Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

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.


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!



Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

An article on CNN’s website led my to 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point Toward Faith by Rick Stedman. Though I often regret clicking on any article that claims to be about religion or faith, I was pleasantly surprised by Stedman’s contribution, enough so that I immediately purchased his book. At the time I was reading The Benedict Option (see my review here) and I thought that Stedman’s work might be a nice counterpoint to it.

The Benedict Option is written for disillusioned Christians who find themselves in a  world that is foreign to them. As such, it presents a pretty negative, pessimistic view of modern American society. From the little I had read, I thought that Stedman might take another view and I was eager to see what he had to say.

I had been thinking for a few months that, though so many of my acquaintances are not Christians and many are even what might be called pagan (proudly so at times), though they do not share many of my political positions or subscribe to biblical standards or morality, that they are not so very far from truth as one might think. So much of what they have to say still betrays some core values. Above all, they care — they care about people, they care about equality and creation (though they may not think it is created), they care about justice. My hope was that Stedman would share this outlook, would help me fill it out, and would give me ways to begin to talk to such people and to draw them out through these sorts of common values.

To the extent that I went into this book with these expectations, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless I did find a book well worth reading and sharing.

Stedman is up front with what he believes and with what he is trying to do. “God,” he says, “has double coded . . . evidence of his own reality and presence within our world, albeit in very subtle forms” (p. 13). “God intended that normal people should actually discern his existence” (p. 12). However, “our spiritual impulses, when repressed, sublimate and reappear in other arenas” (p. 19). This thesis is actually almost identical to that of another book I quite enjoyed and would highly recommend — Meaning at the Movies (my review here). And Stedman also begins with movies, superhero movies and horror in particular, but he also covers many other topics, 31 of them to be exact.

Before looking at a few specifics, I should note, as Stedman makes clear, that this is not a book that claims to make an air-tight case for the existence of God. As the title and subtitle say, these are reasons that point to a God; they are clues in creation and in our own psyches (see p. 12) but they are not going to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. If it were so easy to construct a logical argument to prove God’s existence, it would have been done long before this. I actually really respect that Stedman was upfront with what he hopes to accomplish and what the limitations of his arguments are.

31 Surprising Reasons is divided into sections, each one containing from 3 to 7 short chapters. The first, for instance, is on aesthetics — beauty and art and movies. Part two covers issues of justice and morality; three divine elements in our universe; four humanity itself; and five our desire for something beyond this life. Taken as a whole, each of these sections is good. Stedman mentions that because there are 31 short chapters that this book is perfect for a month-long study. I wondered if perhaps he stretched some of his sections to get to that 31 and it might not have been a bit better if some chapters were eliminated or combined. Overall, the ideas are good, however, and the book is well worth reading (two of my favorite bits are the chapters on language and the scientific method).

Having said which, these are not new ideas. I am sure, as Stedman quotes many other sources, that he would admit this. The bit on movies, as I said, was dealt with more thoroughly in Meaning at the Movies. C.S. Lewis has made the arguments about justice and morality in Mere Christianity, and my own favorite Frank Boreham has a wonderful essay on how our desire to explore points us to something beyond this world. Still, I like how Stedman has put all this together. It is not high-falutin’ theology but it is an enjoyable and quite readable book (I am currently reading another which says many of the same things but in much harder words!). This is another one I plan to have my high schoolers read.

Final word: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God is a good, solid book that is well worth reading. The short chapters mean you can spend just a few minutes a day on it and the readability means it is good for those who are younger or newer to Christian thought.


CM’s “Gospel” Principles

Dear Reader,

I have been slowly working my way through Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education in an effort to answer the question: Are Charlotte’s ideas founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures? To catch up and get some background, check out these posts:

On the reasoning behind this series: What does it mean to be pure CM?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (plus a digression: Man in the Image of God, or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Is it biblical?: CM’s 2nd principle, part 1, part 2, and part 3

CM’s first principle revisited

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Whew! Up to speed yet? Until now, we have been fairly theoretical, discussing the ideas behind Charlotte’s approach to education. Having laid a groundwork by discussing who the child is, his nature, and his relationship to his Creator, I’d like to move on to more practical considerations.

My original plan had been to work my way through Charlotte’s 20 Principles. I am finding, however, that I know would like to take a slightly different tack. I will be skipping over Charlotte’s third principle entirely — not because it is not important but actually because it seems one of the least controversial. This is the one, you may recall, which discusses authority and obedience. These concepts are so central to the Bible, to parenthood, and to our relationship with God, that I hope we will have no dispute in them (though if you have specific questions, please speak up).

As we move on to numbers 4 and 5, we begin to get into the practical details which is where I’d like to spend my time now. In her fourth principle Charlotte lays out what we may not do in education and in the fifth she gives us the tools which are at our disposal. Here she uses that phrase so familiar to CM educators: “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As her fifth principle follows the fourth, so these positive ideas arise from negative commands. In other words, when we cross out what we cannot do, we are left with what we can do.

Where does Charlotte get these ideas? The wording is not quite the same but the concept — first eliminating the negative and then seeing what, positively, is left to us, is very similar to what Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education.” Here she finds a series of prohibitions telling us what we may not do in educating and training our children; from the negatives she then derives the corresponding positives. Here is how Charlotte explains it:

“So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from––that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, 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, pp. 12-13)

Charlotte’s Gospel Code

My modus operandi has been to let Charlotte speak for herself, to look at the biblical evidence, and then to try to evaluate her idea in light of the Scriptures with an eye to answering the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures? Let us begin then by looking at what Charlotte calls “the code of education in the gospels.”

“It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)

This code, Charlotte tells us, is not just derived from the gospels but is “expressly laid down by Christ.” I take this to mean that, in her view, Christ here deliberately gives us commandments regarding how we may treat children. The overarching theme is “do not sort of injury, ” a theme which is filled out by the three negative commands: “offend not, despise not, hinder not.” Let us take each of these three in turn, then, and examine both its biblical basis and how Charlotte defines it.

Offend Not

To Offend Not concerns “sins of commission” (p. 13). Here the active sins we may commit against children are in view. “An offence,” Charlotte tells us, ” . . . is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall” (p. 13). Charlotte begins in this section by telling us that children are “born law-abiding “and with “a sense . . . of right and wrong” (p. 14), that is, a conscience. [I have dealt extensively with Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature in my posts on her second principle; I will not revisit the topic here.] The parent begins to “offend” the child  when she laughs at his transgressions, thinking them cute, and when she fails to follow through on a “no” she has given. By these she teaches him that he may be bad.

But it is not only in the moral realm that we may offend. As we have seen, Charlotte’s philosophy encompasses all areas of life. On this point too we may speak of the physical and intellectual realms and of the affections as well. In the physical realm, we offend when we give “unwholesome food” or otherwise disregard “the simple laws of health” (p. 16). In the intellectual realm, we offend when we allow a child to dawdle over their lessons. We offend their affections when we play favorites among the children.

In each of these ways then, and in many others, we offend in that we cause sin to spring up in the heart of a child. It may be the sin of being a bad steward of one’s body or mind, of not working diligently, of jealousy of a sibling. Whatever the sin, the parent has had some role in allowing it to begin and to come to fruition.

