Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Teaching in the New Testament

Dear Reader,

We recently looked at words for “teach” in the Old Testament; now it is time to move on to the New. My own training is in biblical Hebrew and, though I have taken some Greek, I am pretty rusty at it, so I will be relying a lot more on my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the question: What does the Bible have to say about education and teaching? I suggest skimming this post on methodology if you yet.

Teaching in the New Testament

While words for “teach” and “learn” occur many times, there is really nothing directly about educating children in the New Testament. But there are a few passages which are worth looking at —

As we saw in the Old Testament, learning and wisdom come from God. In the New Testament all three persons of the Trinity are associated with learning (the Father: John 8:28; the Son: Matt. 11:29; the Spirit: Jn. 14:26; I Cor. 2:13).

Other sources of learning include the apostles (I Cor. 4:6); prophecy (I Cor.: 14:31); for a woman, her husband (I Cor. 14:35); church officers (I Cor. 12:28-29); and older believers (Tit. 2:3-6); or even non-believers (Acts 7:22; 22:3). Teaching is integral to the Church’s ministry (Matt. 28:19-20). One should be careful, however, — not all learning is good and not all teachers are sound (Tit. 1:11; Rev. 2:14, 20).

Nor does all learning come through people. As in the Old Testament, nature is given to us as a source of learning (Matthew 24:32=Mark 13:28; cf. Prov. 6:6; Rom. 1:20). Experience also may be a teacher (Heb. 5:8). Above all, Scripture teaches us:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17; cf. Rom. 15:4; ESV)

Note that Timothy is said to have learned these things “from childhood” and that learning is not mere head knowledge but is to be practical, resulting in good works (cf. Phil. 4:9).

The majority of occurrences of the word “teach” in the New Testament have to do with Jesus teaching His followers, the crowds, and even His adversaries. These are not prescriptive passages for us; they are not given us as a handbook on how to teach. Nonetheless, we may glean some knowledge from them. In another post we will look at Jewish models of education. We will also look at the whole Bible as God’s instruction to His people and ask how the Creator of men teaches them. But for today, let’s confine ourselves to how Jesus taught.

Jesus’ teaching is oral. He often addresses quite large groups that include all kinds of people, men and women, adults and children. Though His class at times numbered in the thousands, Jesus is a caring teacher (Matt. 15:32; Mk. 6:34). When with a smaller group, He does take questions (Matt. 15:15). His teaching is often in response to questions (Lk. 10:25ff), and  He himself, when a child, asked questions of the teachers (Lk. 2:46).  

Jesus teaches often, though not exclusively, through parables (Mk. 4:2). We modern people with years of biblical scholarship behind us, tend to think: “Oh, Jesus taught in stories to make things simple for His audience.”  The opposite seems to be true. Even His closest disciples rarely understood His parables. They had to ask for interpretations (Mt. 13:18; 15:15) and didn’t really get most of what He had been saying until after His death when their minds were opened (Lk. 24:27). Rather than using stories to make learning simple, Jesus tells us that He teaches through parables to make learning hard and inaccessible (Mt. 13:10-13).


What can we draw from all this? Here’s what I see:

  • The focus in the NT is on teaching the things of God. This is no way argues that we don’t need to know other subjects. (In the OT we saw that the law of God more than any other subject was the focus though more practical skills and subjects were taught as well. )
  • As in the Old Testament, God’s teaching is for all ages.
  • Learning comes through other people, the Word of God, Creation, and experience.
  • Learning comes from God. All three Persons of the Trinity are associated with giving knowledge.
  • At least in the realm of spiritual things, people just don’t get it unless God opens their minds and gives them understanding.
  • Learning is practical; it is not just “book knowledge” but is to produce right behavior.

I’d love to say that Jesus shows us that we should teach through stories, but, as we saw, He uses parables intentionally to obscure His meaning. I am not willing to take this as prescriptive for how we should teach.

I have often heard it said that the Hebrew way of teaching was for a teacher (rabbi) to sit in a circle with his disciples and to teach through questioning. At times, this is the picture we get, both of the boy Jesus in the Temple and of Jesus with His disciples. For now we are going to keep this in the back of our minds as a possible model for how we should teach. While it makes a lot more sense to me to build our model of education on the Hebrew mindset than on the (pagan) Greek one, we also need to keep in mind how much has changed between then and now, starting with the availability of books.





Words for Teach in the Old Testament

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. You can find the intro post here.

I have been approaching this subject from a few different angles, but the most important is to ask what the biblical text itself has to say about education. This is a pretty broad subject so we are going to take it in parts. We are not going to find the word “education” in the biblical text itself but there are a lot of related concepts and subjects to be had.  Today I thought we would begin by looking at words for “teach” in the Old Testament. I am starting with the Old Testament for 3 reasons: 1) My own training is in biblical Hebrew so I am more comfortable with the Old Testament 2) It has more to say about parents and children in general and 3) It comes first. But don’t fear — we will get to the New Testament too.

Before diving in, if you haven’t read this post on biblical interpretation, I suggest at least skimming it so you will know how I deal with the text. Today’s object is to gather evidence. We may make some beginning stabs at drawing conclusions but I want to be rather hesitant with those. Our goal is not to build a philosophy of education on one obscure verse in Job but just to start to see what we can learn about education from the Bible.

One final note before we get to the meat — I have previously posted on discipline in the Bible. This was done in the context of a series on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but it is still worth reading. Parental discipline and teaching are closely related concepts as we shall see. I am not including in this post the word “train” as in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child . . .”) but you can find out what it means in Hebrew in that earlier post here.

Words for “Teach” in the Old Testament

Translators have a lot of leeway in how they render words so I can’t promise that this is an exhaustive list, but I have found nine Hebrew roots which may be/can/have been translated as “teach.” I am going to begin by going through them one by one. There are certain passages which have more than others to say about teaching and learning; if you want something more coherent to dig your teeth into, I suggest reading through Deuteronomy 4-6, Psalm 119, and the book of Daniel, particularly chapters 1 and 8-12. Proverbs, of course, all has a lot to say, enough that I think it is probably worth giving it its own post.

Working in order from the least to most used, we have:

Sh-n-n**– The primary meaning of this root is “to sharpen.” It is related to the word for  “tooth” and is used commonly of swords (Deut. 32:41; Ps. 64:3) and arrows (Ps. 45: 5; Prov. 25:18). In one instance, in Deuteronomy 6:7, is may be translated “teach.” The context is shortly after what is called “the Great Shema” (Deut. 6:4; shema in Hebrew means “hear”).  The section reads as follows:

“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God the LORD (is)*** one. And you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And these words which I am commanding you today will be upon your heart, and you will teach them (sh-n-n) to your sons and you will speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the path and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6:7; my translation)

We translate “teach” here for lack of a better word. The context tends to make me think something stronger is needed. As I said above, the usual meaning of this word is “to sharpen” as one sharpens a sword. So perhaps “inscribe” would be better, as in “you shall inscribe them on your sons’ (hearts).” Though this is one of our more iffy translations, I think we can note two points: 1) fathers are to make sure their children know God’s words and 2) this is not a casual instruction but is accomplished through regular repetition and much talking throughout daily life.

