So, Is Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy Biblical?

Dear Reader,

With the holidays and various personal issues, I have not posted in about a month. This has also given me some time to think. I have decided to wrap up my series “Are CM’s 20 Principles Biblical?” Though I have not been through all 20 principles, I think I have gotten what I wanted to from this series (and I hope you have too).

Before I pull it all together and answer the big question, let’s review why we even asked this question and where we have been.

Goal and Methodology

This series sprang from a phrase “pure CM.” Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry argues that it is important that we adhere closely to Charlotte’s philosophy because her philosophy is founded upon “immutable divine law.” Essentially his argument is: If Charlotte’s philosophy of education is, as she claims, founded on the Scriptures and divine law, we should not dilute it but stick closely to her ideas. I agree with this statement, but it all hinges on the if. The goal of this series, then, has been to examine that if and to ask the question: Is Charlotte’s philosophy indeed founded upon the divine law? (The folks at A Delectable Education also advocate a “pure CM” approach though they cite different reasons; all of this was discussed in the first post in this series which you can read here.)

It took Miss Mason six lengthy, dense volumes to elucidate her philosophy. This is a bit much to tackle in one chunk. I chose to focus on Charlotte’s 20 Principles.  I understand that these principles were not spelled out in their current form from the get-go and that they, by nature of their brevity, may be lacking, but I believe they provide us with a good framework for Charlotte’s philosophy. My methodology was to take each principle, to ask what Charlotte herself meant by it, to see what the biblical text has to say on the issue, and then to hold the two up and compare them to say whether the one is in line with the other. My standard for evaluating each of Charlotte’s ideas is to ask “Is it agreeable to and founded upon the Scriptures?” To be founded upon the Scriptures is, in my mind, to find a clear biblical basis, precedent or command. Something that is agreeable to the Scriptures may not be directly addressed in the Bible but seems to fall in line with biblical principles.

Some principles of interpretation by which I have operated: 1) The Scriptures are only a part of the revealed divine law. God reveals Himself through both His written word and His creation. Miss Mason makes clear that she appeals to both of these sources, basing her method on both the gospels and the knowledge we derive through our senses and reason from God’s creation (this includes scientific knowledge).  2) The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life.” That is to say, they are the only rule that is infallible, but not the only rule. We may also learn true things from other sources. 3) The Scriptures tell us about God and our sin and how we may be saved. They don’t tell us everything we need to know about every topic. They don’t tell us what diet is best nor are they a primer on godly education. 4) The Scriptures contain both prescriptive and descriptive passages. Sometimes it is clear what we are to do or not do (“Though shalt not . . . “). At other times we may derive general principles from Scripture and apply them to situations which the Bible, for whatever reason, does not directly address. Some times we are told what a given person did but we must make determinations about whether this is emulatable behavior or not.  5) The Scriptures are internally consistent. We may and should use clearer passages to illuminate those that are more confusing. And as a corollary — 6) The New Testament does not replace the Old. Those principles and practices that are not specifically abrogated in the New are assumed to still be in effect.

Recapping the Evidence

I began at the beginning — with Charlotte’s first principle. I then jumped to the 20th, as being, to my mind, one of the most pivotal (see this much earlier post). I then returned to that thorny second principle. And then, because my attention was drawn to new evidence, revisited the first principle. I did not treat the third principle, which deals with authority,  but addressed the fourth principle indirectly in my post on what Charlotte calls “the gospel principles.” I then moved on to principles 5 through 8 which put forth and then elucidate the PNEU motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” This is where I broke off.

If you have been counting, you will see that I have tackled less than half of the 20 principles. Nonetheless, I think I have gotten an answer to my own question. Before pulling everything together, let’s do a brief fly-over of each of the principles I did look at and how they stacked up:

