What Role Do Worldviews Play in Historical Research?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

When it comes to a person interpreting historical texts, particularly where ultimate issues (e.g., heaven, hell, God, sin) are at stake, that person’s worldview (or horizon) often plays a critical role.  What is involved in a person’s horizon?

Historical scholar, Mike Licona, provides a useful explanation of horizon in his book The Resurrection of Jesus:

Horizon may be defined as one’s “preunderstanding.” It is how historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.  Horizons are like sunglasses through which a historian looks. Everything she sees is colored by that horizon.

What are a couple of examples of how these sunglasses cash out in our everyday lives?

Take baseball, for example.  In a baseball game, if there was a close play at second base, do you think the runner was safe or out?  It depends on whether your son is the guy stealing second or the shortstop tagging him.  When we read books about Jesus, we find ourselves in agreement or disagreement with certain authors usually based on whether the Jesus they reconstruct is like the one we prefer.

Are there historians who are exempt from their horizons?

For better and for worse, historians are influenced by their culture, race, nationality, gender and ethics; their political, philosophical and religious convictions; their life experiences, the academic institutions they attended and the particular community of scholars from which they covet respect and acceptance. They cannot look at the data devoid of biases, hopes or inclinations. No historian is exempt.

After making the claim that no historian is exempt, Licona provides a long footnote which chronicles various scholars’s views on horizons.  He is not alone in making his claim:

Allison (“Explaining,” 2005): “To observe the obvious, people’s arguments regarding the origins of Christianity are unavoidably driven by large assumptions about the nature of the world, assumptions that cannot often if ever be the upshot of historical investigation” (133);

R. Evans (1999): “We know of course that we will be guided in selecting materials for the stories we tell, and in the way we put these materials together and interpret them, by literary methods, by social science theories, by moral and political beliefs, by an aesthetic sense, even by our own unconscious assumptions and desires. It is an illusion to believe otherwise” (217);

McCullagh (The Truth of History, 1998): “I conclude that the cultural bias now being discussed, which does not involve false or misleading descriptions of the past, is inescapable, and provides the main reason for saying that history is subjective. In this way I agree that history is subjective” (35);

Meier (1991): “Whether we call it a bias, a Tendenz, a worldview, or a faith stance, everyone who writes on the historical Jesus writes from some ideological vantage point; no critic is exempt” (5);

Moore-Jumonville (2002): “In the end, differences in hermeneutical method around the turn of the century (as today) had to do with one’s presuppositions and the relationship one constructed between theology and criticism” (167);

A. G. Padgett, “Advice for Religious Historians: On the Myth of a Purely Historical Jesus” in Davis, Kendall and O’Collins, cds. (1998): “World-views don’t just give us the questions we ask; they also affect our understanding of the evidence and our historical judgment. There just is no such thing as data apart from some interpretation” (293-94);

Waterman (2006): “We as observers must bear in mind an inevitable bias in our own theological interests. The latter is the so-called ‘historian’s subjectivity,’ which is influential in choosing and judging historical materials” (86-87; cf. 12).

What do we conclude from this brief survey of the effect of horizons on historical interpretation?

Horizons are of great interest to historians since they are responsible more than anything else for the embarrassing diversity among the conflicting portraits of the past.  How can so many historians with access to the same data arrive at so many different conclusions? Horizons. Geoffrey Elton writes, “The historian who thinks that he has removed himself from his work is almost certainly mistaken.”

Are we able to do objective historical analysis?  Yes.  Can we mitigate the effects of our horizons?  Yes.  But just like the first steps an alcoholic must take in getting treatment, you first have to admit that there is a problem.  After all, those who deny there is a problem with horizons in historical research are likely to be the most impacted by their horizons.

  • Interesting that Dr. Licona goes on to describe the closest means to obtaining objectivity despite ones’ horizon, utilizing many means I suggested in our most recent discussion. He recommends:

    1) Method (did I harp on enough about that?);
    2) Method should be public (I both asked for others and explained the basis of my own);
    3) Peer Pressure (I am not sure why Dr. Licona feels this is important.);
    4) Submitting ideas to unsympathetic expert (I’ve done plenty of that here!);
    5) Account for the historical bedrock (I discussed plenty regarding the political, geographical, religious, and cultural make-up of first century Palestine)
    6) Detachment from Bias (again, my insistence on reviewing it as how a neutral would determine.)

    Also curious Dr. Licona noted horizons can be overcome as he cites examples of persons converting and deconverting from various faith positions.

    Dr. Licona agrees one can mitigate horizons, but does not state completely objective historical analysis is possible.

  • Thanks for this very important post. Much has been written about this. I think it’s been covered extensively by the likes of Jacques Barzun and many 19th century British historians of thought, that few read today. The Scottish Gifford Lectures are a rich source of some deep thinking on these topics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gifford_Lectures).

    I agree with Dagood that after acknowledging the nature of the problem, what’s crucial is to discuss the means of minimising these sources of bias. Obviously there will a wide spectrum amongst historians here. We need to be able to have some means for recognizing the degree of bias, and then some means of minimising/overcoming it so we can recognize and approach historical truth. I would love to see some more posts that address how we can best do that. I suspect that many impasses will make this difficult (!) but it’s such an important task.

    I also suspect that at bottom, we will find that we all have to make faith commitments, as you can only peel the onion layers of preconceptions and assumptions down so far before you get to a fixed core of faith/religious assumption or understanding of the nature of reality.

    –Wm. Francis Brown

    Forest, Virginia

  • Posts are forthcoming that describe 6 guidelines for minimizing horizon. First one should be out this Friday.