I just finished reading Herbert Butterfield’s small book The Whig Interpretation of History. I had heard or seen it referred to from time to time, and so thought I needed to get with the program. Butterfield is a superb writer, and has a very solid grasp of his subject, and the whole book was an exercise in futility and chasing after wind. In my brief Goodreads review, I said that it was like watching someone put five coats of high gloss paint on a rotten board. Butterfield’s premises are relativistic to the core.
At the same time, the book was helpful to me. It helped explain why I get into so much trouble on historical subjects all the time — the basic reason is that (in his sense) I am a whig. There are other factors of course, such as the fact that I am a vile person, but my commitment to “whig interpretation” is clearly at the heart of it.
The central thing that Butterfield goes after is the tendency to want to make the lessons of the past edifying for the present. He calls this the whig or Protestant approach to history. He also targets the notion that we should be grateful to certain groups in the past for blessings we enjoy now. For example, he repeatedly critiques the idea that we are in any way in debt to the Reformers for our political liberties.
Near the end of the book, he selects Lord Acton as a premier representative of this whig approach to history, which is odd, because Acton was a Catholic. Nevertheless, this selection of his gave me a good idea of what is going on, and why a thesis like Butterfield’s would be plausible to many. This is what I mean.
Butterfield again and again objects to a “white hats/black hats.” That is far too simple, he would say. Again and again, he shows us additional complexities that we may not have considered. All this is fair game.
Here is the problem for us as Protestants as we pass on the Protestant approach to history to our children (which we must do). If you are going to teach history to first graders at all, it is going to be simplistic. And in that history, the only time the black hats get a fair shake at all is around Thanksgiving when the black hats are made of paper, with big silver buckles on them.
This problem develops into a real problem for us when the teachers of the first graders get stuck in that mentality, and start teaching adults to stay stuck right there with them. You start getting rah-rah pop history. You make moral judgments, sure, like a good little Christian, but those judgments are are frequently clunkity clunkity wrong. “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). This is the mindset that is capable of filling Washington DC up with memorials to men who were mortal political enemies and call it all good. On one side of the hall, you have a statue to Micaiah, a valiant man, and on the other side we find the statue of Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah, who once collaborated closely with Micaiah at a crucial time in Israel’s history (1 Kings 22:24). This is the kind of mentality that can build tombs for the prophets, thus proving whose children we really are (Luke 11:47-48).
That kind of history is not history at all. It is crowd control.
What we need are men of the stature and competence of Acton, but who do not let their awareness of the additional complexities in the historical record to turn them into relativists. And this is the tell. When a sophisticated historian dispenses with the simplistic judgments, but keeps the moral judgments, and the gratitude, Butterfield is still hostile. What he wants to get rid of is not the simplistic historical moralizing, but any moral meaning to history at all. And that is death.
Truth matters. It matters in history. Morality matters. It matters in history. It might be useful to somebody’s damned little project to put FDR and Ronald Reagan side by side like they were old chums in a “hall of great presidents,” but whether or not it is useful, it is still a lie.
Here is Butterfield:
“This does not mean that [the historian] has the subtlety to decide the incidence of moral blame or praise . . . Faced with the poisonings of which Alexander VI is accused, it is for the historian to be merely interested . . . The truth is that the historian, whose art is a descriptive one, does not move in this world of moral ideas” (pp. 119-120).
But of course, if the historian is not interested in any moral way about those poisonings, is he just as detached when exactly the same question arises with regard to James Earl Ray?
Finally, the reason we are supposed to draw lessons for the present from the past is that we are Christians. The Bible tells us to.
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime [including the histories] were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months” (James 5:16-17).
“I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not” (Jude 5).
But fair warning. If you resolve to start thinking about history this way, you will soon discover yourself a pariah. History absolutely requires a fierce commitment to the moral law of the thrice holy God, and as soon as you get past the intermediate levels, this commitment is really going to cost you.