The Problem of Historical Knowledge.

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The “problem of historical knowledge” focuses on the question of whether or not it is possible to learn about the human past with any degree of certainty. Some have argued that this would suggest that history is uncertain and arguably irrelevant to us today. On a more scholarly level it is expressed through the notion of historical relativism. Historical relativism denies the objectivity of historical facts which would, for the Christian theist, have profound implications. According to this line of thought it would be impossible to demonstrate historically the accuracy of the biblical narratives since the past cannot be objectively established. The historical relativist believes that one would be at will to impose whatever meaning she chooses upon the narratives since facts have no meaning. It would be important for Christians, and historians, to be able to answer these critical issues in the philosophy of history for the sake of their interests.

A major argument is against the objectivity of history which can be summarized under two main points. Firstly, it is argued that we cannot know anything about the past because we cannot directly observe it. On a second point it is not possible to reconstruct the past in any objective means because we are not neutral observers; instead we are products of our time, place, culture, circumstances and these factors, it is argued, would nullify any attempt at objectivity. Philosopher William Lane Craig says that because “of our lack of direct access to the past we cannot get outside our linguistic milieu, and the historian’s descriptions or representations of the past will be determined by the concepts and language which he brings with him to the task” (1).


1. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd Edition). p. 470 (Scribd ebook format).

2 responses to “The Problem of Historical Knowledge.

  1. James Barr differentiates between absolute objectivity and relative objectivity. The impossibility of absolute objectivity doesn’t mean that no effort towards (relative) objectivity should be made at all. (James Barr, Concept of Biblical Theology, p.587. note 3.)

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