Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, says of the Old Testament that its principal purpose was to prepare for the coming of Christ through prophecy and “types” (DV 15). For his own part, St. Thomas Aquinas says essentially the same thing: the Old Testament taught about Christ implicitly through figurative depictions and portrayals. But have you ever wondered if this might be a rather roundabout way of preparing for Christ? If you wanted to teach someone about something, wouldn’t it be easier just to tell them about it straight out, explicitly?
The answer to this, I think, depends on what you mean by “easier.” Different styles of teaching and learning are better suited to different tasks. On the face of it, it might seem that explicit instruction is the obvious choice for anything and everything. Some modern insights about learning methods, however, can help us understand why it makes sense that the Old Testament should be more subtle in its teaching style.
If you’ve never heard of implicit learning, I guarantee it’s more familiar to you than you might think. You and I do it all the time without realizing we’re doing it – because it’s implicit. When you’ve learned something implicitly, you can give the right result, although you can’t quite explain how or why. Can you type without looking at the keyboard? Can you recite the letters in order as they appear on a QWERTY keyboard? Like many people who can type, I can’t list off the letters row by row. That means I know the keyboard implicitly though not explicitly. A friend of mine once told me how amazed he was at his ability to enter his PIN correctly at an ATM: he didn’t know the number, and in fact if he looked at the keypad he was unable to do it. That’s because he knew it implicitly, not explicitly.
This is definitely an imperfect way to know something when compared to having both implicit and explicit knowledge of a thing. But are there any situations where focusing on implicit learning gives you an edge? There certainly are. Implicit learning is great for things in which doing is more important than explaining. Implicit learning is “robust,” meaning that it tends not to be derailed by an error here and there. Unlike explicit learning, the capacity for implicit learning does not differ greatly from person to person. It is relatively independent of age and cleverness or IQ, if you will.
One familiar area where implicit learning really shines is language acquisition. I know many intelligent people who tear their hair out in frustration trying to learn a second language. That is because they learned their first language by implicit means and are struggling to learn the second by an explicit means such as a grammar textbook. On the other hand, I know people of little book-learning who can speak two or more languages with an ease and fluency I can only admire. That is because they learned them by implicit means.
Now let us return to considering the revelation of the Old Testament. Only this time, try to think of it from the teacher’s point of view. Imagine that you must teach about God, who is higher than any human intellect can grasp, to a group of people who are starting from little more than the opinions common among men of their time. Any explicit formulation that is barely adequate is going to require a philosophical apparatus as good as or better than the most subtle and powerful human minds in history can devise. Not to put them down, but your group of students are not specially chosen because of their aptitude for speculative philosophy or theology. They are a quite heterogeneous group – men, women, old, young, clever, simple, all different sorts, all mixed together. What’s more, they can’t absorb it all at once, so the instruction must be able to be spread out piecemeal over many generations. What sort of pedagogy do you use if you want to be able to reach them all?
I think that if you were a really brilliant teacher you would figure out a way to tap into the power of implicit learning, though you would also give some special attention to those who were apt for explicit learning. This is just how God taught his people in the Old Testament.
In former times God spoke in partial and various ways, but in these last days God has spoken to us in his Son, and so we know Christ explicitly rather than prefigured under shadows and figures. Does that mean that implicit learning has no place in Christianity? Far from it. First, the Church insists that the Old Testament Scriptures have a permanent value for Christians. Second, we need to learn about the life that is to come in heaven. In New Testament times, Christ is known explicitly, but the life of heaven is still taught about implicitly under figures. An important place where this instruction occurs is in the liturgy, particularly Mass. Just as the figures and types of the Old Testament prepared the way for the coming of Christ, so also the beauty of holy Mass prepares us for the glory of heaven.
Image: Stanislaw Drózdz, Miedzy