectivity controversy.
(1) Absolute objectivity is possible only for an infinite Mind. Finite minds must be content with systematic consistency, that is, fair but revisable attempts to reconstruct the past based on an established framework of reference which comprehensively and consistently incorporates all the facts into the overall sketch provided by the frame of reference.
(2) In this acceptable sense of objectivity the historian can be as objective as the scientist. Neither geologists nor historians have direct access to nor complete data on repeatable events. Further, both must use value judgments in selecting and structuring the partial material available to them.
(3) In reality, neither the scientist nor the historian can attain objective meaning without the use of some worldview by which he understands the facts. Bare facts cannot even be known apart from some interpretive framework.
Hence, the need for structure or a meaning framework is crucial to the question of objectivity. Unless one can settle the question as to whether this is a theistic or nontheistic world on grounds independent of the mere facts themselves, there is no way to determine the objective meaning of history.
If, on the other hand, there are good reasons to believe that this is a theistic universe (as we argued in Part II), then objectivity in history is a possibility. For once the overall viewpoint is established, it is simply a matter of finding the view of history that is most consistent with that overall system. That is, systematic consistency is the test for objectivity in historical matters as well as in scientific matters.
Some Objections Against the Objectivity of Miraculous History
We have already argued for the philosophical possibility of miracles (in Chapter 14). Further, we have just offered reasons for holding that historical events can be known objectively within a theistic framework. There remain, however, some further problems before we may claim that any miracle has actually happened. The first problem is whether or not the miraculous is knowable in a historical way.
Theological Objection: Miracles Are Suprahistorical
Granting that secular history can be known objectively, there still remains the problem of the subjectivity of religious history. Some writers make a strong distinction between Historie and Geschichte.21 The former is empirical and objectively knowable to some degree, but the latter is spiritual and unknowable in a historical or objective way. As spiritual or superhistory there is no objective way to verify it.
Spiritual history has no necessary connection with the spacio-temporal continuum of empirical events. It is a “myth” with subjective religious significance to the believer but with no objective grounding. Like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, Geschichte is a story made up of events which probably never happened but which inspire men to some moral or religious good.
If this distinction is applied to the New Testament, then even granted that the life and central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth can be objectively established, there is no historical way to confirm the miraculous dimensions of the New Testament. Miracles do not happen as part of Historie and therefore are not subject to objective analysis; they are Geschichte events and as such cannot be analyzed by historical methodology.
Many contemporary theologians have accepted this distinction. Paul Tillich claimed that it is “a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with the belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories.”22 He believed with Sören Kierkegaard that whether all the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth really occurred is irrelevant to faith.
The important thing about a “myth” or “miracle” is not whether it happened in history but whether or not it evokes an appropriate religious response. With this Rudolf Bultmann and Shubert Ogden would also concur, along with much of contemporary theological thought.
Even those like Karl Jaspers—who oppose Bultmann’s more radical demythologization view—accepted, nevertheless, the distinction between the spiritual and empirical dimensions of miracles.23 On the more conservative end of those maintaining this distinction is Ian Ramsey. According to Ramsey even C. H. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, C.U.P., 1953) must admit that “it is not enough to think of the facts of the Bible as ‘brute historical facts’ to which the Evangelists give distinctive ‘interpretation.’
” For Ramsey the Bible is historical only if “ ‘history’ refers to situations as odd as those which are referred to by that paradigm of the Fourth Gospel: ‘the Word became flesh.’ ” Ramsey concludes: “No attempt to make the language of the Bible conform to a precise straight-forward public language—whether that language be scientific or historical—has ever succeeded.”
More positively, the Bible is about situations “to which existentialists refer when they speak of something being ‘authentic’ or ‘existential-historical.’ “24 There is always something “more” than the empirical in every religious or miraculous situation. The purely empirical situation is “odd” and thereby evocative of a discernment that calls for a commitment of religious significance.25
In response to these analyses of the historical objectivity of miracles it is important to make several observations.
