Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

Dear Reader,

This is a bit of a sidebar to  my current series. I feel like I have discussed this topic many times over, but I am revisiting it for two reasons: I recently got into an online debate about it (I know, I know, stay away from forums) and I ran across some relevant quotes in rereading Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children. (Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here,  here, and here.)

In truth, the question is not usually “Was Charlotte Mason reformed?” I don’t think there are many people who would argue that yes, she was overtly reformed in the sense of positively propounding a reformed theology. The argument is usually that her church, the Church of England (CoE) in the late 1800s/early 1900s, was reformed and that she therefore was also reformed or at least that her outlook would have been in line with reformed theology.

It is beyond my expertise to examine the theology of the CoE of the time. My concern is with Charlotte herself and the statements she made. I will say that my understanding is that the CoE was intentionally very broad in its theology.  This is the position of Benjamin Bernier who writes extensively on the Anglican basis of Charlotte’s thought in a series of articles called “Education for the Kingdom” which have been published at Charlotte Mason Poetry (Part 1 of Bernier’s series can be found here; I discussed these articles previously in this post). Bernier says that:

“Among other important features of this context, one which helps us understand the contemporary applicability of Mason’s method to various religious backgrounds is related to a distinctive characteristic of traditional Anglicanism as an established church. The Church of England has always had a variety of currents flowing within it, often incorporating under the same roof groups holding conflicting opinions. For this reason, it has a long-established tradition of differentiating between essentials and non-essentials in Christian doctrine by limiting the essentials to that deposit of truth which can be shown to be commonly shared by all Christians, i.e. what all Christians believe at all times and in all places.

“This is essentially the same principle later identified by C.S. Lewis, another influential Anglican intellectual, who coined the term “mere Christianity” to identify it. It is this core of common Christian belief which Mason embraced from her Anglican perspective and used as a foundation to develop her interpretation of education for the children’s sake.” (Benjamin Bernier, “Education for the Kingdom, Part 1,” from Charlotte Mason Poetry, Feb. 18. 2017; emphasis added)

When examining at someone’s theology, it is important that we let that person speak for themselves and that we consider their words within the broader context of their writing. Which is to say, we can find quotes in which Charlotte sounds reformed, but we need to look at the range of what she has to say, not isolated quotes.

Those who argue either that Charlotte Mason’s theology was compatible with reformed theology  use one of two arguments (or, more usually, both). They either allege that Charlotte is in line with reformed theology or they argue that reformed theology is being misrepresented. I’d like to approach the topic by looking at some of these arguments:

“Charlotte Mason’s second principle doesn’t say what you think it says.” Charlotte’s second principle is often a stumbling block to those of the reformed faith. It is that which first raises the question in our  minds, “Wait, what is she saying? Can I really believe this philosophy of education if she is saying what I think she is saying?” If you are unfamiliar with it, that infamous principle says that “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” The usual explanation of this principle is that Charlotte was dealing with the rigid class structure of her time which said that the children of the poor or the uneducated or criminals were inherently uneducable and were both morally and intellectually inferior. There are many articles which present this position including the note which Ambleside Online adds to the principle. It reads as follows:

“Principle 2 should not be understood as a theological position on the doctrine of original sin, but as a belief that even poor children who were previously thought incapable of living honest lives could choose right from wrong if they were taught. Charlotte Mason was a member in good standing of the Anglican Church of England, whose Thirty Nine Articles includes this statement: “Original sin stands not in the following of Adam, but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil.“” (emphasis added)

In other words, Charlotte was correcting a wrong idea of her time that certain children were less able than others. I agree both that this idea was present at the time and that Charlotte disagreed with it. I do not agree that Charlotte was not expressing an inherently theological position. Note that even in trying to defend this principle, Ambleside Online acknowledges that Charlotte was talking about morality as well as intellectual ability. Any time we are talking about morality, we are already in the realm of theology.

As I have argued in this post, Charlotte always views the child as a whole containing body, mind, heart and spirit. When she propounds her second principle, she has all these parts in mind and therefore she is speaking not just of intellectual ability but of moral and spiritual ability as well. From a reformed standpoint, if we wanted to counter the argument of her day — that certain children are morally and intellectually inferior– the answer is not to elevate the children of the poor and downtrodden but to bring down the children of the rich and privleged for we all are dead in our sins.

“Charlotte Mason believed in Original Sin.” This argument is closely related to the previous one (you will see that the editors of Ambleside Online make it in the quote above). I do not doubt that Charlotte did believe in Original Sin. The problem is that there are many definitions within Christendom of what Original Sin means and what the Fall did to man’s nature (I tried to give some idea of the range of Christian belief on the topic in this post). The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, does not see corruption in man’s reason (an idea which Charlotte clearly rejects). The core of the CoE’s position is presented in its Thirty-Nine Articles (the relevant portion is in the Ambleside Online quote above). There is nothing wrong in this statement in my view but it is not complete. Further examination shows that the CoE believes that man retains some kind of “formal freedom” to choose and do good. This formal freedom is a prerequisite for grace and allows man to cooperate to some degree in his own salvation (again, I discussed all this here). This is not the reformed position which goes beyond Original Sin is known as Total Depravity.

