The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought

Dear Reader,

If you have been around here, you know I have been working through a series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask “Is it biblical?” (Find all the posts here, under the heading “Are Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles Biblical?”). In the past I’ve looked at many philosophies of education (see here), and what I’ve concluded is that each, whether consciously or not, is founded upon certain ideas about who we are as humans. I am also firmly under the conviction that the ideas behind what we do matter; they will always come out over time. So when I look at Charlotte’s philosophy, as much as I want to accept it all wholesale I have to ask if her view of the child is truly biblical.

I am a reformed Christian — 5 points of Calvinism, TULIP, total depravity, limited atonement, and all that. As such, Charlotte’s second principle has always been a sticking point. She says that:

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

I have read a lot of explanations of this principle. Most dismiss what Charlotte is saying here by arguing that it is not really a theological statement about the moral nature of children. It took me three posts in the current blog series to get through this principle. I began by looking at how Charlotte herself explains it. The short story is this: Charlotte believed that “the possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” When she says this, she is not just talking about their ability to be educated but the whole child “body and soul, body and mind, body, soul and spirit.” In other words, she is saying children are able to choose and do good and it is a moral statement (read my post here to see how I came to that conclusion).  In the second post, I place Charlotte’s position (and mine) within the spectrum of Christian thought (read about that here). In the third I wrestle with how I can accept her educational ideas when we have different views of the nature of children (here).

I am returning to this topic and wrestling some more because I recently ran across a quote in Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children, which, while shedding light on Charlotte’s own thought, also places her more at odds with my (reformed) theology.  Here is the quote:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (Parents and Children, p. 65; emphasis added)

Let that sink in for a minute — We live in a redeemed world, and all children born into this redeemed world have been “delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace.” If you are like me, you are thinking how can that be? Is she saying what I think she is saying and if so, where on earth did this idea come from and how can she believe it? Personally, I have never heard anyone put forward this position — that everyone born in the redeemed world, which would be since the time of Christ, is automatically in “the kingdom of grace.” So I began to google things and found that this was actually an idea around in Charlotte’s time.

In 1905 Crown Theological Library published a collection of essays under the title “The Child and Religion.” It is available from Forgotten Books here or from Archive.org here. The book itself is the outcome of what began as a debate within one congregation. As is explained in the book’s introduction, some children, ages 8 to 12, wanted to become members of the church and the leadership was unsure how to proceed. They were wondering if children even had the capacity to be saved, if they could have union with Christ. They therefore appealed to wide range of pastors of their day. The book is a compilation of essays from these men. A summary of the views they encountered was given by The Expository Times  (Oct. 1904 – Sept. 1905). They asked the following questions: “(1) Is the child born in the Kingdom? (2) Is conversion necessary to make it a child of God? (3) Are all children in a state of favour with God? (4) Are all unconverted outside the Kingdom? (5) May they grow up within the Kingdom without consciously being alienated from God?” (Expository Times, vol. 16, p. 481). The men they asked were: a low churchman (of the Church of England), a high churchman (ditto), two Presbyterians, a Wesleyan (Methodist), three Congregationalists, a Baptist, and a Unitarian (and probably a partridge in a pear tree, if they could find one).

Their answers to the first question are enough to address our purpose. Here is how The Expository Times reports it:

“The first question runs, ‘ Is the child born in the Kingdom ? ‘ What child ? Does Mr. Stephens mean all children that are born into the world? Can you say that the children of Muhammadan parents are born within the Kingdom of Christ ? Or is the meaning as narrow as the child born of truly Christian parents ? The most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes. But Mr. Stanley, the Unitarian, says bravely that all children are born in the Kingdom of God. He says, ‘ The child comes to our earth from the hand of God with a fresh mind and a pure heart, and evokes our reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life. The little one cannot be regarded as a child of wrath, for it has wonderful and fair capacities, and where all influences favour a righteous development, it may be led to admire and cleave to holy things.’ In Mr. Stanley’s belief, the Muhammadan child is born within the Kingdom of God.” (pp. 481-2)

The position of Stanley, the Unitarian among them, is an extreme one. At the other end of the spectrum is the Baptist, a man named Lewis, who believed that “no children whatever are born in the Kingdom” (p. 482). The others are along a spectrum between these two. As far as I can distinguish them, there seem to be two main positions between these two extremes:

  1. The low churchman and one Presbyterian believe that while all must be born again, “the second birth may occur so near the first as to be practically identical with it.” Children may thus be saved in “unconscious infancy.”
  2. The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believe that children may be born saved but do not say that all are. “‘[A] child may be born into the Kingdom of God when it is born into the world,'” says Watson, a Presbyterian. Similarly, Thomas, a Congregationalist says: “‘Christ claims the children, as He has redeemed them.'” But, the editor tells us, “Both seem to think of the children of Christian parents.”

