“Education is a Discipline,” Part 2

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my post on Charlotte Mason’s statement “education is  . . .  a discipline . . . ” It is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Miss Mason’s principles in light of the Bible. You can find all the posts in this series here under the heading “Are Charlotte’s 20 principles biblical?

In part 1, we looked at what Charlotte means by “education is . . . a discipline . . .” and saw that according to Miss Mason:

  • Discipline is discipleship.
  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.
  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”
  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.
  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.
  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.
  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

We then looked at the biblical text and saw that many of these points, while not specifically stated in the Scriptures, are in line with what it teaches.

But there is one big elephant in the room which we have yet to address. That is the whole nature of parental discipline in the Bible. Charlotte says that physical punishment should be rare and reserved for crisis situations. In a perfect world, it need not happen at all. The discipline that parents owe their children she defines as a kind of discipleship which for her boils down to habit training. She points to verses like Proverbs 22:6 — “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) – to show that we must establish lines, like railroad tracks, along which the child’s character will develop.

If you have read any Christian parenting books, there is another verse which probably pops into your head when you hear the word discipline:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This verse, and many others like it, seem to speak of discipline as corporal punishment (with a rod, no less!). We must ask then: What is biblical discipline? How do the Scriptures define it and what do they tell us about how parents should discipline/train their children? Having answered these questions, we can then get back to Charlotte Mason and see if her assertion — that discipline should be primarily training and that physical punishment should be rare — is truly biblical.

Parenting in the New Testament

Before delving into the evidence, I should say a word about how I approach the biblical text. Both the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. There are some changes that occur between them, the substitution of baptism for circumcision for example. But, where a doctrine or practice is not specifically negated in the New Testament, it is still in effect. I bring this all up because one easy out when it comes to parental discipline is to say, “oh, that spare the rod stuff is all Old Testament; it no longer applies to us Christians.” I reject this position. The Old Testament commands and counsels regarding child rearing are still in effect today.

Having said which, I am going to start by looking at what the New Testament has to say on parenting. Ephesians (and a parallel passage in Colossians) addresses the parent/child relationship:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:1-4; cf. Col. 3:21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

From this passage we learn that fathers are not to “provoke [their] children to anger” but are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I think it is reasonable to assume that the “instruction” refers to what they are taught. We are told many places in the Bible that fathers are to tell their children about the things God has done (cf. Ex. 13:8; Deut. 4:10; Ps. 78:4; Joel 1:3). Discipline is a trickier term, but, unfortunately, Ephesians does not give us much to go on in terms of what “discipline” looks like other than to say that there is some limit lest children be provoked to anger. 

The Book of Hebrews has more to say:

” And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’

It is for discipline that you have to endure.

If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebr. 12:5-11)

The goal of this passage is to encourage the readers to endure in their sufferings. These sufferings are identified as the discipline of the Lord and are shown to be a sign, not of God’s wrath, but His love. God disciplines His people because He loves them.

If we look at this passage to find out what parental discipline looks like, we are taking it backwards. The writer is assuming that his audience knows about parental discipline and is using that knowledge to say something about God’s discipline. We are doing the reverse, assuming we know what God’s discipline looks like and asking what parental discipline should look like. Because of this, we should be cautious in drawing conclusions, remembering that the point of this passage is not to tell us about parental discipline. Having said which, there are some conclusions we can draw:

  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • An earthly father’s discipline is for “a short time.” I suspect this refers not to length of an individual punishment but to the fact that a father’s authority to discipline only lasts so long.
  • Discipline is not easy for the one being disciplined. It is unclear what sort of hardships the readers are enduring but the writer has to encourage them to endure. Whatever it is, it is “painful rather than pleasant.”
  • The child respects the parent who disciplines him.
  • The earthly parent disciplines “as seems best to him.” The implication is that this is not always going to be perfectly done.
  • The ideal is to discipline for the good of the child. Again, earthly parents may fall short of this.
  • God’s discipline yields “the fruit of righteousness.” I think it is not too much of a stretch to say that the ideal (again) is that parental discipline should do the same, i.e. it should produce righteousness.

The word used for discipline in this passage is used a handful of other times in the New Testament. It is the word used in 2 Corinthians when Paul says we are “punished, and yet not killed” (2 Cor. 6:9). It is also used by Herod and Pilate; they both ask why they cannot just “punish” and release Jesus (Luke 23: 16, 22). In both these contexts, it seems a very physical discipline, likely scourging (i.e. beating with whips), is what is in view. But — and this is important — this is God’s discipline which is being described. The conclusion to draw is that God’s discipline is harsh and physical and that it is compared to parental discipline. This makes it likely that the human father’s discipline is also physical in nature, but it is certainly not license for us to scourge our children.