Charlotte does not cite chapter and verse for her “gospel code.” I take this a stylistic point at best. She clearly is immersed in the Scriptures and uses their language. So, while she does not directly refer us to the Gospel of Matthew, I think we can see in her language that she bases this first prohibition on Matthew 18:6:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Emphasis added; All biblical quotes are taken from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Despise Not

Charlotte closely links the first two prohibitions. As offend not warns against sins of commission, despise not cautions us against sins of omission. To despise, Charlotte tells us, is to have to low an opinion of. Parents despise their children when they do not give them the best of themselves; when they do not guard them against bad influences (Charlotte speaks particularly of poor nursemaids); when they do not take their sins seriously enough, that is, when they allow their sins to pass as mere childish behavior and do not address it (pp. 18-19; cf. School Education, p. 49). This is very similar to the offense Charlotte spoke of; the difference seems to be that in one the parent says “no” but undercuts their own command and in the other, the parent fails to even address the sin. To despise, then, is to neglect, not in a criminal way, but to fail to truly attend to the child’s spiritual needs for good influences and correction.

Again we may find the reference Charlotte alludes to in Matthew 18:

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10; Emphasis added)

Hinder Not

Children, Charlotte tells us, naturally come to their Savior “when they are not hindered by their elders” (p. 20). Hindering, as she here defines it, is a particularly grievous subset of despising. When we despise the children, we impede their moral training; when we hinder, we, perhaps unknowingly, forbid the children to come to the Lord.

How do we hinder children? We speak to them of God’s judgment and not His love. We show them only “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” (p. 20; cf. School Education, p. 48). In other words, we do not show them God or give them access to the real things of God. The highest function of parents, Charlotte tells us elsewhere is to be “revealers of God to their children” (School Education, p. 50).

In  introducing this issue, Charlotte uses the words “suffer” and “forbid.” These show us that the passage she has in mind is Matthew 19:13-14:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Emphasis added)

These, then, are the three points that Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education” — we must not cause children to sin, we must not overlook their sin or allow them to fall into sin through our neglect, and we must not prevent them from coming to God. In this last especially we begin to see the positive injunctions that Charlotte promised us as well — we must show them God.

The Biblical Evidence: Matthew 18-19

Charlotte has made my task easy this time. Though she does not give us references, her language clearly shows us that she is basing her ideas upon Matthew 18-19. I have already spent some time on these chapters in my post on The Greatness of the Child as a Person. In that post, looking once again at Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature, I did not agree with her interpretation of these chapters. Today, however, though we cannot entirely distance ourselves from the question of the child’s inherent nature, our focus is slightly different. The question is not who the child is but what we should, or should not, do to him.

Charlotte has isolated three phrases from the biblical text and given us an interpretation of each. The question before us then is whether in each of these she rightly represents the biblical text. Now interpretation is, well, a matter of interpretation. But I think we can at least ask if the interpretations Charlotte gives us are reasonable, if they seem to make sense in the context of the passage and to be in line with the rest of the Word of God.

In Matthew 18:6 Christ tells us that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to “offend one of these little ones.” In the preceding verses, a child has been placed before Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus speaks of cutting off one’s hand if it “offends” one. It seems quite clear, and indeed it is the common interpretation, that to “offend” is to “to cause to sin.”

To despise, as we said above, comes from verse 10 of Matthew 18. It is not clear from the biblical context what this means which is perhaps why Charlotte resorts to her dictionary. It is a unclear how much we should make of the immediate context. These chapters have the feel of a series of utterances that may not have originally been spoken together but which have been grouped together because of some common words and themes. Nonetheless there seems to be a link with what follows as verse 11 begins with a “For . . .” — “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” What follows is a brief parable about a man who has 100 sheep and loses one yet leaves the 99 to go look for the lost one. And then in verse 14, we read:

“Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

The connecting words (“for” and “even so”) seem to make these verses a unit as does the return to the idea of “little ones” in verse 14. Does this help us understand what it means to “despise”? The shepherd, it would seem, “despised not” his sheep when he noted its absence and went in search of it.  To despise may then be the opposite of to notice and to care for. The shepherd does not want his sheep to be lost; the Father does not want a little one to perish. If the shepherd had despised his sheep, he would have allowed it to stay lost. If we despise “one of these little ones,” does that mean we allow them to perish — spiritually perhaps, if not physically? I think these are reasonable conclusions from the immediate context; I don’t feel rock-solid in them. Though Charlotte does not draw out these connections, her idea of “despise” seems very similar and I would have to  say it seems in line with the little context we have.

The following chapter, Matthew 19, is seen by most scholars to begin a new section. Still the subject of “little ones” appear again here. In the midst of verses about divorce, eunuchs and eternal life, we find this short section of three verses:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” (Matt. 19:13-15)

On the most literal level, Jesus here tells his disciples to allow children to physically approach him. It is common, and not to great a stretch I think, to extend this to a more spiritual application — children are able and encouraged to approach their Savior. We are not to forbid them from doing so. Charlotte adds that we are not to hinder and again I think this is a reasonable addition.


I have only thus far touched on the negative commands which Charlotte calls the “gospel code” — offend not, hinder not, despise not. Though I am not convinced that these are laid out for us as the rule of education, they clearly have a firm biblical basis and in each case Charlotte’s interpretation seems to fit well with the biblical context.

Next time I would like to look at the positive principles which she derives from these negative commands.

Until then


Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.




“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Dear Reader,

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on a Charlotte Mason article originally published in 1911 — “Children are Born Persons.” Charlotte Mason Poetry recently republished this article online (here). As I have been looking at Charlotte Mason’s principles in the light of Scripture, I thought I should address the ideas in this article as they touch on both her first principle (for which the article is named) plus many others.

Where we are and how we got there

I began this series by looking at what it means to be a Charlotte Mason purist and why we should care. The big take-away from that post was that because Charlotte claims that her philosophy is based in divine law, we should, if we accept this basis, adhere as closely as possible to her philosophy as being so founded. But that is a big “if” so I turned my attention to seeing if Charlotte’s philosophy is indeed in line with divine law as far as we can know it. This divine law is known to us from both special revelation, i.e. the Scriptures, and from general revelation, that which we can discern from God’s creation through science and observation. I am not equipped to evaluate all the science behind her philosophy but I do think we can hold her principles up to Scripture and ask if they are “agreeable to and founded upon the Scriptures.” Thus far, I have looked at her first principle (and a side post on the image of God), her 20th principle and her second principle in three parts (see: part 1, part 2 and part 3).

My most recent post in this series is a return to the first principle based on the article I mentioned above. In that post, following Art Middlekauff who has written on the article for Charlotte Mason Poetry, I delineated four points that Charlotte makes relating to the proposition that “children are born persons“:

  1. “the greatness of the child as a person”
  2. “the liberty that is due to him as a person”
  3. “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty”
  4. “the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love”

I looked briefly at numbers 2 through 4 but left most of the discussion of the first point — “the greatness of the child as a person” — for another time as it is a large topic that I want to be able to delve into.