  • I addressed Charlotte’s first principle, “Children are born persons,” in three posts: CM’s first principle, First Principle Revisited, and “the Greatness of the child as a person” (a fourth post, Man in the image of God, was a sidebar to this series within a series).  I saw that Charlotte, in speaking of children as spiritual beings and in discussing their various characteristics and abilities, is in line with biblical thought which includes children in the community of God’s people and says that they can sin and are capable of faith. However, in my post on  “the greatness of the child as a person,” I saw that Charlotte goes beyond what I am comfortable with in her interpretation of Matthew 18 and attributes a degree of innocence to the child which I find unwarranted. This is not to say that her idea of the child’s greatness is unbiblical, but that I personally judge it to be the result of poor biblical interpretation.
  • Charlotte’s 20th principle addresses the role of “the Divine Spirit” as the child’s “Continual Helper” in education. In my post on this principle, I found that Charlotte’s basic idea is biblical, though I had some reservations relating to the relationship between godliness and wisdom.
  • I treated Charlotte’s second principle in a three part mini series (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). Her second principle says that: “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” Part 1 looked at how Charlotte herself explains this principle. Contrary to what I had read elsewhere, Charlotte clearly means her second principle to be a statement about morality, as well as about other aspects of the person. What does it mean to say that the child, on a moral or spiritual level, has possibilities for good and evil?  In part 2, I looked at the spectrum or orthodox Christian belief on original sin and the nature of man. I assumed at this point that Charlotte’s own idea of the level of good and evil in human nature would fall in line with the Church of England of the time of which she was a member. In part 3, I began to wrestle with reconciling my own beliefs with Charlotte’s. My conclusion at this point was that, while Charlotte falls within the spectrum of orthodox belief, she is not where I am on that spectrum (I am firmly in the “reformed Christian/Calvinist” camp) and that this poses some problems for me in using her philosophy. Again, I would not say at this point that her principle is unbiblical; I will say that it does not agree with my (reformed) view of what the Bible has to say on the (sinful) nature of man.
  • Charlotte claims to lay the foundation of her philosophy on what she calls the “gospel principles” of education. These gospel principles roughly correspond to Charlotte’s 4th and 5th of her 20 principles. They come out of her interpretation of Matthew 18-19 (see this post). I was not completely comfortable with how Charlotte interprets the relevant passages, but I cannot deny that she is clearly leaning on the biblical text for these ideas.
  • Charlotte’s fifth principle introduces her motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” Principles 6, 7 and 8 pull apart this motto and explain its parts.  In the post on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I decided that Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere is plausible biblically. We are ranging here into more of the specifics of education, the hows more than the whys, and we should not necessarily expect to find specific biblical evidence which her ideas are “founded upon”; it is enough to say that they are “agreeable to” the Scriptures.
  • I then jumped to “Education is . . . a life” in this post. Again we saw that not everything Charlotte says can be substantiated directly by the Scriptures. I was impressed, however, with how deeply biblical her thought seems to be. At this point more than any other, I got the sense that, even when she is not directly relying on the Bible, Charlotte’s thought is informed by deep spiritual undercurrents which are themselves biblically based.
  • “Education 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 punishment, at least as a regular or frequent form of discipline.  I spent some time looking at how the Bible uses various words for discipline and how it depicts both parental and divine discipline. There are two sides to this one — habit training itself is not unbiblical (and indeed I think there are undercurrents here too which betray a deeply Christian understanding)  but Charlotte goes well beyond the biblical text in her downplaying of the physical aspect of discipline. I am not quite willing to say unbiblical on this one but Charlotte certainly weights things in a  way that the Scriptures very clearly do not.

Further Evidence 

At this point I ran across a quote in Charlotte’s second volume that caused me to revisit 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 continuing.

In Parents and Children Charlotte says that all children “born in this redeemed world” are in “the kingdom of grace” as opposed to “the kingdom of nature” (p. 65). This is to say that children are born, if not good, at least able to do and choose the good.  Her whole philosophy is predicated on this idea — that the child can choose the good. The child has an appetite for knowledge and when presented with the right intellectual food is able to ingest what he needs (principle 9). The job of the teacher is to present the right foodstuffs (principle 11); it is up to the child to accept or reject what he is presented with (principle 19). This methodology only works if the child is able to accept what is good.

Art Middlekauff discusses this passage and argues that Charlotte is not really saying anything new or out of step with her church (“Charlotte Mason’s Theology: Orthodoxy or Innovation?” from Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, Riverbend Press, 2014). His argument is that Mason “is not denying the doctrine of original sin, but she is rather asserting that (a) children are created in the image of God and (b) we live in a redeemed world in which Christ gives a measure of light to all.” We all agree, I think, that there is evil in human nature. The point of debate seems to be how much good, or potential for good, there is and where it comes from. As I understand it, Middlekauff, on Charlotte’s behalf, argues that there is good in even an unredeemed human and that it comes from two sources: (1) some remnant of the image of God and (2) the general, widespread good effects of Christ’s redemptive work, what has been called common grace. These two provide enough good for the child to be able to respond to the good when it is put before him.

