On “Presentism” in Historical Research

By Nathan A. Finn

In 2014, I have been blessed to finish a couple of major writing projects. I wrote a book titled History: A Student’s Guide, which will be part of Crossway’s Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series (Crossway, forthcoming January 2016). In that book, I address the topic of “presentism,” which I define as any attempt to read present assumptions back into the past. Presentism is a perennial struggle for the historian; after all, our own context invariably affects how we study past contexts. The most famous work on presentism is Herbert Butterfield’s oft-cited classic The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). In fact, among historians, “whiggish” is a common adjectival synonym for presentism.

I also co-authored a Baptist history textbook with Michael Haykin and Tony Chute titled The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (B&H Academic, forthcoming July 2015). As a historian whose primary expertise is modern history, I wrote four chapters that cover Baptist life since the turn of the twentieth century (as well as a fifth, more prescriptive chapter on Baptist identity). It was at times difficult to write about recent history—especially topics such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Inerrancy Controversy in the SBC—without resorting to presentism. Nevertheless, I tried as hard as I could; the past must be understood as more than mere prologue to the preferred present of the historian.

Recently, I read Philip Sheldrake’s Spirituality & History: Questions of Interpretation and Method (Orbis, 1995), which is an important work that discusses how historians should think about the history of Christian spirituality. Sheldrake offers a great treatment on the threat of presentism that is relevant to the study of Christian history in general and not just spirituality in particular.

The misgivings by some historians concerning the unbalanced effect of present-day issues on our historical perspective (or what is called ‘presentism’) really means that our interpretations must first of all seek to do full justice to the personalities or spiritual cultures of other ages. We must not be excessively influenced by what we find unattractive or peculiar from a contemporary perspective – and there is plenty of such material in the history of spirituality. ‘Presentism’ essentially collapses the past into the present. This has two aspects. Negatively, it will blame the past for not being the present. Augustine’s attitudes in all respects are culturally conditioned and cannot be adopted uncritically in the present. However, that is different from accusing him of the moral fault of being, for example, a male chauvinist (implicitly, he should have known better). Secondly, positively, it will turn some past traditions, uncritically and anachronistically, into images of the present (for example, the Beguines become a ‘feminist’ movement or popular religious poverty movements in the twelfth century become examples of ‘class struggle’) or it will adopt certain people as heroes and honorary members of another century and its concerns (for example, Thomas More was a martyr for an ultramontane understanding of the Church or Meister Eckhart wrote ‘creation-centred spirituality’). No historian can present the absolute truth and so we must settle for offering, as honestly as possible, what we believe to be near to the truth as we can reach, after detailed and rigorous research and reflection (p. 109).

Any good historian strives to avoid presentism; in fact, this is a key difference between professional historians and activists who use the past as an apologetic for their present preferences (think David Barton on the Right or Howard Zinn on the Left). Rejecting presentism is a matter of historical integrity. But as a Christian historian, I want to go a step further and argue that the primary reason I need to avoid presentism in my historical interpretations is because I need to show neighbor-love to those who lived in other times and contexts. They deserve to be understood with the same degree of empathy and nuance than I would want to be understood by others. The most loving thing I can do is interpret the past on its own terms—even when I wish those terms were different.


Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.