The Educability of Children: Why a Reformed Approach Has to be Different

I have been revisiting my series on approaches to education and rethinking what distinguishes the various approaches. Recently I looked at 10 approaches to education and asked how their view the child’s nature and how much they trust to that nature.

In doing so, I found myself thinking that none of these exactly captures my own (reformed Christian) view of human nature. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, which I have largely followed in my own, comes closest and it is certainly Christian, but, as I have argued again and again, it is not reformed.

Unschooling, on the far end of the spectrum, believes utterly in the child’s innate goodness and trusts entirely to his nature to guide him. Mason, who is perhaps close to the other end, does not believe unequivocally in the child’s goodness. She is perhaps the only one to explicitly acknowledge the possibility of badness in the child’s nature. But for her the two are both open possibilities, and her belief was that given the right mental and spiritual food, the good would win out.

We can imagine a Dickensian approach to education in which learning is beaten into the child as his innate badness is driven out, but such conceptions are, thankfully, not common in the modern world. Even those philosophies which seek more than others to mold the child — classical education being a prime example — on some level assume the educability of the child. In many incarnations of classical, the driving force in education comes from outside the child but there is still an expectation that the child can and will respond appropriately, even eagerly, to what is being given.

As reformed people who believe not just in man’s sinfulness but in total depravity, we have to ask how it is that we can expect any good, any movement towards goodness even, from fallen people. (I am assuming here that to be educated, to grow in knowledge, even knowledge in “secular” subjects, is good.) Our theology tells us that man, apart from the grace of God, is not capable of this, but yet we do educate our children and we do see them grow in knowledge.

There are a few answers which come immediately to mind — we can talk about covenant children, the image of God, and “common grace” — but ultimately I think what we need to do is reframe the question. Education does not work because children are educable. Education works because it is a work of God who is able to educate even the uneducable. (To give Mason credit, this is the gist of her 20th principle, that the Holy Spirit is the active force in education.)

Every other philosophy of education assumes that education is doable and is worth doing because of something in the child that can be educated. A reformed approach assumes that education happens not because of something in the child but because of God who is Himself the first actor in all things.

Approaches to Education: In-Person Presentations in Massachusetts

For those who may be local, I have two (identical) presentations coming up in July 2022 in Massachusetts. These presentations are the fruit of my series on Approaches to Education.

First date:

Wednesday, July 20, 2022, 6:00-7:30 pm
Plainville Town Hall, 190 South St., Plainville, MA

Second date:

Thursday, July 21, 2022, 6:00-7:45 pm
Seekonk Public Library, 410 Newman Ave, Seekonk, MA

Homeschooling 101:
Approaches to Education:
Presentation and Curriculum Swap
A program for new and experienced homeschoolers alike. AHEM will be offering a presentation on Approaches to Education followed by a time to share and swap curriculum. This free, in-person program will be sponsored by the Seekonk Public Library or the Plainville Public Library.

Topics to be covered include:
What is a Philosophy of Education
From Classical to Unschooling: Finding Your Style
Lesser-Known Approaches: Enki, Reggio Emilia and more

The presentation will be followed by a time for participants to share and swap curricula. Bring your used items to give away or come browse what others have outgrown.

The program will be presented by Roberta, a seasoned homeschool mother of 4 children (3 now graduated and on to college and grad school). She’s a board member of Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, moderates the Attleboro Area Homeschool Group, and blogs about education at Letters from Nebby

Sacred, Secular, and the Liberal Arts

Thanks to R. Scott Clark and the Heidelblog, I want to revisit a concept I had perhaps not fully understood: the sacred/secular distinction and how it relates to education.

Previously, following Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, I had said that: “We do not need to make the secular sacred, because there is no secular. God is the great Educator, the one who teaches men’s (and boys’ and girls’) hearts and minds. All knowledge and wisdom come from and are found in Him.”

I still agree with the latter half of this — that, as Mason says in her 20th principle, God is the Great Educator and that all wisdom comes from Him — but I want to change the first part. It is not that there is no sacred/secular distinction but that both sacred and secular come under the dominion of God.

As Christians, we tend to go one way or another. Either, anabaptist-like, we say “these are God’s things and those are not” and we separate ourselves from everything we deem “worldly,” or we want to say that everything is under God’s umbrella and so we seek to “redeem” all that is not already overtly Christian. In the realm of education what this means is that the first group teaches the Bible and little else while the second teaches a range of subjects but under a Christian veneer, appending Bible verses to the math curriculum, for instance, and having students do work problems in cubits to calculate the volume of Noah’s ark.

But there is another way and it starts with our understanding of God’s dominion. While sometimes conceptualized in different ways, the reformed understanding has been that God is King not just of the Church but also of the world. It is not that there is not a distinction between sacred and secular, but that both sacred and secular are under His rule. Those things we call secular are set apart in a special way — the meaning of the Hebrew word “holy” is to be set apart — but those we call secular are not outside His control. Both are governed by Him. To extend the metaphor above, we might say that God has two umbrellas. They are different and He rules them differently but both are His. In better reformed language, we speak of two kingdoms, distinct but (again) both ruled by God.

In the words of John Calvin:

“This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.” [Institites 2.2.13, as quoted in “Calvin on the ‘Sacred,’ the ‘Secular,’ and the ‘Kingdom,‘” by R. Scott Clark, Heidelblog (Dec. 19l 2009); emphasis added]

Note the mention of the liberal arts. These Calvin includes among the “earthly things.” As Christians, we are not to neglect the earthly things (trust me, moms, we would not get very far if we ignored “household management”) but neither do we confuse them with the “heavenly things” which are uniquely God’s, are eternal, and do have a kind of priority.

Continuing the Calvin quote, we do not deny that unbelievers have access to truth in the earthly realm: “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” At the same time, “natural man . . . comprehends nothing of God’s spiritual mysteries.” He cannot understand the things of the heavenly realm. We who, through Christ, have access to heavenly things must also not draw too hard of a line. Our heavenly knowledge must inform our knowledge of earthly things as well. We would not, for instance, read history without remembering that God has ordained all that has passed.

When our study turns to secular subjects, we do not say, on the one hand, “God is not here” and leave the field, nor, on the other, do we say “I must claim this for God and make it Christian.” Rather we should say “Ah, here also is something that is His and it is good.”

Approaches to Homeschool: Trusting the Child’s Nature

There are many questions we can ask when comparing various philosophies of education – What is the role of the teacher? What is the goal of education? Is there a common body of knowledge that all should obtain? How does learning happen? My proposal today is that some of the most fundamental questions have to do with the child’s nature and how much we can trust it.

