I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how parents and tutors can employ the 5 Common Topics in ways that will ultimately lead the students to better know God and make Him known. Before I give some suggestions, however, we need to establish for newbies what I mean by “The 5 Common Topics”. The following is a concise summary from Classical Christian Education Made Approachable:
Armed with the proper tools, parents and students can learn how to think through big ideas and form value judgments about ideas. When developing the art of thinking and the art of communicating those thoughts in speech or writing, there are five common topics at their disposal. These topics, or modes of thinking more deeply about a topic, are often taught in formal logical courses and related to rhetorical courses on invention. The five common topics are:
DEFINITION A way of unfolding what is wrapped up in the subject being discussed. ask the question, “What is x?” or “What is meant by the term x?” An example would be defining what is meant by evolution. Does the speaker or writer mean macroevolution (species mutating to other species) or microevolution (minor changes within a species)? This definition allows for the process of refining thoughts.
COMPARISON A strategy for bringing two or more things together with the purpose of studying them further to find similarities, differences, superiority, or inferiority. Ask a question like, “How does x compare with y?” An example would be an assignment in which students compare freedom and authority and understand how each is limited or expanded by a democratic government.
RELATIONSHIP A thinking mode related to cause and effect as well as other relationships. Ask a question like, “What caused x?” A history essay assignment might be phrased thus: “What were the primary causes of the Civil War?”
CIRCUMSTANCES A thinking mode related to what is possible and what is not possible among other ideas related to past and future actions. Ask questions like: “Is this idea possible?” and then, “Why or Why not?” For example, students might be asked to consider whether or not it would be possible to reintroduce the classical model into the public school system. Or, they might be asked to argue whether or not it would be possible to do away with the public school system and offer only private options.
TESTIMONY Drawing from external sources that prove, disprove, or call into question certain ideas and their conclusions. Ask: “What do experts say about this issue?” Sources include authorities, testimonials, statistics, maxims, laws, and precedents. In the sample Civil War essay above, students would need to support their list of Civil War causes with statistics and evidence from authorities in history.
As an example of how we might use the 5 Common Topics to help our children think biblically and Godwardly, consider this quote from Johnny Tremain:
“If he had not counted ten, he would have told her what he thought of her, black folk in general, and thrown in a few cutting remarks about her master––the most powerful man in Boston. But counting ten had its rewards.”
IDEA 1: Point your kids to biblical vocabulary when expositing a text. In discussing this passage with our kids, we might ask them if they can think of a biblical term that captures what Johnny was learning here. One correct answer would be self-control. Johnny was learning to control his tongue and to say no to his rash instincts.
By asking our students to think of biblical terms when providing definitions for concepts, we are encouraging them to 1) know their Bibles, 2) structure their thinking according to biblical categories, and 3) see the wisdom of God. In this case, we could follow up their answer by writing the word self-control on a whiteboard or sheet of paper and listing truths the Bible tells us about this concept:
- A fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)
- Protects us against many dangers (Proverbs 25:8)
- Necessary to follow Christ (Mark 8:34)
- Serves our prayers (1 Peter 4:7)
- Those who have it are truly mighty (Proverbs 16:32)
It is also important to remember that nothing exists or has meaning (definition) apart from God, and therefore we can connect everything to God when comprising a definition. Whether it is a person, place, thing, or idea, we can always include God in the definition. “Self-control is a gracious virtue given by God to fallen people that we might restrain our sinful tendencies and do less harm in the world.” (Do you see how this glorifies God?)
IDEA 2: When considering points of comparison, use God or Scriptural principles as your final point.
In this example, I would likely lead my kids first in comparing Johnny in this passage with the Johnny we saw earlier in the book – the one who was rash and reckless and did not hold his tongue. We would discuss the differences of character and behavior between earlier Johnny and the one we discover at this point in the book.
We then might compare Johnny’s new-found self-control to other characters in the book, characters we’ve encountered in other novels and other studies, and to ourselves (character education!) Finally, however, we would do well to compare Johnny to Christ. Does this growth in self-control make Johnny more or less like Christ? In considering his thoughts and the word he wanted to say, how is Johnny still very different from Christ? When we want to assess anything well, we should put it in the greatest light. Placing our subject-matter (whatever it is) in comparison/contrast with God and Scriptural principles gives us the best perspective to see our subject rightly.
IDEA 3: When using the 5 Common Topics to discuss something other than fiction, include God’s providence in your discussion of relationship.
Too often we look at cause and effect relationships with a secular mindset, as if this this scientist just happened to live in this particular nation and this particular time when this particular event was going on, leading to that particular discovery. As Christians, however, we know that history is His Story, and that Jesus is on the throne working out the plans of God written by Him before the foundations of the world. Everyday of our lives was already written in God’s book before we even took a breath (Psalm 139:16). Therefore, just as we would trace the steps an author uses to bring about important moments in a novel’s plot, we can trace the hand of God in history to see how He prepared the way for certain figures, discoveries, etc.
When we discuss these things with our kids, we should speak in the language of God’s providence, and thereby instill in them a heart-felt confidence in His sovereignty that will sustain them through whatever trials lie ahead of them.
IDEA 4: When using testimony, always include the ultimate testimony: What does God say about this?
Thankfully, I think this is something that many Christian parents and tutors using the 5 Common Topics already do. It never hurts to be reminded, however. At the end of any discussion, about any subject, we always do well to come back to God’s Word. It is not my opinion, your opinion, that maxim, or this statistic that is ultimately decisive. If God has spoken in a way that relates to the subject at hand (and He always has), then that must be determinative for our thinking on that subject.
IDEA 5: Include a Sixth Common Topic
Finally, might I suggest using a sixth common topic? If it has not already happened in the previous discussion, we can always ask our students, “Where do we see God’s glory in relation to this subject?” “How do we see God’s goodness or greatness when thinking about this topic?” By ending this way, we can reach our goal of doxology – moments of awe and worship towards God – at the end of the discussion. If we have talked a subject to death, but have not yet seen the greatness of God in it, we have still missed the point. These kinds of questions help us make sure we get the point.
All things are from him and through him and for him. To him be glory forever. Amen.”