Is it Biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Dear Reader,

No, you did not miss 18 posts. I am skipping to Charlotte Mason’s 20th and final principle in my examination of the biblical foundation for her ideas. [Interesting fact: I didn’t fully realize till I began this series that CM did not always have 20 principles; in earlier volumes she lists 18.] I began this series with this post on what it means to be “pure CM” and why we should care. Simply put, Charlotte Mason claims that her philosophy of education is rooted in immutable divine law. Now divine law, as she uses the term, includes both special revelation (Scripture) and general revelation (science and observation, what we can discern from God’s creation). The latter is beyond my expertise to analyze, but I think we can hold Charlotte’s 20 Principles up to the light of Scripture and ask if they do indeed reflect what we find there. The phrase I am using, borrowed from my church’s membership vows, is “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures.” My process with each of these is to present the principle, to look at how Charlotte herself explained it, and then to examine Bible passages which seem to speak to the same issues with the goal of answering the question “Is Charlotte’s principle ‘founded on and agreeable to’ the Scriptures?” In my previous post, I looked at Charlotte’s first principle, “Children are born persons,” and concluded that it is indeed well-rooted in the Scriptures.

For this second post, I am going to leap-frog to Charlotte’s final principle: “We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.” If you are wondering about that tricky second principle, have no fear; I do plan to come back to it next time. I happen to think that the first and final principles form a kind of bookends to Charlotte’s whole philosophy and as such encapsulate the whole so I am tackling them first and then will come back to what lies between.

CM’s 20th Principle: What does it mean?

The first step in evaluating Miss Mason’s 20th principle is to see what she herself meant by it. Here again is the principle:

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

This principle largely flows out of the first one; when we looked at Charlotte’s own remarks on her initial principle– “That children are born persons” — we saw that a major aspect of this idea was, for her, that children are spiritual beings. It follows upon this idea, she tells us, that they can and do have communion with the Divine Spirit (i.e. the Holy Spirit):

“That the divine Spirit has like intimate power of corresponding with the human spirit, needs not to be urged, once we recognise ourselves as spiritual beings at all.” (School Education, p. 71)

In volume 4, Ourselves, which reads a something of an owner’s manual for one’s mind, Charlotte discusses the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand Scripture:

“It would seem as if the divine Spirit taught essential truths [of Scripture], the truths by which we live, by all means fitted to the understanding of men.” (Ourselves, pp. 88-89)

But, she tells us, the revelatory work of the Spirit is not confined to Scripture but is also at work in other realms of human knowledge:

“We may believe also, with the medieval Church, that a revelation is still going on of things not hitherto made known to men. Great secrets of nature, for example, would seem to be imparted to minds already prepared to receive them, as, for example, that of the ‘ions’ or ‘electrons’ of which that we call matter is said to consist. For this sort of knowledge also is of God, and is, I believe, a matter of revelation, given as the world is prepared to receive it.” (Ourselves, vol. 4, pp. 86-87)

It does not matter whether we call these subjects “sacred” or “secular” — Charlotte would call such a distinction “an Irreligious Classification” (Parents and Children, p. 129).  All knowledge comes from God:

 “In this great work we seek and assuredly find the co-operation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in those that have been called sacred.” (School Education, p. 173)

Charlotte tells us that when big new ideas (such as gravity) come to humanity it is through the work of the Holy Spirit, but this work of the Spirit is not confined to big new revelations. He works in the same way in each of us as we receive new ideas and knowledge. It is God the Holy Spirit who provides men, both corporately and individually, with all knowledge. Even a child’s arithmetic lesson is under the dominion of God the Holy Spirit:

“Many Christian people rise a little higher; they conceive that even grammar and arithmetic may in some not very clear way be used for God; but the great recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson, for example. But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith.” (Parents and Children, pp. 270-71)

Charlotte refers to the ideas of the Middle Ages and to Plato in discussing this point but also firming rests it in the Bible. She quotes Isaiah (Parents and Children, p. 272) to show that the plowman gets the knowledge he needs for his work from God and refers to David and Solomon to show that art also comes from Him:

“‘The Spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied among them,’ we are told of Saul, and we may believe that this is the history of every great invention and every great discovery of the secrets of Nature. ‘Then David gave to Solomon his son . . . . the pattern of all that he had by the spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord.’ We have here a suggestion of the source of every conception of beauty to be expressed in forms of art.” (Parents and Children, pp. 271-72)