For each of the approaches below (9 philosophies and one method), I am going to ask:

  1. Development: What is believed about the child’s development? How does he differ from the adult and how does he need to change, develop, or grow?  
  2. Nature: Is the child’s nature inherently good? Does it have tendencies toward good?
  3. Trust:  To what degree can we trust in the child’s nature, that it will develop as it ought? To what degree are outside forces necessary to shape the child?


Development There is no development per se. The child has the ability to learn already. The child does not change as much as he reaches his potential or finds and fulfills his passion.

Nature Good, very good.

Trust The child’s nature is completely to be trusted and the parent/teacher is a primarily resource-finder. The necessary forces are within the child.

Reggio Emilia

Development Reggio Emilia speaks of children as “knowledge bearers” and having “a hundred languages” but it is not clear to me if this is different from adults. The goal is not for change as much as to achieve one’s potential.

Nature Good.

Trust There is a fair degree of trust in the child’s nature. The child’s interests drive the curriculum; the teacher is mainly facilitator.  

Wild + Free

Development Childhood differs from adulthood. The goal is not to move the child into adulthood but to so invest him with the virtues of childhood (wonder and curiosity being foremost among them) that they stay with him into adulthood.  

Nature Good, but not perfect, with a natural inner trajectory.

Trust Development is mostly, but not entirely, trusted to the child’s nature. The child is the primary driving force and learning is interest-based but the teacher has a role in guiding, encouraging, and removing obstacles.


Development Children are not the same as adults and must evolve like a caterpillar into a butterfly. This development seems to mainly involve integration of body, heart, and mind.

Nature Seems to be basically good with the right trajectory within the child.

Trust A fair degree of trust with gentle shaping and the teacher as a role model.


Development The child must evolve into an adult.

Nature Basically good but with the possibility of going astray. The right trajectory is within the child.

Trust There is trust that the child’s nature will develop as it should in the right environment. Good environment will produce good output.


Development The child is very different from the adult and must go through a series of births, a kind of spiritual evolution.  

Nature Basically good. The right trajectory is within the child.

Trust There is a level of trust in the innate trajectory but also with a fair role for the teacher in providing the right things at the right time and being a role model.

Charlotte Mason

Development The child has the abilities of the adult but must learn to have a taste for what is good, to choose well, and to control his will.

Nature The child is born with the potential for good and the ability to choose the good but also with the very real possibility of going the other way.

Trust There is a lot of trust in the child’s abilities and that he will respond appropriately if given the right intellectual food. Good input will produce good output; in this case the input is mainly intellectual.

Classical (including Christian Classical)

Development There are distinct stages through which the child passes. He must be taught to reason. There may also be an aspect of confirming to an ideal based on virtues. **

Nature While one might not say the child’s nature is bad, it is clear that he must be molded to a significant degree.

Trust The forces for right development come mainly from without the child. The teacher and curriculum drive development.  

** There are many varieties of classical education including both secular and Christian streams. Some emphasize the building of virtue more. Some downplay the stages of development.  

Values/Character/Principle Based (one exemplar here)

Development This may vary but it is clear that the child must become or obtain things that he does not inherently have.

Nature The child must be molded to a significant degree.

Trust It is things external to the child which must shape him.

Unit Studies

Unit studies is more of a method than a philosophy so does not give full answers to all these questions.

Trust There is often a reliance on the child’s interests as a starting point but there is also the assumption that the teacher must put things together for the child and build or keep his interest and/or entertain him. The active are mainly external to the child.

Understanding “Desire” in Genesis 3

Without necessarily intending to wade into one of the more controversial topics of our day, I have over the last few years reviewed a few Christian books on gender issues. [1] I would like to think that my main motivation has been not to advocate one view over another but to push the authors a little on how they use the biblical text. Too often I find in these books (and in a lot of other contemporary Christian writing) that there is a looseness with the text that I do not like.

Two newer Christian books on gender have also come to my attention recently, one of which I have read and plan to review soon and one of which I have on my to-read list but have heard discussed by its authors. Both of these discuss Genesis 3:16 in an effort to try to reclaim the verse from some of its modern interpreters. At least one specifically places its interpretation of this verse in the Hebrew text of the Bible. Since this is my area of study [2], I was intrigued and wanted to know what we do find when we delve into the Hebrew. Can it help us understand what is going on in Genesis and so inform our understanding of the relationship between the sexes?

The controversy lies in the second half of the verse which the ESV translates as: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” This particular translation enshrines a view from the complementarian end of the spectrum. Those on the far end of the spectrum at least have understood this verse to mean that the woman’s “desire” is sinful in that it is “contrary to” her husband and that therefore he is justified in exercising authority over her [3] (and possibly even that all men should have authority over all women).

The push-back I have seen recently argues that the “desire” here is not sinful and is “for” the husband rather than “against.” The woman has a natural, God-given sexual desire for her husband but he rules over (read: domineers) her. This is an attempt to rescue women from what is seen as a blanket claim that they are just more sinful than men because they have a corrupt desire to usurp authority. In the process, however, there is a tendency to hang the men out to dry. If it is not the woman’s desire which is the problem, then it must be the man’s corrupt use of authority (and some of course would deny he has any inherent authority over his wife).

With that background, let’s turn to the text and see what we find. Unless otherwise noted what I am going to give you is my translation from the Hebrew [4]. The word that poses so many problems and which the ESV and others translate as “desire” is in Hebrew tshuqah. It only occurs two other times in the Hebrew Bible nor do any cognates (other Hebrew words from the same root [5]) occur in the OT. How do we even know what this word means? We look to related languages and context. In this case, my Hebrew lexicon tells me that Arabic has a word from similar root which means “desire” or “affection.” [6] Taking things back to Arabic, which is a much more modern language, is always a bit tenuous. What I am going to propose is that for now we just don’t translate this word. I am going to leave it as tshuqah and let’s see what we can discern of its meaning from the contexts in which it is used.

As everyone who is anyone likes to point out, there are two other places where tshuqah occurs in the Bible, in Genesis 4 and in the Song of Songs. My observation would be that which one the various writers prefer seems to depend on which interpretation of Genesis 3:16 they like. The three relevant verses are (again, these are my translations):

Genesis 3:16b: ” . . . and unto your husband your tshuqah and he will rule over you.”

Genesis 4:7b (spoken to Cain after he has killed his brother): ” . . . at the door sin crouches and unto you its tshuqah and you will rule over it.”