Moving on, the next root is ‘lp (that’s an aleph for the first letter, Hebrew scholars). This root is identical to that which means “thousands” but I don’t think there is an inherent connection; they may merely be unrelated homophones. It is used with some idea of teaching in three verses in Job and in one in Psalms. In Job 33:33 and 35:11 God is said to teach wisdom to Job or mankind. In Job 15:5 one’s iniquity teaches his mouth and in Psalm 22:25 one is warned not to befriend an angry man lest he learn his ways. None of these have inherently to do with teaching children. If I were to draw any conclusions for our greater enterprise they would be that: 1) it is God who teaches wisdom to mankind and 2) one can learn the wrong things from bad companions.

Root number three is zhr. Though we usually think of this root as having to do with light or shining, it is used in the sense of “to warn” in a number of passages. The book of Ezekiel uses it frequently when Ezekiel is being told to be a watchman to his people. His job is to warn them about their sin lest he bear the punishment due them (Ezek. 3:17ff; 33:3ff). The idea is similar in other passages (Exod. 18:20; 2 Kgs. 6:10; 2 Chr. 19:10; Ps. 19:12). Ecclesiastes seems to imply that such warnings are suited to the young:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice (zhr).” (Eccl. 4:13; ESV)

But at the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher warns young men against too much study:

My son, beware of (zhr) anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:12; ESV)

Ecclesiastes 12:12 is an interesting verse for forming a theology of education, but we will have to return to it another time.

Next up: s-k-l (that’s a sin as the first letter, Hebrew scholars) is a root meaning “to be prudent” and “to prosper.” It occurs, for example in Proverbs 21:11:

“When a scoffer is punished, the simple is made wise; and when a wise man is instructed (s-k-l) he acquires knowledge.” (my translation)

In Psalm 32:8 God instructs and in Nehemiah 9:20 the Holy Spirit is said to instruct men. In Daniel 9:22 it is the angel Gabriel who instructs Daniel. These verses show again that God is the source of instruction, but none of them inherently has to do with the education of children.

The root b-y-n is a common one meaning “to understand.” In Hebrew there is a conjugation which essentially makes verbs transitive so in this conjugation (the hiphil) to understand becomes “to cause to understand,” i.e. “to teach.” Interestingly, it is also very similar to the preposition “between” so the underlying idea may be of discernment, that is, distinguishing between things. The Levites are often said to cause Israel to understand (2 Chr. 35:3; Neh. 8:7-9). Job tells us again that understanding comes from God:

But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.” (Job 32:8;ESV)

This idea is repeated in Psalm 119:169. The root itself occurs many times in that famous wisdom Psalm (Ps. 119: 34, 73, 125, 130, 144, 169) and in the book of Daniel (Dan. 1:17; 8:16, 27; 9:22; 10:14; 11:33). At the beginning of the book of Daniel we are told that God gave Daniel and his young friends specific wisdom:

And these four youths God gave them knowledge (root y-d-‘) and skill (s-k-l) in all literature and wisdom (h-k-m), and Daniel He made understand (b-y-n) all visions and dreams.” (Dan. 1:17)

Though the different roots here seem to imply different kinds of knowledge, we would be hard pressed to make clear distinctions between them. In fact, as we shall see when we look at specific passages later, the various words for “wisdom” and the like are often used together. Words for wisdom, and for that matter words for sin or folly, were to the Hebrews like words for snow to the Eskimos, and at the distance we are from them, both culturally and temporily, we would be hard-pressed to grasp all the nuances.

One last observation on b-y-n — it is used of music a few times. We are told, for instance, that Chenaniah, a leader among the Levites “understood” music (I Chr. 15:22; cf. 1 Chr. 25:7-8).

The root y-s-r (that  is a samech) has the primary meaning of “to chasten” or “to discipline.” I discussed this root previously in that earlier post on discipline. As I said at the time, “discipline” is often harsh in the Bible, involving whips and scourges. Still there are passages in which “instruct” seems a better translation of this root (Ps. 16:7). It is something that man gives to his son as God does to His people (Deut. 8:5; cf. Prov. 19:18; 29:17). And in Proverbs 31, it is the mother who gives instruction (Prov. 31:1).

The root y-d-‘ (that glottal stop is an ayin) means “to know” so, in the hiphil (transitive) again, it comes to mean “to make know” or “to cause to know.” In Psalm 90:12 God teaches us to number our days. In Proverbs 9:9 the wise man is taught. But God needs no one to teach Him (Isa. 40:13). As with other roots, one of the main things that it taught is the law of God (Deut. 4:9; Ezra 7:25).

The root y-r-h  means “to throw or shoot” and from there comes to mean “to point out.” Perhaps as an extension of this, it can also mean “to teach” or “direct.” We have been working our way from less common to more common words; y-r-h occurs a few dozen times with the meaning “to teach.” It is used as many of the other roots we have seen for God’s instruction of His people (Ps. 25:8; 32:8; Isa. 30:9; Jer. 8:8; Job 22:22), but there are also others who “instruct.” Not surprisingly, parents, both mother and father, instruct (Prov. 3:1; 4:2, 4, 11; 6:20; 7:2). In Exodus the craftsmen who work on the tabernacle instruct others (Ex. 35:34). In Psalm 78, the psalmist instructs (Ps. 78:1), and a wise man  instructs others (Prov. 13:14).

Our final root, and the one that most nearly means just “to learn” or, in the transitive, “to teach,” is l-m-d. This root is used in many of the same ways and contexts as the others we have seen. God teaches (Ps. 25:9; Jer. 32:33). Fathers are to teach their children the law of God (Deut. 4:9ff). Mothers teach (Songs 8:2); even lion mothers teach their young (Ezek. 19:3, 5). The Levites teach the law of God (2 Chr. 17:7), and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches the people (Eccl. 12:9). A Psalm may teach us (Ps. 60:1).  The law is learned, even by the king (Deut. 17:19). Wisdom can be learned (Prov. 30:3). So too one may learn righteousness (Isa. 26:9-10), to do good (Isa. 1:17), to fear God (Deut. 14:23), and to do His will (Ps. 143:10). People learn laments (2 Sam. 1:18) and they learn the art of war (Judg. 3:2; cf. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3).  On the flip side, people can learn the wrong things (Deut. 18:9; Ps. 106:35; Jer. 12:16).