I have some problems with this idea as Middlekauff presents it. On one hand, I do not believe that man does retain the image of God post-Fall; I discussed that here.  On the other, I think Middlekauff overstates the ability of man to do true good apart from redemptive (not just common) grace.

But beyond these arguments, I am not at all convinced that this is what Charlotte meant when she spoke of the redeemed world. Let us look again at the quote in question as well as another from Parents and Children and one from her first volume, Home Education:

“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)

“Perhaps it is incumbent upon them to make conscientious endeavours to further all means used to spread the views they hold; believing that there is such ‘progress in character and virtue’ possible to the redeemed human race as has not yet been realised or even imagined.” (Ibid., pp. 247-48)

“The most fatal way of despising the child falls under the third educational law of the Gospels; it is to overlook and make light of his natural relationship with Almighty God. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me,’ says the Saviour, as if that were the natural thing for the children to do, the thing they do when they are not hindered by their elders. And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Saviour and God with unconscious delight and trust.” (Home Education, pp. 19-20)

Children, Charlotte says, bear “vulgar and hateful traits,” but they also contain “the  fruits of the kingdom.” Note that these are fostered. To me “foster” implies that they are already present, perhaps in a seed-like form. In these two we see Charlotte’s second principle clearly — the possibilities for good and evil. There is a hint of something more than just a possibility, a propensity we might say, in the quote from Home Education.  Charlotte phrases it in a way so as to not fully commit herself but advances the idea that children would naturally turn to Christ as Savior if they were not hindered by their elders.

Charlotte repeatedly uses the phrase “redeemed world” to describe our current state (in addition to the quotes above, see also Home Education p. 331). I spent some time googling and as far as I can tell Christians are a lot more likely to speak of our world as fallen and to discuss how we live as redeemed people in a fallen world.  Though I’ll acknowledge my approach is by no means exhaustive, I could find very few references to a “redeemed world.” I am very hesitant to ever use words, especially loaded words like “redeemed” or redemption, in ways that the Scriptures themselves do not. I did a cursory search in my concordance and could not find that the Bible ever speaks of a “redeemed world.” I have no doubt that Creation at the end of time will be renewed and redeemed but I see no precedent for saying it is so now. Romans 8 springs to mind:

 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:19-25; ESV)

While there is some hint here that perhaps the waiting of the fallen creation is at an end, the thrust of the passage seems to be that that creation still waits in hope for its redemption.

My instinct is that this idea of a “redeemed world” must come from the postmillennialism movement which was popular at the time, the idea (briefly put) being that we are in the millennial rule of Christ that will culminate on His second coming and that this is a time of blessing, optimism and progress. Though I have some sympathy with postmillennialism, the idea that world is at this point redeemed does not seem to be a biblical one.

Whether the world is redeemed or not, the main question seems to be how much potential for good children have. Middlekauff, as we have seen, speaks of the image of God and common grace (though he does not use that term). Charlotte seems to me to go beyond these. She says that children have been “delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace.”  If Charlotte only said that children had the power to do good then I would agree with Middlekauff’s reading. But to speak of children as being delivered from the kingdom of nature to that of grace seems to me to take it a step further. Delivered is another loaded term and implies salvation.

The phrases “kingdom of nature” and “kingdom of grace” also deserve attention. Dean Boyd, an Anglican minister preaching in the 1850s and 60s, says:

” There is, however, a kingdom which is neither the kingdom of nature nor the kingdom of glory, but something between the two: but nevertheless, it belongs to earth in one respect, and to heaven in another. Its great object is to rescue sinners, and to build them up in holiness; and therefore the subjects of this kingdom are those that have been once rebellious, but, through the grace of God, have been brought into a state of loyalty and allegiance to the Lord” (“The End of the Kingdom of Grace,” from Biblehub.com).

