Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

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

Nebby

 

 

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So, Is Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy Biblical?

Dear Reader,

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

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

Goal and Methodology

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

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

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

Recapping the Evidence

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

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

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

Further Evidence 

At this point I ran across a quote in Charlotte’s second volume that caused me to revisit her second principle and to do some reevaluating.  If you haven’t read that post — The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought — I would encourage you to stop here and do so before continuing.

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

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

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

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

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (Parents and Children, p. 65)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

Until then

Nebby

 

“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.

Conclusions

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.

Nebby

**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.”

 

 

 

Is it Biblical?: CM on Habit-Training (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I hold Charlotte Mason’s principles up to the light of Scripture and ask if they are “founded upon and agreeable to” the Word of God or not. The entire series is listed under “Charlotte Mason posts” at the top of this page.

We have been looking at Charlotte’s motto: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” as stated in her fifth principle. Having looked at “education is an atmosphere” and “education is . . . a life,” we must now go back and examine “education is  . . .a discipline . . .”

CM on “Education is  . . . a discipline . . .”

My process is to first look at Miss Mason’s own words to see what she meant by what she said. This idea — that education is a discipline– is expanded upon in her seventh principle:

“By “education is a discipline,” we mean the discipline of habits, formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structures to habitual lines of thought, i.e., to our habits.”

  • Discipline is discipleship.

The first thing we need to note here is how Charlotte herself uses the word discipline. This can be a loaded term in Christian circles. Charlotte is not talking here about spanking or any other kind of physical discipline. She does leave a place for physical discipline — but not much of one:

“Discipline does not mean a birch-rod, nor a corner, nor a slipper, nor a bed, nor any such last resort of the feeble. The sooner we cease to believe in merely penal suffering as part of the divine plan, the sooner will a spasmodic resort to the birch-rod die out in families. We do not say the rod is never useful; we do say it should never be necessary.” (Parents and Children, p. 65-66)

“Now we would not say that punishment is never to be used, very much otherwise. Neither would we say that physic is never to be taken. But punishment, like physic, is a casualty only of occasional occurrence at the worst, and punishment and physic alike are reduced to a minimum in proportion as we secure healthy conditions of body and mind.” (Ibid., p. 170)

What Do not think, however, that Charlotte is opposed to punishment because she does not take children’s faults seriously; the situation is quite the opposite:

“Now here is a point all parents are not enough awake to––that serious mental and moral ailments require prompt purposeful, curative treatment, to which the parents must devote themselves for a short time, just as they would to a sick child. Neither punishing him nor letting him alone––the two lines of treatment most in favour––ever cured a child of any moral evil.” (Parents and Children, p. 87; emphasis added)

Punishment, then, is viewed as best a rare tool to be used in emergency situations. Discipline, as Charlotte defines it, is long-term, continual training. It is closely tied to discipleship:

“What is discipline? Look at the word; there is no hint of punishment in it. A disciple is a follower, and discipline is the state of the follower; the learner, imitator. Mothers and fathers do not well to forget that their children are, by the very order of Nature, their disciples.”  (Parents and Children, p. 66-67)

“Not mere spurts of occasional punishment, but the incessant watchfulness and endeavour which go to the forming and preserving of the habits of the good life, is what we mean by discipline. . . ” (Parents and Children, p. 173)

The specific method of discipline Charlotte employs is what she calls “habit training.” We see this in the 7th principle above in which she speaks of “the discipline of habits.”

  • The child is not to be left to his nature which has evil aspects.

