The Meaning Of History: Posing The Problem -- By: Bruce Shelley

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 07:4 (Fall 1964)
Article: The Meaning Of History: Posing The Problem
Author: Bruce Shelley

The Meaning Of History: Posing The Problem

Bruce Shelley

In his widely-read novel, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler has the convicted former Communist party leader, Rubashov reflect, “We all thought one could treat history like one experiments in physics. The difference is that in physics one can repeat the experiment a thousand times, but in history only once.”1 He was, of course, right. Since I am a part of history I cannot avoid the problem of its meaning.

History is like time. Everyone assumes he knows what the word means until he pauses to think about it. Our confusion is., only thickened by the fact that the English word “history” is itself ambiguous. It may mean either the process of past events or the intelligible narrative constructed by the historian” from those events. Our word “history” is from the Greek term historie meaning “investigation or inquiry.” And so it was used until Polybius (c. 204-122 B.C.), who conceived,of the study of the past as a special type of research needing a name of its own. Polybius used historie in our modern sensed in the sense of a literary product based upon inquiry.

The German language avoids the ambiguity of English by retaining a philological distinction between the “event” and its recording. Historie describes the series of outer events. Geschichte denotes the inner side of these events as the historian endeavors to render a meaningful account of them.

The historian is concerned with past events but not all of them. Nature has a past and if ,we are to believe biology, geology, paleontology and anthropology that past is an extensive one. But history is a thing apart from nature. History is occupied with the actions of human beings enacted against the back-drop of the natural order. As Herbert Butterfield puts it, “History is a human drama, a drama, of personalities, taking place as it were, on the stage of nature, and amid its imposing scenery.” Nature does play a significant role in the tragedies and comedies that are human history, but it does so only as background for the mystery that is man.

The historian’s subject then is man, but not man in isolation. He is looking for the significant human happenings, the pattern of events that has enduring importance. He is, therefore, more than a chronicler or a biographer. He is seeking that pattern of meaning which will make the past meaningful for his contemporaries.

This naturally suggests that history is a science in that it asks questions of the past and an art in that it is a recording of events in an intelligible and interesting fashion. The data of the historian is thus a composite of “fact...

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