Of particular interest are those passages which speak of children — In Psalm 71, the psalmist says that God has taught him from youth and asks that He will continue to do so into old age (Ps. 71:17). In Deuteronomy 31, when the law is taught, the whole congregation, even the smallest children are present to learn it:

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 31:12-13; ESV)

As I discussed in this post on words for children in the Old Testament, those “little ones” are toddlers and they are included in the assembly of God’s people.


Here is what we have seen so far:

  • Who teaches? Primarily God. All instruction and knowledge is from Him. But also parents and religious leaders (i.e. the Levites and Moses himself). Poets (aka psalmists) teach through their art and craftsmen teach their crafts.
  • What is taught? Above all, the law of God with a host of similar subjects — righteousness, goodness, etc. But practical subjects are also taught, e.g. craftsmanship, war, and music. Wickedness can also be learned from the gentile nations and from bad companions.
  • Who is taught? Even the youngest children learn God’s law. Youths are particularly the subjects of instruction, but learning continues throughout life.

Next time we will look at teaching in the New Testament.


**Hebrew words are by and large built on trilateral (i.e. 3 consonant roots). If you know Hebrew, I apologize for my lack of fonts and poor rendering of the Hebrew letters.

***”LORD” translates the divine name sometimes rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Words in parentheses are not in the Hebrew.

Children in the Bible

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education.

The two fundamental questions anyone must answer in creating a philosophy of education are: What is the nature of the child? and What is the goal of education? We are working through the first of these. Today’s question is: What does the Bible does tell us about children? What follows is largely a reworking of this earlier post.

While I want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, I think it is helpful to have some idea of the range of beliefs out there regarding children. When we look at the many philosophies of education available to us, we see many ways of characterizing children. They are blank slates (Rousseau). They are lumps of clay. They are empty vases. They are hot house plants (Froebel). They are (gasp!) persons (Charlotte Mason). Many philosophies, classical among them, also speak of stages through which the child develops. 

Words for “Child” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to refer to those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle, all presumably falling into the “needing care” category (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture).

The Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7). Children are said to have faith from the womb, but also to be sinful at that very early age. John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith in utero (Luke 1:41a). Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). On the flip side, the Psalms speak of sinfulness being from before birth (Psa. 51:5; 58:3)

Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons– the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong; if we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak much less give praise.

Children in the Gospel of Matthew

Turning to the New Testament, we find a few passages which seem to speak of the faith of children (I have discussed these passages in more detail here):

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt. 19:14)

In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.’” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.


What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones– and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished.
  • Children are characterized as ignorant or foolish. They are in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such as covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can sin but they can also exhibit faith. There is no indication of any minimum age for faith.

What are the implications of all this for education? I certainly don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we can make some preliminary conclusions. Children are not presented in the Bible as something other than adults. What we have seen thus far does not give us a lot of insight into children’s mental or intellectual capacity but their spiritual capacity is equivalent to that of adults in that they can both sin and have faith. I think this excludes the blank slate, empty vase ideas which depict children as empty and therefore neutral substances. [Children are lumps of clay — but then again, so are adults  (Rom. 9:20ff).] Children are in need of training which would seem to preclude the more laissez-faire approaches to education such as unschooling. We will talk more about education in the Bible; for the moment I see no clear stages of development such as classical education posits but neither have I seen that the Scriptures preclude such a view.

Until next time,



Are Children Made in the Image of God?

Dear Reader,

DISCLAIMER-TO-BE: I have received some feedback on this post and plan to write  a follow up which explains and clarifies some things. Stay tuned.

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Up until this point we have been addressing the why, i.e. Why do we even need a theology of education (see this post and this one) and why isn’t what we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the Charlotte Mason method, and Christian classical education)? We have also discussed the how, i.e. How will we know what God has to say about education (this post)?

What I hope you have seen thus far is that education is not, can not, be neutral. It is inherently about human nature. Every approach to education has something to say about the goodness of the child and the purpose of his life. Having laid the foundation, we now need to delve into the issues. In the coming weeks, I am going to go back and forth between looking at the Scriptures and looking at what others have said. Today’s topic is The Child as the Image of God — or Not. This is a rehashing of an earlier post (originally published here).

One of my theological pet peeves is when Christians use biblical and/or theological terms in ways the Bible never does (“grace” is a prime offender). My contention, and really the basis of this post, is: When using loaded theological terms, we need to use them as the Bible does. “Image of God” is one of those loaded terms. We confuse ourselves and misunderstand what God is telling us when we use terms like this in different ways without understanding what the Scriptures mean by them.

What I am going to say is probably not going to be popular — I do not think children are born in the image of God. I realize this can seem to raise a lot of problems because we use the argument that they are to defend certain positions, the right to life being the huge one. Let me reassure you I am completely 100% anti-abortion, more than most people in fact. But my argument against it would not be based on the phrase “image of God.”

But let’s back up. What does it mean to be “made in the image of God”? What is “the image of God” and how do the Scriptures use the phrase?

The Image of God in the Bible

Genesis 1 tells us that the first humans, both the male and female, were in the image of God:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

(Gen. 1:26-27; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

Genesis 5 gives us the added information that Seth was in the image of Adam:

“This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” (Gen. 5:1-3)

Genesis 9 refers to the image once more:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6)

These three verses are the entire contribution of the Old Testament to the issue. Other verses uses the words “image” and “likeness” but not in the same context; by and large they refer to idols.

In the New Testament we find that Christ is the image of God:

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)

There are a handful of verses which refer to man as being transformed into or conformed to the image of God:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom. 8:29)

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Col. 3:10)

I Corinthians 11, in a notoriously tricky passage, makes a distinction between men and women:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

Lastly, there are two NT verses whose use of the word “likeness” is worth noting:

“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . .” (Rom. 8:3)

“But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7)

Christian Understandings of “the Image of God”

Though our goal is to see what the Scriptures themselves have to say, taking a brief detour into Christian history can help us clarify the issues at stake —

Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century AD, gives some of the earliest and deepest Christian thought on what it means to be made in the image of God. “As human beings we possess the foundational elements of being in the image and likeness of God—a free will, an intellect, a body” (Thomas G.Weinandy, “St.Irenaeus and the Imago Dei,” 24). To be made in the divine image, according to Irenaeus, is also inherently bound up in relationship with God: “Not to live in union with God is not to live in his likeness” (Weinandy, p. 20).