Before we get into the what and how of habit training, let’s address the why — The rationale for habit training rests firmly in the view of the child. I have spoken a lot about Charlotte’s view of the child and of human nature itself (look back at the posts in this series, especially those on her 2nd principle for more on this). For our purposes today it is enough to say that the child is not a little angel but embodies at least the possibilities for evil. Charlotte speaks of nature as embodying (1) the temptations common to all men, (2) those that run in families, and (3) those predilections which are peculiar to the individual:

“What, then, with the natural desires, affections, and emotions common to the whole race, what with the tendencies which each family derives by descent, and those peculiarities which the individual owes to his own constitution of body and brain,––human nature, the sum of all these, makes out for itself a strong case . . .”  (Home Education, p. 102)

“The child brings with him into the world, not character, but disposition. He has tendencies which may need only to be strengthened, or, again, to be diverted or even repressed.” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

We start, then, with some issues, to say the least. The temptation of many parents is to let the children be, but Charlotte argues strongly against this saying that, left to his own devices, the child will not improve or even stay where he is but will sink lower and lower:

”  . . .  it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower.” (Home Education, p. 103)

“More, habit is inevitable. If we fail to ease life by laying down habits of right thinking and right acting, habits of wrong thinking and wrong acting fix themselves of their own accord. ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 101)

For these two reasons, because of our natures and because of the tendency to sink rather than to rise, habit training is necessary.

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

Habit training, as Charlotte sees it, can change one’s nature. In fact, it is a good deal stronger than nature:

‘Habit is ten natures.’ If that be true, strong as nature is, habit is not only as strong, but tenfold as strong. Here, then, have we a stronger than he, able to overcome this strong man armed.” (Home Education, p. 105)

“The extraordinary power of habit in forcing nature into new channels hardly requires illustration . . .” (Ibid., p. 106)

” . . . persist still further in the habit without lapses, and it becomes second nature, quite difficult to shake off; continue it further, through a course of years, and the habit has the strength of ten natures . . . ” (Ibid., p. 110)

Character is a word Charlotte uses frequently in this context; habits over time build the character of a man (or woman):

” His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture . . .” (Parents and Children, p. 23)

Perhaps you are already familiar with this oh-so-CM quote:

“‘Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; a character, reap a destiny.'” (Parents and Children, p. 29)

So we see that habit changes the (fallen) nature we are born with and builds the character we wish to see in the adult.

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

We turn now from the question of why to how — Every good habit only comes through conflict; the good must drive out the bad. Sadly, the bad are often easier and more attractive so the fight is not always an easy one:

” . . .  but a certain strenuousness in the formation of good habits is necessary because every such habit is the result of conflict. The bad habit of the easy life is always pleasant and persuasive and to be resisted with pain and effort,  . . . ” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 102)

“‘Habit is driven out by habit.'” (Parents and Children, p. 85)

“What are you to do with such inveterate habit of nature? Just this; treat it as a bad habit, and set up the opposite good habit.” (Ibid., p. 85)

“This meets in a wonderful way the case of the parent who sets himself to cure a moral failing. He sets up the course of new thoughts, and hinders those of the past, until the new thoughts shall have become automatic and run of their own accord. All the time a sort of disintegration is going on in the place that held the disused thoughts; and here is the parent’s advantage.” (Ibid., p. 90)

Charlotte has much more to say on the specifics of building a new habit. I am more interested in the theory than the practical details today. If you are looking for more of the nitty-gritty, see Home Education, part I, chapters 7 and following, and part II; and Parents and Children, chapters 9 and 16. Formation of Character, her fifth volume, also provides some interesting examples of habit training in families. And the fourth volume, Ourselves, is a unique book that will help you see the good and bad paths before you in every area of life.

  • 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.

Though habit training can cover many areas, Charlotte makes it clear that there is one habit behind all the others that is our real, one might say our only, target:

“Consideration made the reason of the failure plain: there was a warm glow of goodness at the heart of every one of the children, but they were all incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do. Here, no doubt, come in the functions of parents and teachers; they should be able to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to. But it were poor training that should keep the child dependent upon personal influence. It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as well as of the children.” (Home Education, pp. 99-100)

“The problem before the educator is to give the child control over his own nature, to enable him to hold himself in hand . . . ” (Home Education, p. 103)

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The child begins life without self-control and needs his parents to begin the work of habit training:

