I have updated this topic in my new book, The Gift of Seeing.
Abstraction, a relationship identified between particular objects of our experience (e.g. a specific dog, tree, person) that allows us to better understand other particular objects of our experience.
The process of identifying similarities among particular objects. In other words, abstraction is the identification of a relationship between objects of our experience.
We use abstraction every day, it is a key building block of human thought. If, as I contended in the last article, abstraction as it is usually conceived is an idol of human autonomy, is it not important for us to understand abstraction correctly, as God intended it? In that article I defined abstraction in the manner of the Greeks: it is a generalization (e.g. “Humanity”) of related particular objects (e.g. Bill, Bob, Jane, Judy, etc.). We saw that in Western Philosophy, abstractions were thought to be the true objects of knowledge. That is, they thought that we do not have knowledge of individual humans but of humanity in general. The concrete objects of our experience—the particular people and things we sense—are not themselves objects of knowledge; they are only means by which we acquire true knowledge. Philosophers tried to arrive at true knowledge of everything by looking beyond the particular objects of experience, yet they were left with nothing.
If this view of abstraction is ultimately useless and I am right that we use abstraction every day (if you doubt this, think about all the times you use general categories in conversation: “music,” “dog,” “humanity”), we need an alternate view of abstraction. In this article, I want to unpack what I think is the biblical view of abstraction. In short, abstraction according to the Biblical worldview describes relationships we perceive between the particular objects of our experience. These relationships are not themselves objects of knowledge but conceptual bridges that allow us to utilize the knowledge we already have in understanding new objects we experience. For example, the knowledge of Fido the poodle, Maximus Rex the pug, and Wolf the husky would allow someone to identify specific features and behaviours exhibited by the dog sitting outside the Blenz coffee shop on the corner of Cornwall Avenue and Walnut Street. We will begin by probing this idea further, then we will unpack some of its implications.
Abstraction in the Biblical Worldview
The Bible obviously never uses the word “abstraction,” nor does it directly address the questions philosophers are raising when they talk about abstract thought. This does not mean, however, that God has not revealed anything in Scripture that would help us. Remember that abstraction asks the question “what is true knowledge?” It is ultimately a quest for understanding. Therefore, everything the Bible says about knowledge, truth, and knowing is relevant to the question of abstraction. For the purposes of this article, I only want to make two points we can derive from the Biblical teaching and our own experience illumined by the Bible. First, an abstraction is not knowledge. Second, abstraction is a particular relationship between a set of concrete objects (things or events).
An Abstraction is not Knowledge
At the heart of Greek and Western philosophy—including modern science—is the thought that abstractions are objects of knowledge, that knowledge is not particular but ideas that lay behind the particular objects of our experience. I am not talking about the distinction between rationalism and empiricism, the former saying that sense experience tells us nothing and the latter the opposite. Both of these views believe that what constitutes knowledge is not the particular objects we may or may not sense but the generalizations that lie behind them. A philosopher and a scientist are both interested in the laws of motion instead of particular instances of motion, in dognesss instead of individual dogs, or in the laws of gravitation instead of individual instances of gravitational influence. Common experience and two lines of biblical teaching lead me to deny this view.
The Biblical Objection to Abstraction
First, the Bible teaches that humans know something. Throughout the Bible, God calls men and women to account for things they are expected to know. He claims to have revealed Himself and things about His creation so that we can know Him—indeed, He is truth Himself and we are invited to know Him (John 14:6-7, 17:1-5, 17). Knowledge is, therefore, possible. Second, the knowledge the Bible speaks of is never abstract. The Bible often speaks of knowledge, yet it is always of concrete things, events, and persons. We know Yahweh, a person, not “godness” (e.g. Exod 33:12-34:9; John 17:1-5). We know about the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as recounted by those who witnessed these things, not moral abstractions about true personal sacrifice and justice (this is what the liberal philosophers attempted to see in Jesus’ life). The Bible recounts individual acts of justice, love, goodness, and kindness. But it never defines justice, love, or goodness apart from particular expressions of these virtues. Indeed, love itself is defined by who God is and what He does (John 4:7-12, 10:11, 19:1-42). It is not that the Bible only shows and never tells, that it gives stories and never propositions (statements of truth). It does both, as the above examples display. What I am getting at is that every statement and story is concrete, about particular things and their relationships, not abstract definitions. Love is defined by God and his actions, not an idea detached from events and persons acting.