Songs 7:11: “I am my beloved’s and upon me his tshuqah.” [7]

The context of Songs is of course a male-female relationship which leads some to take it as the primary parallel for our verse in Genesis 3. I would argue that Genesis 4 is a better parallel for two primary reasons:

  1. Position within the overall text of Scriptures. In one of the more obvious observations, Genesis 3 and 4 are only a chapter apart. They are part of the same narrative cycle (Adam and Eve and their immediate offspring), they have the same human author, and they were likely written at the same time [8].
  2. The structure of Genesis 4:7 closely mirrors that of Genesis 3:16. In English, the most obvious connection is the talk of ruling over in the second half of each verse. In the original there are two further connections: a) The preposition in the two Genesis verses which I have translated as “unto” is different than the one used in Songs which I translated as “upon.” b) Both Genesis verses include a subject pronoun (“he will rule” and “you will rule”) where it is not necessary in the Hebrew. [9] Because the pronoun is necessary in English we do not notice this addition. In other words, the structure of the Genesis 3 and 4 verses is very similar.

My argument, then, is that Genesis 4 can probably tell us more about Genesis 3 than the Song can. Those who link Genesis 3 with the Song do so to say that this “desire” is sexual since that seem to fit the context of the Song. I don’t think at this point that we can say that. Sin’s desire for Cain is certainly not sexual in nature. The picture from Genesis 4 is of opposition and battle. In each case there is one party who “desires” (Eve or Sin) and one party who will rule (the husband or Cain).

I’d like to look know at the larger section of the curses in Genesis 3. Here again is my translation:

And the LORD God said to the serpent:

“Because you did this,

Cursed are you more than all the beasts of the field.

Upon your belly you will go and dust you will eat all the days of your life.

And enmity I will place between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.

He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.”

Unto the woman He said:

“I will greatly multiply your toil in childbirth; in pain you will bear children.

And unto your husband [shall be] your tshuqah and he will rule over you.”

And to the man He said:

“Because you listened to the voice of your wife and you ate from the tree which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat from it,’

Cursed is the earth because of you.

In pain you will eat from it all the days of your life.

And thorns and thistles it will produce for you and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread

Until you return to the earth from which you were taken.

For dust [are] you and unto dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:14-19)

One thing I notice right away is that the curses of the man and the serpent are much longer than that of the woman. They also both contain reasons (“Because you did this . . .”) whereas the woman’s curse does not. I don’t know if that means we can say the woman is “least cursed” but she is certainly not singled out for worse punishment.

The other big thing I notice that may seem very obvious but definitely needs to be said is that all these curses are bad. Everybody’s section contains things that are bad for him/her. Others have made much of the fact that the curses take inherently good things (childbirth, food) and make them hard. That is true but it is not something the text itself draws attention to. It does not tell us “food is good; hunger is good; but now all that will be hard for you.” I do not think we can use this text to conclude that the tshuqah is necessarily a God-given, good, sexual desire. I do think we can say that everybody’s curse is about how life is going to be hard from now on. Whatever the second half of the woman’s curse is saying, it is clear that it is about how her life is going to be hard.

On the other hand, nobody’s curse is telling them to be sinful [10]. That is, the man is being told “you’re going to have to work really hard and you will sweat” but his toiling is not sinful in any way. Nor is the woman’s giving birth sinful. God is certainly not telling anyone to be sinful nor does He seem to be saying “there is a sin here which you will not be able to resist.” If anything, His words to Cain in chapter 4 are a promise that we can resist sin [11].

I would add that everybody’s curse is primarily about them. The man’s curse is all about him. The woman and her seed are mentioned in the serpent’s curse. What we see there is a contentious relationship with some mutual bruising going on. Like the other curses, it is taking something that was meant to be good and beneficial (the relationship between people and animals) and making it hard. Though the woman and her seed are implicated, it is still a curse on the serpent.

In the light of this, what do I expect to find when I come to the curse on the woman? I expect to find a good thing that has been made hard for the woman specifically though there may also be implications for others. Though the curses are the result of sin, they are not decrees about sinfulness. I do not expect to find God saying “here’s a sin specific to you that you won’t be able to get out from under.”

For the serpent mobility is made hard as is eating. The relationship between the animal and the human has also become contentious. For the man tilling the ground and thereby getting his food is made hard. He is also told that he will indeed physically die and return to the dust. For the woman in the first half of verse 16 childbirth is made hard. My contention is that the primary thing we are told on the second half of verse 16 is that the relationship between the woman and the man which was originally made to be good and beneficial is now made hard.

Personally, I don’t think there is much good reason to see tshuqah as sexual desire. The main reason to do so is the parallel with the verse from the Song, but, as I said, I think Genesis 4:7 is a better parallel. That verse describes a contentious relationship and that is what I see here as well.

One little point (literally a single letter in Hebrew) which we haven’t discussed yet is the conjunction. As the ESV and others translate it Genesis 3:16b has a “but” as in “but he will rule over you.” In Hebrew this little conjunction can mean either “and” or “but.” It is only by context that translators decide which meaning they like. [12] While my argument is that this verse points to a struggle between two parties, I also wonder if translating “but” here is too contentious. “But” seems to imply a certain resolution to the conflict as in “you will fight with your husband but he will win.” I wonder if we should think of this not as a conflict with a clear winner and loser but as an ongoing struggle that will continue to be played out as long as men and women live on this earth (which is to say until Christ comes again). In this understanding the male-female relationship, and specifically the marriage relationship, in this world is not one-sided; it is not that one is oppressing the other in some way but that the relationship between them has been tainted by their sin and is now not the good it was originally created to be but is yet another source of hardship. The fact that this comes in the context of the woman’s curse perhaps means that this is especially hard for her (just as the serpent’s bruised head may be more serious than the human’s bruised heel) but it does not imply that she is more at fault. Nor does it even necessarily imply sin. Even apart from sins being committed, male-female relationships and marriages in particular are hard to navigate. To say it again one more way: if work is hard, if childbirth is hard, if marriage is hard, these things are all the result of the fallenness of man but they are not necessarily the result of anyone’s specific sins right now.

I don’t think we can get egalitarianism from Genesis 3. I also don’t think we can get complementarianism from it. What we can get is that, because of the Fall, marriage — like childbirth, like work — is hard. That probably doesn’t come as news to many of you.


[1] See: Beth Allison Barr. The Making of Biblical Womanhood and Aimee Byrd. Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

[2] I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in biblical Hebrew from secular universities and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program when I left to have my children. I have also spent some time in recent years looking at biblical poetry specifically. This section of Genesis 3 is poetic.

