The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

Who is J. Paterson Smythe and why should we care about his theology? The answer to the first question is that he was a minister in the Church of Ireland in the early 1900s. The answer to the second is that if you are not a fan of the Charlotte Mason approach to education, you probably have no reason to care. But if you do try to follow Charlotte’s principles, you may want to consider Smythe. Mason recommended Smythe’s The Bible for Home and School to be used in her schools. More and more I see those trying to use her methods today turning to the actual books she used, including Smythe, so I thought it would be worthwhile to try to find out who this fellow is and what he believed.  

A quick internet search turned up Smythe’s writings but little about the man himself or his theology. In addition to the book for teachers which Charlotte used, Smythe also wrote some volumes for adults, a number on the Bible itself [1] and some others of a more pastoral nature. To date I have read two of Symthe’s books, volume 8 of The Bible for Home and School which is on St. Mark’s gospel and also includes a good chunk of the Book of Acts, and On the Rim of the World which addresses death and salvation specifically. While Smythe has many more volumes, these seemed like two good, representative samples which get at the heart of his theology.

Smythe on Mark

Because it is the book I read first and the one you might consider using in your homeschool (as being intended for teachers) I will begin today with Smythe’s notes on St. Mark’s Gospel. His “On the Rim of the World” will be covered in part 2. I say “notes” because really this is an aid for the teacher and is not meant to be read by the student. Smythe correlates what he gives you with the biblical text but his comments are fairly brief and often take the form of ways to guide the discussion and questions to ask the students. His language is often terse.

It is a little hard to discern a whole theology from notes for the teaching of children (but we will get to that when we look at his other book). There are a number of passages here which could be taken multiple ways.  As a reformed Christian, I often found myself thinking that while I might not put something a particular way it was not technically incorrect. A small example — when Jesus answers His accuser and says “I AM,” Smythe comments: “How grand, how God-like the answer!” (Lesson 14, section 1). Now saying “I AM” in the biblical context is not God-like; it is an identification with God Himself as He revealed Himself to Moses. It is not wrong to call it “God-like” and Smythe very soon after makes clear he knows that Jesus is God, but I just find it a very odd comment to make.

Smythe makes clear that “[a]ll mankind is fallen” and that even children are not sinless and need a Savior (Lesson 10).  Yet God hates sin “with an awful hatred” (Lesson 21). But Jesus “was the Divine Sin-bearer, bearing the world’s sin” and that the punishment He bore was to be abandoned by God (the Father; Lesson 15). In order to be saved, Smythe says, one must: “First repent–be sorry. Then believe in the love and forgiveness of Christ. Then come forward and be baptized . . .  and thus join the ranks of the Kingdom of God.” (Lesson 2, section 3). Thus far I would say we are on fairly solid, orthodox theological ground.

There are other points, however, which may prove more controversial. Many times Smythe urges readers to do what they can to do good. “Get the strength for the Kingdom’s work,” he says (Lesson, 2, section 6). And again:

All this time the poor man waiting with his dead arm by his side. What next? Could he stretch it forth? Was it not dead? Yes; but when Christ told him, the poor fellow tried to do it, and with the effort to obey came the power. So with us–weak, powerless–can’t love God; can’t conquer sin, can’t be truly faithful. But let us say, “Lord, I can’t love you much; I can’t serve as I should; I can’t be good as I ought; but, Lord, I’ll try!” and with the effort to obey will come the power.” (Lesson 3)

Now one could argue that Smythe is talking to children and that there may be an assumption as well that these are believers, that he is not talking about coming to faith but about how we continue. These things are certainly true. Still there is strong emphasis here on our ability to do good and our responsibility to do so which may not sit well with us reformed folk.

There is some idea as well that Christ’s power is limited. He is hindered by our unbelief:

“What a wonderful fact–that Christ so wanted to be trusted. His power seems hindered by doubt and distrust. To be trusted is such a help to Him.” (Lesson 9)

He was unable to save the Sadducees:

“Did he convert them? No–too obstinate and bigoted. We never hear of a Sadducee being converted.” (Lesson 20)

And regarding Judas Smythe says:

“Why did Christ, who knew his heart, let him in amongst the Apostles? Perhaps because of His love, that “hopeth all things,” and hoped he might repent. Why did Christ, knowing his weakness, let him have the bag? Perhaps to give him the opportunity of great loss. Which would be better for Judas’s character–to take away the temptation, or to let him conquer it?” (Lesson 12, section 2)

Despite all this, I will say in Smythe’s defense that he also says at one point that “God’s eternal purposes cannot be defeated by men’s opposition” (Lesson 22, section 4).