What Charlotte Mason Means

As has been my habit, I would like to begin by looking at how Charlotte explains her own idea; what does she mean when she speaks of “the greatness of the child as a person”? This concept is addressed in various points throughout her six-volume Home Education series but I find its explanation in the 1911 article to be her most concise and deliberate treatment so I will focus on what she has to say in that article.

Charlotte begins her discussion by quoting the poet Wordsworth who, she says, expresses “the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child” (Charlotte Mason, “Children are Born Persons,” as published at, paragraph 4). She then goes on to make the enigmatic statement that:

”  . . . not any of [the child’s] vast estate is as yet mortgaged, but all of it is there for his advantage and his profit, with no inimical Chancellor of the Exchequer to levy taxes and require returns! But perhaps this latter statement is not so certain; perhaps the land-tax on the Child’s Estate is really inevitable, and it rests with us parents and elders to investigate the property and furnish the returns.” (paragraph 4)

There are two questions immediately before us:

  • What does Charlotte mean by “the greater immensity of the child”? To what extent and how is a child greater than an adult? Is he truly more of a person as she seems to imply here?
  • What is Charlotte saying about the sin nature of children? In the longer quote about the child’s estate, she calls to mind her second principle on the goodness and evilness of children (which I have already discussed in not one but three posts, see links above). Her language is figurative and I do not want to make too much of it from this quote alone, but as we look through the rest of the article, I think we will see that we cannot separate this idea of the greatness of the child from the question of man’s original sin (I do recommend reading at least this post in which I discuss the various Christian views of man’s nature/original sin to get a sense of the variety of positions available within mainstream Christianity).

As we look first at what Charlotte calls the greatness of the child, we must be clear what she does not mean. She does not fail to recognize the child’s limitations. While making clear that the child is indeed a person, Charlotte acknowledges that he is a “weak and ignorant [person], whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own” (paragraph 6). And again: Children are “differentiated from men and women by their weaknesses, which we must cherish and support; by their immeasurable ignorances, which we must instruct” (paragraph 9).

But if they are weak and ignorant, children also have areas in which they show superiority to adults. Charlotte lists the following (paragraph 7):

  • The child “sees with a closeness of observation that we have long ago lost”
  • “he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to”
  • “he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share”
  • “he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach”
  • “he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single life-time”

Charlotte goes on to give some examples, but I think all of us who are parents or have experience with young children can think of many of our own. We know that children seem to be made for learning languages, that they memorize quickly and well with a skill that their elders seem to have lost, that they can be quite imaginative, that they feel things profoundly (often to the consternation of their elders who find their concerns quite small). These points are more in the realm of science or observation, placing them under the heading of general revelation, and while we might quibble over some specifics, I don’t think there need be much debate or that we need take much time on them. My only observation would be that God seems to give children some of these skills  — language acquisition stands out — when they need them. Charlotte raises the question of what would happen if “the infant’s rate of progress [could] be kept up to manhood” but this is at best a hypothetical question; for whatever reason, God has given us these skills when we need them most but then chosen to diminish them as we age.

But there is something more here that Charlotte hints at which brings us back to our second question about the nature of the child. After speaking of children’s weaknesses and ignorances, Charlotte goes on to say:

” . . . by that beautiful indefinite thing which we call the innocence of children and suppose in a vague way to be freedom from the evil ways of grown-up people? But children are greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful, in many ways more open to blame than their elders; and, for all that, they are innocent. To cherish in them that quality which we call innocence, and Christ describes as the humility of little children, is perhaps the most difficult and important task set before us. If we would keep a child innocent, we must deliver him from the oppression of various forms of tyranny.” (paragraph 9)

She further defines what she means by the child’s innocence when she speaks of:

“that liberty which we call innocence, and which we find described in the gospels as humility. When we come to think of it, we do not see how a little child is humble; he is neither proud nor humble, we say; he does not think of himself at all: we have hit unconsciously upon the solution of the problem. Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all.” (paragraph 14)

Thus, just as the child has abilities beyond that of the adult in the intellectual and emotional aspects of his person, so, Charlotte says, there is a way in which he is spiritually superior. Specifically, he has a quality which she calls innocence or humility, which is contrasted with pride, and which she defines as “just . . . not thinking of oneself at all.”

Charlotte does not proof-text her ideas as we might but biblical language and thinking often permeates her writing. On this point more than some others, it is clear that she is thinking of Matthew 18. In considering what she has to say, I’d like to begin by looking at this chapter and examining how Charlotte uses it and finally looking briefly at the “scientific” evidence, i.e. what our own observations may tell us.

The Biblical Evidence

Matthew 18 begins a section of short discourses by Christ. It begins thus:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt. 18:1-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

In Matthew 18:1-4, the problem at hand is a dispute among the disciples as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus calls to Himself a child and uses him as a kind of object lesson to the disciples. This, He says, is what you should be like. The word Jesus uses is “humble” — whoever humbles himself like a child — and the implication is that this is just exactly the opposite of what the disciples are doing; they are exalting themselves by all trying to be the greatest. We can find a similar idea in Luke 14 in which Jesus advises that when invited to a feast one should “go and sit in the lowest place” (v. 10) for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11). In this context, then, to humble oneself means to not aspire to an exalted position but to intentionally opt for a lowered one.

There is some ambiguity here in terms of what it means for the child to be humble. We can read “Whoever humbles himself like this child” either as “whoever humbles himself as this child humbles himself” or as “whoever humbles himself as this child is humbled.” In the former case, the disciples are called to do what the child does and the child has a positive virtue — he humbles himself. In the latter case, the child does not have the positive virtue of humility; it is not that he humbles himself in the sense of choosing a lower position, or at least not aspiring to a greater one, so much as that he is inherently humble because his position in society is low.

But, Christ goes on to tell us, there is protection for such a one:

” ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:5-6)

Presumably with the child still before Him, Jesus warns that to cause such a one to sin is itself a great sin worthy of the harshest punishment. The child is called a “little one” which may be a reference to his position as much as to his size and age. [In this post I discussed the terms used for children in the Old Testament and showed that in Hebrew at least the “little ones” are likely toddlers, though their age is not strictly defined, and that they are capable of both sin and faith and are numbered among the people of God.]

As a side note — I find it interesting that He says “these little ones who believe in me.” It is not all small children who are in view but those who believe in Christ, who are counted among the people of God.

If your Bible is laid out like mine, Matthew 18:7 is a new paragraph with a new subject heading. These headings and parapgraph divisions would not have been in the Greek original; they are added by our editors. In verses 7-9 Christ rails against sin more generally saying that if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off. But in verse 10 He returns to “these little ones” saying that we must not “despise” them for God desires that not one should perish (v. 14). Chapter 18 then finishes with what to do if your brother sins against you including the parable of the unforgiving servant (vv. 15-34). 

[Scholars generally see Matthew 19 as the beginning of a new section as it begins with the words “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings . . . ” (Matt. 19:1).  In Matthew 19:13-15 children appear again, but while Charlotte clearly references this passage in other places, I could not find a clear reference to it in this article.]


