The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

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. 

When we looked at Smythe on Mark (and Acts), we found that his basic theology is quite orthodox: man has a sinful nature, he needs a Savior who is Christ, but that 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.

Today we will look at another book by Smythe, On the Rim of the World, which will give us a more full view of his theology, particularly who is saved and how. On the Rim of the World was written soon after WWI (or perhaps near its end). The Great War, as it was called, really threw European society for a loop. So many of the educational philosophies we have looked at arose as a result of WWI as people struggled with questions about man’s evil to his fellow man. Smythe deals here not with the atrocities of war but with its death toll. He writes to those who have lost loved ones and are fearful for their eternal fates.

Smythe works his way into his subject by first talking about those who are “spiritual” and try to contact the dead. This is somewhat interesting as we see a rise of such things again in our own day. I don’t actually like where Smythe goes with this bit, but it is not the main point we want to get at today.

Smythe divides humanity into two classes: those who die in the fear of the Lord and those for whom we are afraid (p. 48). He makes some allusion to those who we are pretty sure are headed for damnation but this is not a major category he discusses and one gets the impression it would be a pretty small category for him. (He lived before Hitler but one assumes this category would be reserved for the Hitlers of the world in his mind.)

Moving into the chapter on those who as far as we can tell have died in the Lord, we begin to see some controversial points. Smythe talks of those in heaven seeing ur sorrow and praying for us (p. 66) and says that we should pray for them (p. 69). He also says that those who have died are still imperfect, though forgiven and beyond pain (p. 70). I found this comment a bit enigmatic; how can they be forgiven and presumably no longer able to sin yet still imperfect? The next chapter will begin to explain what Smythe is thinking.

Of real interest is the chapter on those for whom we fear. These people, Smythe says, are mixtures of good and evil who have not “consciously and definitely chosen for Christ” (p. 72). Most people fall into this category, and, again, Smythe is thinking largely of the war dead who have died fighting for their country. Smythe says that this life is man’s probation. If one hasn’t accepted Christ in this life, he gets another chance (p. 73).  He mentions children and idiots who, he says, would not have been able to make a profession of faith in this life. He also includes those in “heathen lands” and those who through their poor circumstances “never had a fair chance” (p. 74). In his discussion of the latter category, he implies that salvation comes through good circumstances and earthly benefits. Or rather that one trapped in lowly poor circumstances never has a real opportunity to know God. These people, he says, did not reject Christ because they didn’t really have the chance to know Him (p. 75). It is clear that for Smythe one is not condemned by not actively accepting Christ. To be condemned eternally, one must actively reject Him. To make no clear choice leaves the door open. And here is a key point for Smythe: man’s salvation depends on a conscious decision of his Will. 

“It is on man’s WILL, not on his knowledge or ignorance, that destiny depends.” (p. 75)

Yet a man’s destiny does depend in a very real way on the probationary period (p. 76). It is in this life that he forms on earth the moral bent of his future life (p. 77). If one willfully and deliberately rejects Christ in this life, he will continue to do so in the next life (p. 78) and makes himself incapable of receiving the light forever. It is not that after death God gives no place for repentance; He would still accept repentance if anyone had it but they reject Him (p. 79). 

The word Will is key in all of this. It is by an act of his Will that a man is saved. It is the first step which he contributes to his own salvation. In this man’s will trumps God’s will —

“We dread not God’s will, but the man’s will.” (p.79)

Men thus have free will but through their repeated rejection of God and of the call of their consciences grow incapable of good (p. 80). Smythe is able to say that “no one will be lost whom it is possible for God to save” (pp. 81-82) but he makes God’s ability to save dependent on man’s Will. 

Though it was less clearly stated there, this is the same theology we saw in Smythe’s commentary on Mark — God’s saving power depends upon some work of man. It is not that Smythe denies man’s sinfulness or his need of a savior or that Jesus is that savior. But for Smythe man does have an ability to contribute to his own salvation. Indeed, his contribution is vital and it takes the form of an act of the Will. This once having been accomplished, God is then able to save him. In the absence of a clear act of the Will for or against Christ in this life, one is able still to obtain salvation in the next life. Smythe does not talk of Purgatory and I would be surprised if he believed in that place (he seems quite anti-Catholic in some passages) yet what he describes seems to be Purgatory-like in that man is not immediately sanctified or condemned upon death but continues to move in one direction or the other, either towards or away from God. The ideal for Smythe is a conscious decision of the Will to follow Christ in this life. That guarantees one’s salvation. But second best is to just have generally moved in the right direction. One’s cumulative good acts, or even perhaps lack of truly bad acts, will also get one going the right way. In this scenario, one’s salvation becomes quite dependent on one’s own works. It is not clear where saving grace comes in at all. 

I said at the beginning of this post that we had two goals. The first is to give you an idea of Smythe’s theology so that you can make an informed decision about whether to use his materials in your homeschool. In On the Rim of the World I think he makes quite clear what that theology is. I will say that the whole of his soteriology (his theology of salvation) is not clear in his commentary on Mark so one might use that book even if one doesn’t completely agree with him. If you are reformed in your theology as I am, I would say that there is really no reason you need to use these resources. They are very much not reformed and there are better resources out there. If you are unsure what your theology is or whether you should use Smythe’s materials, talk to your pastor.

The second goal of these posts was to give us some background before moving into an examination of Charlotte Mason’s theology. That we will do next time.

Until then




3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Heather S on May 20, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for this! Do you have a post of what your favorite resources are for helping prepare Bible lessons?


    • I had to look back because I thought maybe I had done a post with bible/theology resources we have used but I can’t find one. I am thinking I need to transition more into practical details and lists of books that work well for those of us who are both reformed and (semi-)CM. A couple of resources we used when my kids were younger are Joel Beeke’s Biblical Doctrine for Younger Children and Starr Meade’s The Most Important Thing You Will Ever Study. Beeke’s is doctrine (goes through the 5 points of Calvinism for example) whereas Meade’s goes through the Bible. Both are very workbook so I did not sue them as they are. I never had my kids write things for them but they helped divide up the material and give us some framework. I have heard Nancy Ganz’s books are very good as well though I have never used them but she is a member of my denomination.


  2. […] J. Paterson Smythe was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland whose book The Bible for Home and School Charlotte Mason recommended and used in her schools. I have recently read two of Smythe’s books, volume 8 from the above work, which is on the Gospel of Mark, and On the Rim of the World, a book for adults which addresses what happens to those who die. I reviewed these and discussed the theology evident in them in this post and this one. […]


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