By Rodney N. Kirby

#17 “Concrete Methods”

And He (God) brought him (Abram) forth abroad and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and He said unto him, So shall thy seed be (Gen. 15:5).

Before we look at our text for this month, let’s look briefly at Gen. 14:22ff. Here, Abram refuses gifts from the wicked king of Sodom, saying that he will take nothing, lest the king should say, “I have made Abram rich.” Abram recognized that the king could later make ungodly demands on Abram, saying, “I scratched your back, you scratch mine.”

In verse 22, Abram swears to Jehovah, El Elyon, possessor of heaven and earth. Abram recognized that God alone was Lord, and that his allegiance was to be totally to God. Abram did not want to be in a position in which this allegiance would be compromised.

We have the same situation today. Many otherwise fine Christian schools are accepting gifts of one sort or another which place them in a compromising position. Most often, these gifts are from the state—in the form of loans, grants, free lunch money, textbooks, or accreditation. The state thus claims, “I have made these Christian schools wealthy,” and makes ungodly demands on the schools. Christian schools must avoid entangling alliances, even as did Abram.

We might also include the matter of tax exemption. While, Biblically speaking, Christian schools should be tax exempt, yet the state is increasingly looking on tax exempt status as a gift to the school—a subsidy. As a result, the state is making demands on tax-exempt schools. Perhaps it would be wisest, at this time, for schools to avoid tax exempt status, in order to give the state less excuse to intervene.

Now, let’s look at our text. Here, as well as in Gen. 13:16, God is teaching Abram an abstract, non-concrete truth—that he would have an innumerable number of descendants. In order to teach this abstract idea, God used concrete objects—the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky. God thus endorses, by His own use of it, the teaching method of using concrete objects to teach abstract truths. Let’s look at this in more detail.

One of the key questions in philosophy is the relation between the one and the many. Which one is ultimate? Is it the one—universals, general laws, abstractions (as in Plato)—or is it the many—particulars, individual items, concrete objects (as in Aristotle)? Historically, philosophers have alternated between these two. One may assume that universal truths are ultimate, and that individual items are derived from these. On the other hand, one may take the individual items to be primary, with universal laws and properties being derived from these.

Take a common example. We see many different, individual, concrete items called “chairs.” Philosophically, we may say that all these items partake of qualities they derive from some universal “chairness.” Or, on the other hand, we may say that we observe many different chairs, and thus derive the quality of “chairness” from our observations of these individuals. We either move from the universal, the “one,” to the particular, the “many,” or vice-versa.

What is a Christian understanding of this problem? A proper understanding of the Trinity shows the answer. God is both one and many at the same time. The Bible clearly teaches that God is one—there are not many gods. Also, the Bible clearly teaches a plurality (three) of persons in the Godhead. Neither God’s unity nor His plurality is more ultimate—more basic—than the other. We do not say that God is really just one, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just manifestations of the one God (modalism). Neither would we say that there are really three Gods. No, unity and plurality are equally ultimate in God.

Now, since the creation reflects the nature of God, we may say that unity and plurality are equally ultimate in creation as well. What this means for our present topic is that neither abstract thought nor concrete objects are more basic than the other. Both are important in education. And neither must necessarily come before the other temporally. We may present an abstract concept, and then illustrate it with concrete examples. Or we may present many concrete facts, and then derive an abstract principle from them. Both methods are legitimate.

Here, in our text, God presents a concrete object—the dust of the earth, the stars of the sky—and teaches an abstract concept—the innumerability of the sons of Abraham.

Some Christians, however, have objected to such a teaching (at least, they have to me personally). They say that we do not base our learning on experience (on the particulars, the “many”). They say that God is not learned about through the items of experience. We do not work our way up from our experience to a concept of God. And so our teaching must not be from concrete to universal, but the other way around.

While it is true that we do not formulate our concept of God entirely from experience, yet our experience does give us insight into the nature of God. God is not merely an abstract ideal somewhere “out there,” but he is the Lord and governor of all the concrete items in our experience. Thus, our experience does reveal truths about God—His provisions for our every need, His chastisement, etc. And, in a more general sense, we may progress in our learning about any subject from the concrete to the abstract.

Lee J. Cronbach’s Educational Psychology (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963) has some useful material:

The teacher cannot expect to communicate if he talks about things that have no connection with the pupil’s experience. A sea chantey is “a rhythmic song, sung in chorus by a ship’s crew”—but this is a pallid image to the pupil who has never heard one. He still wouldn’t recognize a chantey. A rainbow, a banana, or a baby defies description; only experience with the real thing acquaints a person with its characteristics. Many concepts deal with relations or abstractions (heredity, kilowatt, a billion dollars) and the teacher cannot point directly to an example. Even these, however, can be connected to familiar experience (“a kilowatt would run ten light bulbs like this”).

Images of concrete objects and events are a necessary background for comprehending an abstract relation. Whenever an activity puts the pupil into intimate contact with real objects, he amasses experiences that can clarify theoretical concepts and principles. The boys who make radios acquire images of objects and operations associated with electricity. They know what an added resistor does; they have seen lights dim and have felt wires grow warm. Consequently, they find physics easier to grasp. The class that sets out to persuade the city council to change its bicycle ordinance gains a picture of realities of which the formal chart of government structure is only a reminder . . .

We have said that experience with the concrete situation is the base for understanding. This should not be misunderstood to imply that concrete instruction is invariably better than abstract verbal instruction. The advantages of abstract instruction are probably best illustrated in a series of studies…. In these studies, some subjects were trained in a situation where they could use concrete cues, while others were required to learn and apply an abstract pattern. So long as the subjects had enough familiarity with the real situation to understand the abstract scheme, the abstract instruction led to more transfer. (pp. 368-369).

The point here is that concrete instruction and abstract instruction must go hand-in-hand. Neither is more important than the other, and neither can be omitted. Abstract instruction alone is often contentless. Concrete instruction alone does not lend itself to transfer. We must teach students concrete facts, as well as the principles governing those facts. The so-called “new math” has as its emphasis an understanding of how mathematics works (abstract). However, it has often been a failure, due to a lack of drill in the basic facts of arithmetic (concrete). This is just one example of how concrete and abstract learning must go together.

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