The two questions we have to answer with regard to Charlotte’s interpretation of these chapters are:
  • What does it mean that the child of Matthew 18:1-4 is humble?
  • How do the other sections of Matthew 18, particularly verses 10-14, relate to this idea of the child’s humility?
My first instinct in reading Charlotte’s thoughts was to think that she goes too far when she uses the word “innocence.” This seems a very broad term and we might think it means the child is sinless, but Charlotte makes clear that this is not the case when she calls children “greedy, passionate, cruel, deceitful” (paragraph 9). Rather, she says: “Humility, that childish quality which is so infinitely attractive, consists just in not thinking of oneself at all” (paragraph 14). The opposite of humility if self-consciousness; humility ends when “a child becomes aware of himself.” The opposing sin is pride. (In this Charlotte is in line with other Christian interpreters, including Matthew Henry and Spurgeon.)
In the context of her article, it seems that Charlotte’s point is that, just as children are in some ways intellectually and emotionally better, so in this area they are inherently superior in the spiritual/moral realm (I don’t believe she distinguishes the two). In particular they possess a natural humility and are free of the corresponding sin of self-consciousness or pride.
Though most people will exhibit this particular sin, Charlotte does believe it is possible for some to avoid it:

“The principle is, I think, that an individual fall of man takes place when a child becomes aware of himself, listens as if he were not heeding to his mother’s tales of his smartness or goodness, and watches for the next chance when he may display himself. The children hardly deserve to be blamed at all. The man who lights on a nugget has nothing like so exciting a surprise as has the child who becomes aware of himself. The moment when he says to himself, “It is I”, is a great one for him, and he exhibits his discovery whenever he gets a chance, that is, he repeats the little performance which has excited his mother’s admiration, and invents new ways of shewing off.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte in this section is dealing with the child’s vanity or sense of self from which she would spare him. She presents a nice picture of how this self-consciousness comes about.  There is no big, deliberate sin involved. The picture she gives is of something quite unconscious but which nonetheless results in a person who is different than he was before — he has learned pride.

Notice how Charlotte characterizes this change: “an individual fall of man.” Though we are all fallen in Adam, she is here saying that there is some sense in which each of us falls. This language initially rubbed me the wrong way because it could, taken out of context, be seen to advocate the view that people are not really born sinful, that we are not all inheritors of Adam’s original sin, but that we each experience our own fall, or perhaps even that we might be capable of avoiding such a fall and remaining sinless. I do not think that this is what Charlotte had in mind, however. It is not a view she advocates elsewhere nor would it have been the view of her church (the Church of England; again my second post here discusses views of original sin, including that of the COE in Charlotte’s day). I think, rather, that she equates this particular sin with the Fall  because it is the sin of pride. Pride, it is commonly believed, was the first sin, and it is the sin of Satan himself (Isaiah 14:12-15). Pride, as Charlotte defines it, is an awareness of self; so we see that as soon as they sinned  Adam and Eve became self-conscious (Gen. 3:7). When an individual learns pride, he re-enacts the original fall not because he was not previously sinful but because of the nature of the sin itself.

I mentioned above that there is some ambiguity in the biblical text as to what it means that to humble like a child. Charlotte takes this humility of the child as a positive virtue. It is not merely that the child is on the lowest rung of society; he has a positive quality which the disciples are lacking. This is not my own interpretation, but I cannot say that Charlotte’s interpretation is ruled out by the text. What she says could be true; I do not happen to believe it is true.

But Charlotte’s interpretation does not stop with verse 4. She alludes to Matthew 18:10 when she talks of “despising” the children (paragraph 6) and to verse 14 when she  uses the word “perish”:

“We can only see the seriousness of this failing from two points of view – that of Him who has said, “it is not the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish”; and that, I take It, means that it is not the divine will that children should lose their distinctive quality, innocence, or humility, or what we sometimes call simplicity of character. We know there are people who do not lose it, who remain simple and direct in thought, and young in heart, throughout life.” (paragraph 14)

Charlotte here ties verses 10-14 closely to verses 1-4. She takes “little ones” to refer to children and she equates their “perishing” with the loss of their humility. With regard to the former, I am not fully convinced that “little ones” need refer only to children. I think it could refer to any that would be considered lowly in that society, but I will admit that to take “little ones” as children is the simplest explanation within the context of both this chapter and the Bible as a whole. It is also supported by verses 5 and 6 which use “child” and “little one” in parallel.

To take “perish” to mean “lose one’s humility” is a much bigger interpretative jump. In the immediate context of verses 10-14, the “little ones” are compared to sheep who get lost and are in danger of real, physical death. Verses 5 and 6 speak of causing one of the little ones to sin, as it is in the ESV, or, in the Greek: “to stumble.” Verses 7-9, though they do not refer to children, also use the word “stumble” and make it clear that to stumble is to sin.

In the light of verses 5-9, I am comfortable saying that when Christ speaks of little ones perishing in verse 14 that He is not referring to physical death but to the spiritual death that comes through sin. I am not comfortable linking this, as Charlotte does, specifically to pride or the loss of humility. This is due in part to our differing interpretations of what it means for the child to be humble. I do not see it as a particular virtue of the child so its loss does not become the key to my interpretation of what follows as it seems to for Charlotte. If we were to start where Charlotte does, and see the humility of the child as a virtuous condition and as the lack of a particular sin, and particularly if we accept the depiction of this sin, when it comes, as a sort of individual fall of man, then to tie the warnings of verses 5-6 and 10-14 particularly to leading the child into this sin, that of pride or self-consciousness, makes some sense.

If the question before us is “Is Charlotte’s view of the greatness of the child, as explained in this article, biblical?” then I would have to say that her interpretation of Matthew 18 is plausible. I personally don’t agree with it, but I think the text allows it.

The Evidence of General Revelation

I had said that I would not tackle general revelation, that which we know through our observation and experimentation rather than through Scripture, in this series. I am going to break that rule and at least introduce the idea here.

I have said that Charlotte and I diverge on this issue because we start out differently. A different interpretation of what it means to be humble like the child leads to different interpretations of what follows as well. But why do we start out differently? I suspect it is because our views of the child himself are different. In my many posts on Charlotte’s second principle, I showed that her church, the Church of England, takes what we might call a higher view of human nature than I as a reformed Christian would. That is, it allows for more ability or potential on the part of the individual to participate in his own salvation. That we come to these differing conclusions on Matthew 18 starts, I think, at a much deeper level. It arises from how we evaluate both our own hearts and those around us, particularly those of the children who are the most untouched members of society, the closest to their natural state.

So here are my questions for you — Are children inherently humble? Do they think of themselves? Or are they un-self-conscious? Self-focused? Self-promoting? These can be tricky questions to answer. The very smallest children, infants, are hardly aware that there are people other than themselves; the baby sees his mother as an extension of himself. My own observations lead me to say that the smallest children are quite self-focused. They do not think of the needs of others, but what this means in their case is hard to say. As they grow just a bit, they become aware of differences. I tend to agree with Charlotte that a girl will not be proud of her curls unless some adult has communicated to her that this is a point of pride. But the desire to be better in some way seems to be there almost from the start. A boy will run a race, with real or imaginary opponents, and insist that he is the fastest whether the facts support this claim or not. Charlotte sees self-consciousness, that embarrassment about one’s perceived faults, as a sign of the pride she speaks of. Again I agree that this sort of poor self-perception also stems from pride and I would also agree that it does not seem to be innate to the child but to be learned. But the opposite — to be proud of one’s appearance or abilities seems to spring quite naturally from the child’s (sinful) heart. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this; do you think children innately think of themselves or is this a learned behavior?