Another example is humanity. The Bible never gives a definition of “humanity” like this: “humans are creatures with the essential attribute of humanness, such that if we remove the feature humanness a human is no longer such.” Such a definition is tautological, it never defines “humanness.” This is an essential problem with abstraction—it is undefinable—but I will direct the reader to the first article to pursue that issue. My point is this: when the Bible talks about humanity, it points us to the particular people and events that exemplify and show what it means to be human, e.g. to Adam and Eve and the commission God gave them (e.g. Gen 1-3, Tim 2:12-15) or Jesus and his commission (e.g. 1 Cor 11:1).
Furthermore, Sin and the fall are not—as the Liberal tradition and some evangelical movements have described—abstract truths about humanity’s fallenness or estrangement from God. They are not problems that cannot be described, have no historical basis, or are fixed somehow by an equally ambiguous death of God the son. Instead, the fall is a historical event by which a particular human being, Adam, led himself and the universe he represented into sin, earning a curse from God (Gen 3, Rom 5:12-21, Rom 8:18-25; 1 Cor 15:22). Sin is not an abstract problem fixed on the cross: it is a universal disease of the heart by which each and every human born into this world bears the guilt of Adam’s sin and follows Him in hostility and rebellion towards God, engaging in idolatry by exchanging the Creator for the created order (Rom 1:18-3:23). It receives an equally concrete solution in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, procuring for His people the full forgiveness of sins and the benefits of the new covenant in His blood (e.g. Luke 22:20, John 10:11, Rom 8:32). In each of these cases, the objects of our knowledge are events, concepts, or things that we can—and must—define by reference to concrete actions, thoughts, or attitudes in history or in the present.
The Practical Objection to Abstraction
In these and a thousand other examples, knowledge is not abstract but is in one way or another particular. We can see this from another perspective by thinking about thought itself. I mentioned in the last article the observation of Hegel that non-being and being are indistinguishable. That is, if you try to imagine “being” without thinking of “beings,” you are left with nothing. The abstract idea of “being” is meaningless. This holds true with any abstract idea. Try thinking of “dogness” without thinking of a dog—without size, shape, behaviour, colour, history, etc. Your thought will be of nothing. The same holds true for humanness, tableness, computer-ness, even goodness, love, and faithfulness. It makes sense that this is true of concrete categories such as “table-ness,” yet it is interesting to observe that the same is true of so-called abstract nouns. If we, for example, define “beneficence” as acting for the benefit of others, we have then defined an abstract term, “beneficence,” by concrete actions. To understand beneficence, we are then forced to produce instances of “acting for the benefit of others.” In this way, we see that our experience validates our biblical observations: humans have knowledge, yet this knowledge is never abstract in the philosophical sense; it is to one degree or another concrete. This leaves open the question, what is abstraction?
An Abstraction is a Particular Relationship Between Objects
At the beginning of this article I defined Abstraction as a particular relationship between objects. I think this is a definition of abstraction consistent with our experience as interpreted by the Bible. What I have argued so far is not that we do not use abstraction but that abstraction as we use it is not the abstraction offered by the mainstream of Western philosophical tradition. That we can talk about “humanity,” “existence,” “smallness,” “largeness,” etc., demonstrates that we do use abstract thought. Hence my definition of abstraction, an attempt to do justice to our experience of abstract thought within a Christian worldview.
What is it that we think of when we think of “love” or “goodness”? As much as it is not an abstract definition we think of, we also do not think of isolated events with no relation. Instead, we think of a series of events that we deem exemplary of “love.” If love is neither a floating abstract definition that lays behind these events nor a random assortment of events, what remains is that “love” is a relationship between these events. Love describes a particular feature of these events that is drawn out when they are viewed in relationship with one another. It is not a “part” of these events, as if you could take an instance of me saying “I love you” to Nicole and dissect it into parts—it is part speech, love, communication, respect, etc. Instead, love describes one way of looking at this event as it shares commonality with other similar events; it is a perspective by which all these events can be viewed.