(1) Surely the Christian apologist does not want to contend that miracles are a mere product of the historical process. The supernatural occurs in the historical but it is not a product of the natural process. What makes it miraculous is the fact that the natural process alone does not account for it; there must be an injection from the realm of the supernatural into the natural or else there is no miracle.
This is specially true of what was called a first-class miracle (see Chapter 14), where the process by which God performed the miracle is unknown. It is also true to some degree of a second-class miracle, where we can describe how the miracle occurred by scientific means but not -why it occurred when it did.
Even in a second-class miracle, why the unusual event occurred when it did cannot be explained as part of the natural process. So in either case it seems best to admit that the miraculous dimensions of a historical event are in but not of the natural process.
(2) In accordance with the objectivity of history just discussed, there is no good reason why the Christian should yield to the radical existential theologians on the question of the objective and historical dimensions of miracles. Miracles may not be of the natural historical process but they do occur in it.
Even Karl Barth made a similar distinction when he wrote, “The resurrection of Christ, or his second coming … is not a historical event; the historians may reassure themselves … that our concern here is with the event which, though it is the only real happening in is not a real happening of history.”26
But unlike many existential theologians we must also preserve the historical context in which a miracle occurs, for without it there is no way to verify the objectivity of the miraculous. Miracles do have a historical dimension without which no objectivity of religious history is possible.
And as was argued above, historical methodology can identify this objectivity (just as surely as scientific objectivity can be established) within an accepted framework of a theistic world. In short, miracles may be more than historical but they cannot be less than historical. It is only if miracles do have historical dimensions that they are both objectively meaningful and apologetically valuable.
(3) A miracle can be identified within an empirical or historical context both directly and indirectly, both objectively and subjectively. A miracle possesses several characteristics. It is an event that is both scientifically unusual and theologically and morally relevant. The first characteristic is knowable in a directly empirical way; the latter are knowable only indirectly through the empirical in that it is “odd” and “evocative” of something “more” than the mere empirical data of the event.
For example, a virgin birth is scientifically “odd” but in the case of Christ it is represented as a “sign” that was used to draw attention to him as something “more” than human. The theological and moral characteristics of a miracle are not empirically objective. In this sense they are experienced subjectively. This does not mean, however, that there is no objective basis for the moral dimensions of a miracle. If this is a theistic universe, then morality is objectively grounded in God.
Hence, the nature and will of God are the objective grounds by which one can test whether or not the event is subjectively evocative of what is objectively in accord with the nature and will of God. The same thing applies to the truth dimensions of a miracle. They are subjectively evocative of a response to an associated truth claim.
However, the truth claim must be in accord with what is already known of God; otherwise one should not believe the event is a miracle. It is axiomatic that acts of a theistic God would not be used to confirm what is not the truth of God.
To sum up, miracles happen in history but are not completely of history. Miracles, nonetheless, are historically grounded. They are more than historical but are not less than historical. There are both empirical and superempirical dimensions to supernatural events. The former are knowable in an objective way and the latter have a subjective appeal to the believer.
But even here there is an objective ground in the known truth and goodness of God by which the believer can judge whether or not the empirically odd situations which appeal to him for a response are really acts of this true and good God.