What then does Charlotte mean when she speaks of the “greatness of the child as a person”? She sees a variety of qualities in the child which are superior to those of the adult. While we might dispute over one or two, on the whole I think we can see that there are things, like learning languages, that children are simply better at than adults. But Charlotte does not stop here. As her second principle applies to all aspects of the person, so she applies this idea of the greatness of the child to the moral realm as well as the emotional and intellectual. In particular, she lauds a quality of the child which she calls his innocence or humility. She firmly founds this idea on Matthew 18, particularly verses 1-6 and 10-14. Charlotte draws two conclusions from these passages:

  • That children have a positive virtue that the Bible calls humility and that she terms innocence.
  • That this is a quality which can and should be preserved and that those who cause a child to lose it bear a great fault for doing so.

While I do not agree with Charlotte’s interpretation of Matthew 18, I do not think it contradicts the text. I would say that the text allows for but does not necessitate this interpretation. Our interpretations differ because we have a fundamentally different evaluation of the child’s nature. This is based on a deeper division over the meaning of original sin and the effects of the Fall (which I will not revisit here) and a different perception of the small child and whether he does indeed think of himself.

My plan for the next post in this series to return to Charlotte’s Twenty Principles by looking at principle 4 and at what Charlotte calls the gospel principles of education.




Is It Biblical?: CM’s First Principle Revisited

Dear Reader,

I am going backwards but feel I need to address Charlotte Mason’s first principle once more.

This is part of my ongoing series on whether the philosophy of Charlotte Mason (a late 19th-early 20th century educator) is biblical. Charlotte herself claims to base her method on divine law, as it is reveled in both general and special revelation, and her modern-day advocates make a very good case that, if we follow her philosophy, we need to do so closely precisely for this reason. This series is my attempt to answer the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy in accord with divine law? My particular interest is in examining to what degree it accords with special revelation, i.e. the Bible, while acknowledging that many of her ideas may be derived from the general revelation which we know through science and observation. The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Introduction to the series: What does it mean to be “pure CM” and why should we care?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (and a side-post: Man as the Image of God — or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th principle

Is it biblical?: CM’s second principle, part 1, part 2 and part 3

I am returning to the first principle because there is new (to me at least) information on how Charlotte herself understood it. Charlotte Mason Poetry recently republished on their website an article by Miss Mason entitled “Children are Born Persons,” originally published in 1911. Art Middlekauff has also offered his interpretation of Charlotte’s first principle in light of this article here: “Charlotte Mason’s First Principle” (, April 28, 2017).

The Import of the 1911 Article

As I look at this article, my concerns will be the same as they have been in the earlier posts in this series: to see how Charlotte explains her ideas in her own words and to hold these ideas up to the Scriptures to see if they are “agreeable to and found upon” the Word of God.

As Middlekauff points out, the article is summed up in its next to last paragraph:

“We have now considered, however inadequately, the greatness of the child as a person, the liberty that is due to him as a person, some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty (most of which come upon him from within), and the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love.” (Charlotte Mason, “Children are Born Persons,” as published at, paragraph  30)

The four points before us then are:

  1. “the greatness of the child as a person”
  2. “the liberty that is due to him as a person”
  3. “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty”
  4. “the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love”

As I look at each in turn, in addition to the two questions I have posed above, I will also touch upon how each relates to that first principle.  Middlekauff views this article as the ultimate word on Charlotte’s first principle, saying that it must “be seen as the definitive explanation by Mason of what she meant by the principle, as no other segment of her writing is so explicitly linked to the phrase” (“Charlotte Mason’s First Principle”, April 28, 2017).   He quotes a letter in which Charlotte says that “a good deal of [what is in this pamphlet] has been said before however, but I wanted to bring it under the idea of a person.”  I am not sure that I would, as Middlekauff does, use the phrase “definitive explanation.” The difference, I think, comes in our understandings of the phrase “bring it under the idea of a person.” I do not see what Charlotte is doing here as defining her principle so much as showing how it plays out. I think we would agree that this principle is not just first in the sense of being at the head of a list; it is first in Charlotte’s thinking and informs and permeates her whole philosophy. Middlekauff himself says that “Mason explains that she wrote the 1911 article as a way to collect a number of previously expressed concepts under a single unifying idea” and this is closer to my own initial impression of the article — that it applies the first principle more than defining it. I would view this as a very minor quibble, however, and I don’t think it has much impact on the overall purpose of my own series of posts. My goal has been to look at Charlotte’s ideas; her 20 principles are a convenient paradigm for doing so but whether a given idea comes under one principle or another is a side issue at best.

Liberty and Freedom from Oppression

I am going to save the first for last and begin with the second and third of the four points delineated above.  These two seem to complement one another so I am taking them together. They are again: “the liberty that is due to him as a person” and “some forms of oppression which interfere with his proper liberty.” Charlotte begins this section by saying:

“If we ask ourselves, What is the most inalienable and sacred right of a person qua person? I suppose the answer is, liberty! Children are persons; ergo, children must have liberty.” (Charlotte Mason, “Children are Born Persons,” as published at, paragraph 10)

Note that it is not liberty that makes the person but liberty is due a child because he is a person. After clearly distinguishing liberty from license — liberty does not mean allowing our children to do whatever they like — Charlotte goes on to lay out the liberties that a child is entitled to and the “forms of oppression” which threaten them. They are:

  • “The liberty of the person who can make himself do what he ought . . .” (paragraph 14); The child must be free from his own willfulness (paragraph 13), willfulness being the corresponding oppression which must be avoided (cf. Jer. 8:6; Rom. 7:15; Gal. 5:13-16; James 4:17).
  • The freedom from self-consciousness (paragraph 14) which Charlotte calls humility; The corresponding oppression is “undue self-occupation” which comes largely from the praise and comments of adults (cf. Rom. 12:3; I Sam. 16:7; Prov. 31:30; 2 Cor. 11:30; Eph. 2:8-9; I Pet. 3:3-4)
  • “Freedom of thought”; Charlotte says that “Public opinion is, in fact, an insufferable bondage” and the child must “have freedom of mind, liberty of thought, to reject the popular unbelief” (paragraph 17; cf. Rom. 12:2).
  • Freedom from superstition; Superstition, to Charlotte, is the opposite of right religion so that freedom from it must necessarily mean that the child knows God rightly:

“The fact would seem to be that a human being is so made that he must have religion or a substitute: and that substitute, whatever form it take, is superstition, whose power to degrade and handicap a life cannot be estimated. If we would not have our children open to terrors which are very awful to the young, our resource is to give them the knowledge of God, and “the truth shall make them free.” It is necessary to make children know themselves for spirits, that they may realize how easy and necessary is the access of the divine Spirit to their spirits, how an intimate Friend is with them, unseen, all through their days . . .” (paragraph 18; Josh. 24:15; 2 Cor. 6:16-17: James 4:3-4)

These liberties follow from the child’s personhood.  They would not be possible or necessary if the child were not a person. In my previous post on this principle, I drew four conclusions regarding how Charlotte defined her first principle in her six volume Home Education series.  They were:

  • Children are spiritual beings.
  • They are capable of relationship with their Creator and even have a God-ward desire.
  • They have mind, including reason, will, imagination, and creativity.
  • They have a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong.