“Total Depravity does not mean what you think it means. Total Depravity is not utter (or absolute) depravity.” Which brings us to the next argument: that total depravity is total in the sense of affecting all parts of human nature but that man is not as evil as he could be. In other words, he is not absolutely or utterly depraved. Man retains some ability to do good (though, it is often added, not good that leads unto salvation).

There is some truth in this argument. We are not as evil as we could be and even unregenerate people seem to do “good.” The problem is in our definition of good. “Good,” I would argue, is defined by God. There any many things we do which seem “good” in the sense that they are outwardly in line with God’s will and law. If these things are done without faith, however, the Scriptures tell us that they are not truly good in the sense of being able to please God (Heb. 11:6).  Similarly, unregenerate people can be used to further God’s kingdom [for example, Jospeh’s brothers who sold him into slavery (Gen. 50:20) and Cyrus, king of the Persians, who is God’s instrument for restoring His people (Isa. 45:1)]. Their actions in so doing will be “good” on one level, but their actions are still sinful and they gain no favor with God by what they do (if that were possible).

While you can certainly find reformed people who say that Total Depravity is not utter depravity (see this article by R.C. Sproul; the PRCA, on the other hand, argues for absolute depravity), there is a gap between “not as evil as we could be” and “good.” Boettner says that when we are “not as evil as we could be”  we are not doing good but doing the lesser rather than the greater evil.  In other words, there is a false dichotomoy presented, either we are good or evil. In reality, there are not only two options, but there is room in between these positions.

Those who make this argument are, I think, being a bit disingenuous. There is quite a chasm between what Charlotte says (quoting that second principle again):    “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” and a classic statement of reformed doctrine such as is found in the  Westminster Confession of Faith which says that we are dead in our sins and “opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil . . .” (WCF, VI, 4).  Charlotte presents “possibilities for good and evil” as if these are equal and balanced options. While there may be some difference among reformed people in what exactly total depravity means, it is not this.

“Calvin also said similar things  — so it is okay if we do and/or you are misunderstanding what Calvinism is.” This again is a variant of the above argument which says that reformed position is being misconstrued. There is one quote  in particular which seems to circulate in CM circles and if often brought up in such discussions. It says that:

“In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life. For they have, by the very zeal of their honesty, given proof that there was some purity in their nature. These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against judging man’s nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter III)

My goal is to give Charlotte Mason fair play and to look at what she says as a whole and not to take things out of context; we need to do the same for Calvin. The context in this case is really the entire argument he is making in his Institutes. The rest of the paragraph reads as follows (this is actually a different translation; above I used the quote as it appears in CM circles; below I am using the translation I own):

“Although we will explain what value this sort of virtue has before God more fully when we discuss the merit of works, nevertheless for the present we must say what is necessary for the matter we have in hand. These examples inform us, then, that we should not regard human nature as completely defective, since by its guidance some have not only done more than a few excellent actions but also have conducted themselves honorably the whole course of their lives.” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.80]

Though Calvin seems to leave place here for goodness apart from regeneration, he goes on to say in the next paragraph that there is “universal corruption” in the human race that is only restrained by God’s grace and that if He did not do so “there is no one who did not show by experience that all the vices . . .would be in him” (p. 81).  He goes on to speak of the reasons why some do good — fear, shame and honor among them — and to say that “the Lord restrains the corruption of our nature but does not purify it” (p. 81).

From here Calvin goes on to make clear that the goodness which seems to be in some men is a gift of God which He gives to some and not others. “Therefore, in our common speech we do not hesitate to say that one is born good and another is born bad, one born with a good nature and another with a bad nature; we still include both under the universal condition of human corruption . . .” (p. 82).

