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The latest edition of the excellent Credo Magazine (which is devoted to George Whitefield at 300) asks four Christian historians what makes a good historian. Here are their answers:

Thomas J. Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

A good historian must have confidence that the past can reconfigured in the present to a credible degree of accuracy.

A good historian should not be afraid of affirming that sometimes there is sufficient evidence to interpret events as manifestations of merciful as well as judgmental works of divine providence.

A good historian will let people have the place of primacy in his effort to understand the past.

A good historian must not shrink from seeking to deduce beneficial lessons, of a variety of sorts, from a faithful narrative and analysis of the past.

Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame:

A good historian must above all be curious—about the world at large, about how records reveal (and obscure) the past, and especially about the whys and wherefores of human interaction.

For public purposes, a good historian should be able to

  • write clearly,
  • organize complexity,
  • explain significance, and
  • avoid either mythologizing or debunking the past.

Good Christian historians, in addition, should cultivate

  • empathy for their subjects (since all humans are made in the image of God),
  • charity toward the judgments of other historians (since believers recognize their own fallibility),
  • trust in divine providence (since God in the end controls all things), and
  • humility about their own humanity (since only the authors of Scripture are infallible)

Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University Apeldoorn (The Netherlands), and Director of Refo500:

A good historian is a good listener who listens carefully to facts and words, especially the small ones.

A good historian is also a good composer who puts these facts and words harmoniously together to make history a profitable pleasure to hear and read.

A good historian must be a good colleague who is willing to learn from and share with other historians.

A good historian must have some good self-knowledge to understand how people from the past were human beings just as historians are.

Doug Sweeney, Chair of Church History & History of Christian Thought Department, and Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

A good historian is someone with

enough patience, love, and diligence to develop a fine-grained and sympathetic understanding of the lives of people in other times and places;

enough insight, artistry, and attention to detail to recreate those lives (in context) for contemporary audiences; and

enough passion, cogency, and analytical skill to interpret the significance of those lives in relation to contemporary realities.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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