“Not the child, immature of will, feeble in moral power, unused to the weapons of the spiritual warfare. He depends upon his parents; it rests with them to initiate the thoughts he shall think, the desires he shall cherish, the feelings he shall allow. Only to initiate; no more is permitted to them; but from this initiation will result the habits of thought and feeling which govern the man––his character, that is to say.” (Home Education, p. 109; emphasis added)

But as he grows, the child, now an adult, must “habit train” himself:

“and these last [the habits of a good life] will carry the child safely over the season of infirm will, immature conscience, until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life, the moulding of his character, into his own hands.” (Parents and Children, p. 90; emphasis added)

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

There may seem to be a lot of emphasis in all this on what we do, but Charlotte never sees habit training, whether by the parent or later by the adult in his own life, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit:

“In looking for a solution of this problem, I do not undervalue the Divine grace––far otherwise; but we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above . . .” (Home Education, p. 104; emphasis added)

“His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited.” (Parents and Children, p. 23; emphasis added)

“Here, indeed, more than anywhere, ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it’; but surely intelligent co-operation in this divine work is our bounden duty and service.” (Ibid., p. 90)

In summary, these are the main aspects we have seen of what Charlotte Mason means when she says “education is  . . .  a discipline . . .”:

  • 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.

What the Bible has to say

We must now turn to the Scriptures to see how Charlotte’s ideas fare when held up to its light.

There are some ideas here which seem so obvious that one almost need not discuss them.  That a child has a nature affected by the Fall and that he should not be allowed to stay where he is and that his parents are charged with disciplining him are not points that I think orthodox Christians of any stripe are going to dispute. How fallen the child’s nature is is a matter of some dispute but has been covered in my posts on Charlotte’s second principle. What form parental discipline should take is going to be the biggest and toughest topic we have to tackle today so I am going to save it for a follow-up post (part 2).

Starting from the end of the above list, Charlotte says that

  • Habit training is not done apart from the work of the Holy Spirit but is a part of it.

She quotes Psalm 127 in this context. I think we can also look to Philippians 2:12-13:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

If we began to list all the places in which we are told to do good, to be good, we would be here all day if not all month or all year. I think the Bible makes clear that we are to do something  but it also makes clear that it is not our work but the Holy Spirit’s in us.

  • Habit training is not just for children; when grown they are to continue to “habit train” themselves.

The Bible makes pretty clear that parents are to discipline their children (we will look at a lot of these verses below when we get to the how). But it also shows us that adults are not perfect and still need to work on themselves (with the help of the Holy Spirit, as we have seen). So I think it’s not a big leap to say that at some point the burden gets passed from parent to grown child.

  • 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.

There is a lot to point to in the Bible to show is the importance of doing not what we will but what the Lord wills:

“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (Matt. 6:9-10; emphasis added)

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”” (Luke 1:38)

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)

“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matt. 26:39; cf. Luke 22:42)

“I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30; cf. John 6:38)

  • Habit training works by replacing a bad habit with a good one.

This point touches on the specifics of how we habit train. I can’t think of places where the Bible gives its own program for such a thing (as Charlotte does), but neither do I think the idea is unbiblical. Charlotte speaks of habit training as laying down the rails upon which one’s life will run. Proverbs 22:6, which Charlotte also quotes (see Parents and Children, p. 21), supports this idea:

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

We could quote many other verses as well in which the Bible speaks of the “way” in which a man walks (cf. Psalm 1:1).

  • The goal of habit training is to provide a “second nature.”

In a recent post I spoke of habit training as sanctification. That is really what we are getting at here. What else would you call that process by which our original, sinful nature is transformed? If we acknowledge that we need sanctified, that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, but that we must cooperate in our own sanctification (as opposed to sitting back waiting for God to change us), then the real question is not if but how.

This is where I want to spend part 2, asking: How do we “train up a child in the way he should go”? Is Charlotte right that punishment, including corporal punishment, should be rare? What specifics does the Bible give us on the how of discipline?