In the paragraph which was first quoted, Calvin says that he will return to this topic when he discusses the merit of good works and so he does. He reiterates that this goodness is a gift God gives to some — but note not all — unregenrate people at the same time calling such virtue “external and hypocritical ” (p. 336). This gift, however, appears to be a mixed blessing. In the next paragraph Calvin quotes Augustine who says that:

“‘ . . . they are not only unworthy of any remuneration [for their good works] but rather they deserve punishment because they contaminate God’s gifts by the pollution of their heart . . . They are held back from doing evil not by a pure feeling of uprightness or righteousness, but by ambition or self-love or by some other indirect and perverse consideration. Since their works are corrupted by the heart’s impurity from their first origin, they no more deserve to be placed among virtues than do the vices which deceive people because of some likeness and relationship to the virtues. To cut it short, because we know that the unique and perpetual goal of righteousness and uprightness is that God be honored, all that tends in some other direction rightly loses the name of uprightness. Since such people do not consider the goal which God’s wisdom has ordained, although what they do seems good in external action it is still sin because of its wicked goal.'” (pp. 336-37)

Thus while Calvin in the original quote seems to acknowledge that there is good that unregenerate people do, even to the point that he calls them virtuous and says that conduct their whole loves honorably, he ends by saying that these “virtues” are really vices, are sinful, and indeed deserve all the more condemnation because though a gift from God they are wrongly used.

I want to close by looking at some quotes from Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children. (No doubt there are many others which could be considered. This is the volume I have been re-reading recently so these are what are on my mind.) One I have already discussed in other posts is:

“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 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.” [Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, (Seven Treasures Publications, 2009) p. 40]

There is a lot in this little sentence; I will not reiterate it all here other than to say there seems to be a very odd idea about soteriology contained in this phrase “redeemed world.” You can read my previous post on this passage here.

At one point Charlotte herself seems to speak of total depravity:

“But the man who is utterly depraved has no capacity for gratitude, for example? Yes, he has; depravity is a disease, a morbid condition; beneath is the man, capable of recovery.” (p. 86)

Here Charlotte nods to the doctrine of total depravity (though she actually uses the word “utter”) but notice her definition of it: it is a disease from which man may recover. This is not the reformed view. The biblical view (Eph. 2:1) and that of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF, VI, 4; see above) is that man is not sick only but dead in his sins. One does not recover from death.

Another quite theological passage which might help shed light on Charlotte’s thought is a little earlier in the volume:

“[Jesus] is far from declaring that men can do no good thing, that He assumes always that man in his proper state of dependence on God has the power to do righteousness, ‘Whosoever shall do the will of My Father, which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.’ But the question remains, How, considering our actual shortcomings, can any of us be spoken of by Jesus as righteous here and now? . . . [Paul’s] answer was, that according to Jesus, a man is accounted righteous, not from consideration of his works, but from consideration of his faith in God. Human righteousness is not a verdict upon the summing up of a life, but it is reckoned to a man at any moment from a certain disposition of his spirit to the Spirit of God . . . Righteousness, in the only sense in which it is possible for men, means believing and trusting God.” (p. 74)

On its surface, this does not sound entirely bad. Notice in the first sentence that she says man is able to do right if he is “in his proper state of dependence on God.” It is a little vague but we could take this to mean that those who are regenerate, having been put in a proper realtionship to God, are able to do good. That is certainly a statement I agree with. I also agree that we are “accounted righteous” and that this is not done on the basis of our works. The last part of the paragraph is a problem, however. Here Charlotte seems to make our justification (when we are declared righteous) dependent upon our faith. Righteousness, she says, is reckoned to us at the moment when we have a right disposition (that of faith) and thus she is able to say that righteousness means believing and trusting in God.  I will acknowledge that there is some ambiguity here as to what Charlotte means but my reading of it would be that she is making faith the work by which we are declared righteous, a work which we are all capable of. (Neither is there any mention of the fact that it is Christ’s righteousness which is applied to us.)

I don’t see any solid reasons to say that Charlotte Mason’s theology was reformed or in line with reformed understandings. She was a prolific writer and I will acknowledge that there is much of her work I have not read. But from what I have read, my inclination is to take her at face value and to to sya that she did believe that children, all children regardless of regeneration, have capacity for good. Those who say otherwise, I believe, either misrepresent Charlotte’s ideas or misrepresent reformed doctrine. The Church of England of the time (and still today, I believe) was a broad umbrella. I do nto doubt that Charlotte was well within the confines of orthodoxy as the CoE defined it nor do I doubt that she was a sincere believer. But I do not think we can call her reformed by any stretch.

So where does this leave us? As I have said before, I think that Charlotte’s view of children is fairly integral to her philosophy of education. I also think that her approach is about the best single take on Christian education out there. But I do think we need to use it with discernment and to ask oursleves where her particular theology may differ from our own and how that it going to play out in the practical details.

Nebby

 

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mks on October 6, 2018 at 7:06 pm

    This echoes many thoughts I have had about this question. And I too have concluded that she was not reformed. In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I believe that last passage quoted above (ending with “believing and trusting God”) from Parents and Children is actually a quote from someone named Canon Beeching. Mason quotes him with approval, but I don’t think they are actually her words.

    Reply

  2. […] spiritual ability of people apart from the saving work of Christ. (I just did a long post on that here.) The long and the short of it is that her philosophy relies upon the ability of all children to […]

    Reply

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