[3] Of course there are other biblical passages that those with this interpretation use to justify the husband’s authority. I am trying to keep my own thoughts pretty narrowly focused here on Genesis 3. I am not a New Testament scholar.

[4] For the nerds out there, I use the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS).

[5] Hebrew words for the most part are built on a triliteral (three-letter root system). The root here is sh-w-q.

[6] Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 1003 [My version is so old I can’t seem to find the publication year].

[7] The Hebrew does not require a verb where English does in “to be” sentences. In my effort to be as literal as possible here I have left out the verb where the Hebrew does but we would probably read ” . . . unto your husband is your tshuqah . . .” (and likewise in the other two verses).

[8] If we accept the traditional designation that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and Solomon wrote the Song, then we are talking about something like a 200 year difference. Biblical Hebrew, like all languages, changed over time and different human authors may use terms differently.

[9] Hebrew, like Spanish and many other languages, includes an indication of the subject in the verb form so that the use of the pronoun is redundant and is often added for emphasis.

[10] We could debate a little about whether the serpent bruising the heel is sinful. If we are thinking about actual snakes and not something more nefarious, I don’t think anyone would say that a snake sins when he bites a heel.

[11] Of course in the light of the rest of Scripture we know that we can only resist sin in Christ who resisted it for us.

[12] This is the same in the Genesis 4 verse.

“Can You Recommend a Living Book on . . . ?”

Pet peeve time. I am disturbed by posts that ask for living books on particular topics like sharing or honesty. If you can say “this book is on honesty,” it is probably not a great living book. That is not how living books work. What makes a book living is that that you can come back to it again and again and find new ideas in it. Living books aren’t obvious. It takes some work to get what they are telling you.

What we get from a living book is very individualized. When I read Karen Swallow Prior’s take on Ethan Frome, I was disturbed by her interpretation because it didn’t match what I had gotten from this cherished book. But I recognize her prerogative to take from it what she will. I bet we could have some good conversations about it.

What this means for our children is that we cannot address behavior problems by finding that perfect book. There has been a lot of misinformation in the Charlotte Mason world about how we use books in habit training. Living books can be a great resource for character building, but they work slowly over time. You cannot target a book to a particular problem. Doing so will backfire. Either your child will not get the message you want them to get OR they will see the message you are trying to send — because it is so obvious — and they will resent you for it.

So by all means, fill your children’s lives with living books. Inspire them with stories of great men and women and warn them with stories of those who have gone astray. Better yet — look for books with moral complexity that the reader has to wrestle with. But don’t think that if your child hits his brother that there is an easy fix and that reading one story about kindness will do anything to address his heart.

Book Review: The Sexual Reformation

I wasn’t going to read Aimee Byrd’s The Sexual Reformation [1], but then I heard her on a podcast (and then another and another) and I needed to know what she was talking about. Byrd has come to be somewhat of a controversial figure in the reformed and evangelical world. Her last book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (my review here), got her a lot of flak to say the least. My very short take on that book was that while I tend to agree with Byrd in principle, at least on the big issues, I did not find her argument well-reasoned and I have particular concerns about her handling of the biblical text. While I didn’t particularly want to engage with this new book, when I heard her talk and learned that the book is on the Song of Songs and that she draws particular theories about gender from its words, I was intrigued. Since my own background is in biblical Hebrew, I couldn’t resist the pull to see what she was saying about this controversial Old Testament book and how she applies it to modern problems.

There is a lot to discuss here and I think I could write something almost as long as the book itself (which is just shy of 200 pages, by the way). I am going to divide the material up into sections and try to present Byrd’s arguments and my reactions in each one.

Why This Book

In the interviews I have heard, Byrd makes clear that this book comes out of her own experiences over the last couple of years. In a time when she felt oppressed, even by members of her own denomination, the Song of Songs was a comfort to her.

Beyond her personal connection, Byrd aims to restore the Song in modern interpretation. Too often in recent years it has been used as a kind of marriage manual with a focus on the horizontal relationship between husband and wife (p. 2). Byrd looks back to earlier interpretive frameworks which have understood the Song more typologically (p. 43) [2] while also seeking to find some middle ground between “flat-footed” modern approaches and earlier allegorical ones (p. 35).

As she did in her previous book, Byrd also seeks to counter the view of complementarianism espoused by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Though I think her critiques of this particular movement are at times overstated, I agree with her when she says that “[e]ven the church is still confused about what it means to be a man or a woman.” (p. 1) In the time we are in, the Church needs clear answers to the question of what it means to be male and female and why it even matters that we have two genders. While there are some good resources out there [3], broadly speaking we just don’t have answers to the questions our society is asking.

Byrd’s stated goal in writing The Sexual Reformation is “[t]he recovery of the dignity and personhood of both man and woman” (p. xv). “With the Song of Songs guiding us,” she says, “we will explore the theological meaning behind our sexes, helping Christians to better understand our sexuality as a gift and to grasp the eschatological story our bodies tell of Christ’s love for his church.” (p. xiv) Her purpose is not just theoretical but also practical as she calls us to act upon this new understanding of the sexes: “I’m calling for a small-r reformation in the church regarding the way we understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches about our sexuality.” (p. 17)

While I am not as convinced as Byrd that the Song of Songs is the key to answering all our questions about gender, I do think she is right that there are questions to be answered and that the Church as a whole has not done a good job at finding those answers.

Byrd’s Thesis

Byrd presents her approach to the Song of Songs as a new synthesis of older typological or allegorical interpretations with a modern application for marriage and gender. In these older interpretations the man and woman in the Song are types representing Christ and His bride, the Church. Byrd builds on this, relating the male and female figures not just to Christ and the Church but seeing in the Song an “enfleshing” of “the whole metanarrative of Scripture” (p. 21).

The marriage relationship is a microcosm, an encapsulated version, of God’s relationship with His people (p. 135). For Byrd this relationship and the spousal love of Christ for His Church is what all Scripture is about (p. 93). There is “a typology in God’s design of man and woman, one that unfolds throughout the canon of Scripture” (p. 25). The Bible begins and ends with a wedding (p. 32) and here in the Song, in the middle of the canon, we find another wedding. It is in the Song that we learn “what it really is to be loved, all about desire, all about beauty. The meaningfulness of our sexuality, and our own identity as the bride of Christ.” (p. 25)

The story that Byrd sees playing out in Scripture is also “enfleshed” (a word she uses frequently). That is, our bodies also speak (p. 44) and “tell the story of a gift given in eternity . . . Imagine man and woman revealing the deep mystery of an eternal trinitarian covenant that is prefigured in creation” (p. xi).

