In 1965, Herbert Butterfield published The Whig Interpretation of History, a book that largely helped to define the historian’s craft. Although using more general terminology in condemning the practices of presentism, moral judgments, and over-simplicity in historical study, it becomes apparent that Butterfield’s core definition of a whig interpretation of history is much more specific (and perhaps targeted) than his broad language implies. When mentioning the whig interpretation of history, Butterfield almost always associates it with people who see liberty as a desirable and perhaps naturally progressive end for mankind (especially Protestants). In this way, Butterfield attacks those who use the Reformation, French Revolution, etc. to explain the current benefits of a free society.
When contemplating the use of history as a Christian apologetic, Butterfield’s work is helpful. His condemnation of those who use history to advance particular agendas – whether it be political, religious, etc. – is fitting. It becomes all too easy to distort a historical narrative when blinded by present-day motivations. Bookstores are filled with works by popular historians from all walks of life who succumb to these errors. Butterfield argues that history should be the “love of the past for the sake of the past.” From the surface, it appears that Butterfield’s historical methodology would preclude its use by those who are attempting to justify their religion.
Yet, Butterfield’s claim that history should be studied on its own terms is not without problems. One may question whether or not it is even possible to remove present day motivation from historical analysis. After all, what use is history if it is not relevant in some way? Butterfield appears to be drawing a line in the sand that even he himself cannot help but fall short of.
The real question is not whether Christians should use history as an apologetic, but how. This is a much more difficult question to answer. Many conservative writers point to the numerous benefits that the Christian religion has had on society, thus affirming its truth and value – only to be criticized for excluding the religion’s darker historical elements. Others point to the providentialist vision of history, and how God’s existence is evident throughout world events. Although there is clearly some truth to these approaches, they nevertheless open themselves up to Butterfield’s criticisms – most of which are valid.
Perhaps the best use of history as a Christian apologetic is one that focuses on the humanity of those who compose it. History reveals that humans are complex, flawed, inventive, fragile, and moral creatures. It shows the value that humans possess (created in the image of God), the brokenness that they cannot free themselves of (sin), and their inherent longing for a better world (eternity). In other words, history is most effective as a Christian apologetic when it is left to itself – much in the way that Butterfield suggests.
This does not mean that Christians, and those who seek to defend their faith, can not use history to support their claims. However, it does mean that history stands as an apologetic in and of itself, and does not need to be framed in “grand narratives” that verify certain points. True history – whether done by a Christian, Hindu, or Atheist – naturally has existential implications. It should lead people to ask questions that go beyond historical study – to seek after truth that is relevant and personal. It should unite people to the human race and reveal the qualities that are inherent to all people.
For Christians, history can be applied as an apologetic by presenting it in a way that is loyal to the historian’s discipline. When conducted in this way, history is far more effective as an apologetic than when it is used to simply buttress argumentation. True historical study reaches to the human heart – a place Christians believe is not far from Jesus himself.