Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 3 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is the third in a three-part series within a series. You can read the first two parts here and here.

My goal for the overarching series is to look at Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles and to ask if they are biblical (I have already done the first and 20th principles). Because so many of us struggle with her second principle, it has evolved into this mini-series of posts. In the first part, I looked at how Charlotte herself explains this principle. In the second, I looked at the range of Christian belief on human nature post-Fall and our ability to do good.

Recapping where we are

Charlotte’s second principle says:

“[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

In her own extended explanation of this principle in her sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte makes clear that these tendencies, we might say predispositions, to good and evil are present in all people and in all facets of the individual, “body and mind, heart and soul.”

This is a big subject and I chose to narrow it down to those questions about which I think the Bible has the most to say and on which Christians have the most disagreement. I therefore looked in the second post at how the different major branches of Christianity view the human potential for moral good. We can think of these beliefs as ranging along a spectrum from the Eastern Orthodox at one end, with the highest view of the human potential for good, to Reformed Theology at the other end with its belief in “total depravity,” that all aspects of human nature were affected by Adam’s sin.

Charlotte herself was a member of the Church of England (COE) and it is reasonable to assume that she agreed with the teachings of her church. An COE writer of the time (1885) distinguishes between “real freedom” which has been lost and “formal freedom” without which we would have “no capacity for redemption” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: An Historical and Speculative Exposition, 1885, pp. 18-19). He goes on to say that while man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will,” he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (Ibid., pp. 18-19).

I hope that if you have read that second post, that you have some idea now of where Charlotte stands and where you stand. If you are on one end of the spectrum, anywhere from the Eastern Orthodox position to that of Charlotte’s own COE, you can probably rest easy; her second principle likely does not upset you greatly. If you are a little further over, however, and particularly if you subscribe to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity (as I do) then you may still be uneasy.

Coming to Terms with the Second Principle

If you are still reading, you probably find yourself, as I do,  pulled in two directions. On one hand, you may identify as theologically evangelical or reformed and you are committed to the idea that God saves us completely; we cannot do it ourselves and have little, if any, capacity to contribute to the process. On the other hand, you like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education; it is attractive and you’d like to be able to subscribe to it without reservation, but that second principle has always made you uneasy. I am not going to have all the answers for you. What I am going to try to do is give some ways to think about the problem. (One option I am not considering here is that Charlotte’s second principle is not meant theologically. This is a common explanation, but I discussed how Charlotte herself explained this principle in part 1 and it seems to me distinctly theological.)

Option 1: Decide it’s not a problem

One of the easiest ways to deal with the problem is just to decide it’s not going to be a problem for you. You don’t need to agree with everything Charlotte says. No one but Jesus himself was ever right all the time and this could just be something Charlotte got wrong. She was reacting to forces in her own time which said some children (the illegitimate, the poor) were worth less than others and she was likewise a product of her own church’s theology. If she didn’t come as far as we would in our understanding of fallen human nature, then we can forgive her this one fault and move on to all the good she had to say about education itself.

If this is where you end up, I think that’s a fine place to be. But for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, I will point out the following: Charlotte’s philosophy is more than just a way to teach; it is a whole, comprehensive philosophy, not just of education, but of who children are. All its parts are designed to hang together. So we must ask ourselves, what do we lose if we jettison, or at least ignore, the second principle?

Here’s what I think — Charlotte Mason’s approach does not assume children are all good (as unschooling, for instance, does). If she had thought so, she would not have spent so much time discussing habit-training. But she does assume a basic predeliction to chosose the good when presented with good. She uses the analogy of food and I think it is a very apt one. We choose what to put before our kids — Cheetos, fiber and vitamin pellets, fermented veggies — and they choose what to eat. So with their intellectual diet, we can put before them twaddle or textbooks or real living books.

Unschooling (for a point of comparison) tells us that children will naturally gravitate to what they need. If they choose the intellectual equivalent of Cheetos and ignore the veggies, then we need to trust their innate judgement and know that when they need the veggies, they will find a way to get them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think a lot of Christian parents (and non-Christian ones as well) assume that their kids will not like the veggies so they take to tricking (can you say black bean brownies?) and cajoling almost from the get-go. In intellectual terms, this can lead to one of two extremes — either it’s “well, it’s school and you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it; here are your worksheets and textbooks” with no thought when the children don’t like school that the problem might be the schoolwork and not the child, or, on the other side to an overemphasis on making schoolwork fun but hiding the knowledge in cute packages – lapbooks, unit studies, projects, anything that makes the work of learning seem like play or craft.