Problems with This View
I believe that such a definition of abstraction, as a particular relationship between objects (whether things or events) makes sense of what goes on with abstract thought. As far as I can see it, only three problem emerge. First, such a definition of love runs of the risk of destroying communication: how do I know my perception of the relationship I call “love” is the same as yours? If there is no abstract definition of love by which we can compare our selection of examples of love, how do we know who is “right” or even that we agree? This then raises two more problems. Morality assumes that there is some sort of standard by which we can determine which actions, thoughts, or attitudes are truly examples of “love”; is that undermined by this definition? If morality not undermined, how do humans get access to this standard—however it is now defined?
First, there is indeed a sense in which all our abstract definitions are subjective and arbitrary—yet this need not destroy the possibility of communication. That language is arbitrary and subjective is evident with a bit of thought: the symbol “dog” is no more fitting for a dog than the symbol “cat.” In this sense language is arbitrary. The fact that the definition of “love” among Christians differs from that of Atheists and that the very word “love” differs from the related words in other languages (e.g. ερος, αγαπη, φιλεω, אהב, quero, amo, adoro) shows that “love” itself is a subjective term. But this does not have to destroy communication or morality. To the contrary, if we notice that the Spanish word quero at times means “I love you” but can mean something more sexual, we do not say that “quero” is being used wrongly because it does not equal our understanding of “love.” Instead, we listen and learn the range of meanings quero has. The point is this, everyone uses the word “love” or the equivalent in other languages to mean different things; to learn what someone else means by “love” we pay attention to how they use it, we identify the relationship that holds among all these uses, the similarities they all have. So the subjectivity of our definition of abstraction does not destroy communication; it actually fits with how we learn a language and technical terms (i.e. abstractions).1 An implication of this is that, to make communication possible, humans must make a choice to intentionally understand how others are using language. This means that communication is a moral act, one for which God will hold us accountable (see this article).
This leads us to the second problem: for behaviour to be moral (judged good or bad) it must be measured by a standard that cannot be relative to each person. My definition of abstraction so far seems to endanger this, for it is usual to understand the moral standards as objective abstract concepts. However, this is not a necessary conclusion. As we have seen, abstraction is a personal concept, the perception of relationships between objects, so an impersonal standard is out of the question. However, God—the true standard of right and wrong—is not a impersonal standard. We can define the standards of morality (moral goodness, love, truth, kindness, etc.) as God’s perception of particular relationships between events (broadly defined to include actions, thoughts, feelings, etc.). “Love” as it matters for declaring something morally right or morally wrong is not my definition of love nor the Greek definition of αγαπη (agape, love). It is God’s definition of love. This brings us to our last problem.
How do we have access to God’s standards? We need to answer this in two ways, for we need to explain both the explicit teaching of God’s standards for judging behaviour and the implicit “work of the law” that is evident on human hearts (cf. Rom 2:12-16). To explain the knowledge all human beings have of God’s expectations, ultimately that they worship and obey Him (Rom 2:18-32), we must make an appeal to innate ideas. As David Hume long ago showed, it is impossible to derive an “ought” statement from an “is.” We cannot determine what we ought to think and do from our experience alone, so we need something by which to interpret our experience and declare it good or bad. Such a “something” cannot come from experience and is attributed by the Bible to those without Special revelation, so it needs to be something innate in the human mind, a gift from God for living rightly in His world (I argue this further in my books, The Gift of Knowing and The Gift of Seeing). So, God has given all human beings the ability from birth to correlate specific experiences with His standards, judging them to be right or wrong. Whether we call an act αγαπη or love, we can judge it to be right or wrong. Yet this innate judge, our conscience, is not perfect; in our sin we twist and ignore it, leaving it marred (Rom 1:18-2:11). Therefore, we need another revelation of God’s moral standard by which we can correct our sinful distortions and be intentional in pursuing obedience to God.
