Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Historiography, Primary Source Material, and Norman Geisler

I love history.

I’ve always loved history. It fascinates me to discover what has happened in the past. In addition to my studies to prepare for Sundays, I’m often reading, for recreation and my own personal satisfaction, some sort of history.

But have you ever stopped and wondered just how we know what has happened in the past? I mean, how do we really know?

It is often said that, “History is written by the winners,” implying that all historical sources contain biased materials. This is true of many sources, but by no means all. Historians have, over the years, developed methodology and criteria for weighing source materials in their efforts to uncover the events of the past. This methodology and criteria is called Historiography.

Webster’s defines historiography as “the writing of history; especially: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” Very basically, historiography encompasses the examination and evaluation of historical source material to determine it’s trustworthiness and usefulness in constructing the historical narrative.

Most people think of history as the study of the past, and, in a general sense, that is correct. But, more specifically, history is the study of the written records of the past. This is why times before written records are called “prehistoric.” The earliest records we have are clay tablets and inscriptions in stones. These are nice because they tend to last for a long time. For later periods, historians have records on papyrus, parchment and paper. For more modern historical periods, the types of records also extend to photographs, motion pictures, audio & video recordings, and electronic records of all types.

Archaeologists can tell you that a house once stood somewhere. They can tell you how big it was and how it was built. They might even be able to tell you what kind of food was cooked on the hearth. But archaeology isn’t able to tell you who lived in the house, what their names were, or why they even lived there in the first place. Written records, if they can be found, can tell you all of these things and more. Archaeology can help color in the picture that history draws, but archaeology isn’t history, and our knowledge of prehistory, while helpful and interesting, is, at best, very sketchy.

(Yes, I know that archaeologists find written records, but learning about what happened in the past from written records in history not archaeology, even if it is done by an archaeologist. A brain surgeon might fix your car, but that doesn’t make auto repair brain surgery. But I digress.)

I find all history fascinating, but my particular interests lie in ancient and mediaeval history. And, the further you go back in time, the less and less sure you can be of all the details. Also, the further back in time you go the more and more the records you have are restricted to “important” things like kings and kingdoms and generals and battles and wars. Prior to the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s, all books and such had to be hand written, and so were rare and expensive. Also, nobody thought it was very important to record what Joe the Blacksmith did on a Tuesday afternoon in a small village in England in 1242. But people did record what the kings and queens and lords and ladies were doing. Especially important events like wars and plagues and the like.

Similar to a detective pouring over evidence and witness statements while trying to solve a crime, it is the job of the historian to pour through written records of historical events and try to construct a picture of what happened. Historiography is the science and methodology that they use to try to decide which records are trustworthy, which are not trustworthy, and just how much any of the records can be trusted, anyway. Basically, the historian asks, “Who says?” and “How does he know?”

“Who says?”

The historian must ask, “Who wrote this? Why was it written? What, if any, axe does the writer have to grind here?” A book written about Adolf Hitler by a Nazi officer may have some good information in it, but it is also going to have a different point of view then a book about Adolf Hitler by a survivor of Auschwitz. (Granted, those are two extremes, but you get the idea.)

“How does he know?”

The other thing the historian must do is determine what type of source he has to work with. Was the person in a position to know what really happened? Historians divided sources up into 3 categories based upon how far the records are from the historical events recorded: Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, and Tertiary Sources.

A primary source is written by someone who was in a position to know personally what happened. A primary source is eye-witness material, written by someone who was there when it happened. One of the things that made Ken Burns’ The Civil War so compelling was all the letters from actual soldiers that are read as part of the narration of the film. Those letters are what a historian would call primary source material. (Also, the photographs taken during the Civil War that were used in the film are also primary sources.)

A secondary source is a written record that has been compiled from primary sources. Historians look at all the primary records of an event or historical period and put them together into a more or less complete picture. A newspaper article or a police report based on witness interviews are examples of secondary sources. If you’ve ever been involved in something that made the newspaper, you probably have some idea of the unreliability of secondary sources.

A tertiary source is a written record that has been compiled from multiple secondary sources. Many popular histories fall into this category, where the author pulls material out of other history books and weaves together his narrative. Such works can be helpful, and are often enjoyable to read, but they are the least consistently reliable as far as historical accuracy is concerned. Generally, tertiary sources are to be avoided for serious research purposes.

One thing that is repeatedly pounded into history students in Introduction to Historiography class is the importance of primary sources to historical accuracy. The closer a source is to the events recorded, the more weight you can put on that sources’ account of those events. History books are written by people who have already done the research and reached their own conclusions. Their books are written to present the conclusions of the authors. History books are helpful, certainly, but the more important knowledge of history is to you, the more you want to rely of primary source documentation.

When you start taking college-level history courses, you don’t get as many of the nice, pre-packaged history books like you got in elementary and high schools. Instead, you often get stacks of narratives and accounts of events from people who were there. You are not reading the words written by some historical researcher, you are the historical researcher, reading the words of the people who lived and breathed the time, place, and happenings that you are studying. If you want to know what really happened, you need to go to the source materials yourself.

