No “Brutum Factum Historicum” or Principles for the Study of History

1. The past no long exists, only the present.

Corollaries:

  • There is no way to actually return to the past (no time machine).
  • The present is, in part, a large “archive” of the past.

2. Historical study reconstructs the past from fragments found in the extant archive.

Corollaries:

  • Historical reconstructions are selective.
  • Historical studies are necessarily interpretations (human acts and artifacts).
  • There is no brutum factum historicum (“pure historical fact”).
  • The would-be “facts” of history come to us within inescapable interpretive frameworks.

3. All recorded human histories (selective reconstructions of the past) are fallible, provisional, and in need of continuous revision.

Corollaries:

  • The historical data is always incomplete.
  • Historical interpretations are never final and perfect.

4. Historical reconstructions are always from a particular perspective or orientation.

Corollaries:

  • Every historical interpretation has its own context and presuppositions, whether explicitly acknowledged or not.
  • While historians can be critically self aware, they cannot fully escape their own historical situatedness.  (cultural embeddedness in time, place, and language)

5. Historical interpretations can be more or less valid.

Corollaries:

  • There are criteria for evaluating historical validity.
  • Historical work should be evaluated.  It is appropriate to ask, “Is this interpretation warranted? And if so, why?”

6.  “History” is an exercise in power (over others).

Corollaries:

  • Historical work has ethical entailments. This includes historical research, the reconstruction/interpretation of the past, and the transmission (dissemination/reception/archiving) of history.
  • “History” is an activity with moral implications.

Greene (Christology in Culture Perspective: Marking Out the Horizons, section on history, chapter 5) writes, “Even within contemporary theology there are those who are suspicious of the claim that history mirrors reality. Rather, it is claimed that history merely portrays ideological self-interest and the inevitable bias of one cultural aspiration over and against another” (p. 161).

The six principles found on page 164 are helpful: The first three deal with the historian (presuppositions, limitations, prejudices, etc.). It is imperative to ask who the historian is, what is his cultural setting, what is his time in history. The last three deal with how the historical record influences the view of history. This involves the combining of records, interpretation of records, framework of the presentation, and the response of readers.

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4 comments on “No “Brutum Factum Historicum” or Principles for the Study of History

  1. Frank says:

    Dan,

    Some excellent food for thought here — but I do have some questions. Are you sure that there are no ” pure historical facts” ? Is it not a fact that you worked at CCC ? What about I Corinthians 15:1-8 ? What about your wedding day ? Was that not a “pure historical fact” ? ( Better be careful with the last one.) Thanks for your consideration.

    • drdanebert says:

      Hi, Frank. Did I really “work” at Clearwater Christian, or was it more like ministry to me? I guess it depends on who is interpreting it? I remember Dr. Youstra saying it was not a job, but a ministry. You get my drift. The resurrection also requires explanation: that is what Paul and the NT are doing under the inspiration of the Spirit. If Jesus rose from the dead and there was no divine interpretation of the event, what would it mean to us? As for the wedding day, now that’s not fair, but if I told Sue it was just a “brute fact,” I might be in trouble too. All history requires “telling,” and who does the telling, and how they tell it, is critically important. This is why there is an ethical component to historiography. There is good and valid story telling, and then there is story telling that is manipulative and selfish, as when Ferdinand Marcos retold the history of WWII in the Philippines and wrote himself in as the hero. Thanks for the questions, Frank. I miss our conversations.

      • Frank says:

        OK , good points and I agree ! ( I enjoy this type of discussion ) However, the fact is that you “worked” in a “ministry” at CCC . I saw you, heard you, touched you, etc.( Don’t panic I know you are only a man) Nevertheless, it was a fact. The question then is was it a “pure historical fact” I guess I don’t know for sure. But wait, maybe a lawyer in a court of law could help us here or is a lawyer another name for a historian who “exercises power over others. ” Think about it — a lawyer does historical research, the reconstruction/interpretation of the past, and the transmission (dissemination/reception/archiving) of history. Then a jury votes upon if he was right or wrong. I guess I just answered my own question — there are no “pure historical facts. ” Dan, maybe we need to be careful that in this type of discussion that we do not become guilty of deconstruction of the truth. What do you think ? Thanks for causing me engage in critical thinking.

  2. drdanebert says:

    Absolutely! That is why we have to be careful about our truth claims. If we claim to know more than we do, or present our own perspective on things “as if” it was truth as it exists in the mind of God himself, then we have actually deconstructed the truth, and been dishonest. There is more than one kind of “deconstruction,” isn’t there? We bear witness to the truth, point to it, do our best with the Spirit’s help and God’s grace to live it, we affirm that it is recorded wonderfully for us in Scripture, but we do not pretend to control its interpretation as though we were ourselves bias free and totally objective. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we know as we are known. Till then, let’s admit to our slightly blurred vision with humility and grace. Thanks for the exchange, Frank.

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