These differ from the four points that Charlotte discusses in this article but I think we can see a lot of overlap. If the child were not a spiritual being capable of relationship with his Creator, there would be no point in saying, as Charlotte does here, that God must have access to his spirit and that he must be given the knowledge of God. Likewise, if he did not have a mind and  were not capable of thought (the third bullet-point above), there would be no point in insisting on his freedom of thought. Thus these ideas of liberty and oppression flow naturally out of Charlotte’s first principle.

They are closely tied as well to Charlotte’s fourth principle:

 “These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.”

This principle is stated in the negative — what we may not do to children. The flip side — what tools we may use in education — come in  her fifth principle and are expanded in the sixth through ninth principles. So too Charlotte in this article turns from the oppressions we must avoid to the positive — the right spiritual food for children.

Admiration, Hope and Love

Like her fifth principle, Miss Mason’s fourth point stresses the positive. Having addressed the tyrannies which must be avoided, she now turns to “the aliment which he is to live by – Admiration, Hope and Love.”  (An aliment, by the way, is food, the source of nourishment.)

These three spiritual nourishments do not correspond exactly to the three tools of education (atmosphere, discipline, life) which Charlotte mentions in her fifth principle, but it is hard not to think that the list of three is significant. If we were to make a distinction, it is perhaps best to say that the atmosphere, disciple and life are the sources of intellectual nourishment whereas admiration, hope and love are spiritual food.

The connection to I Corinthians 13:13 is so obvious it hardly seems needful to mention it:

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13; ESV)

When Charlotte speaks of admiration, she means not our desire for praise but the praise we give: “Admiration, reverent pleasure, delight, praise, adoration, worship” (paragraph 21). Though her wording differs from that of I Corinthians, she connects this admiration closely to faith:

“I have said that faith is an interchangeable term for admiration. Faith also implies the fixed regard which leads to recognition, and the recognition which leads to appreciation.” (paragraph 24)

This is not to my mind quite the biblical definition of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1; ESV), but perhaps to dispute the point is to quibble over details. When Charlotte speaks of admiration as a necessary food for children, she means that they must have something to worship and admire. She has already made clear that what they have must be real, i.e. the One True God, and not superstition. Though she has altered the phrasing of the I Corinthians verse, this still seems to be a deeply biblical concept; I could spend all day listing verses which call us to worship, praise, or take delight in God.

Charlotte calls God the “God of Hope” (cf. Rom. 15:13) and says:

“Let us try to conceive the possibility of going through a single day without any hope for this life or the next, and a sudden deadness falls upon our spirits, because ‘we live by hope.'” (paragraph 21)

The alternative to living by hope, Charlotte says, is to live only in the moment and only for one’s immediate gratification (paragraph 25). She calls us instead to, as the Book of Hebrews says, “take hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18). I will not dwell long on the many other Bible verses on hope. If you will look up this selection, I think you will see the importance of hope in the life of the Christian: Jer. 29:11; Isa. 40:31; Rom. 15:13; Eph. 4:4; Heb. 10:23; 1 Pet. 1:3.

Last but not least is love. Charlotte speaks of both “the love we give and the love we receive” and “the love of our neighbour and the love of our God” (paragraph 22). The two are intimately related:  “As all love implies a giving and a receiving, it is not necessary to divide currents that meet” (paragraph 22). This is as I John: “We love because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). She goes on to speak of love as a state in which we abide (paragraph 29; cf. John 15:9). She cautions against good works not sanctified by faith which she calls mere “sentimental humanitarianism” and calls us to fix our love on what is lasting, not to follow fads (paragraph 29).

This concept, then, is deeply biblical. It also seems, of all the points in this article, to come the closest to defining what “children are born persons” means. The argument is to some degree circular — because children are spiritual beings, they need spiritual food (admiration, hope, love). But it is also because they need these foods that we know they are spiritual beings.

The Greatness of the Child

I return at last to Charlotte’s first point. I have saved this one for last because I find it the most difficult. In fact, I think it would take quite some time to analyze so I am going to hold off on elucidating it and holding it up to the witness of Scripture till another post. For now, I would just like to look briefly at how this point relates to that first principle which this article seeks to address.

Charlotte begins this section by urging us not to think of the child as “undeveloped persons,” which would be to make them less than persons but as “ignorant persons” (paragraph 6). Though, she says, they need to be informed by us, they are nonetheless in may ways greater than their grown counterparts:

“As soon as he gets words with which to communicate with us, a child lets us know that he thinks with surprising clearness and directness, that he sees with a closeness of observation that we have long ago lost, that he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have long ceased to experience, that he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share, that he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach, that he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single life-time.” (paragraph 7)

This is the greatness she speaks of — that in observational skills and emotion and ability to learn children surpass adults. Thus children, Charlotte would say, have ways in which they are both weaker and superior to adults. Again, I will tackle whether this idea is biblical in another post. For now, let us ask only this: Can this be how Charlotte defines “children are born persons?” I do not see how it can. In their greatness, perhaps we may see that children are persons, but if their greatness made them persons, then we would have to conclude that adults are somehow less of persons.


Charlotte Mason’s philosophy does not have the character of a systematic theology. We may want her to say “these are my ideas and here is what they mean,” but she usually does not speak so directly. The ideas themselves overlap and finding how she would define a given one can require quite a bit of sorting through. In the 1911 article, Charlotte gives us some sense of what it means that “children are born persons.” Having read this article, I am amazed again at what a unified whole her philosophy is; all the parts work together and flow from one another. I have only thus far looked at three of the four points which she brings up in this article (but stay tuned for that first one). I find these three quite in line with the biblical description of a person in both what he needs and what he should avoid.

Until next time







Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 3 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is the third in a three-part series within a series. You can read the first two parts here and here.

My goal for the overarching series is to look at Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles and to ask if they are biblical (I have already done the first and 20th principles). Because so many of us struggle with her second principle, it has evolved into this mini-series of posts. In the first part, I looked at how Charlotte herself explains this principle. In the second, I looked at the range of Christian belief on human nature post-Fall and our ability to do good.

Recapping where we are

Charlotte’s second principle says:

“[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.”

In her own extended explanation of this principle in her sixth volume, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte makes clear that these tendencies, we might say predispositions, to good and evil are present in all people and in all facets of the individual, “body and mind, heart and soul.”