The terms were not new in the 1800s; in the 17th century a Puritan, Thomas Watson, was also spoke of “the kingdom of grace.” The kingdoms of grace and glory, he says, “differ not specifically, but gradually; they differ not in nature, but only in degree. The kingdom of grace is nothing but the inchoation or beginning of the kingdom of glory” (T. Watson, “The Kingdoms of Grace and Glory,” from Biblehub.com). So we see that the kingdom of nature is opposed to the kingdoms of grace and glory. The latter two being roughly equivalent though the kingdom of grace exists on this earth for believers in the here and now and the kingdom of glory is the fulfillment yet to come. To say, then, that children have been delivered from the kingdom of nature to that of grace is as much as to say that they have been saved.

One final note: in the second quote above from Parents and Children, Charlotte speaks of “the redeemed human race.” We might overlook this phrase if it were not for the context provided by the other quotes we have been looking at. As it is, I cannot help but thinking that Charlotte saw the results of Christ’s redemptive work as extending to humanity as a whole. It would be beyond the scope of this post to follow all the threads but there are huge theological implications to saying that all the human race is redeemed or, as Charlotte does, that all children have been delivered into the kingdom of grace, beginning with what we actually believe Christ’s sacrifice accomplished, whether is it actual or only potential atonement.

 

Where do we go from here?

There is a lot I love in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. I have been using it, or some version of it, in my family to good effect. There is a lot in her thought that I find good and biblical and true and at times I am in awe of just how deeply biblical ideas seem to penetrate her thinking. There is much good here. I know of no other philosophy of education which is as biblical as hers. She takes her ideas from the gospels — however misread — and works from a Christian worldview and I do not doubt that she had genuine, saving faith.

But then there is this one idea which I cannot accept. Though my disagreement with Charlotte boils down to this one point, it is so foundational to Charlotte’s thinking and has such profound theological implications that I cannot dismiss it.

I believe that ideas have consequences and that every philosophy of education, whether consciously or not, is based upon assumptions about human nature which cannot help but manifest themselves. As a reformed Christian, I have concerns about Charlotte’s philosophy which I cannot ignore. These began as niggling uneasiness but the more I have read her words, the more I see that that are clearly ideas that I do not agree with or consider to be biblical.

I want to take a new direction in this blog in the new year. Up to this point I have been beginning with Charlotte’s philosophy and holding it up to the Word of God. I think we need to begin somewhere else — as Charlotte did perhaps, with the Word itself.

I am going to leave it there for now. Look for more on the new direction in the new year.

Until then

Nebby

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] Though I began as a more eclectic homeschooler, over time I was drawn to the Charlotte Mason approach to education. In many ways it fit my own ideas. There have always been aspects of her thought that did not sit right with me, however. As I have read and studied Charlotte’s own words more, this discomfort has not decreased but has become more focused. As I understand her better, I see our differences more clearly. While there are parts of Charlotte’s philosophy that I find quite biblical and while I do not at all doubt her own faith, there are also aspects which I cannot reconcile with my own (reformed Christian) theology. (You can read specifics here.) […]

    Reply

  2. […] I have written a lot about this, a whole series at the end of last year in fact; I will  not rehash it all today. If you want to get up to speed, the key posts are here and here. […]

    Reply

  3. […] 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 good […]

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jenny on April 29, 2018 at 3:00 am

    Your post is “a word in season” for me. I’ve been preparing for homeschool and in dong so I began reading Mason’s Volumes as well as a few books about her principles & philosophy. I also went to a few local CM groups. It has become increasingly clear to me that she rejected total depravity-or so it seems that way, and that much of the following principles are built on this understanding. I did come across this post: which was helpful but for me, just the beginning in more research. https://afterthoughtsblog.net/2012/01/charlotte-mason-total-depravity-and.html

    Reply

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jenny. I have read Afterthoughts for years and have a lot of respect for Brandy. I realize I am outside the mainstream in CM thought. My main disagreement with Brandy and others is in what CM herself thought. When I read her works, it seems to me she did not believe in total depravity and that she even had a very skewed (at best) view of original sin. I tend to think as I write and so this idea was worked out through a number of different posts (I’m not sure how many you have read). This one gives the scope of Christian thought on original son/total depravity: https://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2017/04/22/is-it-biblical-cms-2nd-principle-part-2-of-3/ And this one shows why I think she maybe didn’t even believe in original sin as much as her church, the Church of England, does: https://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/the-key-to-charlotte-masons-thought/ If I am wrong about what CM believed, I think we are reformed people still need to ask what a reformed approach to education would be. That is what I have been trying to get into this year.

      Reply

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