To sum up what we have seen in the New Testament, parental discipline is compared to God’s discipline of His people. There is an acknowledgement that human fathers will not discipline perfectly, either in motive or application. This is perhaps why they must be told not to provoke their children to anger. The ideal motive is love with a goal of doing good to the child by producing righteousness in him. There is a strong implication that the nature of such discipline is physical (i.e. some form of corporal punishment), but we must keep in mind that the Hebrews passage is not prescriptive with regard to parental discipline; it is assuming we know what parental discipline looks like, not telling us how to do it.

Discipline in the Old Testament

As we turn to the Old Testament, we find no shortage of prescriptive passages. These can be grouped according to the Hebrew words they employ. Hebrew uses a triliteral (three letter) root system. Though there are a few dozen verses which address parental discipline, there are only three main root words which are used. Two are words which we often translates as discipline, chastise, or rebuke as in the infamous Proverbs 13 verse:

“Whoever spares the rod** hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

The third is translated as “train” in that other well-known verse from Proverbs 22, the one upon which Miss Mason seems to base her view of discipline:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The Hebrew Roots ykh and ysr: Rebuke and Discipline

The first two root words are ykh (if you know Hebrew, that last is a hard “h,” the Hebrew letter het,  but I don’t have the proper font for representing it)  and ysr (that’s a samech in the middle, Hebrew scholars).  The former is often translated “rebuke” while the latter is more often “discipline.” In English, these seem to be pretty different words, but as we look at the Hebrew text, we will see that the two often occur together and are used in very similar ways.***

Both are used of God’s rebuke/discipline of His people:

“O Lord, rebuke (ykh) me not in your anger, nor discipline (ysr) me in your wrath.” (Ps. 6:1; cf. Ps. 38:1)

“You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes (ykh)—I am the Lord; I have spoken—” (Ezek. 5:15)

“The Lord has disciplined (ysr) me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” (Ps. 118:18)

“When you discipline (ysr) a man with rebukes (ykh) for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” (Ps. 39:11)

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves (ykh); therefore despise not the discipline (ysr) of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17)

God’s “rebuke” (ykh) is harsh– it consist of debilitating pain (Job 33:19), failure in childbirth (2 Kgs. 19:3; Isa. 37:3), or the destruction of a city (Hos. 5:9). But His “discipline” (ysr) is no less harsh. In Leviticus 26:28ff, a list of punishments is given which begins with fathers eating their own children. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

As we saw in the New Testament, God’s rebuke/discipline is compared to that of a father:

“My son, do not despise the Lord‘s discipline (ysr) or be weary of his reproof (ykh),  for the Lord reproves (ykh), him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:11-12)

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline (ykh) him with the rod** of men, with the stripes of the sons of men . . .” (2 Sam. 7:14)

“Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines (ysr) his son, the Lord your God disciplines (ysr) you.” (Deut. 8:5; cf. Deut. 11:2)

What specifically does this rebuke/discipline consist of? In I Kings, King Rehoboam says he will discipline (ysr) his people with whips and scorpions. This is figuartive (he is actually taxing them harshly), but it shows, as we saw in the New Testament, a connection to scourging. In Isaiah 53:5, the Suffering Servant, whom we know is a figure of Christ, is chastised (ysr) for our iniquities, a reference to scourging again:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

And of course there is that rod thing again**:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline (ysr) him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This may not be all there is to discipline, however. It can also be used in parallel with teach:

“He who disciplines (ysr) the nations, does he not rebuke (ykh)?

He who teaches man knowledge— the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
    that they are but a breath.

Blessed is the man whom you discipline (ysr), O Lord,
    and whom you teach out of your law,” (Ps. 94:10-12)

These two aspects of “discipline” (ysr) seem to occur in roughly equal measure throughout the Old Testament. At times, the root, especially in its nominal form (musar) clearly refers to something that is spoken and heard:

“He opens their ears to instruction (ysr and commands that they return from iniquity.” (Job 36:10)

“Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction.” (Jer. 17:23 cf. Jer. 32:33; 35:13; Ps. 50:17; Prov. 4:1; 13:1; 19:27; Zeph. 3:2)

In Proverbs 19, it is used in parallel to “advice”:

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (Prov. 19:20)

Still, at others, it seems to refer to a physical kind of discipline:

“In vain have I struck your children; they took no correction; your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.” (Jer. 2:30; cf. Isa. 26:16; 53:5; Jer. 5:3)

In Deuteronomy 11, the “discipline of the Lord” seems to refer to the wonders He has done, specifically His drowning of the Egyptians and the deaths of Dathan and Abiram who were swallowed up by the earth for their sin (Deut. 11:2-7).

