Leopold Von Ranke’s famous maxim that the historian’s task is to “tell it like it was” may be ridiculed by those who doubt the possibility or even the desirability of objective history, but I believe Von Ranke was fundamentally correct. In the case of intellectual history, this involves understanding a thinker on his or her own terms, in his or her own context. It is coming to grips with a document’s meaning and penetrating what underlies the arguments being advanced. It is no about rehabilitating or castigating those long dead, but about grasping objectively what is being said and why. ¶ While objectivity is the historian’s goal, this does not mean that the historian is void of personal commitments, or that he or she must remain neutral as to the truth or falsity of the positions under consideration. The point is simply that history qua history is not about passing such judgments but is merely about getting the story straight, however the chips may fall. It is only after the position has been understood on its own terms and without bias that the historian may turn to evaluation and employ the fruits of his or her discovery in polemical or other theological application. But at that point we’ve moved beyond the historical task simpliciter and into something else — something wonderfully valuable and necessary, perhaps, but something different nonetheless.
The objective habits of mind that characterize skilled historiography are consubstantial, as it were, with those of the … skilled apologist. Whether the issue is dished up by an ancient or modern protagonist, the apologist must know truly what he or she is up against. We do well to attend carefully to the admonition of that great medievalist Etienne Gilson, who said that it is much easier to refute an opponent than it is to understand him. To this I would add that to thoroughly refute an error, one must understand it as well as the one who holds it. To get into the head of someone who thinks quite differently from us requires the cultivation of an objective frame of mind. This mode of thinking is as necessary for … the apologist as it is for the historian, the former typically dealing with a contemporary opponent, the later examining advocates long dead.
It will not do to misrepresent an opponent, living or dead, however much we may wish to justify it by some greater good. None of us appreciates being misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented and we must take care to treat otheres with the same respect. We can do nothing less as lovers of the truth.