Augustine, who lived from 354-430AD, adds to the discussion. He sees what we do as a reflection  of what God himself does, emphasizing will and reason but also love:

“Augustine teaches that the Trinity and the image of man are based off of the mind, knowledge, and love of God. These three being the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The mind, love, and knowledge in man are imperfect where with God, they are perfect and equal.” (James Richardson, “Quotes from the Early Church Fathers: Man in God’s image and the Trinity,” from, 2005)

The image of God that is seen is us derives from the relationships within the Trinity and is demonstrated in our very creation:

“In other words, God Loves (desires or wills), then He reasons from His mind (Thinks about what He desires), and then speaks His Word (communicates His knowledge.) In this way God created man and woman in His image. That, we desire, think, and speak; All of which is unique to man.” (Ibid.)

Though Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) follows Augustine, he seems to place a greater emphasis on the intellect as that which best reflects the image of God:

“Such an image of God, even as imperfect, only exists in rational creatures. Thomas quotes Augustine from Gen. ad lit. vi. 12: “Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul which raises him above the beasts of the field.” In article 6, Thomas asks whether the image of God is in man as regards the mind only, and he answers affirmatively. All creatures possess some likeness to God, which Thomas calls a trace, for all things come from God; but only the human being is said to represent God by way of image. Therefore, it must be that what makes us in the image of God is what we have that the other animals do not have—a mind.” (Montague Brown, “Imago Dei in Thomas Aquinas,” The Saint Anselm Journal 10.1 (Fall 2014), p. 2)

The Roman Catholic view is derived largely from these three; it equates the image of God in man with man’s “natural gifts” including his “personality, intellect, will, etc.” (Angus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” at Covenant Protestant Reformed Church). Whereas Irenaeus, who has Gnostics to argue with, was quite insistent that the image of God includes body, soul and spirit, Aquinas places greatest emphasis on the soul as that which reflects the divine nature. [The Eastern Orthodox position is similar; as I am less versed on it and as I suspect I have fewer Orthodox readers, I will not take the time to go into any details here.]

The Catholic Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God. This distinction is how it deals with a seeming paradox: how can man be at once made in the image of God and sinful? The Catholic answer is to divide man’s “natural” qualities of reason, will, etc. from his spiritual gifts, righteousness and holiness. These latter are what constitute the likeness. The image is common to all men; the likeness is something into which men may, or may not, grow. In Catholic thought, when man fell, he lost the likeness, that is his natural righteousness, but those qualities which constitute the image side — his reason and will, etc. — are not inherently fallen.

The seeming discrepancy which the Catholic Church tried to mend by dividing the image from the likeness also posed a problem for Protestant thinkers, but they tried to solve the problem in different ways. Martin Luther is among those who say the image of God has been lost through the Fall:

“Reformer Martin Luther believed that the ‘image of God’ was an original righteousness that was lost completely. He thus proclaimed: ‘I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent.’” (Eric Lyons, “Was the ‘Image of God’ Destroyed by Sin?Apologetic Press, 2001)

John Calvin agrees with Luther that the image has been lost. He connects this image not just with man’s original righteousness but also with his wisdom and indeed all his faculties. Thus in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin says:

“‘That he made this image to consist in righteousness and true holiness, is by the figure synecdoche; for though this is the chief part, it is not the whole of God’s image. Therefore by this word the perfection of our whole nature is designated, as it appeared when Adam was endued with a right judgment, had affections in harmony with reason, had all his senses sound and well-regulated, and truly excelled in everything good. Thus the chief seat of the Divine image was in his mind and heart, where it was eminent: yet was there no part of him in which some scintillations of it did not shine forth.’” (“John Calvin on the Image of God,” from Siris, July 7, 2005)

This image of God in us is regained through the regeneration and sanctification of the believer. Yet, acknowledging Genesis 9:6, there is some aspect in which the image is always on man:

“‘Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person . . . Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation.’” (“John Calvin on the Image of God“)

The Dutch Reformed came to speak of the image in broader and narrower views:

“The imago dei in the narrower sense, consisting of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness, was wholly lost at the fall, but the imago dei in the wider sense, which includes man’s ‘intellectual power, natural affections and moral freedom,’ was retained.” (Agnus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” from Covenant Protestant Reformed Church)

Assessing the Biblical Evidence

Let’s begin with what all Christians hold in common: Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and Christ is the image of God. It’s what happens in between that causes problems. Specifically, what is the effect of the Fall?

I’d like to approach the biblical evidence more or less in order, beginning with Genesis and then turning to the New Testament.

The foundational verses are Genesis 1:26-27. Here they are once again:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.”

It is striking that in these two verses we are told three times that God made man in His image. The Hebrew word is tselem. It is used here in Genesis 1 as well as in Genesis 5 and 9. It is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as we might use the word image to refer to an idol, i.e. an image of a false god, or model, as to the golden tumors made to remove a plague, and it is used twice in Psalms to refer to fleeting thing — a dream or a vanity. [This last may be an extension of its use to refer to idols or false gods — they are things with no real substance in which a man should not trust.] All of which is to say the Hebrew Bible gives us little added information as to the meaning of the word “image” in this context. It is used as we would use the word in English; it can refer to the “image of God” but also to other images or representations.

Genesis 1:26 includes the phrase “after our likeness” (as the ESV translates it) which is not repeated in verse 27. The relationship between these two prepositional phrases is worth considering. I have written many times on parallelism, a Hebrew literary device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic account in verse 27 which employs this term nor do we have any other sets of parallel terms in verse 26. In Hebrew each of these words (and they are just one word each in Hebrew), are not connected in any way (as by a conjunction) nor do they seem to be used in the same way. The prepositions are different; man is made “in” the image of God but only “according to” or “like” His likeness. In other words, these are not two ways in which man is made nor are they two words expressing a unit as we might say in English “down and out” or “meat and potatoes.” I think that the most plausible relationship between these two words is that “according to our likeness” is added information to clarify what “in our image” means. If I were doing textual criticism, I would say that the second word was added by a later editor or scribe to explain the first. Now this may or may not be true, but as believers what we have before us is a text with both words in it so, however it came to be, I have to believe that they are both part of the Word of God.

If “likeness” explains “image,” the next logical question is how “likeness,” Hebrew dmut, is used in the Old Testament. The answer is that “likeness” means just what we think it would. The base root dmh means “to be like.” The nominal form dmut is found in Isaiah:

“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18)

And Ezekiel:

“And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness . . .” (Ezek. 1:5)

When, in the verse form Ezekiel quoted above, the prophet sees four creatures in “human likeness,” we understand this to be a physical description; they are not human but to some extent they look like humans. Dmut may also be used as tselem can to refer to idols. What can we conclude from all this? To be created “in the image” of God is to be “according to His likeness” which is in some way to be like Him, as an image is like the thing it represents.