This is a big subject and I chose to narrow it down to those questions about which I think the Bible has the most to say and on which Christians have the most disagreement. I therefore looked in the second post at how the different major branches of Christianity view the human potential for moral good. We can think of these beliefs as ranging along a spectrum from the Eastern Orthodox at one end, with the highest view of the human potential for good, to Reformed Theology at the other end with its belief in “total depravity,” that all aspects of human nature were affected by Adam’s sin.

Charlotte herself was a member of the Church of England (COE) and it is reasonable to assume that she agreed with the teachings of her church. An COE writer of the time (1885) distinguishes between “real freedom” which has been lost and “formal freedom” without which we would have “no capacity for redemption” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: An Historical and Speculative Exposition, 1885, pp. 18-19). He goes on to say that while man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will,” he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (Ibid., pp. 18-19).

I hope that if you have read that second post, that you have some idea now of where Charlotte stands and where you stand. If you are on one end of the spectrum, anywhere from the Eastern Orthodox position to that of Charlotte’s own COE, you can probably rest easy; her second principle likely does not upset you greatly. If you are a little further over, however, and particularly if you subscribe to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity (as I do) then you may still be uneasy.

Coming to Terms with the Second Principle

If you are still reading, you probably find yourself, as I do,  pulled in two directions. On one hand, you may identify as theologically evangelical or reformed and you are committed to the idea that God saves us completely; we cannot do it ourselves and have little, if any, capacity to contribute to the process. On the other hand, you like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education; it is attractive and you’d like to be able to subscribe to it without reservation, but that second principle has always made you uneasy. I am not going to have all the answers for you. What I am going to try to do is give some ways to think about the problem. (One option I am not considering here is that Charlotte’s second principle is not meant theologically. This is a common explanation, but I discussed how Charlotte herself explained this principle in part 1 and it seems to me distinctly theological.)

Option 1: Decide it’s not a problem

One of the easiest ways to deal with the problem is just to decide it’s not going to be a problem for you. You don’t need to agree with everything Charlotte says. No one but Jesus himself was ever right all the time and this could just be something Charlotte got wrong. She was reacting to forces in her own time which said some children (the illegitimate, the poor) were worth less than others and she was likewise a product of her own church’s theology. If she didn’t come as far as we would in our understanding of fallen human nature, then we can forgive her this one fault and move on to all the good she had to say about education itself.

If this is where you end up, I think that’s a fine place to be. But for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, I will point out the following: Charlotte’s philosophy is more than just a way to teach; it is a whole, comprehensive philosophy, not just of education, but of who children are. All its parts are designed to hang together. So we must ask ourselves, what do we lose if we jettison, or at least ignore, the second principle?

Here’s what I think — Charlotte Mason’s approach does not assume children are all good (as unschooling, for instance, does). If she had thought so, she would not have spent so much time discussing habit-training. But she does assume a basic predeliction to chosose the good when presented with good. She uses the analogy of food and I think it is a very apt one. We choose what to put before our kids — Cheetos, fiber and vitamin pellets, fermented veggies — and they choose what to eat. So with their intellectual diet, we can put before them twaddle or textbooks or real living books.

Unschooling (for a point of comparison) tells us that children will naturally gravitate to what they need. If they choose the intellectual equivalent of Cheetos and ignore the veggies, then we need to trust their innate judgement and know that when they need the veggies, they will find a way to get them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think a lot of Christian parents (and non-Christian ones as well) assume that their kids will not like the veggies so they take to tricking (can you say black bean brownies?) and cajoling almost from the get-go. In intellectual terms, this can lead to one of two extremes — either it’s “well, it’s school and you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it; here are your worksheets and textbooks” with no thought when the children don’t like school that the problem might be the schoolwork and not the child, or, on the other side to an overemphasis on making schoolwork fun but hiding the knowledge in cute packages – lapbooks, unit studies, projects, anything that makes the work of learning seem like play or craft.

In between these two extremes, Charlotte acknowledges that kids, if fed on a diet of twaddle (the intellectual equivalent of those Cheetos), will like it. The evil tendency in them gives them a natural laziness that likes to soak up the easy yet unnourishing fare. It is the high fructose corn syrup of the mind and it is addicting. Textbooks are your dry fiber “cookies.” They are packed with vitamins and minerals, artificially extracted from real foods, and reprocessed into a nourishing but bland and ultimately fake bar. They may contain what kids need, or at least what we want to get in them, but they are unattractive and kids are naturally repelled by them. Charlotte tells us that, yes, there are evil tendencies in kids; they will get addicted to that corn syrup if that is what they are fed. But she also says that given a choice between the fiber bar and the fruits and veggies, that they have some natural tendency to like and take in what is truly healthy for them.

I have been speaking in the physical and intellectual realms, but as I hope I have shown in that precious post, Charlotte’s 2nd principle extends to the moral and spiritual realms as well. Charlotte acknowledges that there is a natural (evil) tendency toward a downward spiral, that a child whose conscience is not trained or who is not given good spiritual food will not stay where he is but will descend lower. But, on the other side, she also says that children have a natural affinity for their Creator. Just as a child presented with a healthy diet of veggies and living books will develop a taste for such things and learn to love them so a child given the right spiritual environment will naturally take to it.

This is a long round-about way to come back to our question: what do we lose when we jettison the second principle? If we lose the part about evil tendencies, we become unschoolers who trust the child’s instinct completely since it is all good. If we lose the bit about good tendencies, then what we are saying is that even when presented with the good choices — the veggies, the living books, God Himself — that the child is unable to choose the good over the evil.

Option 2: Common Grace

On first glance, the doctrine of Common Grace seems to help us to reconcile these inconsistencies. God’s grace is His undeserved gift to us. By His special, or saving, grace He both saves us and enables us to do good. It is special because it is particular; it is not for everyone but only for God’s people.

But, the Bible tells us, God sends rain on the just and the unjust. Those who are not among God’s people still receive good from Him. This is Common Grace. It may be called restraining grace as well since if keeps fallen, unregenerate man from being as evil as he could be. Tim Challies, quoting Berkhof, tells us that Common Grace “‘curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men’” (Tim Challies, “The Essential Common Grace,” from Remember that even the doctrine of total depravity does not say that man is as bad as he could possibly be, only that all aspects of his nature are fallen (this was discussed in part 2).

The doctrine of Common Grace is often used to explain why non-believers seem to do good and so it may seem to answer the inconsistencies we see between our own reformed theology and Charlotte’s principles. But we must also remember that Common Grace does not make men good. The Westminster Confession, which we looked at last time, makes clear that though the unregenerate may do things we deem “good” that they are unable to please God without the saving faith that comes through Special Grace and thus their “good” is not really “good.” If we are relying on the idea of Common Grace to get us out of this bind, then we are fooling ourselves (or misunderstanding the doctrine). A person affected by Common but not Special Grace may seem to do good but they are just as incapable as they always were of truly being or doing good.

Option 3: Covenant Children

In my post on Charlotte Mason’s first principle, I spent some time looking at what the Bible has to say about children. One conclusion of that study was that “[Children] are counted among God’s people and at important points (such a covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.” In my denomination, we speak of covenant children. We baptize infants, not because we believe baptism removes Original Sin, but because it is a sign on inclusion in God’s covenant people. And we assume that our children are part of that people unless they prove otherwise (as we would for those baptized as adults).