I like that Byrd is going back to a more typological interpretation of the Song. I think some recent uses of the book have gone far afield (and even become rather pornographic). The connection between the man/woman and Christ and His Church seems undeniable and is supported by other biblical passages. I would stop short, however, of saying that this is the metanarrative of Scripture. It is an important relationship, certainly, and there is no doubt that God in creating two genders is teaching us about Himself and about our relationship to Him, but is this the story of Scripture? It seems to miss elements. There is much in Byrd’s interpretation about love but little about fall and redemption. I am wary as well of those who connect gender so closely with the Trinity. This is one of the failings of some corners of the complementarian world which Byrd herself criticizes, that they read human gender issues back into the Trinity, but she seems to fall prey to the same tendency (p. 202).

Expanding the Typology

The many types of the woman in particular are significant for Byrd: She is connected to water and wellsprings (pp. 47, 66). She is the New Jerusalem, the holy city (p. 87). She is Zion (p. 81). Her body, her womb particularly, is typological of the tabernacle, the Levitical sacred space (p. 46; cf. p. 181). [4]

There is a duality between the man and the woman as well. In addition to the Christ/Church typology, Byrd connects the man to earth and the woman to heaven, explaining that “in the first man and woman we see representation of the anticipated union of earth (man, as from the dust) and heaven (woman, as not from the dust)” (p. 108). For Byrd, second implies better. The fact that the woman was created second gives her a kind of preeminence, just as Christ was the second and better Adam (p. 179). This is seen both in the order of her creation and in its substance. “She was the crown of creation. She was not from the soil of the earth but was an eschatological marker. When Adam saw the woman, he saw his telos, what he was to become . . . “ (p. 44). And again: “ . . . her very presence [is] beckoning him to the ultimate hope – or telos – of mankind as the collective bride of Christ. Created second, she represents the second order – the final act of creation . . . . “ (p. xii).

One again my reactions are mixed. I do think the Christ/Church typology is strong. I think there are also clear connections in Scripture between women and wells, though whether this is typological is less clear to me. I think there are also good reasons to connect the woman of the Song with the holy city and the New Jerusalem. Here Byrd’s interpretation makes sense of language which we otherwise might not find to be a very flattering description (Song 8:10).

On the other hand, I think Byrd goes much too far in connecting the man/woman pair with earth and heaven. She misrepresents the creation account when she speaks of man as being made from the earth but woman of heavenly substance. Genesis 2 tells us that Eve is made from Adam and therefore also, albeit secondarily, from dust. The witness of Scripture is very clear that they are made from the same stuff. Man and woman together, not woman alone, are the crown of creation. To the degree that the woman represents the Church, I suppose she does point to humanity’s “telos” (another favorite word of Byrd’s), but here again Byrd goes too far. In her attempt to redeem women from those who may degrade them, she errs on the other side, elevating women to a status above that of men. In doing so, she not only degrades men but even perhaps Christ Himself as the woman/Church is exalted over the man/Christ figure.

Practical Applications for Men and Women

One of Byrd’s primary goals is to enable us to better understand and live a biblical conception of gender. While our tendency is to define male and female in opposition to one another, Byrd largely rejects this kind of dualistic interpretation. To the extent that she does distinguish between masculinity and femininity, she looks to the model of Christ and His Church, arguing that “[w]e need to begin with Christ’s spousal love for his bride” (p. 91). Christ’s love is the model of all human love (p. 66) but especially of the love of husband for wife. He is first to love; she responds to this love. In one aspect, we are all feminine in that we are part of the Church, His bride, and as such are receivers of God’s love (p. 68). Men do not need to behave a certain way in order to be men. They are masculine because they are men and women are feminine because they are women (p. 111). There is more similarity than difference: “We are not directed to masculine manhood or feminine womanhood. We are not even directed to biblical manhood or biblical womanhood. We are men and women who are together directed to Christ.” (p. 112)

While Byrd does not draw hard lines between masculinity and femininity, she does implicitly acknowledge male leadership and she does draw conclusions about what it means to be a good leader with the implication that this is how men in power should treat women, and all laypeople, in the Church. As stated at the beginning, one of Byrd’s goals is to restore the dignity of men and women. In her language dignity and personhood are closely linked. She relies on a definition of personhood which she takes from Diane Langberg who defines it in the context of abuse. For Langberg the three components of personhood are: to have a voice, to be in relationship, to have power and shape the world (p. 172). Christ, Byrd says, empowers His followers and so good human leaders, following His example, do not fixate on their own power but seek to empower others (p. 128). Conversely, to limit another’s power is to deny their personhood (p. 121). Just as the lover in the Song calls for and longs to hear his beloved’s voice, so good “[l]eadership brings out the voice of others . . . It gives power to, because leadership recognizes personhood and dignity in men and women and sees them as gifts” (p. 188).

Byrd also brings her ideas about power back to the first chapters of Genesis. To have power she links to being made in the image of God (p. 190). As an aspect of the image, it is inherent in all people, not just males. She spends some time on the last part of Genesis 3:16 which the ESV (in line with CBMW interpretations) translates as: “‘Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.’” For Byrd, this “desire” of the woman’s is a good, God-given desire for her husband which mirrors the right desire of God’s people for Him. As such, this desire is something we should all cultivate (p. 95). It is a desire which is frustrated in this life and in as far as it focuses on one’s spouse because only Christ can rightly fulfill it (p. 78). She lists a few possible interpretations of the man’s “ruling” at the end of the verse. But in the end opts for that of Anna Anderson who says that  “ . . . the woman’s good desire is now thwarted or unrequited . . . “ (p. 96). Byrd at once redeems the woman’s reputation in this verse while impugning the man’s. It is not, she would say, that all men are domineering but “[t]he first ten chapters of the first book of the Bible reveal ‘the striking link between male domination and violence.’” (p. 97) Genesis 3:16 “is not telling us that all men are violent, but that male dominance and violence as the result of sin would be a key factor in thwarting the woman’s desire.” (pp. 97-8). 