Interestingly, Genesis 5 reverses the order. It says first that God created man “in the likeness (dmut) of God” (v.1) and then that Adam bore a son, Seth, “in his likeness (dmut) according to his image (tselem)” (v.3). Verse 1 seems to show that the words can be used interchangeably. Though the switch in verse 5 is intriguing, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Genesis is as significant for what it does not say as for what it does. Seth is not said to be in the image or likeness of God but only in that of his father Adam. Nor is this statement made of others — neither Cain nor Abel is said to be “in the image.”

Nonetheless, Genesis 9 reiterates that “in the image (tselem) of God He made Man” (Gen. 9:6). Those who deny that all men since the Fall bear the image of God (as I do) understand this to mean that man was created in the image of God; that is, that he was made in God’s image at Creation and that this is the reason God will call murderers to account, but that it does not say that men are still in the image of God. The verb in Genesis 9:6 does not add to the argument — it says “made” and not “created” — but neither does it exclude this interpretation.

The New Testament makes clear that Christ is the image of God. Note that he is not “in the image of God” but “is.” Second Corinthians links the image with glory (2 Cor. 4:4).  Colossians and Hebrews both make the connection to Creation, taking pains to show that Christ was present at Creation and was not Himself created. Hebrews again makes the link to glory:

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Heb. 1:3)

None of these verses, however, does much to define what the image actually is though the language of Hebrews — “the exact imprint of his nature” — suggests that the image has much to do with reflecting or expressing the nature of God.

While Christ is the image of God, He is in the likeness of men (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). This refers to His physical form which He adopts at His incarnation. The New Testament, thus discerns between the likeness and the image. In the case of Christ, one expresses each part of His dual nature, divine and human.

The majority of the New Testament verses which address the image of God in man speak of it as something into which believers must grow. Romans tells is that those whom God has chosen will be  “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Second Corinthians again makes the connection to glory and says that we are being “transformed” into “the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18). Colossians says believers have a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). The connection to knowledge is an interesting one and suggests another definition for the image, that it is our rationality which reflects our Creator.

First Corinthians strengthens the argument that the image is not currently in every man but that it is something believers will resume, having lost it at the Fall:

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

This would seem to argue that while Adam bore the image in Genesis 1, his descendants, as Seth in Genesis 5, inherited not the divine image but only Adam’s fleshly post-Fall image. The word “also” is this verse is huge; when believers take on the image of “the man of heaven,” i.e. Christ, the second Adam, they do not lose the image of Adam in them but the two images dwell in them side-by-side just as Christ also embodies the image of God in the likeness of man.

Lastly, though we may like to, we cannot ignore First Corinthians 11:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

The connection between image and glory is seen again. Note that the man is the image and glory of God but the woman is said only to be the glory of man. Genesis makes quite clear that both male and female were in the image of God. It is hard to know what to make of this verse in the context of the “image of God” discussion. This is the only place I can find where man is said to be “the image of God” rather than “in the image of God.” To say man is “the glory of God” is also problematic and raises questions beyond the scope of this post.


Taking all the biblical evidence together, here is what I see:

  • Man, both male and female, were created “in the image of God.”
  • Christ is the image of God.
  • The best evidence that the image continues in men in from Genesis 9 but this passage may be understood otherwise as arguing only that man was created in the image, not that he is still in the image.
  • The OT does not seem to treat the image and likeness as two distinct things. The one may explain the other or the two may be used interchangeably.
  • The NT plays around with the image/likeness pairing saying that Christ is the image of God but at His incarnation became in the likeness of man. (I do not think, however, that we can read this distinction back into the OT passages.)
  • A number of NT verses speak of the image as something believers must be conformed to, not something they inherently possess.
  • An argument from absence: There is no indication from the NT that non-believers in any way possess or are in the image of God.
  • The NT verse which does most to support the idea that we still bear the image of God is I Cor. 11:7. This verse also causes problems, however, as it only says man and not woman is the image. Note that this verse occurs 4 chapters before I Corinthians 15 . . .
  • First Corinthians 15 presents the best NT argument that man, apart from the saving work of Christ, is in the image of Adam (the man of dust) but that, through Christ, he can also bear the divine image.

I am struck in all this by how the language used for the image of God in the Bible reflects the gospel message. We could get the whole gospel just from studying this phrase. Man was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2). Whatever happens, he still retains value because of this creation (Gen. 9:6). After the Fall, man bears the image of his earthly father (Gen. 5:3). In the course of time, Christ, God the Son, takes on the likeness of man (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). He is not created, but was present at Creation. He is not made “in the image of God” but is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). To His divine nature He adds human likeness. He adds Adam’s fleshly image to His divine one so that believers may do the opposite — we  are born in the likeness of Adam (Gen. 5:3 again) but through Christ receive again the image of God which the original Adam lost. The one does not replace the other but both dwell in believers (1 Cor. 15:49) as Christ also maintains his human and divine natures. This is salvation. There is a sense, however, in which we must be conformed or transformed into Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10)  — as our salvation comes through Christ, we may now speak of the image of God and the image of Christ interchangeably. This is sanctification.

Implications for Education

There is not actually a lot to say here; the implication for education is that there is none. Many approaches to education are built upon the assumption, perhaps not explicitly stated, that children are made in the image of God. This is taken to mean that they are not just inherently valuable but that they have some degree of innate goodness and ability. It should perhaps not surprise us that (almost?) every philosophy of education begins with one, almost too simple to state, assumption — that children are educable. And not just that they are capable of learning facts but that they are capable of “progress,” that is, of moving towards their intended goal, however that may be defined.

I have spent this time on trying to discern what the “image of God” because it is a phrase that one will often see used in the greater context of education. But the big question for us as reformed Christians is what it means that man is fallen. What parts of his nature have been corrupted and to what extent? And, as far as he is fallen, is he educable? Can he progress toward his intended goal? Very few if any programs of education are focused solely on facts; most have some moral or ethical good they are trying to impart. To extent that this may be our object in education, can we even expect our children to be able to absorb this standard? How, in short, can we who believe in total depravity even begin to educate?

We will wind out way around to get back to these questions. The next big question I would like to tackle is: What does the Bible say about the nature of children?


Methodology: What the Bible can tell us about Education

bibleDear Reader,

(This is the third post in a series. See post 1 here and post 2 here.)

Some of you are probably freaking out now thinking, “She’s going to find an obscure verse in Job and use it to lecture me  on how to educate my kids!” Let me assure you that that is not the case. The verse is in Song of Songs.

Okay, breathe; I am just kidding.

I don’t think the Bible tells us what kind of bread to eat and I don’t think it is a primer on education. But I do believe it has  a lot to say on the issue at hand, i.e. developing a philosophy, I mean theology of education.

