Butchering History?

 I’m sure some of our readers know what an exegetical fallacy is – word study fallacies, grammatical fallacies, etc.  It is also important for us to realize that we can make errors when interpreting history or historical texts.  We’ve all made some historical fallacies at one time or another.  For example, if we read only a few chapters from a book by Luther and then go around saying “Luther taught X” as if we were an expert – that’s a historical fallacy.  Another example might be Eric Metaxes’ biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, where he paints Bonhoeffer as an evangelical when he clearly was not.  One more example of a historical fallacy, speaking of Bonhoeffer, is someone like Glenn Beck using Bonhoeffer as an example of a good patriot we Americans should emulate.  Since we’re prone to these kinds of historical fallacies, Carl Trueman’s book, Histories and Fallacies is a great help to avoiding these mistakes.

One excellent emphasis of this book is Trueman’s discussion of neutrality and objectivity when it comes to interpreting history and writing it. Today, some people say that all interpretation of history is bunk because it was written from a certain point of view.  In one of his discussions on this topic, Trueman notes, “While there is no such thing as neutrality in the telling of history, there is such a thing as objectivity” (p. 21).  Great note – and when I got to this point early in the book, it was hard for me to set it down.

In the rest of the book, Trueman spent some time illustrating how the Holocaust denying historians commit historical fallacies.  Trueman also discusses Pliny’s 1st century letter and what it has to do with interpreting the NT.  Throughout the course of the rest of the book, he also deals with historians who say Luther was a racist and those who say that Turretin is not in the same theological trajectory as Calvin.

The last part of the book is where Trueman explains specific historical fallacies: reification (making an abstract thing a concrete thing), oversimplification, post hoc propter hoc (after this, because of this), the word-concept error (confusing a word with a concept and vice-versa), the genetic fallacy (allowing origins to determine meaning), generalization, question asking (rightly or wrongly), and category confusions.  This part of the book reminded me of Don Carson’s book on exegetical fallacies, since Trueman basically listed several historical fallacies and explained them clearly.

Trueman explains that the main reason he wrote Histories and Fallacies is “simply to make historians more self-conscious about their role in the writing of history…it is important that we spend some time reflecting on the potential hazards and pitfalls that are involved when it comes to explanatory schemes” (p. 70).

So who should get this book?  First, I recommend it to pastors.  Good pastors deal with history every week; this book will help them avoid making dumb historical errors in the pulpit (i.e. the above note of Luther being a racist or saying the Reformed tradition is not evangelistic).  Second, I recommend it to seminary students and anyone whose studies include writing historical papers.  Third, I recommend it to any layperson who often reads and interprets history (from political history to church history).  I’m glad I read it – I’m certainly guilty of committing some of these fallacies, but now that I know them I will for sure do my best to avoid them.  In a day where everything is dumbed down and hyped up, this book will help the Christian historian maintain a level head and accurate scholarship.

shane lems

3 thoughts on “Butchering History?”

  1. I see he also took D.G. Hart to the woodshed in an example of citing to fallacies. Interesting book.

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  2. Ha! Wondering if anyone else would catch that. Interesting is right – makes for some good discussions.

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  3. I appreciated the book as a reminder that history is a discipline–and that it should be practiced with all the care required for that. Too often we all play “loosey-goosie” with history just to make polemical points.

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