Philosophical Objection: Miracles Are Historically Unknowable
On the basis of Troeltsch’s principle of analogy, some historians have come to object to the possibility of ever establishing a miracle based on testimony about the past. Troeltsch stated the problem this way:
On the analogy of the events known to us we seek by conjecture and sympathetic understanding to explain and reconstruct the past.… Since we discern the same process of phenomena in operation in the past as in the present, and see, there as here, the various historical cycles of human life influencing and intersecting one another.…
Without uniformity, we could know nothing about the past, for without an analogy from the present we could know nothing about the past.27 In accord with this principle some have argued that “no amount of testimony is ever permitted to establish as past reality a thing that cannot be found in present reality.… In every other case the witness may have a perfect character—all that goes for nothing.…”28
In other words, unless one can identify miracles in the present he has no experience on which to base his understanding of alleged miracles in the past. The historian, like the scientist, must adopt a methodological skepticism toward alleged events in the past for which he has no parallel in the present. The present is the foundation of our knowledge of the past. As F. H. Bradley put it:
We have seen that history rests in the last resort upon an inference from our experience, a judgment based upon our own present state of things … ; when we are asked to affirm the existence in past time of events, the effects of causes which confessedly are without analogy in the world in which we live, and which we know—we are at a loss for any answer but this, that … we are asked to build a house without a foundation.… And how can we attempt this without contradicting ourselves?29
Upon examination, Troeltsch’s principle of analogy turns out to be similar to Hume’s objection to miracles built on the uniformity of nature. No testimony about alleged miracles should be accepted if it contradicts the uniform testimony of nature. In like manner Troeltsch would reject any particular event in the past for which there is no analogue in the uniform experience of the present. Now there are at least two reasons for rejecting Troeltsch’s argument from analogy.
First, it begs the question in favor of a naturalistic interpretation of all historical events. It is a methodological exclusion of the possibility of accepting the miraculous in history. The testimony for regularity in general is in no way a testimony against an unusual event in particular. The cases are different and should not be evaluated in the same way.
Empirical generalizations (e.g., “men do not rise from the dead”) should not be used as counter testimony to good eyewitness accounts that in a particular case someone did rise from the dead. The historical evidence for any particular historical event must be assessed on its own merits completely aside from the generalizations about other events.
There is a second objection to the Troeltsch analogy type argument, namely, it proves too much. As Richard Whately convincingly argued, on this uniformitarian assumption not only miracles would be excluded but so would many unusual events of the past including those surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte.30 No one can deny that the probability against Napoleon’s successes was great.
His prodigious army was destroyed in Russia; yet in a few months he led another great army in Germany which likewise was ruined at Leipzig. However, the French supplied him with yet another army sufficient to make a formidable stand in France. This was repeated five times until at last he was confined to an island. There is no doubt that the particular events of his career were highly improbable.
But there is no reason on these grounds that we should doubt the historicity of the Napoleonic adventures. History, contrary to scientific hypothesis, does not depend on the universal and repeatable. Rather, it stands on the sufficiency of good testimony for particular and unrepeatable events. Were this not so, then nothing could be learned from history.
It is clearly a mistake to import uniformitarian methods from scientific experimentation into historical research. Repeatability and generality are needed to establish a scientific law or general patterns (of which miracles would be particular exceptions). But this method does not work at all in history. What is needed to establish historical events is credible testimony that these particular events did indeed occur. So it is with miracles.
It is an unjustifiable mistake in historical methodology to assume that no unusual and particular event can be believed no matter how great the evidence for it. Troeltsch’s principle of analogy would destroy genuine historical thinking. The honest historian must be open to the possibility of unique and particular events of the past whether they are miraculous or not. He must not exclude a priori the possibility of establishing events like the resurrection of Christ without a careful examination of the testimony and evidence concerning them.
Summary and Conclusion
Christianity makes miraculous claims about historical events. Some historians complain, however, that there is no objective basis for determining the past. And even if there were an objective basis, miracles are not part of objective history.
In support of this contention it is argued that the historian has only fragmentary, secondhand material from which he selects but a portion for which he provides his own interpretive value structure and by which he constructs the past for his own generation in terms of his own overall world view. The net result is that objectivity is impossible.
It is further argued by subjectivists that miracle-history is not empirical nor observable; it is superhistory or myth used to evoke a subjective religious response but is not reliably descriptive of the past.