Without further ado, then, here are the principles I will be using and assumptions I am making as we move forward:

  • God communicates to His people through His works and His Word. In theological language, these are called general and special revelation. Both of these can tell us things that bear upon the issue at hand (education).
  • The Bible is “the only infallible rule for faith and life.”
  • Unpacking the above statement, “only” modifies “infallible” (not “rule”). If there is a seeming conflict between the Bible and something else, the Bible takes precedence. The Scriptures are our only infallible source, but not our only source (see the bits on general revelation below).
  • The Bible tells us about what we need to know for faith, that is for salvation, and in this area it tells us everything we need to know. But when it comes to life, while we should always look at what the Bible has to say, we must not expect it to tell us everything we need to know about every topic. It’s not a cookbook. It’s not a spelling curriculum.
  • The Scriptures are infallible; human beings are not. Since we can only read the Scriptures through the lens of our own human reason, we need to use some caution.
  • What the Bible does have to tell us comes in various ways. Sometimes the Bible tells us things directly (“Thou shalt not . . .”). These are prescriptive commands and should be obeyed. Sometimes the Bible describes things but doesn’t necessarily make clear whether we should emulate them or not. A little more discernment is needed here. David stole Bathsheba; we should not copy him. David also repented; we should emulate him. These seem obvious but what about when David pretended to be insane or lied in the midst of battle? We need to use a little more caution when we base our opinions on descriptive, rather than prescriptive, passages.
  • Another useful rule in this regard: Use the clear to interpret the unclear. The Bible is internally consistent. If one passage is obscure or open to interpretation, we can sue other passages which are clearer to shed light on it.
  • In seeking a theology of education, the goal is something “founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures. To be founded upon, in my interpretation of this phrase, is to be directly based on a particular passage. But since not every topic is going to be addressed directly, sometimes we need to look for principles. To be “agreeable to” the Scriptures is to be in line with biblical principles.  Abortion is not mentioned in the Bible, but we can reasonably assume, based on the prohibitions against murder and the view of children as a blessing, that abortion is wrong. This is an obvious example; others may be less obvious. Much of our discussion of education will involve applying principles (for example, ideas about the nature of man).
  • All of Scripture applies to us today, unless it doesn’t. The Old Testament has not been supplanted by the New. The rules and principles of the Old Testament are still binding on us unless they have been specifically fulfilled or set aside. Sacrificial laws no longer apply as Christ fulfilled them. But verses about how we discipline our kids, no matter how uncomfortable they make us, are still valid.
  • Three rules I have in interpreting the Bible: 1) Context is king. We need to decide the meaning of a given verse in light of both its immediate context and the wider context of Scripture. 2) The plain sense is best. One of the most famous rabbinical interpreters, Rashi, spoke of the peshat, meaning the plain meaning of a text. It’s sort of the Occam’s razor of biblical interpretation: Plain is good. 3) When we use loaded theological terms, we should do so in biblical language.  When we use words like “grace” and (one that will come up in our discussion of education) “the image of God,” we need to be careful to define them as the Scripture does.
  • Moving to general revelation — these are the things God tells us not through the Scriptures. Observation and experimental science fall into this category. While we should always remember that human reason was affected by the Fall, scientific studies and good old common sense are also legitimate sources of knowledge.
  • We can (and should) gain knowledge from other people as well, but no one (apart from Christ) is perfect. “Calvin says . . .” is a persuasive but not a conclusive argument.

This is all background, the rules of the game if you will.

In the next few weeks I’d like to look at two popular approaches to education in Christian circles and also at the assumptions behind what goes on in most American schools today.

Until then




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

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 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



“Education is a Discipline,” Part 2

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my post on Charlotte Mason’s statement “education is  . . .  a discipline . . . ” It is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Miss Mason’s principles in light of the Bible. You can find all the posts in this series here under the heading “Are Charlotte’s 20 principles biblical?

In part 1, we looked at what Charlotte means by “education is . . . a discipline . . .” and saw that according to Miss Mason:

  • Discipline is discipleship.
  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.
  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”
  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.
  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.
  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.
  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

We then looked at the biblical text and saw that many of these points, while not specifically stated in the Scriptures, are in line with what it teaches.

But there is one big elephant in the room which we have yet to address. That is the whole nature of parental discipline in the Bible. Charlotte says that physical punishment should be rare and reserved for crisis situations. In a perfect world, it need not happen at all. The discipline that parents owe their children she defines as a kind of discipleship which for her boils down to habit training. She points to verses like Proverbs 22:6 — “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) – to show that we must establish lines, like railroad tracks, along which the child’s character will develop.

If you have read any Christian parenting books, there is another verse which probably pops into your head when you hear the word discipline:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This verse, and many others like it, seem to speak of discipline as corporal punishment (with a rod, no less!). We must ask then: What is biblical discipline? How do the Scriptures define it and what do they tell us about how parents should discipline/train their children? Having answered these questions, we can then get back to Charlotte Mason and see if her assertion — that discipline should be primarily training and that physical punishment should be rare — is truly biblical.

Parenting in the New Testament

Before delving into the evidence, I should say a word about how I approach the biblical text. Both the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God. There are some changes that occur between them, the substitution of baptism for circumcision for example. But, where a doctrine or practice is not specifically negated in the New Testament, it is still in effect. I bring this all up because one easy out when it comes to parental discipline is to say, “oh, that spare the rod stuff is all Old Testament; it no longer applies to us Christians.” I reject this position. The Old Testament commands and counsels regarding child rearing are still in effect today.

Having said which, I am going to start by looking at what the New Testament has to say on parenting. Ephesians (and a parallel passage in Colossians) addresses the parent/child relationship:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:1-4; cf. Col. 3:21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

From this passage we learn that fathers are not to “provoke [their] children to anger” but are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” I think it is reasonable to assume that the “instruction” refers to what they are taught. We are told many places in the Bible that fathers are to tell their children about the things God has done (cf. Ex. 13:8; Deut. 4:10; Ps. 78:4; Joel 1:3). Discipline is a trickier term, but, unfortunately, Ephesians does not give us much to go on in terms of what “discipline” looks like other than to say that there is some limit lest children be provoked to anger. 

The Book of Hebrews has more to say:

” And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’

It is for discipline that you have to endure.

If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebr. 12:5-11)

The goal of this passage is to encourage the readers to endure in their sufferings. These sufferings are identified as the discipline of the Lord and are shown to be a sign, not of God’s wrath, but His love. God disciplines His people because He loves them.