I start out agreeing with Byrd — I do think we overdraw the distinctions between masculine and feminine and that we share more in our discipleship than we differ in our gender. But then I think she goes too far again she starts talking about personhood and power. To begin with, Langberg’s definitions may be helpful in the context of abuse, but they do not give us a biblical definition of personhood. There are plenty of people in this world who have no voice and no power whom I would still consider persons. Victims of severe abuse whose tormenters rob them of voice and power and relationship may feel robbed of their personhood but Scripture tells us that they are still people, valuable in the eyes of their Creator.

I could say a lot on Genesis 3:16. (In fact, I am preparing an essay on it which looks back at the Hebrew to understand the words it uses.) For now I will just say that Byrd in an effort to redeem women from a perceived slur shifts the fault to men who, while perhaps not all domineering jerks, are apparently so prone to abuse their power that they are the main cause of violence in the world. I would also quibble with Byrd’s contention that Christ’s example of leadership is one of empowerment. There is a sense, perhaps, in which Christ does empower us — to resist sin, for example — but I am not sure we can take this as a model for human leadership.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a lot more I could say about the content of Byrd’s book (including a number of more minor points I am itching to refute), but I would like to try and stay focused on the big picture. My zoomed out take on The Sexual Reformation would be that it starts with a very real problem, how the Church defines male and female and how they relate to one another. It takes us back to a better footing in our interpretation of an oft-misunderstood book, the Song of Songs. In the process, Byrd makes some good and valid points, for example in reemphasizing the typology of the man and woman of the Song as Christ and the Church.

But my biggest criticism is that Byrd often just goes too far. Another book I read recently talks about how we know and the patterns we form of the world [5]. Byrd clearly has a pattern and she seeks to apply it to such a degree that she tends to overstep and see what she expects everywhere. In her effort to bring back dignity to women in the Church, she swings too far the other direction and robs men. I find her scholarship a little sloppy as well. She has a tendency as well to present an interpretation as a “perhaps” and then to run with it or to present a variety of interpretations on a given point and then to select the one she likes without actually giving evidence in support of it.

Beyond that, I am just not sure Byrd makes the case she thinks she does. She is clearly very invested in her subject and she is good at identifying the problems, but in the end I still don’t see how our bodies “tell the story.” I don’t find myself walking away from this book with an explanation of gender that I can explain to others.


[1] Aimee Byrd. The Sexual Reformation: Restoring the Dignity and Personhood of Man and Woman. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2022.

[2] One pet peeve would be that she uses words like allegorical, typological, and symbolic, and even speaks of “echoes” within the text but does not clearly delineate these terms or even make clear where her interpretation falls.

[3] I would recommend to you my own denomination’s publications: The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (Crown and Covenant). You can see my booklist for gender issues here.

[4] For this last point, the Levitical sacred space, Byrd cites Richard Whitekettle. She does not fully explain his argument, however, or tell us what the connection is between womb and sacred space. She does relate the laws to protect women and to purify them after their periods or childbirth to their tabernacle typology (p. 48). Later, in another statement which is not fully explained, she says: “In the act of giving birth, woman typifies the birth of the church through messianic suffering. The womb is a prototype of that true, fortified city.” (p. 201)

[5] See my review of Esther Lightcap Meek’s Longing to Know.

Book Review: Another Look at “Common Grace”

Though one of my criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education has been that she attributes too much good to human nature [1], my own philosophy assumes that there is good out there that we are able to access apart from the Scriptures and that all people, regardless of their election, are able to do this to some extent. I have referred to these good things [2], the fodder of education, as “general revelation,” but I realize that this brings up some theological issues about how we define general revelation, if we even acknowledge that there is a general revelation of God.

For the sake of my own understanding, I have been picking up books on general revelation along with the related concepts of common grace and natural law with an eye to fleshing out my thought. It is perhaps not hard for Christians to accept that studying the physical creation will tell us something about its Creator. The Scriptures themselves point us to this study (Prov. 6:6; Job 12:7-9; Matt. 6:26-28). But why should we immerse ourselves in art or literature? What is the value in studying these very man-created works?

In my current expedition, the first book I have finished is one that denies both Common Grace and General Revelation: Another Looks at “Common Grace” by Herman C. Hanko. [3] Hanko is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Church and the position he presents is not unique to him but typifies his denomination. It is by no means the mainstream reformed position and yet it is also not completely to be discounted as a mere fringe element.

I was initially attracted to Hanko’s thought by a portion of his book which I read online because it seems to present a view of the image of God which at least has some resonance with my own. When I say that I think the image of God in man was lost in the Fall and that people, apart from saving grace [4], do not bear the image, that produces a strong reaction because one may assume that I am saying other things as well — that abortion is okay; that I don’t value my non-Christian neighbor. This reaction comes because we have defined “the image of God” very broadly, but, I would argue, not very biblically.

Hanko says the same sort of process is happening when we speak of common grace and general revelation. He is seeking to define these terms in a particular way, a biblical way. We may have a knee-jerk reaction to what seems like a denial of basic reformed doctrines, but we must hear his arguments out to see what he is actually saying. Hanko himself makes clear that he is not rejecting everything that is usually encompassed by those two doctrines.

Before we turn to Hanko’s argument, it is worth defining the terms as they are generally used. Hanko himself gives very good summaries of the prevalent views. Common grace refers to “‘the natural blessings which God showers upon man in the present life'” (p. 11; quoting Bavinck). These blessings are sent not just to the elect but to the wicked as well as “fruits of God’s kindness” (p. 14). Common Grace “prevents chaos and preserves the creation; it gives power to man, order in creation, and produces science, government, art, etc.” (p. 16). Its effect is not just negative and restraining but also positive and active (p. 17).

The doctrine of General Revelation tells us that God has communicated to man through two books: Scripture (special revelation) and Creation. “[T]he general idea is this: God reveals Himself in two ways to men. He reveals Himself in Scripture and He reveals Himself in creation and history.” (p. 141) General Revelation is included — along with government, public opinion, and divine punishments and rewards — as one means of Common Grace (p. 12). In particular, it is a means by which God restrains sin (pp. 109, 140) and enables man to perform civil good (p. 140). It comes “to all men without exception through the creation” (p. 119).

Hanko does not deny all that is meant by these terms. His argument is that there is no grace that is common and no revelation that is general. The key for him is how we define these terms — grace and revelation. He looks to how the Scriptures use the terms as his starting place. Grace in the Bible, Hanko argues, means “good pleasure, favor, goodwill” (p. 35). It is “spontaneous favor” which God bestows because He in His nature is gracious (p. 37), not because of any merit on the part of the recipient. The term grace, Hanko says, is never used in the Scriptures other than to refer to God’s saving grace by which He redeems the elect (p. 36). Thus, he concludes, grace as it is used in the Bible is always particular (pp. 41-2, 50); it is never “common.”