Finally, she makes clear that this instruction of the Holy Spirit is not just for adults but is the key to the education of every child:

“In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child.” (Parents and Children, p. 273)

What areas of life then are exempt from this divine instruction? There seems to be little if anything that is not so encompassed:

“And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity––that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude––that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic––this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life––these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him. Let the mother visualise the thought as an illuminated scroll about her newborn child, and let her never contemplate any kind of instruction for her child, except under the sense of the divine co-operation.” (Parents and Children, pp. 273-74)

Charlotte goes on to provide a reason for her belief:

“We must think, we must know, we must rejoice in and create the beautiful. And if all the burning thoughts that stir in the minds of men, all the beautiful conceptions they give birth to, are things apart from God, then we too must have a separate life, a life apart from God, a division of ourselves into secular and religious––discord and unrest.” (Parents and Children, p. 275)

What she is saying here is that all our life — our creativity and intellect in particular– is subject to God. If it were not so, we would have some part of life apart from Him and that to us would be “discord and unrest.” But if we recognize God the Holy Spirit as our teacher in all realms, then we have “harmony and peace” (p. 276). [A corollary to this idea which Charlotte points out is that we must keep our intellectual life subject to God; there is intellectual as well as moral sin.]

One last thought before we move on to the biblical evidence — when Charlotte says that the Holy Spirit is the Great Educator, this does not preclude some role for parents: “Our co-operation appears to be the indispensable condition of all the divine workings” (p. 274).

Looking at the Biblical Evidence

Having seen how Charlotte herself explained this principle, we must now ask what the Scriptures have to say on it. The key points I see that Charlotte made and which we are looking for in the Bible are:

  • That God the Holy Spirit is the Giver of wisdom and knowledge
  • That He does so in all areas of life — not just “religious” areas
  • That there really is no separation between sacred and secular

When we begin to ask what the Bible has to say about wisdom, we must first say that God Himself is the source of wisdom. Wisdom resides with Him (Prov. 8:22ff; Job 12:13), and it was through wisdom that God created the world (Prov. 3:19). The wisdom of the Son was remarked upon (Matt. 13:54; Mk. 6:2; Lk 2:40,52; I Cor. 1:30). The Spirit also is associated with wisdom (Isa. 11:2; Eph. 1:17).

God is the source of wisdom for us:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? “(Job 38:36; cf. Prov. 2:6; Eccl. 2:26)

The story of King Solomon, who more than any other person is associated with wisdom, shows us clearly that wisdom is a gift of God (I Kgs. 4:29-30; cf. Deut. 34:9; Ezra 7:25; Acts 7:10).  His story also begins to show us the practical character of wisdom in that it allowed him to rule his kingdom well and to judge tricky judicial cases (I Kgs. 3:16-28).

Charlotte pointed out that God gives the farmer wisdom for his work (Isa. 28:26). So too God gives the wisdom needed to build a house (Prov. 24:3). Skill and craftsmanship of all kinds, particularly the art needed to make beautiful work, come from God (Exod. 31:2-6).  The wisdom to understand languages and literature (Dan.1:4, 17), to speak (I Cor. 1:5), and to “solve problems” (Dan. 5:11) is also given by God.

Though God is the source of wisdom, He may use means to convey that wisdom to people. Foremost among these is parental instruction (Prov. 4:11; 29:15).

Up to this point, we find that much of what Charlotte had to say is confirmed by the biblical text — God is the source of wisdom, and the wisdom that comes from Him is not just for “religious” matters but also applies to artistic skill, to practical knowledge, and  to many areas of intellectual understanding. The role of parents is also acknowledged by both.