In between these two extremes, Charlotte acknowledges that kids, if fed on a diet of twaddle (the intellectual equivalent of those Cheetos), will like it. The evil tendency in them gives them a natural laziness that likes to soak up the easy yet unnourishing fare. It is the high fructose corn syrup of the mind and it is addicting. Textbooks are your dry fiber “cookies.” They are packed with vitamins and minerals, artificially extracted from real foods, and reprocessed into a nourishing but bland and ultimately fake bar. They may contain what kids need, or at least what we want to get in them, but they are unattractive and kids are naturally repelled by them. Charlotte tells us that, yes, there are evil tendencies in kids; they will get addicted to that corn syrup if that is what they are fed. But she also says that given a choice between the fiber bar and the fruits and veggies, that they have some natural tendency to like and take in what is truly healthy for them.

I have been speaking in the physical and intellectual realms, but as I hope I have shown in that precious post, Charlotte’s 2nd principle extends to the moral and spiritual realms as well. Charlotte acknowledges that there is a natural (evil) tendency toward a downward spiral, that a child whose conscience is not trained or who is not given good spiritual food will not stay where he is but will descend lower. But, on the other side, she also says that children have a natural affinity for their Creator. Just as a child presented with a healthy diet of veggies and living books will develop a taste for such things and learn to love them so a child given the right spiritual environment will naturally take to it.

This is a long round-about way to come back to our question: what do we lose when we jettison the second principle? If we lose the part about evil tendencies, we become unschoolers who trust the child’s instinct completely since it is all good. If we lose the bit about good tendencies, then what we are saying is that even when presented with the good choices — the veggies, the living books, God Himself — that the child is unable to choose the good over the evil.

Option 2: Common Grace

On first glance, the doctrine of Common Grace seems to help us to reconcile these inconsistencies. God’s grace is His undeserved gift to us. By His special, or saving, grace He both saves us and enables us to do good. It is special because it is particular; it is not for everyone but only for God’s people.

But, the Bible tells us, God sends rain on the just and the unjust. Those who are not among God’s people still receive good from Him. This is Common Grace. It may be called restraining grace as well since if keeps fallen, unregenerate man from being as evil as he could be. Tim Challies, quoting Berkhof, tells us that Common Grace “‘curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men’” (Tim Challies, “The Essential Common Grace,” from Challies.com). Remember that even the doctrine of total depravity does not say that man is as bad as he could possibly be, only that all aspects of his nature are fallen (this was discussed in part 2).

The doctrine of Common Grace is often used to explain why non-believers seem to do good and so it may seem to answer the inconsistencies we see between our own reformed theology and Charlotte’s principles. But we must also remember that Common Grace does not make men good. The Westminster Confession, which we looked at last time, makes clear that though the unregenerate may do things we deem “good” that they are unable to please God without the saving faith that comes through Special Grace and thus their “good” is not really “good.” If we are relying on the idea of Common Grace to get us out of this bind, then we are fooling ourselves (or misunderstanding the doctrine). A person affected by Common but not Special Grace may seem to do good but they are just as incapable as they always were of truly being or doing good.

Option 3: Covenant Children

In my post on Charlotte Mason’s first principle, I spent some time looking at what the Bible has to say about children. One conclusion of that study was that “[Children] are counted among God’s people and at important points (such a covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.” In my denomination, we speak of covenant children. We baptize infants, not because we believe baptism removes Original Sin, but because it is a sign on inclusion in God’s covenant people. And we assume that our children are part of that people unless they prove otherwise (as we would for those baptized as adults).

If, as Reformed Christians, we seek to follow Charlotte’s philosophy but we do not have this view of covenant children, then we are left with a conundrum. Our educational philosophy is predicated on the idea that children can choose the good, both intellectually and morally, but our theology tells us that they cannot choose or do  good until they are saved. So we are left needing to wait on their salvation before we can truly educate them.