Our salvation, according to Smythe, seems to depend, at least in part on our own actions:

“What, then, does God want? The will to trust in Him. The will only is in our own power . . . Many a poor doubter has had to cry out eagerly like this man: “Lord, I believe; I want to believe, help my unbelief!” And this is real faith, and God accepts it and strengthens it. If one says, “I can’t believe in God,” the answer should be: “Have you prayed in deep earnest–as for dear life–for light and faith?” If not, the doubt is your own fault.” (Lesson 9)

At least once God is portrayed as a loving God who is forced into justice by our poor behavior:

“ Sometimes sinners force Him to be stern; and, dearly though He loves poor sinners, He hates sin with an awful hatred. If terrible punishment is necessary to prevent terrible evil, He will inflict it.” (Lesson 21)

Smythe is clearly not Reformed. He believes in human sin and the need for salvation through Christ, but he rejects irresistible grace (that God can save whomever He wills) and election. He sees some good within man which enables him to accept Christ. As a reformed person myself, I was particularly disturbed by this quote:

“”You call me good. Why? Is it that you believe I am God? God only is entirely good; entirely able to satisfy your desire for good.”” (Lesson 11; emphasis added)

Note the word I have put in bold: “entirely.” This word is not in the biblical text. That God alone is good is used to support the doctrine of total depravity and man’s inability to contribute to his own salvation. Smythe has added “entirely,” changing the meaning of the passage.

There are two concepts which rise to the surface in Smythe’s commentary on Mark. They are the Kingdom of God and self-sacrifice.

Smythe speaks often of the Kingdom of God which he sees as not just an eventual reality but a present concept. He seems to be a post-millennialist, not an uncommon thing in the time he lived. Many, both reformed and not, were post-millennial at the time. The basic belief is that Christ’s Kingdom will be manifested on earth before He comes again.

“Understand our Lord’s beautiful ideal for that Kingdom. Get class to see that the object of the Church is the realizing that ideal on earth. If Christians forget that object, they forget the purpose for which Christ wants them in His Church.” 

“Try to bring home to children the nearness of Christ, His longing after His ideal Kingdom of God on the earth, the way in which each can help that ideal in common daily life.” (Lesson 17)

Self-sacrifice is Smythe’s highest ideal:

“He [Jesus] thought self-sacrifice for others’ sake the noblest of all things.” (Lesson 8, section 1)

The following quote, more than any other, seems to sum up Smythe’s view, incorporating the key ideas of the Kingdom and self-sacrifice, as well as the emphasis on our effort to do good:

“What a delightful world in the great Hereafter, where all is love, and nobleness, and self-sacrifice; where no selfish thought could exist . . . Think of that same unselfishness as the glory of the earthly life. Only one perfectly unselfish life ever on earth. He lived the heavenly life here. He wore Himself out trying to help, and teach, and comfort men, and then set His face steadfastly towards Calvary, to be despised, and rejected, and tortured to death for the sake of the very people who hated and murdered Him. Then He said to all who would follow Him that they, too, must live the life of self-sacrifice, the life of the “Kingdom of God.” Shall we not all try?” (Lesson 8, section 1)

Lastly, on this book, there are a few places where Smythe’s denominational views come out (which may be a concern if you do not share them). He is for infant baptism (Lesson 10). He touts the structure of the Church of Ireland, with its three offices (deacon, priest, and bishop) as the biblical one (Lesson 22, section 3). But he argues strongly against having a pope (Lesson 23, section 2). He argues as well for a Book of Common Prayer (Lesson 19), even giving historical evidence for it. (This is not a non-controversial point; the Scottish Covenanters strongly resisted the Book of Common Prayer.) He also argues for regular Communion, presumably weekly or close to it, and against having many small sects.

Wrapping up this section, we can say that though Smythe’s basic theology (man’s sinful nature, the need for a Savior who is Christ) is certainly orthodox, he does have a particular bent. He seems to believe that saving grace is available to all men and that their salvation rests largely in their own hands, so much so that they can thwart the will of God to save them. God Himself is portrayed as loving and self-sacrificial to a fault, forced by man’s evil into occasionally punishing him. Self-sacrifice is held as the highest good. The Kingdom of God is looked for both in the world to come and in the present age. And some of Smythe’s own denominational based views slip in as well.

My goal here is not to judge whether these views are right or wrong (though I have my own ideas) but to say: This is what Smythe believes and teaches. Based on your own theology, you should make the determination whether it is appropriate to read his work and to teach it to your children. If his views do not line up with your own, perhaps it would be wiser to find other resources.

Nebby

[1] The Documentary Hypothesis, a theory about how our Bible came to be, was fairly new in Smythe’s day. I haven’t actually read what he wrote on it (yet) but I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush into reading these writings. I suspect what is there is fairly dated as scholarship has moved on over the years.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Yvonne S. on May 16, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful, respectful overview of J Paterson Smythe beliefs revealed through his writtings. I look forward to seeing more. I also wonder if there’s any reformed Christian people who produce Charlotte Mason principled bible studies for adults or children?

    Reply

    • That’s a good question. I don’t know of anything. I think there is a lot out there that could still be done for the Charlotte Mason/Reformed community.

      Reply

  2. […] Last time we looked at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe as evidenced in his  The Bible for Home and School, a book you might consider using if you are a Charlotte Mason homeschooler. My object in writing these posts is two-fold. First, to elucidate Smythe’s theology so you can make a wise decision about whether to sue his book in your homeschool. There is not going to be one answer to this question. Your decision will depend on your own theology and how it lines up with Smythe’s. My second purpose is to look at the theology of someone whom Charlotte herself read and recommended to get a better idea of her own theology. We will not get into Mason’s theology today but I am in the midst of quite a long post on that for which this one will provide some of the background material.  […]

    Reply

  3. […] what happens to those who die. I reviewed these and discussed the theology evident in them in this post and this […]

    Reply

  4. […] The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here. […]

    Reply

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