History, Bias, and the Historian

I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.

Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.

The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.

Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?

On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.

7 Comments

  1. johntjeffery said,

    April 6, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    This was a timely post for this reader, since I am preparing material for a course on Church History, and am a fan of Carl F.H. Henry as well. While wading through material on Church History: 1) the control of documents by the “powers that be,” 2) the ecclesiastical bent of the historian, and 3) the loud silence in the materials of what happens “under the fold” become concerns if something more than the headlines of “Christendom” are to be the focus.

  2. Ackbach said,

    April 6, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    You keep using that phrase “news media”. I do not think it means what you think it means. I think you meant to say “formerly mainstream media”, as Nancy Pearcey does. The fly in their ointment is that their power is eroding significantly under the pressure of the Internet way of getting news (social media in particular, but also blogs).

    If you think of the historian as statistician, his population is all events in world history. Impossible to take a census of all that, so he takes a sample. But how does he take a sample? Is it a “random sample”? Selection bias in history, and selection bias in statistics, you can see, are intimately related, I think.

    Nice Van Tillian take-down of the post-mods there, bro!

  3. Greg said,

    April 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    A thoughtful post! Part of it reminds me of a book I’m reading by Daniel Boorstin: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (first published in 1962).

  4. greenbaggins said,

    April 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Yes, bro, you are correct. It seems to me that the “formerly mainstream media” are seeking ever more desperately to hold on to their once highly-vaunted power. Interesting point about statistics (did you ever think you would hear those words from me? ;-).

  5. April 6, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    For those of us with diminshing eyesight, could you choose a larger font for your blog? At least on my computer it is very tiny. I like what you write and want to see it easier. Thanks for this consideration.

  6. April 7, 2016 at 1:48 am

    For an expansion on some of the points in your third paragraph, you should read (if you haven’t) George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

  7. greenbaggins said,

    April 11, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    David, I am using 14 point font for the blog. I would suggest that you use a way of increasing the size of the writing on your screen. If you are on an IBM computer, then simply hold control and then hit +.


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