Yet Hanko does not deny that ” . . . God’s gifts are good and that He gives these good gifts to all men” (p. 99). “Let it be clearly understood: the good gifts which God gives are indeed good . . . He bestows good gifts on men. Rain and sunshine, health and well-being are good gifts. No one has, so far as I know, ever denied this.” (p. 75) We forget as well that just as evil people receive what we term “good” so “good” people receive what we term evil. “The rain and sunshine are, indeed, the good gifts of God; the drought and floods are His judgment. And all, without exception, receive both.” (p. 87) The difference is not in what comes to us but in its effect in our lives: “Disease and trouble, sorrow and pain, come to the righteous, as well as to the wicked. But these evils, which are judgments upon wicked men, are blessings for God’s people.” (p. 89) [5] So too God’s good gifts are ultimately a curse in the lives of the reprobate: “These good gifts are, themselves, the means to reveal the wicked as wicked, for they despise God’s good gifts.” (p. 94) And again: “God’s good gifts to reprobate sinners harden them in their sins so that they are without excuse; God’s good gifts to elect sinners bring them to repentance and faith through the work of the Spirit in their hearts.” (p. 100)

In a similar way, Hanko does not deny that God can be known through His Creation, even saying that He “manifests” Himself to all men through it, but he does dispute the use of the word “revelation” (p. 143). Revelation, he argues, is an unveiling and presupposes “the ability of the part of the audience to see what is unveiled” (p. 144). For Hanko, revelation, like grace, is always particular (p. 145) and is only something that is given to the elect. And yet it is not for Hanko that the reprobate do not know the truth: “Now it ought to be clear that if the wicked suppress the truth [as Romans 1:18-25 indicates], they know that truth. One cannot suppress what he does not know.” (p. 147) In Hanko’s language, God “shows” and “manifests” His truth through Creation to the wicked so that they “know” it (p. 148) and yet he does not deem this revelation.

As with God’s good gifts, so with His manifestation of Himself in Creation, the purpose is different for the reprobate and for the elect. For the unbeliever the book is open but they cannot read it yet it renders them without excuse (p. 168). The believer can know God through the book of creation (p. 163). Its purpose is to lead him to contemplate the things of God (p. 166). From it we learn of Creation and Providence, including God’s working in history: “All that happens in the world, both in the brute creation and in the history of mankind, is a part of that book.” (p. 164)

In making these arguments, a primary concern seems to be that one preserve the doctrine of man’s total inability to do good (apart from saving grace). Hanko is very wary of any interpretation which seems to negate the effects of the Fall to any degree or which begins to speak of any inward change in the reprobate. He does not, for instance, deny that there is restraint of sin in the world (p. 105), but he argues that “although God in His providence has created many ways in which sin is restrained, the nature of man remains unchanged” (p. 133). The effects, for Hanko, are always exterior and never interior to the hearts of the reprobate. Man, apart from saving grace, remains totally corrupt and “incapable of any good” (p. 134). “A man may not be ‘as bad as he can be’ in his outward actions, but this does not mean that he is not ‘as bad as he can be’ in the depravity of his nature.” (p. 135) To admit inward change, to admit Common Grace, would be to devolve into Arminianism. It would be to say that man is not totally depraved in his nature and that he is able to make some decision, some act of the Will, for his own salvation (p. 136).

I find myself mostly convinced that we misuse the term “grace” when we apply it to Common Grace. I am not as convinced that “revelation” is misused. I do not see much distinction between “revelation” and God’s “manifesting” and “showing.” The key to the whole thing seems to be Hanko’s assertion that for something to be revelation it has to be seen by the audience. He uses the example of an art piece which is uncovered before blind people, saying that since they do not see it, it is not revealed (p. 144). I would say that it is revealed even though they do not see it. The act of revelation is in the revealer, not in the reception it gets. [6]

I am concerned as well for the implication for our knowing. In particular, in Hanko’s conception, is there anything that we can learn from non-Christians? Do they have any true knowledge at all? Though he says that God and His law manifest in “the warp and woof of creation” (p. 153) yet the unbeliever cannot read this book (p. 168) and it can only be understood in the light of Scripture (p. 173). For the larger reformed world, Common Grace and General Revelation are are source of culture (p. 28). If we, with Hanko, discard these doctrines, how are we to understand the contribution of non-Christians to the greater body of human understanding? Even within the Scriptures we see that unregenerate people contribute to culture (Gen. 4:21-22). Hanko does not address this question though he alludes to it early on when he speaks disparagingly of science and higher criticism (p. 8).

Overall I found Hanko’s book an interesting and thought-provoking read. Some of his arguments are persuasive, others less so. Since my own concern is education, I would like to have seen some more discussion of practical implications.


[1] For a brief overview of Mason’s philosophy see Introducing Mason. For a summary of my differences with her see this post and also this more recent addition.

[2] “Good things,” I realize is a little vague. I use it to refer to all that is good and true and beautiful, those things which Philippians 4 urges us to concentrate on: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8; ESV)

[3] Herman C. Hanko. Another Looks at “Common Grace”: Careful Analysis of Some of the More Recent Developments and Expositions of the Doctrine by Mainline Theologians. 2019. Originally published as a series of articles in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 1992 to 1997.

[4] You can find my most recent post on the image of God here.

[5] Hanko here goes on to say that we are redeemed through judgment (p. 89). I am not sure what he means by this; he does not seem to be referring to the judgment that fell on Christ for our sake but to judgments we suffer in this life.

[6] This is reminiscent of how Fesko speaks of natural law in his Reforming Apologetics (my review here). It is not that God’s self-revelation in Creation is corrupted (though Hanko would say to come extent it is) but that our ability to see it is corrupted.

Calvin & Mason Follow-Up

Last time I laid out for you some quotes from John Calvin and Charlotte Mason on the Will. This time I’d like to delve a little deeper into how we can use and apply this information.

What we saw was that Mason and Calvin have very different things to say about the Will of man and its role in salvation. For Mason, to make a choice of the Will is the one thing that God asks of man and that he contributes to his own salvation. Calvin specifically rejects this line of thought, arguing that to say that man contributes anything is to detract from the glory of God and saying instead that even the initial work of man’s Will by which he desires to be saved is a gift of God which man on his own, in his depravity, is incapable of.

What are the implications of all this? First, we cannot and should not say that Mason is reformed. She did not claim to be and I think we do her no disservice by saying so [1].

