How-To History: Fact, Fiction, and the Art of the Past

Sarah Patterson White
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

In AD 336, a report was circulated that the Egyptian bishop Arsenius had been killed and Athanasius was to blame. The schismatic Meletian party could even produce the corpse’s severed hand as proof. The evidence was persuasive enough that Emperor Constantine was prevailed upon to press a murder charge against the theologian. Fortunately, it turned out that the bishop in question was alive and well (hand and all) and in hiding. Call it fake news, fourth-century style.

Since the Fall, humans have struggled to discern between truth and falsehood. Besides reminding us that scandal and sensationalism have always been with us, the study of history provides a helpful analogue to the challenges of everyday knowing. History is a necessarily selective retelling of the past. This interpreted character is broadly acknowledged today in both scholarly and popular circles; in fact, some question whether reliable historical knowledge is attainable. Are we not just confronted with competing stories about the past, with the most powerful storyteller “winning”? This is the assumption of much popular “history”—one has only to think of The Da Vinci Code’s portrayal of power-hungry Nicene bishops fabricating the divinity of Christ. It is good to recognize that everyone tells stories about the past. Human beings, situated as we are within history, are inescapably biased. The question is whether we acknowledge our limited perspectives.

Even though we cannot escape our particularities, we can still consider evidence in an objective manner. That is, we can appeal to accessible evidence—as opposed to undocumentable appeals to progress or providence. Even when dealing with empirical facts, we are not dealing with epistemic certainties. We use evidence to argue for what is most probable. That is why good historians don’t simply make assertions; they seek to demonstrate a case through the application of historical method.

Historical method begins with a basic question: Why is a certain thing happening in a certain way in a given context? One proposes a hypothesis, which should be tested in light of positive evidence. This investigation should also unearth the immediate and historical contexts of our subject. One should also be mindful of evidence that challenges the hypothesis and then be ready to modify the argument, if warranted. Reviewing evidence, refining one’s argument, and constructing a narrative is not a linear process—the more types of evidence that are considered, the more context becomes illuminated and the greater the chance of finding nuance.

For example, if you look at the sacramental reforms of the Scottish Reformation and ask why Scottish Presbyterians celebrated Communion only once a year, you might form the hypothesis that there was an effort to downplay the sacraments in favor of Reformed, word-centered worship. You find points of continuity with the medieval church (such as annual reception of Communion at Easter, preceded by a preparatory, penitential season) and, after looking at Kirk session records, see that the emphasis on extensive catechism and church discipline points to an overriding pastoral desire for knowledgeable participation by the laity. This same emphasis can be detected in the surviving body of sermons by such preachers as Robert Bruce, Samuel Rutherford, and many others. Kirk records also suggest that in some places, sessions pushed for more frequent celebration but encountered resistance in light of lingering medieval custom. The narrative of overwhelming discontinuity weakens. The centrality of the sacrament to Christian practice had not changed; rather, the change in doctrine led to an effort to instill a distinctively Reformed understanding of the sacrament.

However, sources are limited. Kirk records survive predominantly for urban parishes and so do not document reforming activity in rural areas. Published sermons are revised from what had been preached publicly, or even from auditors’ notes; therefore, accurately assessing lay reception of reform is perennially difficult—lay writings are relatively rare, as ministers were usually more literate than communicants. Conclusions must therefore be somewhat cautious. You might revise the original hypothesis to say that, in an effort to inculcate a Reformed sacramental piety, pastoral concern focused on the formation of an informed, prepared laity with the frequency of reception largely unchanged (see the work of Margo Todd and Leigh Eric Schmidt on this subject).

Sound historical method builds a measure of modesty into our conclusions. We know what we do not know. It also creates space for evidence-driven interaction with others about where and why our conclusions diverge. Historical method can also support healthy pastoral practice. It can help us to have more modest expectations when we appeal to history in support of current practices. Taking the example above, one finds that a superficial look at sacramental practices (“How frequently did this or that church celebrate Communion?”) reveals less about realities on the ground. Broadening the evidence and asking deeper questions about context can inform practice more richly than isolated examples.

Knowing is fraught in our day. Modernity boasts a definite certainty, while postmodernity revels in the multiplicity of narratives and the inaccessibility of objective truth. The reality of truth should not trouble us, but we should beware of forgetting the unavoidably mediated aspect of creaturely knowledge. We cannot know our world like God does, but this doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it at all. Like historians, everyday knowers can be thoughtful about the contexts and commitments evident in the sources they encounter. They can notice what questions are being asked, what kinds of evidence are selected, and what narratives are created. They can cultivate a readiness to consider sources that challenge those narratives. Just as a historian’s interpretation of the past is always provisional, so we must maintain a certain modesty about the conclusions we draw. Our assertions cannot be neatly disentangled from our commitments. And just as historians will never exhaust every avenue of research, we will never, either individually or corporately, know all there is to know.

Think of the upheaval occasioned by the 2016 election. Some experienced cognitive dissonance in its wake, and perceptions differ of Trump’s presidency so far—peppered by discussion of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Much of the controversy centers on our ability to identify genuine information. Critical evaluation of sources can help. We can also work toward fruitful interaction with others around those sources.

One of our biggest obstacles is distinguishing between falsehood and opinion. We are primed to make emotional judgments and to be attuned to those “facts” that support the judgments to which we are disposed. The challenge is to engage charitably with one another’s evidence. Only on that basis can we begin to reason together about where and why our opinions collide. While this is a tall order, it is first a question of attitude. Epistemic modesty teaches us that we lack an exhaustive picture. Our Facebook newsfeed and media intake reveal only so much about the larger world. It’s good to expand our horizons, but even when we do, we won’t figure everything out. We don’t have to.

Ultimately, whether as historians or as everyday knowers, we must remember who we are. Confidence in our conclusions is possible and is a worthy pursuit, as long as we are mindful of our human limitations. Because we know the Truth personally, we are free to have our narratives corrected and we can trust that he alone sees (and governs) all of history, from the beginning to the end.

Sarah Patterson White holds an MA in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University. She lives in Missouri.

Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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