There is a fascinating lesson in historical objectivity in Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Judah Rosenthal, the brilliant ophthalmologist who paid to have his mistress murdered visits the house where he spent his childhood. He does this, we assume, in a pathetic attempt to reconnect to the moral teachings of his father that he has tragically abandoned. As the guilt-ridden Judah steps into the dining room his mind conjures up the memory of his family’s annual Passover Seder. As Judah’s rabbi father leads the ceremony, his aunt May, an atheist, goads him into a debate about suffering and the existence of God. She asserts that there is no moral structure in the universe and therefore no objective source by which to measure right and wrong. “For those who want morality, there’s morality,” she says. Along the way, Aunt May concludes that if the Nazis had prevailed in World War II then the events of the 1930s and 40s would be remembered differently. “History after all,” she concludes, “is written by the winners.”
Carl Trueman’s business is history. The vice president for academic affairs at Westminster Theological Seminary, Trueman is also a professor of church history and historical theology. His books include academic volumes as well as more accessible works like The Wages of Spin and the recently released Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. What one finds in Trueman’s writing is a seemingly constant engagement with history. Whether it is his biography on John Owen or his many articles and blog posts, Trueman seems always to be wrestling with the historical task.
Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History is a different kind of book for Carl Trueman. He is accustomed to writing history, not about how history ought to be written. In a rather candid moment Trueman admits that his view of the historical task formerly mirrored Shaw’s attitude toward teachers: “those who can write history, do write history; those who cannot, write books telling others how to do it” (13). Thankfully, however, Trueman has come to believe that there is indeed a place for the historian to weigh in on those questions that underlie the task of writing history.
Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History
How do we know the stories told by historians are true? To what extent can we rely on their interpretations of the past?
Histories and Fallacies is a primer on the conceptual and methodological problems in the discipline of history. Historian Carl Trueman presents a series of classic historical problems as a way to examine what history is, what it means, and how it can be told and understood. Each chapter in Histories and Fallacies gives an account of a particular problem, examines classic examples of that problem, and then suggests a solution or approach that will bear fruit for the writer or reader of history.
Not only is Histories and Fallacies a different kind of book for Trueman, it is a different kind of book for Crossway. That is, it is not an explicitly “Christian” book as we tend to measure such things in our present moment. I commend Crossway for publishing such a work. For while this present volume does not deal with explicitly Christian themes in the sense that a book on the doctrine of Christ does, Histories and Fallacies is nevertheless an important book for Christians whose hope is wrapped up in thousands of years of history. After all, we say that our salvation depends upon a series of objective events in the past. Christians, therefore, ought to be competent historians.
Trueman readily admits that there are unavoidably subjective realities in the interpreting and writing of history. “History,” he writes, “is not simply a collation of facts which can only be related together in one valid narrative” (17). However, as we consider the past we must “rule out of bounds the possibility that there are a potentially infinite number of sometimes contradictory yet equally valid ways of talking about the past” (17). Using the rather amusing example of theories suggesting that Elvis is “still alive and well and working as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket,” Trueman warns against “a kind of epistemological nihilism that has so relativized everything that access to the past in any meaningful way is virtually denied” (18). This, I suggest is the heart of Histories and Fallacies. It is also the reason why this volume is important. Many of us who labor as pastors are often confronted with the fruit of historical deconstructionism and “epistemological nihilism,” which has become rather chic in certain evangelical circles.
Chapter one, “The Denial of History” is dedicated to addressing whether or not history can achieve objectivity and neutrality. Trueman uses the phenomenon of Holocaust denial to demonstrate that while history always involves subjective matters of interpretation, objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. “Objectivity is much more modest, and thus a much more attainable category than neutrality” (67).
In the chapter entitled “Grand Schemes and Misdemeanors,” Trueman delves into the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Trajan as well as Hegel and the rise of Marxism (with special focus on the influence of Christopher Hill). It is a pleasure to see Trueman “connect the dots” between these seemingly disparate realities. I will allow the reader to discover Trueman’s conclusions concerning the fatal flaw in Marxism.
Chapter four, “A Fistful of Fallacies,” is a helpful summary of common errors made in historiography. For those not interested in wading through David Hackett Fischer’s excellent volume, this chapter provides a welcome alternative.
Trueman helps the reader navigate a path between boasts of unadulterated objectivity on the one hand and overblown claims from historical deconstructionists on the other. If this was the only thing Histories and Fallacies did well then it would be worth reading. But along the way Trueman has given us a thoroughly readable volume delivered with both humor and sobriety. I commend it to you with confidence that you will be helped in the reading.