That is why I compiled The Caner File, so that interested parties could see and hear the claims that Ergun Caner had made and examine the primary source documents that refuted those claims. I studied history at the University of Montana back in the early 1990’s, and I learned that research that relied mainly on primary sources was the most reliable. History was my major, and, while I did not graduate, (for several reasons, chiefly financial,) I’d like to think that I did learn something useful.

Historiography, Primary Source Material, & Norman Geisler

Why am I bringing all this up? Because I read several things yesterday that I find very troubling.

About 10 or 11 o’clock yesterday morning, I was directed to the following statement posted on Norman Geisler’s Facebook page. Dr. Geisler is a well known Christian author, speaker, and teacher. He is the president of Veritas Theological Seminary. He wrote on his Facebook wall:

An extensive independent investigation has exonerated Dr. Ergun Caner of all the false charges made against him by extreme Muslims and others and has been retained as a Professor at Liberty University. In spite of a few misstatements (which we all make and he has corrected), nothing has diminished his testimony and orthodoxy as one of the great Christian voices of our time. I totally support him.

Dr. Geisler’s statement is troubling to me. Here he is, one of the leading Evidentialist apologists in the world, and he does not deal with any of the evidence. He does not say that he has examined the evidence himself, nor does he give his criteria for why he has rejected it. This is really a problem for an evidentialist, isn’t it?

Then, last evening, I read a twitter exchange between a presuppositional apologist & blogger, Joshua Whipps, known as “RazorsKiss,” and Dr. Leo Percer, a professor at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary & Director of their PhD program in Theology and Apologetics. They were discussing Dr. Caner’s removal as President and Dean of LBTS, and Liberty’s statement about it. I’m not going to reconstruct the whole conversation, but, at one point, RazorsKiss tweeted to Dr Percer, “@leopercer You do understand that there is evidence to look to, and has been for months, correct? You have examined it?” To which, Dr. Percer replied, “@RazorsKiss I haven't seen it, I said I don't know.”

Again, we see an intelligent and educated man, a professor of apologetics, who has not even examined the evidence for himself. Dr. Percer has been a vocal defender of Dr. Caner’s ever since the allegations of lying became public and Liberty University announced their investigation. It seems, by his own admission, that he has never bothering to check the sources for himself.

Also troubling is this statement, released a couple of weeks ago, by popular apologist John Ankerberg on his website:

To Whom It May Concern:

I have known Ergun Caner for nearly a decade. I am disheartened by the recent attacks upon his integrity and character. I have interviewed Ergun for more than a dozen television shows and believe his personal testimony to be completely true. Otherwise, I would not have allowed him to broadcast his story to the millions of viewers that tune in to my program across the globe. Ergun and his brother, Emir, are men of God who have taken a valiant stand for the Lord, even costing them and their families their safety. For someone to attack Ergun’s selfless sacrifice, especially since they malign his character without any substantiation, is both unchristian and unbiblical. Count me among the many who will stand with Ergun Caner, knowing he stands for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. John F. Ankerberg

Again we have an evidentialist who refuses to address the evidence. All of Dr. Caner's "factual statements that are self-contradictory" are simply dismissed out of hand. Dr. Ankerberg makes no effort to show why the evidence is wrong or misleading.

Now some would say that Doctors Geisler, Percer, and Ankerberg are primary sources themselves, as they all know Dr. Caner personally. However, none of them knew him during the time that is in dispute. We do not know exactly when Doctors Geisler and Percer met Dr. Caner, but neither of them claim to have known Dr. Caner prior to his conversion. In fact, Dr. Percer says explicitly that he was not a witness to any of the events in dispute. Dr. Ankerberg says quite clearly that he has known Dr. Caner less than 10 years, so his personal knowledge of Caner came after September 11, 2001; after “Michael ‘Butch’ Caner” had become “Ergun Mehmet Caner.”

In fact, Doctors Geisler, Percer, and Ankerberg all have vested interests in keeping Dr. Caner "in the clear" that go beyond friendship.

In his statement, Dr. Ankerberg says, "I have interviewed Ergun for more than a dozen television shows and believe his personal testimony to be completely true. Otherwise, I would not have allowed him to broadcast his story to the millions of viewers that tune in to my program across the globe." This clearly links his credibility with Dr. Caner's. If Dr. Caner's credibility is in doubt, that reflects on Dr. Ankerberg and his ministry as well.

In the case of Dr. Geisler, it should be noted that Dr. Caner teaches at Dr. Geisler's seminary. Once again, we see that their credibility is linked. And Dr. Percer teaches at the school where Dr. Caner is, at least until midnight tonight, the president and dean.

I find it utterly amazing that none of these men see the damage that they are doing to their own credibility by blindly supporting Ergun Caner without any regard for the evidence that abounds in this case.

In all the discussions I’ve had over the last few months regarding Ergun Caner, I’ve not spoken to, corresponded with, or read anything written by anyone who was defending Ergun Caner where they actually dealt with any of the evidence. My Daddy used to always tell me, “Son, if one person tells you that you’ve grown a tail, you can laugh; but if everyone is telling you that you’ve grown a tail, you’d better turn around and see if you have.”

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