(Provisional) Conclusions

I realize we have just scraped the surface of this issue. The real meat is yet to come. Thus far, I think we can say that, though the Bible does not specifically describe the process of habit training as Charlotte does, that a lot of the principles behind it — the need to change one’s nature, the role of the individual vis-a-vis God’s role, the idea of establishing a way in which children should go — are in line with biblical principles.

Next up: Part 2: What does the Bible really say about discipline?

Nebby

 

 

Is it Biblical?: “Education is . . . a Life”

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask how they line up with the Bible. You can find links to the earlier posts here and my most recent post on “Education is an atmosphere . . . ” here.

What Charlotte says

In my last post in this series, I began to look at Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle:

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.'”

That post focused specifically on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I would like to leap-frog over ” . . .a discipline . . .” for now and focus on ” . . .and a life.” (Do not fear — I will return to “discipline” in my next post.)

This idea, that education is a life, is expanded in the 8th principle:

“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”

We could even include in this discussion the 9th through 11th principles which further expand upon this notion and specifically reject some of the counter-views of Charlotte’s own day:

“9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

“10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is ,’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

“11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

I have to say I am somewhat relieved to cover this particular principle; it seems fairly straightforward compared to some of the other ideas we have discussed. Children need intellectual and moral sustenance, and intellectual sustenance consists of ideas; they are the food of the mind:

“. . . the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 25)

This feeding of the mind is a spiritual exercise. Indeed the food itself, the ideas, are a spiritual thing:

“‘Education,’ said Lord Haldane, some time ago, ‘is a matter of the spirit,’––no wiser word has been said on the subject, . . .” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“. . . .the mind, in fact, requires sustenance––as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images). I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 10)

Ideas are contrasted with information, that is, facts to be memorized:

“But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?).” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

Notice the comparison between information and a stone; a stone is not a living thing; it is inert and cannot be consumed. But an idea is “[a] live thing of the mind” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 105). It is not, of course, that our children will not learn facts, but that these facts must come in the form of ideas:

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 40)

It is as if we were to say, “my child needs potassium to live” and so we give him the mineral potassium to ingest. Modern science (conveniently for the purposes my of analogy) has shown that our bodies to not absorb vitamins and minerals so well in pill form. But if that potassium comes clothed as a banana, the body can take it in and gets a lot more pleasure in doing so.

But we cannot take this analogy too far. Ideas are more than an attractive way to get our children to ingest facts. Ideas themselves are what move us. Ideas have consequences. Charlotte tells us that “[a]ll action comes out of the ideas we hold . . .”(Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80).

Ideas, these spiritual things of the mind, come from God Himself. Charlotte references Isaiah 28:24-26 (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 106-7) :

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.” (All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

Note that the ideas here are not high-falutin, philosophical things. The idea that comes from God in this case is when the farmer should plough and harvest and how he should arrange his crops.

This passage, I think, sums up  most of what we have seen already and adds a new concept as well:

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. ”  (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

Note how these spiritual ideas, which originate with God, are transferred — they go from person to person, from mind to mind, through the media of speech, writing, music and art.

The main points, for our purposes seem to be:

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.
  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.
  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.
  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.
  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.
  • Ideas come from God.
  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

What the Bible says

As we turn to the biblical evidence, we can’t expect it to use the same language which Charlotte does. But I do think we can look at these points and see if they have any counterpart in the Scriptures. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that we need not find every principle Charlotte poses expressly delineated in the biblical text; it is not primarily a manual on education. Our goal is only to see if her ideas are “founded on and agreeable to” the Scriptures.

I am going to take the points above mostly in order (with one exception)–

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.

We have discussed what the Bible has to say about children before (see this post). Suffice it to say that children are viewed as full people. And people, we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, are made up of various parts, of which mind is one (Deut. 6:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.

Not all these points are addressed directly. But note the passage known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (shema means “hear” in Hebrew):

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of thought (the liver was actually the seat of emotion). So after referring to this seat of thought (which they call the heart and we call the mind), God says to keep His words on your heart (read: mind) and to teach it diligently to your children. If children can handle the Word of God, the ultimate living book, then surely they can handle other spiritual matter.