I intend, of course, the Bible. If we learn what other people mean by “love” by studying what they identify as “love,” we learn what God means by “love” by studying those things He identifies. Looking at Scripture, we are taught that God Himself is love, that love is an essential way to understand who God is and only by understanding who God is will we understand love. Everything we identify as “love” is only such, therefore, because it reflects this aspect of God’s character. Love is a perspective by which we can view God’s actions within the Trinity (e.g. John 17) and towards His creation. By looking at this pattern of God’s activity, we can then identify what thoughts, actions, attitudes, etc. are loving and what is not. This pattern is sometimes described (1 Cor 13) and sometimes narrated (Exodus) but it is this, the character of God displayed through His actions (including word and deed) and revealed to us in Scripture that gives us a standard for what is and is not love. “Love,” as our example, is then a particular relationship that we identify between acts which are consistent with what God has shown us about His loving character. This leads us naturally to the application of such a view of abstraction: why in the world does this matter?
Why Does the Biblical View of Abstraction Matter?
First, We Need the Bible
The right understanding of abstraction matters, first, because it points us to our need for God. We cannot have true knowledge of everything, as the Greek philosophers thought they could: we cannot know “being itself.” Nor does the fact that we do not know everything have to lead us to despair. God who knows everything has given us enough insight into the world, that it is orderly and controlled by Him, to be able to trust our experience and draw true insight from it. We cannot know everything as God does, to strive for this is idolatry, but because God in His grace has revealed Himself, we can know some things truly.
God’s self-revelation in Scripture is necessary not only because it teaches us what we need to know to interpret the world rightly, as the theatre of God’s glory in which He accomplishes redemption, but also because it corrects our distorted view that results from sin. We misinterpret the creation because we are all rebels against God, we have exchanged the glory of the Creator for the created things. The Bible points us back to the Creator whom we have rejected. It is God’s instrument, wielded by the Holy Spirit, by which He humbles and brings rebels back to Himself and His manual of discipleship by which He reorients us to the proper interpretation of the world and His expectation for how we are to live in it. A proper understanding of abstraction, therefore, drives us back to the Bible as God’s gracious gift revealing to us the Gospel in order that we might be saved and His will so that we might be able to live for Him.
Second, We Cannot Know Everything
Second, a proper understanding of abstraction should also instil in us a great humility and appropriate sense of relief. First, we should be humbled by the fact that God knows everything and we know, relatively, nothing. God does not conform to our standards of right and wrong, He is our standard of right and wrong. He does not conform to our standards of truth, He is our standard of truth.
“Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Who did he consult, and how mad him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isa 40:13-14)
This humbles our ambitions and pride, quelling in us any thought of questioning God’s wisdom and character in light of our own finite understanding.
Yet, second, it is also a great encouragement to those of us who want to understand the world rightly and minister the Gospel within it. We don’t need to know everything to live faithfully in this world; we don’t need to read every book that comes off the printing press. Indeed, God has equipped us with everything we need for life and godliness in order that we might “be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). There is great rest for our souls knowing that “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29).
Third, We Need to Radically Rethink Everything
Finally, a proper understanding of abstraction matters because it will force us to rethink many of the conclusions and methods that our society assumes. Philosophy and scholarly fields that involve categorization (Linguistics, natural sciences, sociology, logic, etc.) need to be re-thought in light of a biblical ontology, a biblical view of abstraction. Though we would disagree on several key points, Vern Poythress has already begun this endeavour by rethinking many of these fields within a Christian worldview (in linguistics, science, logic, sociology, and several others). Such work must continue if we are to submit every thought to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5). I think it is fitting to end such an article as this with Paul’s words in Romans 11:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)
1We can differentiate language in general from technical terms in this way: in common language, the relationship between different uses of a word is often only the form of the word itself: it is not always possible to identify a similarity between disparate uses of a word (though there is often a historical relationship). However, technical terms focus on a particular relationship between concrete things; קדשׁ (qdš, “holy”), when used for the religious behaviour of Ancient Israel, referred to a specific relation certain places, things, and persons had to God. “Love” in common language has many meanings (from desire to commitment), but “love” in the technical moral sense within the Christian tradition refers to God’s love, demonstrated ultimately in Jesus Christ, that humans are to imitate.
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