And at least once, “discipline” is a lesson which is learned through observation:

“I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles,
 and its stone wall was broken down.  Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction.” (Prov. 24:30-32)

Proverbs 23 perhaps sums up the dual nature of “discipline”; in two verses, our modern translation interprets ysr once as “instruction” and once as “discipline”:

“Apply your heart to instruction (ysr) and your ear to words of knowledge.
Do not withhold discipline (ysr) from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.” (Prov. 23: 12-13)

In the first occurrence, ysr is translated as “instruction” and clearly refers to something heard; in the second, it is translated “discipline” and just as clearly refers to physical discipline.

Summing up, then, here is what we have seen about the words translated “rebuke” and “discipline” by our Bibles:

  • The two words are frequently used together and in similar ways.
  • God disciplines/rebukes His people for their sins.
  • Human parents discipline/rebuke their children.
  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • The goal of discipline is to turn one from one’s sins.
  • There is a strong connection between discipline and physical punishment.
  • However, discipline is also something which can be spoken and heard, what we might call instruction.

Another root: hnk, “to train up”

Still, that is not quite the end of the story. We have yet to consider that other oft-quoted verse, the one which Charlotte herself seems to prefer:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The word translated “train up” here is a different one, unrelated to those we have already looked at. The Hebrew root this time is hnk (that’s a hard het again). It occurs less than a dozen times in the Old Testament. Other than this verse from Proverbs almost every other occurrence of this root is in reference to the dedication of a building:

“And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed; and the chiefs offered their offering before the altar.” (Num. 7:10)

“Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.” (Deut. 20:5)

“Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord.” [I Kgs. 8:63; cf. 2 Chr. 7:5; Ps. 30:1 (superscription)]

“And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem . . .” (Neh. 12:27)

The only other time this root is used in reference to people is in Genesis:

“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (Gen. 14:14)

In the context, hnk might also be translated as “dedicated.” Abraham takes these men because they are born in his house; that is, they are dedicated to him.

In Proverbs 22:6, then, it would be more accurate to translate: “Dedicate a youth to the way he should go.”**** What difference does it make to translate the verse this way? A dedication is something that happens once, as the dedication of a new building. When, in Nehemiah 12, the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem is dedicated, a purification of the people and the wall itself takes place, and there is a great celebration. When the altar is dedicated (Numbers 7), there are offerings. The altar is put into use, that is, it is given its purpose. It is also consecrated; it is set aside, i.e. made holy to the Lord.

When is a child dedicated? In the Old Testament, for a boy, this would be at his circumcision when he is physically included in the people of God. In the Christian era, for boys and girls, it is at baptism when the child is publicly included in the visible church, God’s covenant community.

We discipline our children because they are dedicated to the Lord, both because we love them and because we desire that they walk in the right path and turn from all sin. But I don’t believe there is much in this verse to guide us in how that discipline occurs.

Conclusions

The picture given of discipline is very similar in the Old and New Testaments. Discipline is something God does to His people and something parents do to their children. In both cases the motive is love and the goal is the sanctification of the individual. The Bible does not lay out for us anywhere just what parental discipline should look like, but in both Testaments there is a clear connection to physical punishment.  While this association is unequivocal, it does not seem to be the entirety of discipline. Oral instruction is also discipline.

For the most part, the Bible assumes parental discipline, but in two key passages there is some instructions given to the parents: In Proverbs 13:24 the parent is told not to “spare the rod,” that is, not to neglect discipline. In Ephesians 6, fathers are told not to provoke their children to anger. These two represent to us the two sides of a see-saw, the two extremes between which we must navigate. On the one hand, we must not think it is more loving to let discipline slide; on the other, we must not be so stringent in discipline that our children become angry. As God’s mercy and justice are balanced in His discipline of His children, so we as parents must seek balance between these extremes.