  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.

The Bible tells us that it is what is within us that influences our behavior:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19)

  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.

We have already seen in Deuteronomy that parents are instructed to teach their children the things they have learned from God. We find this again in the Psalms:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps 78:1-4)

And a verse I quote a lot in this series, tells us it is important what we put in our minds:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

  • Ideas come from God.

Charlotte herself quotes Isaiah 28 to support this claim. Remember that in that passage, the knowledge spoken of had to do with the particulars of how the farmer does his work. Elsewhere we are told that artistic knowledge and skill come from God (Exod. 35:1-5).

Proverbs and James both tell us that knowledge comes from God:

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ” (Jam. 1:5)

  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

This idea is again not expressed directly in the Scriptures. But, as we have already seen, parents are to communicate ideas to their children. And when it comes to the Word of God, at least, we are told how knowledge is passed from person to person:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)

We see this again and again in the book of Acts — that people hear and then believe (Acts 4:4, 13:48, 21:20).

  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.

This is the one point I wanted to save for last. Up until this point, I hope we have established that children, as spiritual beings, are capable of receiving and should be given, the Word of God; that what we put in our minds is important and that it affects what we do; and that all wisdom and knowledge come from God though they may do so through the mediation of other people.

The Bible does not tell us, that I can see, that all ideas are living, spiritual things. But there is one body of knowledge which the Bible calls living — the Word of God itself:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebr. 4:12)

God Himself is living (Deut. 5:26, among many others), and something that is spoken of as living, in the Bible, comes from Him and is living in the sense that it gives spiritual life(cf. John 4:10-11 in which Jesus speaks of the living waters). Here we see that the Word of God too is living.

Conclusions

What then can we say? I don’t think every aspect of what Charlotte means when she says “education is a life” can be fully substantiated by the Scriptures. But I do think she is firmly in the realm of biblical thought. God is Spirit. We, originally created in His image, are spiritual beings. Wisdom and knowledge come from God. The Word of God, the ultimate body of ideas, comes from Him and is said to be spiritual and living. And it is communicated from mind to mind through human speech and through His written word, just as Charlotte describes. I don’t think that we can get quite to where Charlotte is from this; we have not shown that all ideas are spiritual, but I think we get very close.

I’d like to close with a verse Charlotte quotes from the gospel of Matthew. Note that Charlotte is not the first to speak of ideas as a kind of spiritual food:

“But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by breadalone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’””  (Mt 4:4)

Next time: Discipline!

Nebby

Little Kids Sunday School Lesson

Dear Reader,

So I have been teaching the little kids’ Sunday school at our church for 2 years now. Little kids for us is 2-6 year olds. We have  a lot of African refuges in out church too so things can vary a lot.  Occasionally my class of 5-7 kids will swell to 12 kids and some will be older. The main criteria is that to move up they need to be able to read English well so my class is really  “those who can sit still for a short time up to those who can read decently.”

I have equivocated a lot on how I want to do lessons. Being a Charlotte Mason style educator, I have wanted to use her principles. In this context, I think that would mean real books, other real resources (like art), narration, not spoon-feeding kids the message, and not bribing them with treats of various sorts.

Here’s where the problem comes in. There is some of this we can’t do because of our theological convictions; there is some that doesn’t work well with these little kids. The theological first: we don’t depict Jesus or God in any of His persons. I know there is some debate over this; some are okay with pictures of Jesus in the context of a children’s Bible. But I have to do what all the parents would be comfortable with. So no pictures of God pretty much eliminates using fine art. We don’t sing hymns so, though hymn study is part of a CM education, we won’t be doing that. (In my own homeschool we do psalm study, but it doesn’t work with pre-readers.) And I am hopelessly tone deaf so sadly I can’t sing psalms with the kids which would be a good option.