I would like to propose a different way of viewing education. If the children of believers are included in God’s covenant community, then they already, even before birth, have those tendencies to good which Charlotte speaks of. We assume their salvation and their education becomes part of their sanctification. I think this idea fits quite well with reformed theology. If, as the doctrine of total depravity teaches, all of our nature has been corrupted by Adam’s Fall, then it makes sense that our sanctification which reverses this corruption should also act on the whole person.

The Roman Catholic Church (for the sake of comparison) has quite a high view of human reason because it sees limited effects to the Fall. If human reason has not fallen, then, once Original Sin is removed, we can have a high degree of confidence in our own reason. But if our reason is fallen along with the rest of our nature, then we cannot inherently trust it. Our intellectual aspect as well as our moral aspect needs to be regenerated.

I want to be clear that I do not think this is how Charlotte Mason herself  would have put it. This is how I, as a reformed Christian, reconcile my beliefs with the truth that I see and experience in her philosophy. I think she and I would have had some theological disagreements about human nature. But I also think that she stumbles on to some real truths about how education works for covenant children. The upshot of this view is that while what Charlotte says about good and evil tendencies may not be true of all children (or adults) that we are saying it is true of our children.

There are still be some problems with this view. It does not give us much to work with if we are teaching other people’s kids (if their parents are not believers). It also contradicts  Charlotte’s assertion that her method is for all children. Charlotte is also very big on the idea that all truth is God’s truth and that truth can come through non-Christians. I agree with both these statements but I am still trying to reconcile in my mind how these ideas fit together nicely. The problems inherent in this view are not unique to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but are basic issues which total depravity has to address — How do we account for the seeming good of unregenerate people? and, similarly, How are such people able to discover intellectual or moral Truth?

Option 4: Re-defining “Potential”

When it comes to other people, we never truly know. As reformed people, we believe that God, before Creation, made a plan and decided (elected) who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Nothing can thwart His plan one way or another. But we still preach the gospel to all because He commands us to and because we don’t know who it is within His plan to save.

In the same way, we may present the good (whether intellectual or moral) to children not knowing which ones God will enable to accept it. From God’s perspective these things are settled, but from ours any one of them has the potential to be saved and therefore to ultimately choose the good. This option may be combined with the previous one– the children of believers are assumed to be holy and to others the offer, both of the gospel and of the good intellectual food we are providing, is presented in the hope that they will be enabled to choose it. This seems to me to be an inherently optimistic view; it hopes the best for people and expects much of them.

I called this view “re-defining potential.” We  might instead say that it shifts the possibility of good from the individual to God Himself. It says not that each child, as he is naturally, can choose good but that each child might, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be regenerated and enabled to choose good. We present the good in the hopes that this is so, not knowing if it will be so in any given case.

Corollary: CM’s Method Can Benefit Non-believers

I am not classifying this as a separate option because I think it can be combined with any of the above options. One of the big problems for those who accept the doctrine of total depravity is how it explains the good that the unregenerate seem to do. Charlotte herself addressed this issue:

“As for this superior morality of some non-believers, supposing we grant it, what does it amount to? Just to this, that the universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws; that all safety, progress, and success in life come out of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver; just as the man who goes out into blazing sunshine is warmed, though he may shut his eyes and decline to see the sun. Conversely, that they who take no pains to study the principles which govern human action and human thought miss the blessings of obedience to certain laws, though they may inherit the better blessings which come of acknowledged relationship with the Lawgiver.” (Home Education, p. 39)

Charlotte here says that there is a blessing that comes with obeying the law of God even if one does not recognize that one is doing so. I think if we keep this in the realm of temporal blessings, this is likely true. If you are a good steward of your body, you will likely be rewarded with health. If you meditate on what is good and beautiful and true, you will have a mind that is more healthy than the one who dwells on evil and debased content. So the one who, following the Charlotte Mason method of education, is presented with a nourishing intellectual diet, though he be unregenerate, will still benefit more than one who is fed the intellectual equivalent of corn syrup or sawdust.

Conclusions?

In the first post in this three-part series, I tried to give you Charlotte Mason’s own interpretation of her second principle. The big take-away was that she applied the idea of good and evil tendencies to all aspects of the child and that as such she included both moral and spiritual dimensions, as well as the physical and intellectual. Her second principle is not solely theological but I think it is inaccurate to say that she did not mean it theologically.