On one (minor) point I do not think the Scriptures are as clear as Charlotte is. She speaks consistently of “the divine Spirit” (as opposed to the Father or the Son) as the source of knowledge and wisdom. I think it is a reasonable conclusion to say that it is the role of the Spirit to give wisdom, especially since Christ’s ascension, but I think it is also important to note that all three Persons of the Trinity are said to possess, even to be characterized by, wisdom and that quite often the Bible simply says that wisdom comes from God, without distinguishing clearly which Person is meant. On the flip side, in Charlotte’s defense, I will point out that the Bible speaks of “the Spirit of Wisdom” and that when an individual is said to be particularly wise, it may say he is “filled with the Spirit of wisdom” (as Joshua in Deut. 34:9 or Stephen in Acts 6-7). So too, Jesus tells his disciples that the “Spirit of truth” will reveal things to them:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)

Thus far, we have seen that what Charlotte has to say lines up fairly well with the biblical evidence. There are two other, inter-related points, however, which do not seem to come into Charlotte’s thinking. Perhaps one of the best known verses about wisdom comes at the beginning of Proverbs:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7)

Wisdom in the Bible is intimately connected to godliness. It originates in godly fear, as in this verse from Proverbs, and its end goal is also to produce the good fruit of righteous deeds:

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Col. 1:9-10; cf. I Chr. 22:12)

Conversely, the Bible tells us that no fool — that is no irreligious man (Ps. 14:1) — can truly possess wisdom (Prov. 14:6).

The Bible makes it clear as well that there is “wisdom” that does not come from God. Moses, Solomon, and Daniel all pit their wisdom against that of non-believers (Exod. 7:8-13; I Kgs. 4:29-30; Dan. 5). Paul also makes clear that there is a “wisdom of the world”:

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20)

Paul condemns such wisdom so strongly that one almost begins to think wisdom is not a thing to be desired. He goes on, however, to make clear that there is a godly wisdom:

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (I Cor. 2:6-7)

James ties these two ideas together, saying that worldly wisdom leads to sinful desires and deeds:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:13-17)

How are we to take all this? Is there real wisdom which is imparted to non-believers? The Bible does make clear that practical knowledge — such as that the plowman needs to do his work or the skill of an artist — comes from God. If we see such knowledge and skill in a non-believer, I think we must assume that it too comes from God, though the person themselves may not acknowledge him.  In John 16:13 (above), Jesus calls the Spirit He is sending “the Sprit of Truth”; insofar as what is revealed to humanity is true (here I am thinking of the big new ideas that come to us at certain points in history, ideas like gravity or the movement of the planets) I think we may say that it comes from God though it may come through ungodly men.

On the other hand, the Bible also makes clear that the wisdom that is in God’s people, Daniel and Moses being prime examples, is greater than that which is in their worldly opponents. There is a level or kind of wisdom which seems to be impossible without true godliness. This certainly applies to what we might call spiritual wisdom, that which deals with spiritual matters, but I am not at all convinced that it does not also apply to more practical considerations.

If you will allow me a slight diversion, I will give you an example of what I mean — My oldest has been studying political philosophy this year.  I did a whole blog series some time back on evolution and creationism and did not come to firm conclusions, but as we read about all whom Darwin inspired — from Margaret Sanger to Nietzsche and Hitler —   it is hard not to think that Darwin’s theory of evolution which led to so many of the 20th centuries atrocities is just what James had in mind when he spoke of “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom which leads to “every vile practice.” [I do not think that Charlotte would disagree with this point. Though I don’t have quotes in front of me, I know she saw the need to test new theories and to see if they stand the test of time.]

Conclusions

The question before us is: Is Charlotte Mason’s 20th principle biblical? I am willing as this point to say yes, it is, but with one caveat that I think we need to think more about the relationship between godliness and wisdom. Charlotte propounds her ideas as applicable to all children — whether poor or rich, normal or delayed (if you’ll pardon the terms), but I think we need to ask as well whether those who are unsaved can truly grow in wisdom. Which will be a nice segway into what’s up next: that tricky second principle.

Until then

Nebby

 

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] philosophy lines up with Special Revelation, that is, the Scriptures (see this post, this one, and this one). I am doing this to some extent because I can — because the Bible is a finite book and I can […]

    Reply

  2. […] I’ll admit it– I’ve been putting off tackling this post. Charlotte Mason’s second principle is a stumbling block for many who are new to her philosophy. Over time, if we are attracted enough to the rest of what she has to say, I think we end up coming up with explanations of why she didn’t really mean what she seems to say. I have my own ideas about what Charlotte meant which are a little unorthodox. But my goal today is to see how Charlotte herself explained her ideas and to see how they line up with the Word of God. To get up to speed on what I am doing in this series and why see this post on “pure CM,” and this one on her first principle and this one on her last principle. […]

    Reply

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