But the heart of any lesson is the Word of God. My educational philosophy tells me we need to give kids the real text, aka the Bible.  I quickly found that just reading the Bible to kids this age did not keep their attention. We tried a popular story-Bible. Often it wasn’t any simpler in its telling then the actual Bible. And it adds a fair amount of interpretation. So I slid into basically telling the stories myself with visual aids. My retellings are also going to be interpretive. There is no avoiding this. I am of the opinion that any translation of the Bible is an interpretation and certainly a retelling is going to be. I suppose the difference here is that at least the layer of interpretation is mine. Whether that is a comfort to the parents of my students, I don’t know. One more note on the Bible — we went through the historical books of the Old Testament the last two years and I skipped very few stories, only those that were truly adult content. Almost all of the violence I included. They love those bits.

Let’s talk visual aids. In a perfect CM world perhaps we would not have such things. I justify them, and the use of retellings rather than the text itself, by the fact that my kids are really pre-school age. These are not kids that Charlotte would advocate giving any formal education to.  The reality of our situation is that we need to do something with them while the other classes go on. So educated they are, and we make concessions to their age. I am comforted by the fact that many CM educators begin teaching Shakespeare with retellings in narrative form. The Bible is a lot like Shakespeare. I try to vary what kind of visual aids we use; my go-tos are flannel graph (yay! flannel graph!), Fisher Price little people acting out the story, and puppets (puppet shows are always a big hit). As we get into studying the New Testament, and specifically the gospels, I expect to use the flannel graph a lot to avoid depicting Jesus with any specificity (my flannel graph characters are basically keyhole shaped outlines of people; this is because I am really bad at art).

We begin a lesson usually with prayer and then the story. That takes about 10 minutes. We have 20 more minutes to fill.  I like to ask the kids if they have questions or comments on the story. Turns out some 2 year olds don’t know what a question is. But if your kid is in my class, I know who mows the grass at your house (“my dad,” “my mom,” “my Aidan”). Seriously, though, some of the older kids have at times asked quite profound questions. Don’t underestimate what they can take in and process.

Then we do some sort of activity which is a response to the story. We have done various things, usually either in the game or craft category. As the years have progressed, I have decided that I like to give them something that fills the narration slot in a lesson. In a Charlotte Mason education, typically a student reads something and then narrates, either orally or in writing. Narration is telling what they read. It is a bit like reading comprehension but they say what they got from it rather then the teacher saying “this is what was important to me; I hope you can fill in the blanks.” The purpose of narration is not for the teacher but for the student, so they can cement their knowledge. If you can tell somebody else about something, then you know it yourself.

So what fills the slot of narration? At this age, it is some sort of worksheet, for lack of a better word. Think of it as a written narration for a young age. Older kids could draw pictures from the story; mine are too young to do that intelligibly. Coloring pages are boring so I try to come up with sheets that give them a little more to do. Putting events in the story in order works really well. Or maybe there is a part of the story that they can fill in. My main goal here is that they have something tangible to serve as a prompt to they can remember and retell the story themselves. This year, rather than sending these pages home each week, I am collecting them in loose leaf binders so each child will have a book at the end of the year with all the stories we have learned.

If there is still time, we may do another craft or game that relates in a more tangential way to the story. When our story has an animal (sheep, lion, etc.) in it, we can do a craft of that animal. Once we make construction paper beards. That was one of the most popular crafts ever. If we have a small class, we might also try to act out the story. That is another great way to get them to retell it for themselves.

So what does all this look like? I’m glad you asked — I really wish I had begun this in previous years when we were doing obscure Old Testament stories, but, well, I didn’t. This year I am posting videos of each lesson on YouTube:

My “channel”: The Sabbath School Lady

Lesson 1: Exile and Return in the Old Testament and the New

Lesson 2: The birth of John the Baptist (puppet show)

Lesson 2: The birth of John the Baptist (explanation/lesson)

And if you are looking for those oh-so-fancy worksheets I use:

lesson 1 exile and return craft

lesson 2 birth of john the baptist

 

Further updates will by posted on this page.

Nebby

 

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.

Nebby

 

 

 

 

 

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