In the second part, I tried to sketch out for you the range of Christian belief on the nature of man since the Fall with the goal of both showing where Charlotte herself likely fell and of prodding you to think about where along the spectrum your own beliefs would go.

This last post is for those of us who find ourselves further over to the reformed, total depravity side of things than Charlotte herself was. If you are closer to Charlotte’s own view or if you have a higher view of the human potential for good than Charlotte did, then I don’t expect you have much argument with her second principle. But for those of us who do wriggle in our seats when the goodness of children is discussed, I have tried to present some ways of reconciling the two — both my own ideas and some that have been expressed previously — along with their objections.

For myself, I find myself at this point (acknowledging that my views have changed in the past and may again) saying that while I do not think Charlotte and I are on the same page in terms of our view of human nature and while I am not comfortable using the language she does in her second principle, I can accept her philosophy and method of education because I think that she still ends up saying something true and valuable. My own beliefs are some combination of options 3 and 4 and the corollary I outlined above.

What I would like to know from you all is if any of this makes any sense. What is convincing and what isn’t? Are there other ways to think about all this that I have missed?

Nebby

Resources: I realize that I haven’t cited a lot of sources in these posts so here are just a few to get you going —

Bible verses on man’s sinful nature:

Genesis 6:5, 8:21;  2 Chronicles 6:36; Psalm 14:2-3, 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 21:10, 15; Job 15:14; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 10:14; 13:23; 17:9; Micah 7:2-4; Matthew 12:34-35; Mark 10:18= Luke 18:19; John 3:19; 8:44; Romans 3:9-12, 23; 5:7-8, 12, 19; 8:7;  1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:3; Titus 3:3; Hebrews 11:6

Blog posts on CM’s 2nd principle; my inclusion of them here does not necessarily imply endorsement:

Charlotte Mason, Total Depravity and the Divine Image,” by Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts Blog

Why Did She Have to Say That?” by Karen Glass at Karen Glass.net

Classically Charlotte: The nature of children,” from Simply Convivial.com

Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry.org

“The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle,” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry.org

And some of my own posts on this principle:

“Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle: Goodness and Badness”

CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children”

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] Is it biblical?: CM’s second principle, part 1, part 2 and part 3 […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jael Bischof on June 9, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    That is a really good post. I am reformed as well. And think that is a very good point to think about. The theology of covenant gives us securitiy that the children want to be holy until they say something different. Another point to think about is: total depravity is “only” for the ability to catch the faith. In other areas it is possible to do good things. Sorry my English. I am from Switzerland and probably not everthing is right.

    Reply

    • Sorry I’m just getting back to this. I was out of town and am now catching up on comments. Have you read my post which talks about the different Christian views of original sin? I think it is the second in this mini series of 3. On one end of the spectrum it does seem like the reformers are saying that total depravity affects more than just faith or our spiritual life. They would say for instance that our reason and our emotions are fallen so that we cannot inherently trust them. It is a good question though whether we can do good in these areas. I do tend to agree with Charlotte that we can get real truth that comes to us through non-Christian people. So how does that work if their reason is fallen? I haven’t fully puzzled that out.

      Reply

  3. […] I began this series by looking at what it means to be a Charlotte Mason purist and why we should care. The big take-away from that post was that because Charlotte claims that her philosophy is based in divine law, we should, if we accept this basis, adhere as closely as possible to her philosophy as being so founded. But that is a big “if” so I turned my attention to seeing if Charlotte’s philosophy is indeed in line with divine law as far as we can know it. This divine law is known to us from both special revelation, i.e. the Scriptures, and from general revelation, that which we can discern from God’s creation through science and observation. I am not equipped to evaluate all the science behind her philosophy but I do think we can hold her principles up to Scripture and ask if they are “agreeable to and founded upon the Scriptures.” Thus far, I have looked at her first principle (and a side post on the image of God), her 20th principle and her second principle in three parts (see: part 1, part 2 and part 3). […]

    Reply

  4. […] Is it biblical?: CM’s 2nd principle, part 1, part 2, and part 3 […]

    Reply

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