The original question we asked was how Charlotte Mason’s philosophy jibes with the biblical view of discipline. She, as we saw, does not deny the place of “sparing the rod” but relegates it to subsidiary role, saying that it should be rare. She emphasizes her method of habit-training. To the extent that the physical side of discipline is a response to sin (we do not spank our kids proactively for what they might do), I think Charlotte is right that the more rare it is, the better. If they sin less, which is always the goal, we will need it less. However, Charlotte goes much further than the biblical text does in downplaying that side of discipline. In both the Old and New Testaments, the physical side of discipline is the more prominent; Charlotte would have it less so.

Charlotte bases her signature method, habit-training, on Proverbs 22:6 (“train up a child . . .”). Though she is not at all alone in this, and indeed most English translations lend some support to her view, I think she misunderstands the verse. It would be more accurate to translate the verb as “dedicate” and to see it as a one-time act of devoting our children to the Lord such as occurs at their baptism. Even if this were not so, however, we must remember that there is one verse which speaks of “training” children in this way and dozens and dozens which speak of disciplining or rebuking them.

In the first half of this post, we saw that Charlotte’s ideas about habit-training, while not spelled out as such in the Bible, do seem to be in line with certain biblical principles.  In this post, we have seen that there is a verbal aspect to discipline which we can call instruction. I don’t think it is too much of s stretch to place habit training under this heading. This is not to say that habit-training is all of what the Bible means when it speaks of instruction, but I am willing to say that it is a legitimate means of instruction.

So, Myth Busters style, what can we say about this CM principle? I am calling it plausible with a caveat. It does seem that habit-training is in line with some biblical principles and that it can fit under the heading discipline, subheading instruction. But I am uncomfortable with how much Charlotte downplays that aspect which the Bible seems to most focus on, namely physical discipline.

Nebby

**If you have been in Christian circles for a while as I have, you have probably heard someone argue that the “rod” of Proverbs 13:24 is not a rod to beat with but a rod of guiding, as a shepherd uses his staff to guide the sheep. The Hebrew word for rod is shebet. It is used in Proverbs 13:24 (“spare the rod”). It is used in Psalm 23:4 when the psalmist says “your rod and your staff with comfort me.” But it is also used contexts where it is clearly a harsh sort of rod:

“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. ” (Exod. 21:20)

All in all, looking at the occurrences of “rod” in the Old Testament, I find a few cases in which the rod is an instrument of comfort (Ps. 23:4; Mic. 7:14) but many more in which is it used for beating or as a sign of conquest (Exod. 21:20; 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:9; Isa. 10:5).

***Hebrew poetry is characterized not by rhyme or rhythm but by parallelism (see this post or this one for an intro to the topic). Though the passages we are looking at are not poems as such, they are for the most part proverbs and make use of the principles of parallelism as well.

What does it mean when two words are used in parallel, as we have seen ysr and ykh are many times? If in English I say “I am going to give you donuts and send you patsries,” then you would probably take that as two things: I am giving donuts but somehow  sending  other pastries. But if this were Hebrew poetry, then we would be talking about one action: I am going to give/send pastries, possibly just donuts, possibly donuts and other pastries. So in the Proverbs 3:11, when it speaks of the Lord’s discipline and his reproof, we have no reason to think these are two separate things. If we spend our time dissecting the terms and trying to figure out what the distinction is between discipline and reproof, we miss the point. Rather than distinguishing the two terms, the proverb is equating them.

****I looked at a number of modern translations on Proverb 22:6. Almost all say “train.” But the NIV actually handles the verb better, in my opinion. It has:

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

 

 

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] is  . . . a discipline . . .” is another thorny issue and took two posts here and here.  For Charlotte discipline means essentially habit training and she specifically rejects corporal […]

    Reply

  2. […] One final note before we get to the meat — I have previously posted on discipline in the Bible. This was done in the context of a series on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but it is still worth reading. Parental discipline and teaching are closely related concepts as we shall see. I am not including in this post the word “train” as in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child . . .”) but you can find out what it means in Hebrew in that earlier post here. […]

    Reply

  3. […] [1] As a side note, I don’t agree with Harris’ definition of “to train up” in Proverbs 22:6 as “to touch the palate” (p. 68).  I have no idea where he got this. You can see my own interpretation of that verse here. […]

    Reply

  4. […] truama. So too education is also closely tied to discipline, but it is not discipline (see this post of biblical discipline). Nonetheless, education, as I am definfing it (and this is largely a matter of definition), is an […]

    Reply

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