If we look at this passage to find out what parental discipline looks like, we are taking it backwards. The writer is assuming that his audience knows about parental discipline and is using that knowledge to say something about God’s discipline. We are doing the reverse, assuming we know what God’s discipline looks like and asking what parental discipline should look like. Because of this, we should be cautious in drawing conclusions, remembering that the point of this passage is not to tell us about parental discipline. Having said which, there are some conclusions we can draw:

  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • An earthly father’s discipline is for “a short time.” I suspect this refers not to length of an individual punishment but to the fact that a father’s authority to discipline only lasts so long.
  • Discipline is not easy for the one being disciplined. It is unclear what sort of hardships the readers are enduring but the writer has to encourage them to endure. Whatever it is, it is “painful rather than pleasant.”
  • The child respects the parent who disciplines him.
  • The earthly parent disciplines “as seems best to him.” The implication is that this is not always going to be perfectly done.
  • The ideal is to discipline for the good of the child. Again, earthly parents may fall short of this.
  • God’s discipline yields “the fruit of righteousness.” I think it is not too much of a stretch to say that the ideal (again) is that parental discipline should do the same, i.e. it should produce righteousness.

The word used for discipline in this passage is used a handful of other times in the New Testament. It is the word used in 2 Corinthians when Paul says we are “punished, and yet not killed” (2 Cor. 6:9). It is also used by Herod and Pilate; they both ask why they cannot just “punish” and release Jesus (Luke 23: 16, 22). In both these contexts, it seems a very physical discipline, likely scourging (i.e. beating with whips), is what is in view. But — and this is important — this is God’s discipline which is being described. The conclusion to draw is that God’s discipline is harsh and physical and that it is compared to parental discipline. This makes it likely that the human father’s discipline is also physical in nature, but it is certainly not license for us to scourge our children.

To sum up what we have seen in the New Testament, parental discipline is compared to God’s discipline of His people. There is an acknowledgement that human fathers will not discipline perfectly, either in motive or application. This is perhaps why they must be told not to provoke their children to anger. The ideal motive is love with a goal of doing good to the child by producing righteousness in him. There is a strong implication that the nature of such discipline is physical (i.e. some form of corporal punishment), but we must keep in mind that the Hebrews passage is not prescriptive with regard to parental discipline; it is assuming we know what parental discipline looks like, not telling us how to do it.

Discipline in the Old Testament

As we turn to the Old Testament, we find no shortage of prescriptive passages. These can be grouped according to the Hebrew words they employ. Hebrew uses a triliteral (three letter) root system. Though there are a few dozen verses which address parental discipline, there are only three main root words which are used. Two are words which we often translates as discipline, chastise, or rebuke as in the infamous Proverbs 13 verse:

“Whoever spares the rod** hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Prov. 13:24)

The third is translated as “train” in that other well-known verse from Proverbs 22, the one upon which Miss Mason seems to base her view of discipline:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The Hebrew Roots ykh and ysr: Rebuke and Discipline

The first two root words are ykh (if you know Hebrew, that last is a hard “h,” the Hebrew letter het,  but I don’t have the proper font for representing it)  and ysr (that’s a samech in the middle, Hebrew scholars).  The former is often translated “rebuke” while the latter is more often “discipline.” In English, these seem to be pretty different words, but as we look at the Hebrew text, we will see that the two often occur together and are used in very similar ways.***

Both are used of God’s rebuke/discipline of His people:

“O Lord, rebuke (ykh) me not in your anger, nor discipline (ysr) me in your wrath.” (Ps. 6:1; cf. Ps. 38:1)

“You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes (ykh)—I am the Lord; I have spoken—” (Ezek. 5:15)

“The Lord has disciplined (ysr) me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” (Ps. 118:18)

“When you discipline (ysr) a man with rebukes (ykh) for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” (Ps. 39:11)

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves (ykh); therefore despise not the discipline (ysr) of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17)

God’s “rebuke” (ykh) is harsh– it consist of debilitating pain (Job 33:19), failure in childbirth (2 Kgs. 19:3; Isa. 37:3), or the destruction of a city (Hos. 5:9). But His “discipline” (ysr) is no less harsh. In Leviticus 26:28ff, a list of punishments is given which begins with fathers eating their own children. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

As we saw in the New Testament, God’s rebuke/discipline is compared to that of a father:

“My son, do not despise the Lord‘s discipline (ysr) or be weary of his reproof (ykh),  for the Lord reproves (ykh), him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:11-12)

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline (ykh) him with the rod** of men, with the stripes of the sons of men . . .” (2 Sam. 7:14)

“Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines (ysr) his son, the Lord your God disciplines (ysr) you.” (Deut. 8:5; cf. Deut. 11:2)

What specifically does this rebuke/discipline consist of? In I Kings, King Rehoboam says he will discipline (ysr) his people with whips and scorpions. This is figuartive (he is actually taxing them harshly), but it shows, as we saw in the New Testament, a connection to scourging. In Isaiah 53:5, the Suffering Servant, whom we know is a figure of Christ, is chastised (ysr) for our iniquities, a reference to scourging again:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

And of course there is that rod thing again**:

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline (ysr) him.” (Prov. 13:24)

This may not be all there is to discipline, however. It can also be used in parallel with teach:

“He who disciplines (ysr) the nations, does he not rebuke (ykh)?

He who teaches man knowledge— the Lord—knows the thoughts of man,
    that they are but a breath.

Blessed is the man whom you discipline (ysr), O Lord,
    and whom you teach out of your law,” (Ps. 94:10-12)

These two aspects of “discipline” (ysr) seem to occur in roughly equal measure throughout the Old Testament. At times, the root, especially in its nominal form (musar) clearly refers to something that is spoken and heard:

“He opens their ears to instruction (ysr and commands that they return from iniquity.” (Job 36:10)

“Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction.” (Jer. 17:23 cf. Jer. 32:33; 35:13; Ps. 50:17; Prov. 4:1; 13:1; 19:27; Zeph. 3:2)

In Proverbs 19, it is used in parallel to “advice”:

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (Prov. 19:20)

Still, at others, it seems to refer to a physical kind of discipline:

“In vain have I struck your children; they took no correction; your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.” (Jer. 2:30; cf. Isa. 26:16; 53:5; Jer. 5:3)

In Deuteronomy 11, the “discipline of the Lord” seems to refer to the wonders He has done, specifically His drowning of the Egyptians and the deaths of Dathan and Abiram who were swallowed up by the earth for their sin (Deut. 11:2-7).

And at least once, “discipline” is a lesson which is learned through observation:

“I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles,
 and its stone wall was broken down.  Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction.” (Prov. 24:30-32)

Proverbs 23 perhaps sums up the dual nature of “discipline”; in two verses, our modern translation interprets ysr once as “instruction” and once as “discipline”:

“Apply your heart to instruction (ysr) and your ear to words of knowledge.
Do not withhold discipline (ysr) from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.” (Prov. 23: 12-13)

In the first occurrence, ysr is translated as “instruction” and clearly refers to something heard; in the second, it is translated “discipline” and just as clearly refers to physical discipline.