If, as Reformed Christians, we seek to follow Charlotte’s philosophy but we do not have this view of covenant children, then we are left with a conundrum. Our educational philosophy is predicated on the idea that children can choose the good, both intellectually and morally, but our theology tells us that they cannot choose or do  good until they are saved. So we are left needing to wait on their salvation before we can truly educate them.

I would like to propose a different way of viewing education. If the children of believers are included in God’s covenant community, then they already, even before birth, have those tendencies to good which Charlotte speaks of. We assume their salvation and their education becomes part of their sanctification. I think this idea fits quite well with reformed theology. If, as the doctrine of total depravity teaches, all of our nature has been corrupted by Adam’s Fall, then it makes sense that our sanctification which reverses this corruption should also act on the whole person.

The Roman Catholic Church (for the sake of comparison) has quite a high view of human reason because it sees limited effects to the Fall. If human reason has not fallen, then, once Original Sin is removed, we can have a high degree of confidence in our own reason. But if our reason is fallen along with the rest of our nature, then we cannot inherently trust it. Our intellectual aspect as well as our moral aspect needs to be regenerated.

I want to be clear that I do not think this is how Charlotte Mason herself  would have put it. This is how I, as a reformed Christian, reconcile my beliefs with the truth that I see and experience in her philosophy. I think she and I would have had some theological disagreements about human nature. But I also think that she stumbles on to some real truths about how education works for covenant children. The upshot of this view is that while what Charlotte says about good and evil tendencies may not be true of all children (or adults) that we are saying it is true of our children.

There are still be some problems with this view. It does not give us much to work with if we are teaching other people’s kids (if their parents are not believers). It also contradicts  Charlotte’s assertion that her method is for all children. Charlotte is also very big on the idea that all truth is God’s truth and that truth can come through non-Christians. I agree with both these statements but I am still trying to reconcile in my mind how these ideas fit together nicely. The problems inherent in this view are not unique to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but are basic issues which total depravity has to address — How do we account for the seeming good of unregenerate people? and, similarly, How are such people able to discover intellectual or moral Truth?

Option 4: Re-defining “Potential”

When it comes to other people, we never truly know. As reformed people, we believe that God, before Creation, made a plan and decided (elected) who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Nothing can thwart His plan one way or another. But we still preach the gospel to all because He commands us to and because we don’t know who it is within His plan to save.

In the same way, we may present the good (whether intellectual or moral) to children not knowing which ones God will enable to accept it. From God’s perspective these things are settled, but from ours any one of them has the potential to be saved and therefore to ultimately choose the good. This option may be combined with the previous one– the children of believers are assumed to be holy and to others the offer, both of the gospel and of the good intellectual food we are providing, is presented in the hope that they will be enabled to choose it. This seems to me to be an inherently optimistic view; it hopes the best for people and expects much of them.

I called this view “re-defining potential.” We  might instead say that it shifts the possibility of good from the individual to God Himself. It says not that each child, as he is naturally, can choose good but that each child might, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be regenerated and enabled to choose good. We present the good in the hopes that this is so, not knowing if it will be so in any given case.

Corollary: CM’s Method Can Benefit Non-believers

I am not classifying this as a separate option because I think it can be combined with any of the above options. One of the big problems for those who accept the doctrine of total depravity is how it explains the good that the unregenerate seem to do. Charlotte herself addressed this issue:

“As for this superior morality of some non-believers, supposing we grant it, what does it amount to? Just to this, that the universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws; that all safety, progress, and success in life come out of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver; just as the man who goes out into blazing sunshine is warmed, though he may shut his eyes and decline to see the sun. Conversely, that they who take no pains to study the principles which govern human action and human thought miss the blessings of obedience to certain laws, though they may inherit the better blessings which come of acknowledged relationship with the Lawgiver.” (Home Education, p. 39)

Charlotte here says that there is a blessing that comes with obeying the law of God even if one does not recognize that one is doing so. I think if we keep this in the realm of temporal blessings, this is likely true. If you are a good steward of your body, you will likely be rewarded with health. If you meditate on what is good and beautiful and true, you will have a mind that is more healthy than the one who dwells on evil and debased content. So the one who, following the Charlotte Mason method of education, is presented with a nourishing intellectual diet, though he be unregenerate, will still benefit more than one who is fed the intellectual equivalent of corn syrup or sawdust.


In the first post in this three-part series, I tried to give you Charlotte Mason’s own interpretation of her second principle. The big take-away was that she applied the idea of good and evil tendencies to all aspects of the child and that as such she included both moral and spiritual dimensions, as well as the physical and intellectual. Her second principle is not solely theological but I think it is inaccurate to say that she did not mean it theologically.

In the second part, I tried to sketch out for you the range of Christian belief on the nature of man since the Fall with the goal of both showing where Charlotte herself likely fell and of prodding you to think about where along the spectrum your own beliefs would go.

This last post is for those of us who find ourselves further over to the reformed, total depravity side of things than Charlotte herself was. If you are closer to Charlotte’s own view or if you have a higher view of the human potential for good than Charlotte did, then I don’t expect you have much argument with her second principle. But for those of us who do wriggle in our seats when the goodness of children is discussed, I have tried to present some ways of reconciling the two — both my own ideas and some that have been expressed previously — along with their objections.

For myself, I find myself at this point (acknowledging that my views have changed in the past and may again) saying that while I do not think Charlotte and I are on the same page in terms of our view of human nature and while I am not comfortable using the language she does in her second principle, I can accept her philosophy and method of education because I think that she still ends up saying something true and valuable. My own beliefs are some combination of options 3 and 4 and the corollary I outlined above.

What I would like to know from you all is if any of this makes any sense. What is convincing and what isn’t? Are there other ways to think about all this that I have missed?


Resources: I realize that I haven’t cited a lot of sources in these posts so here are just a few to get you going —

Bible verses on man’s sinful nature:

Genesis 6:5, 8:21;  2 Chronicles 6:36; Psalm 14:2-3, 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 21:10, 15; Job 15:14; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 10:14; 13:23; 17:9; Micah 7:2-4; Matthew 12:34-35; Mark 10:18= Luke 18:19; John 3:19; 8:44; Romans 3:9-12, 23; 5:7-8, 12, 19; 8:7;  1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:3; Titus 3:3; Hebrews 11:6

Blog posts on CM’s 2nd principle; my inclusion of them here does not necessarily imply endorsement:

Charlotte Mason, Total Depravity and the Divine Image,” by Brandy Vencel at Afterthoughts Blog

Why Did She Have to Say That?” by Karen Glass at Karen

Classically Charlotte: The nature of children,” from Simply

Fact Check: Did Charlotte Mason Reject Original Sin?” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason

“The Theological Significance of Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle,” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason

And some of my own posts on this principle:

“Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle: Goodness and Badness”

CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children”


Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool


my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment


A Literary Homestead


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

The Common Room

....Blogging about cabbages and kings since 2005.

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Craft Projects For all Ages

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more


Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools

Just Right Porridge

... you'll lick your bowl clean...