Charlotte Mason proposes an educational method founded in part on the idea that children have “possibilities for good and evil.” Her philosophy assumes that there is good, or at least the potential for good, in the children she is educating. Another way to put it would be to say that in order to be educable, children must be able to choose the good. We see this paly out in Charlotte’s philosophy; she uses inherently good materials — living books, fine art, etc. — spreading a feast and allowing the children to choose what they “ingest.” If the children were not able to choose the good, then this method would make no sense. Charlotte believes all children are educable, therefore she must believe all children have this capability.

The question before us then is of which children is this true? As the Expository Times article makes clear there are a number of answers to this question. The main possibilities are: (1) no children can be converted/regenerated and made able to believe and do good before a certain age at which they are able to make a conscious decision to believe; (2) some children are saved either before birth or in “unconscious infancy”; or (3) all children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. Within the second category — “some” children– there are still more possibilities. We must ask with The Expository Times “What child?” Those quoted in the article seem to give two answers: (2a) children born to Christian parents and (2b) children born in Christian nations.*

It is a bit unclear where Charlotte stands. On the surface, her statement seems to place her in  camp 3, all children are born into the Kingdom of God, but I think it is also possible given her time and location that she would be in 2b, children born in Christian nations are born into the Kingdom.

Having looked at where Charlotte stands, we must also ask where we fall in this spectrum. The reformed doctrine of total depravity teaches that all people, since the Fall, are, apart from saving grace, unable to choose or do good. However, grace is not dependent on our ability to choose it but upon God’s election. The psalmist speaks of having faith from his other’s womb and John the Baptists recognizes his Savior even in utero. The Apostle Paul tells us that the children of believers are holy (I Cor. 7:14). Our church baptizes infants on the belief that the covenant of God is for us and our children (Acts 2:39). In other words, children of believers are considered part of the people of God, the visible church. As such, I believe in option (2a) above: some children, namely the children of believing parents, are born into the Kingdom of God.

So what does all of this matter? On one level, it does not. Charlotte bases her system of education on the assumption that the children being educated are able to choose and do good. I believe that my children, as covenant children, have this ability, so, well and good, I can use her method in my homeschool. She is educating children she believes to have the potential for good and so am I.

On another level, however, we are quite a world apart. There is a lot of theology behind any of these positions. No theological tenet stands in isolation from others but all depend upon the other. If we say that all children are born into God’s Kingdom, we are also making statements about the nature of the atonement, the sovereignty of God, and the perseverance of the saints.

 

In the end, I am not very far from where I started. I understand Charlotte’s view better but at the same time I find myself farther from her. The provisional conclusions I had made in that earlier post still stand; while I do not agree with Charlotte’s view of all children, yet I can apply her philosophy to my children. I also feel I have a better sense of the questions I still want to answer. Above all, I feel more greatly the need for a truly reformed philosophy of education.

Nebby

*The writer of the Expository Times synopsis says that “most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes” (p.482). However, he does not specify which corresponds hold this position. It is hard to believe that anyone today would hold such a position for it is very hard in our day to say what is a Christian country, but both these men and Charlotte herself were living in a different time.

 

 

 

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] her second principle and to do some reevaluating.  If you haven’t read that post — The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought — I would encourage you to stop here and do so before […]

    Reply

  2. […] year in fact; I will  not rehash it all today. If you want to get up to speed, the key posts are here and […]

    Reply

  3. […] his Creator, his capacity for both faith and sin. But Charlotte, I believe, and I have said before (here, here, and here), goes beyond this and presents something of an idealized child with a capacity for […]

    Reply

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