Summing up, then, here is what we have seen about the words translated “rebuke” and “discipline” by our Bibles:

  • The two words are frequently used together and in similar ways.
  • God disciplines/rebukes His people for their sins.
  • Human parents discipline/rebuke their children.
  • The motive for discipline is love.
  • The goal of discipline is to turn one from one’s sins.
  • There is a strong connection between discipline and physical punishment.
  • However, discipline is also something which can be spoken and heard, what we might call instruction.

Another root: hnk, “to train up”

Still, that is not quite the end of the story. We have yet to consider that other oft-quoted verse, the one which Charlotte herself seems to prefer:

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. ” (Prov. 22:6)

The word translated “train up” here is a different one, unrelated to those we have already looked at. The Hebrew root this time is hnk (that’s a hard het again). It occurs less than a dozen times in the Old Testament. Other than this verse from Proverbs almost every other occurrence of this root is in reference to the dedication of a building:

“And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed; and the chiefs offered their offering before the altar.” (Num. 7:10)

“Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.” (Deut. 20:5)

“Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord.” [I Kgs. 8:63; cf. 2 Chr. 7:5; Ps. 30:1 (superscription)]

“And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem . . .” (Neh. 12:27)

The only other time this root is used in reference to people is in Genesis:

“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (Gen. 14:14)

In the context, hnk might also be translated as “dedicated.” Abraham takes these men because they are born in his house; that is, they are dedicated to him.

In Proverbs 22:6, then, it would be more accurate to translate: “Dedicate a youth to the way he should go.”**** What difference does it make to translate the verse this way? A dedication is something that happens once, as the dedication of a new building. When, in Nehemiah 12, the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem is dedicated, a purification of the people and the wall itself takes place, and there is a great celebration. When the altar is dedicated (Numbers 7), there are offerings. The altar is put into use, that is, it is given its purpose. It is also consecrated; it is set aside, i.e. made holy to the Lord.

When is a child dedicated? In the Old Testament, for a boy, this would be at his circumcision when he is physically included in the people of God. In the Christian era, for boys and girls, it is at baptism when the child is publicly included in the visible church, God’s covenant community.

We discipline our children because they are dedicated to the Lord, both because we love them and because we desire that they walk in the right path and turn from all sin. But I don’t believe there is much in this verse to guide us in how that discipline occurs.


The picture given of discipline is very similar in the Old and New Testaments. Discipline is something God does to His people and something parents do to their children. In both cases the motive is love and the goal is the sanctification of the individual. The Bible does not lay out for us anywhere just what parental discipline should look like, but in both Testaments there is a clear connection to physical punishment.  While this association is unequivocal, it does not seem to be the entirety of discipline. Oral instruction is also discipline.

For the most part, the Bible assumes parental discipline, but in two key passages there is some instructions given to the parents: In Proverbs 13:24 the parent is told not to “spare the rod,” that is, not to neglect discipline. In Ephesians 6, fathers are told not to provoke their children to anger. These two represent to us the two sides of a see-saw, the two extremes between which we must navigate. On the one hand, we must not think it is more loving to let discipline slide; on the other, we must not be so stringent in discipline that our children become angry. As God’s mercy and justice are balanced in His discipline of His children, so we as parents must seek balance between these extremes.

The original question we asked was how Charlotte Mason’s philosophy jibes with the biblical view of discipline. She, as we saw, does not deny the place of “sparing the rod” but relegates it to subsidiary role, saying that it should be rare. She emphasizes her method of habit-training. To the extent that the physical side of discipline is a response to sin (we do not spank our kids proactively for what they might do), I think Charlotte is right that the more rare it is, the better. If they sin less, which is always the goal, we will need it less. However, Charlotte goes much further than the biblical text does in downplaying that side of discipline. In both the Old and New Testaments, the physical side of discipline is the more prominent; Charlotte would have it less so.

Charlotte bases her signature method, habit-training, on Proverbs 22:6 (“train up a child . . .”). Though she is not at all alone in this, and indeed most English translations lend some support to her view, I think she misunderstands the verse. It would be more accurate to translate the verb as “dedicate” and to see it as a one-time act of devoting our children to the Lord such as occurs at their baptism. Even if this were not so, however, we must remember that there is one verse which speaks of “training” children in this way and dozens and dozens which speak of disciplining or rebuking them.

In the first half of this post, we saw that Charlotte’s ideas about habit-training, while not spelled out as such in the Bible, do seem to be in line with certain biblical principles.  In this post, we have seen that there is a verbal aspect to discipline which we can call instruction. I don’t think it is too much of s stretch to place habit training under this heading. This is not to say that habit-training is all of what the Bible means when it speaks of instruction, but I am willing to say that it is a legitimate means of instruction.

So, Myth Busters style, what can we say about this CM principle? I am calling it plausible with a caveat. It does seem that habit-training is in line with some biblical principles and that it can fit under the heading discipline, subheading instruction. But I am uncomfortable with how much Charlotte downplays that aspect which the Bible seems to most focus on, namely physical discipline.


**If you have been in Christian circles for a while as I have, you have probably heard someone argue that the “rod” of Proverbs 13:24 is not a rod to beat with but a rod of guiding, as a shepherd uses his staff to guide the sheep. The Hebrew word for rod is shebet. It is used in Proverbs 13:24 (“spare the rod”). It is used in Psalm 23:4 when the psalmist says “your rod and your staff with comfort me.” But it is also used contexts where it is clearly a harsh sort of rod:

“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. ” (Exod. 21:20)

All in all, looking at the occurrences of “rod” in the Old Testament, I find a few cases in which the rod is an instrument of comfort (Ps. 23:4; Mic. 7:14) but many more in which is it used for beating or as a sign of conquest (Exod. 21:20; 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:9; Isa. 10:5).

***Hebrew poetry is characterized not by rhyme or rhythm but by parallelism (see this post or this one for an intro to the topic). Though the passages we are looking at are not poems as such, they are for the most part proverbs and make use of the principles of parallelism as well.

What does it mean when two words are used in parallel, as we have seen ysr and ykh are many times? If in English I say “I am going to give you donuts and send you patsries,” then you would probably take that as two things: I am giving donuts but somehow  sending  other pastries. But if this were Hebrew poetry, then we would be talking about one action: I am going to give/send pastries, possibly just donuts, possibly donuts and other pastries. So in the Proverbs 3:11, when it speaks of the Lord’s discipline and his reproof, we have no reason to think these are two separate things. If we spend our time dissecting the terms and trying to figure out what the distinction is between discipline and reproof, we miss the point. Rather than distinguishing the two terms, the proverb is equating them.

****I looked at a number of modern translations on Proverb 22:6. Almost all say “train.” But the NIV actually handles the verb better, in my opinion. It has:

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”




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