As those who seek to follow Mason’s philosophy of education, we must also acknowledge that her theology has very much informed her approach. Her philosophy is predicated in the idea, enshrined in her second principle, that children, all children, are capable of receiving the good we place before them. [2] We see something similar when we look at her her 19th principle which says that “the chief responsibility which rests on [children] as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.” In other words, this act of choosing which Mason sees as the first step toward faith and salvation is also key to her philosophy of education. Every act of knowing is, for Mason, ultimately an act of the Will in choosing one path or one idea over and against another.

In other words, how Mason saw education happening is mirrored in how she saw salvation happening. In each the primary job of the individual is by an act of the Will to choose the good, a task which assumes that one is capable of so acting.

For those who favor Calvin’s view of salvation over Mason’s, a couple of questions are going to arise. We may wonder on one hand how and to what extent we can use Mason’s philosophy if we disagree with the theology that underlies it. We may also wonder if our own philosophy of education should better mirror our theology. What would a truly reformed philosophy of education look like?

How we answer these questions is going to depend to a large degree on who we think we are educating. Mason believes all children are capable of choosing the good because she believes in something called prevenient grace that affects all people, regardless of their status before God. [3] Calvin does not say that no one ever is able to choose good but that those who are apart from the saving grace of God are incapable of doing so. Those who have been justified and who are now in the process of being sanctified are, by the grace of God, capable of good.

The big question, then, is how we view our children. For many reformed people, myself included, the children of believers are “covenant children.” That is, they are considered from birth (and before) to be part of God’s covenant community. In saying this, we do not seek to bind God but we do rest on the promises He has made to us and our children (Acts 2:39). We treat them as believers unless and until they prove otherwise. In our context, what this means is that we assume that our children, as God’s people, are capable of the good that education requires.

There may be times at which we educate other children who do not come from covenant homes. How are we to view these children? I would argue (and have argued) that we should always present education just as we present the offer of the gospel, with the hopeful expectation that it will be received, knowing that it is God who works in the individual to allow them to receive it. [4] If God has placed the child on non-believing parents under your care, even for an hour a week, then He is working in that child’s life and heart and while we know that not everyone who is presented with the good things of God will be saved, we always labor in hope.

It is because we have this hope that I, as a reformed person, still am comfortable using Mason’s approach to education. We end up largely in the same place in terms of our estimation of what the child is capable of though we get there by different roads. Is there something better than Mason? Can we improve upon her philosophy? I have no doubt we can. No one person, apart from Jesus Christ, is perfect. Neither Mason nor Calvin had everything right (and both, I think, were people who knew this and saw the need to be constantly reforming, whether in theology for Calvin or in philosophy of education for Mason). My own philosophy of education, while largely dependent on Mason’s, differs in some key aspects (which you can read about here). It is also very much a work in progress. I would encourage all parents, whether they homeschool or not, to consider their own philosophy of education.


[1] Why so many want to argue that Mason was reformed is another question. I can only think that as they themselves lean that way that they would like Mason, whose ideas one education they adhere to, to agree with them. See also “Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

[2] I have made the case previously that this second principle which causes so must consternation is not, as most say, just a statement about a child’s educability but also refers to his spiritual state and moral capability.

[3] See this post for more on prevenient grace and why I believe that it was the key to Mason’s theology.

[4] Mason also, in her 20th principle, ascribes the work of education ultimately to God the Holy Spirit.

Calvin and Mason on the Will

In my various posts on Charlotte Mason‘s theology, I have argued that Mason was not reformed and that in her view the primary thing a person must do in order to be saved is to make an act of the Will (here and here). As so often happens, when looking for something on a completely different topic, I ran across some quotes from Calvin’s Institutes which also touch on the subject of man’s Will so I thought I would put them here for you side by side —

John Calvin
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Charlotte Mason
Scale How Meditations
“Also, this conclusion is not in the least doubtful: that without Him we can do nothing. He does not say that we are so weak that we cannot suffice; but He reduces us to nothing at all and excludes every idea that we have the least power in the world . . . That is why the apostle gives Him all the praise; he says” ‘It is God who made us both to will it and to complete it’ (Phil. 2[13]). The first part of good works is the will, the other is the effort to be able to carry them out and to do them. God is the author of both. It follows then that if a person ascribes anything to himself, in either in the willing or the doing, he robs God. If it were said that God gives help to our weak will, something would be left to us. But when it is said that He does the willing, by that it is shown that everything in it that is good comes from outside us . . .
“Now He does not move our will, as they have long imagined and taught, so that afterward it is in our choice to obey His moving or to resist it, but He moves it with such effectiveness that it must follow.” (p. 86)
“Let us not suppose that God wills, chooses, that some of us should receive the power to become sons of God and others should never have this power. Is it not rather that our will must embrace the will of God, must accept the ineffable mystery, adore the grace, be so united with the will of God that no perplexity baffles our understanding, because we do not seek to understand?” (p. 48)
“The active will to believe appears to be the one condition enacted by our Lord. Men must bring the will; Christ will give the power, and by the union of the two the miracle of the new birth is accomplished.” (p. 117)
“He, Who came for the healing of the nations, makes one condition — the active will.” (p. 122)

I think it is quite possible that Mason, like Calvin, believed in total depravity. But if she did, she also believed in prevenient grace — a gift of God, won by Christ’s sacrifice, which applies to all men and which enables them to make the first step towards faith by willing. [1] Salvation for Mason is conditional in that it depends upon the individual and whether he makes this act of the Will. For Calvin, grace is always salvific [2] and God’s grace cannot fail in its task. The acting is completely on God’s side, and man, in his total depravity, contributes nothing to it nor is it dependent on his choice. For Calvin “good comes from outside us.” For Mason man has “possibilities for good and for evil.” [3]

In a future post I would like to revisit the implications of all this for how we understand and use Mason’s philosophy of education.


[1] Again, see my previous posts on Mason’s theology for more on prevenient grace and why I think Mason believed in it.

[2] I am among those who think “common grace” is a bit of a misnomer. Calvin no doubt believed in the doctrine of common grace as it is usually defined but this “grace” is not salvific and does not change the nature of man or his ability to will or do good.

[3] This is Mason’s infamous second principle. While most argue that she only meant it to apply to the child’s capacity to be educated, I have argued, from Mason’s own words, that she applied it to all areas of the person’s nature. See especially this post.


John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Elsie Anne McKee. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

Charlotte Mason.  Scale How Meditations, edited by Benjamin Bernier., 2011.