These objections, however, fail. History can be as objective as science. The geologist too has only secondhand, fragmentary, and unrepeatable evidence viewed from his own vantage point and in terms of his own values and interpretive framework. In this regard, history can be as objective as geology. Although it is true that interpretive frameworks are necessary for objectivity, it is not true that every worldview must be totally relative and subjective. Indeed this argument is self-defeating, for it assumes that it is an objective statement about history that all statements about history are necessarily not objective.
As to the objection that miracle-history is not objectively verifiable, two points are important. First, miracles can occur in the historical process without being of that natural process. Surely there is “more” to a miracle than the purely empirical. Christian miracles claim to be more than empirical but they are not less than historical.
This is important because at least the historically and scientifically unusual dimensions of miracles are subject to objective and historical verification. Further, the moral and theological dimensions of miracles are not totally subjective. They call for a subjective response but there are objective standards of truth and goodness (in accordance with the theistic God) by which the miracle can be objectively assessed.
It is concluded, then, that the door for the objectivity of history and thus the objective historicity for miracles is open. No mere question-begging uniformitarian principle of analogy can slam the door a priori. Evidence that supports the general nature of scientific law may not be legitimately used to rule out good historical evidence for unusual but particular events of history.
This kind of argument is not only invincibly naturalistic in its bias but if applied consistently it would rule out much of known and accepted secular history. The only truly honest approach is to examine carefully the evidence for an alleged miracle in order to determine its authenticity. This will be done in the next chapter.
SELECT READINGS FOR Objectivism and History
- Clark, Gordon. Historiography: Secular and Religious.
- Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History.
- ———. Essays in the Philosophy of History.
- Dray, W. H. (ed.). Philosophy of History.
- Harvey, Van A. The Historian and the Believer.
- Meyerhoff, Hans (ed.). The Philosophy of History.
- Montgomery, John W. The Shape of the Past.
- Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism.
- Stern, Fritz (ed.). The Varieties of History.
- Whately, Richard. Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte.
1 See Charles Beard, “That Noble Dream,” in The Varieties of History, pp. 323–25. The discussion here follows an excellent summary found in an unpublished master’s thesis by William L. Craig, “The Nature of History…” (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., 1976).
2 Carl L. Becker, “What Are Historical Facts?” in The Philosophy of History in Our Time, p. 131.
3 Beard, “That Noble Dream,” p. 323.
4 E. H. Carr, What Is History?, p. 20.
5 Beard, “That Noble Dream, ” p. 324.
6 Carr, What Is History?, p. 9.
7 W. H. Walsh, Philosophy of History, p. 32.
8 W. H. Dray, Philosophy of History, p. 23.
9 Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” in Philosophy, ed. Meyerhoff, p. 151.
10 See Henri Pirenne, “What Are Historians Trying to Do?” in Philosophy, ed. Meyerhoff, p. 97.
11 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, ed. T. M. Know, p. 248.
12 Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith, ” pp. 150–51.
13 Marc Block, The Historian’s Craft, p. 50.
14 See critique of Evidentialism in chap. 5.
15 See R. G. Collingwood, “The Limits of Historical Knowledge,” in Essays in the Philosophy of History, ed. William Debbins, p. 100.
17 See Herbert Butterfield, “Moral Judgments in History,” in Philosophy, ed. Meyerhoff, p. 244.
18 See Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 150 f.
19 See Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge, p. 94.
20 See Ernest Nagel, “The Logic of Historical Analysis,” in Philosophy, ed. Meyerhoff, p. 208.
21 See Martin Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus, p. 63.
22 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 87.
23 See Karl Jaspers and Rudolf Bultmann, Myth and Christianity, pp. 16–17.
24 Ian Ramsey, Religious Language, pp. 118, 119, 122.
25 Ramsey, chap. 1.
26 Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 90.
27 E. Troeltsch, “Historiography,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings.
28 Carl Becker, “Detachment and the Writing of History,” in Detachment and the Writing of History, ed. Phil L. Synder, pp. 12–13.
29 F. H. Bradley, The Presuppositions of Critical History, p. 100.
30 Richard Whately, Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte.