Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Berkouwer on the Image of God

I recently delved into G.C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984; orig. pub. 1957). I have been accused of having some non-standard views of the image of God and I was excited to tackle this book and to see where Berkouwer stood on the issue.

This is a dense book and fairly wide ranging. Berkouwer tackles many issues that relate tangentially to his main topic and which I never would have thought to address (for example, is each new human soul a unique new creation?). Overall, I like how thorough he is and how he analyzes the various positions and their weaknesses. My biggest disappointment was that he does not state clearly once and for all how he would define the image of God. One has to piece together his arguments to see where he actually comes down. The short story on The Image of God is that if you have any interest in this topic it is a must-read book. It addresses many issue and shows the many weaknesses of the usual, pat answers. But you will not necessarily walk away with the issue resolved in your mind.

As Berkouwer says a number of times, we Christians have been studying the Scriptures for about a millennium and we have yet to come to one generally accepted conclusion of what it means that man was created in the image of God. The two big questions we have to address are: What is the image? and What affect (if any) did the Fall have on it?

As I said Berkouwer’s own position is a little hard to discern, but here is my take on it (scroll to the end of this article for the notes I took as I read the book):

  • Man was created to have a covenant relationship with God and cannot be understood apart from God. He must always be seen and understood in this relational light and never on his own. (God, on the other hand, may be understood apart from man.) When Genesis 9:6 says that man may not be killed it is because of his creational relationship with God. 
  • Man is a whole. He is both saved and judged as a whole. We must avoid all dualism which pits body against soul or speaks of one as the greater and one as the lesser part of man. Any identification of the image which places it in one part of man — usually in his soul to the exclusion of his body — must be rejected. 
  • There is a functional or public aspect to the image; to be in the image includes representing or showing God. 
  • Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and we need to maintain this standard. God’s common grace restrains evil rather than preserving something good in us. If it were not for this, we would become completely dehumanized or demonized. 
  • In the New Testament, we are told that Christ is the image of God (not merely in the image). We do not become God, but as children reflect their parents we are to reflect God by being in His image. Being in the image is closely related to sonship. We are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God in us. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him to be (in Genesis 1). This is a new creation. There is an already and not yet aspect to this renewal; as we become sanctified we reflect the image more and more. The image is connected with what makes us human; as we become more in the image, we also become more truly human.

To sum up and answer the two big questions, if I am understanding correctly what Berkouwer is saying, he would say that the image involves the whole man; it cannot be compartmentalized to one aspect of human nature or to the soul to the exclusion of the body, and that it is about relationship with God. There is also a public aspect to the image in that we “image” or represent God to others. The image of God in man was lost at the Fall, but for believers is being restored through the union we have with Christ in sonship as we come to better and better reflect God.

I largely agree with his position. I would add the following, which are not corrections to what he is saying (as if I could) but simply further thoughts:

  • In the modern world, we have come to use the phrase “image of God” in our argument against abortion so whenever someone suggests that the “image of God” was lost at the Fall, we have a knee-jerk reaction and fear that they are arguing for abortion and against the value of every human life. This a modern failing. We cannot base our definition of what the image is on a modern political argument. We need to start with the Scriptures and move forward from there. 
  • We have a tendency look at our anthropological definitions to determine what the image of God in us is. We say: “we are rational, we communicate, we have relationships” and then we equate the image of God with such things. This method starts with us and makes in image of God in our likeness.
  • We detract from who God is when we break Him into parts and identify some of these with the image of God. We say “God is love” and “God has dominion,” and because we can love in some fashion or because we rule over creation, we equate these particular characteristics of God with the image. But in doing so we ignore the doctrine of divine simplicity which says that while we may speak of God’s attributes in this way, due to our own human incapacities, that God Himself cannot be broken down in this way into parts, some of which are the “image” and some of which aren’t.
  • When we break down the image of God into specific parts — human rationality, human communication, even the ability to love — we also run into problems when we encounter people who, for whatever reason, cannot communicate or do not exhibit rational thought. We risk saying that the baby born with half a brain or the adult in a coma is not fully human because they lack some characteristic or ability. The image is not about ability unless it is the ability to have a relationship with God.
  • The image is not just something we are. It is something we are called to be.

That is my take on Berkouwer’s Image of God. Overall definitely a book to make one think. Below as promised are my more detailed notes.


My notes on the book:

Chapter 1:

In the first chapter Berkouwer discusses the definition of man and his nature among non-Christians. He spends considerable time on the humanists as these were prominent in his day. He argues that while the humanists have moved away from a completely idealistic, positive view of man, that they have can’t help but come back to it at some level. They have a view of the ideal man, what man should be (which seems Platonic). Berkouwer, for his part, argues that man cannot be understood on his own, apart from God. This is not a two-way street. God is not understood in the light of man, but man means nothing apart from God. Those who spend a lot of time talking about man’s nature but do not look at him in the light of God, have no self-knowledge. They theorize generally about others but do not know themselves.

Chapter 2:

In this chapter, Berkouwer gives an overview of how the image of God in man has been understood in Christian thought and what the key questions are. Despite millennia of study, there are still many questions on this point and no clear definition of what the image of God is. In reformed thought, it has been common to distinguish two uses of the phrase “image of God,” a wider and a narrow. In the wider sense, the image of God is about man’s essence, what makes him man, and this is something he cannot lose. In the narrower sense, it is about his nature and this he lost at the Fall. However, the Bible does not distinguish these two senses and as Bavinck points out we must view them as interrelated, and yet we always end up dualistic when we start with this framework. There are lots of problems with this wider/narrower conception. On one wide the Lutherans have traditionally held that the image of God in man is original righteousness and that it was lost. But they tend to back away from this somewhat and to say that there is some remnant that remains as well. On the other end, the Eastern Orthodox identify the image of God with the wider sense, that it is man’s essence and includes what makes him man, his personality, rationality, etc. But they end up semi-pelagian because it is hard to take this view and then not end up saying that there is some good in man and some ability to approach God. 

One problem with all the wider views of the image of God is that they are making an assumption. They assume that whatever makes man man, his humanness, has to be what is called the image of God. But the “man of lawlessness,” i.e. the antiChrist, is also called a man. Does he also bear the image of God? Though Berkouwer does not say it as such, we seem often to be making God in our image when we seek to define the image of God as what makes us human. We also tend to divide man when we do so. We do not identify his body with the image of God (eg. we do not have ears because God does) and so we separate body and soul. The image of God is only identified with non-physical characteristics. 

Schilder took what might be called a functional view of the image of God. Man was in God’s image because he was to be God’s image on earth, to show God. He still has the faculties he needs to do this but he no longer does it or can do it post-Fall. The image is lost but what makes man man is still there (but was never identified with the image). Berkouwer thinks that Schilder and two others who have similar views and whose names start with Sch- are on the right track. 

A main reason not to say the image is lost is Genesis 9:6 (and the verse in James). One can say that this is a historical fact — that the image of God was in man so others may not kill or abuse him — but Berkouwer is dissatisfied with this. Here Berkouwer returns to what he said in chapter 1, that man only makes sense in light of God.  Taking this idea to Genesis 9:6, he says that man cannot be killed with impunity because of his creational relationship with God. This seems like just the germ of an idea here which he will expand on later in the book. 

Chapter 3:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses how the image of God has been identified. He starts by saying that there is no clear consensus. He dismisses the idea that there is any distinction between “image” and “likeness.” In the immediate context of Genesis 1, some have identified it with having dominion or with something about “male and female.” Berkouwer rejects both of these. He also spends some time on the relation between being in God’s image and being commanded not to make images of God. 

Calvin and Bavinck both understand the image in light of NT passages which speak of the renewed image of God in man. Berkouwer accepts this method but argues against Barth who goes a bit farther and sees the image of God in man as defined by Christ, the image of God. It is not, as Barth says, that Christ is the perfect definition of man but that He became man. 

Berkouwer then moves on to expounding his own theory which is largely based on the New Testament evidence. He includes not just those few verses which use the word “image” specifically but also others which speak of our becoming like Christ. John’s writings hold a prominent place in his theory. 

In the NT, Berkouwer argues, we are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him (in Genesis 1) to be (p. 99). Berkouwer speaks of this as a new birth and a re-creation. 

There is an outward, public or communal aspect to this as well — in our sanctification, the image of God becomes visible. It is seen by others. 

This renewal of the image of God in man has a now and not yet aspect — the image is renewed but in our sanctification and ultimately in our glorification it becomes clearer and clearer in us. 

To be like Christ in this way is not to be the same as Him. We do not become gods. The image of God Berkouwer links to being children of God. We reflect Him as children reflect their parents. It is similar, but not the same. Again, there is an outward aspect as we are called to reflect God in our lives. 

Chapter 4:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses the problem of a “remnant” or vestige of the image of God remaining in man and how this can be compatible with total depravity. He looks first at Kant who seems to advocate total depravity but then as he talks about the remnant ends up backing off of this. This is typical of those who speak of a remnant of the image in man. It’s hard to maintain this position without saying that there is some good that remains in man. We need to be careful how we understand the use of the word “remnant,” however. When the confessions use this language, it becomes clear from context that they are not speaking of any goodness in man but of something which serves to condemn him all the more for his sin. 

Berkouwer spends some time on a dispute within the Lutheran church to show that using the categories of accident and substance also do not help in this discussion. 

Berkouwer ends the chapter by stating strongly that Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and that we need to maintain this standard. He ends the chapter with a question: why does this not seem to be what we see? That is, why do men appear to have some goodness in them?

Chapter 5:

Berkouwer goes on to discuss the question he raised at the end of the last chapter: if man, post fall, is totally corrupted why does it appear that he can do good? He looks at Calvin and Kuyper and their arguments for and definition of common grace which has often been the reformed answer to this question. He notes that by their definition common grace restrains sin in man but does not enable him to truly do good though there may be outward conformity to God’s law. Common grace does not mean that there is some good still in people, though there is a tendency to take it in this direction. Berkouwer finds common grace a half-satisfying answer which still raises a lot of questions. 

Berkouwer goes on to look at a few other positions and spends considerable time on the Catholic position (official and unofficial). 

Because many equate “conscience” with what is good or from God in man, Berkouwer then looks at what the NT has to say about conscience. A “good conscience” is not a guide but an assurance of faith and salvation. A “weak conscience” is one that can be a false guide and is subject to whims. Never are we told in the Bible that our conscience is there to tell us what is right and wrong. God’s law is our guide for what is right and wrong (Heidelberg catechism). 

Berkouwer makes clear that there is a difference between (outward) conformity to God’s law and actual obedience.

At this point he begins to advance his own theory. As before, Berkouwer relates the image of God in man to his relationship with God. Our relationship with God cannot be divorced from our relationships with other people. These two are linked and we need our neighbor as well. We cannot understand our humanness as our will or reason because these things are individualistic and we are social.  

God’s work among people is a preserving more than a restraining. He preserves our common humanity so that we are not completely demonized or dehumanized. Our humanness is always threatened but there is a limit placed on our corruption.

Chapter 6:

In this chapter Berkouwer looks at the parts of a man and how he may (or may not be divided). The Bible does not give us a clear, scientific anthropology. Berkouwer’s emphasis throughout is on wholeness. In Genesis man’s body, made from dust, does not get a soul added to it but he becomes a soul. 

Berkouwer rejects a tripartite division (body, soul, and spirit) and being inherently dualistic (the third part mediates between the other two) and coming from Greek philosophy. He rejects dualistic conceptions which pit one part against another and inherently imply that one is greater and one is lesser. He rejects the idea that the body is the source of sin and that the soul is greater. Scripture speaks of sin coming from man’s heart.  Duality need not be dualism, however, if the two are not pitted against one another.

Various approaches try to locate the essence of man in one part, the central part. This might be the heart; Scripture seems to speak of the heart this way. More modern people speak of the “person.” This “personalism” emphasizes the relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ but also tends to a kind of subjectivity and away from fixed truth. Berkouwer rejects “personhood” as a solution.

Again Berkouwer ends by emphasizing the whole man. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body shows how important the body is. The whole man is saved. Scripture never speaks of a valuable part in man but of his lowliness in relation to God. 

Chapter 7:

In this chapter Berkouwer discusses the phrase “the immortality of the soul” and what part of man is immortal. Bavinck says that the soul is inherently immortal and that man’s body, as its organ, originally partook of this immortality. This immortality was lost and not mortality characterizes man.

Berkouwer looks at and rejects the position that there is a difference between death and dying and that dying has always been part of the plan as a kind of transition and something to draw men closer to God. 

Bavinck notes that many religions posit an immortal soul. But does this mean we should follow them?

Turning to the biblical evidence — In the Bible death and life are opposed. Scripture never speaks of “the immortality of the soul,” nor does it deny it. John says that those that have the Son have eternal life and those that don’t, don’t. Berkouwer believes we should take Christ literally when He says that Lazarus was asleep. Death, seen in the light of the Resurrection, is a sleep.

There is no intermediate state. Berkouwer spends a long time on this but in the end seems to simply say that it is a mystery what happens between physical death and judgment. 

Because we believe in the wholeness of the person, we need not fear science when it links psychic things to physical things (eg. explaining one’s emotions through chemical processes). 

Only God is essentially immortal. We have no natural immortality.  Scripture does not speak of “the immortality of the soul” and those who do tend to reject the Christian faith. It is not that there is one part of us, the soul, that is immortal and another, the body, which is not. There is no distinction between body and soul in the effects of death but judgment affects the whole man. Our continued existence is not a source of comfort but should make us fear judgment. So too the whole man, body and soul, is resurrected. The testimony of Scripture is not that there is some part which will escape death but that God will see us through it. “[L]ife is being-with-Christ.” 

Chapter 8:

Berkouwer turns next to the origin of the soul. There are two schools of thought: creationism, held mostly by Catholics and Calvinists, and traducianism, held mostly by Lutherans. The former says that each human soul is created directly by God and the latter that souls are not thus directly created. Catholics tend toward the creationism position in  part as a response to evolution. That is, they are willing to admit bodily evolution because they believe that the soul is added to the body as a separate creative act thus making the being human though he may be descended from apes. Lutherans tend to care less about the soul’s creation because they believe the image of God in man is original righteousness or holiness and that it was lost at the Fall. 

The problem with creationism is that it tends toward a dualism in the nature of man, a separation between body and soul and also a natural preeminence of the soul over the body as being more directly created by God. Berkouwer argues that traducianism also assumes a kind of dualism, however, since even it asks the questions about the creation of the soul as a separate entity apart from the body, a question Scripture never addresses. Thus the two positions actuary have common presuppositions and Berkouwer rejects both as asking the wrong questions. 

Chapter 9:

Next Berkouwer discusses human freedom and what it means to be free. He says we usually discuss this in anthropological categories, not biblical ones. Determinism and indeterminism are humanistic, not biblical, ways of viewing things. Biblically speaking we are not free from but free for. It is not about throwing off all restraint but about being free for the possibility of doing good.

For Calvin man lost “free will” at the fall but it is not that he no longer wills but that he is no longer free to choose good. It is enslavement to sin. Divine grace makes us once again free to do good. 

Berkouwer speaks of this as “real freedom.” “Formal freedom” is what people are often talking about — being able to choose freely between two options, one good and one evil. But this cannot be modelling the image of God because choosing evil can never reflect God. Man is free in his submission to God. The closer we get to God the more free we become. 

Liberation, freedom from a number of evil, oppressive things, is the work of the gospel and a sign of the kingdom of God. It is a blessing. 

There is some question of the origin of sin and if Adam and Eve had formal freedom if God created the possibility for sin. Berkouwer rejects this idea but does not offer an alternative, only speaking of “the riddle of sin.” 

Berkouwer rejects the idea that God created man with formal freedom and with two paths equally open before him. Even in those passages in which He says “choose which way you will go,” He also always makes clear which path should be chosen. There is also a command saying which way to go, never an arbitrary choice. The command given to Adam and Eve was not a probationary one. It was not an either-or choice. It was the serpent who interpreted it that way. 

Chapter 10 (conclusion):

In the final chapter, Berkouwer discusses the phrase “man of God” as it appears in the NT. It occurs only twice in the NT. He says it refers to any believer and denotes a close relationship with God. Becoming a man of God is the opposite of annihilation. 

True human nature is not obscured but only becomes more pronounced in right relationship to God. 

“Man rediscovers his destiny only in sonship, in which the following of God restores the image of God.” (p. 352)

It is not wrong to speak of man’s greatness but we must speak of it as the Bible does. Greatness comes through service and points to God. The man of God is the central point of creation rightly understood. Man is sometimes lumped with beasts and at other times is not. We must understand his position relative to the rest of creation. He is central but not independent of it. His centrality is seen also in the corruption of all creation through his Fall.  

The relation between men and angels is not one of higher and lower or greater and lesser. 

Summary of points Berkouwer makes:

  • Man cannot be understood on his own, apart from God. To try to do so is humanism. This is not a two-way street. God is not understood in the light of man, but man means nothing apart from God
  • There are not two senses of the image. Reformed Christians have tended to speak of the image in wider and narrower senses but there are problems with this. The Scriptures do not make this distinction. It tends to lead to semi-Pelagianism.  Neither can we distinguish between the image and the likeness.
  • When we identify the image of God with certain characteristics we tend to divide man in unbiblical ways, placing the image in his soul/spirit and ignoring his body. 
  • Those with a function view of the image — it is something we do

 — are on the right track. There is an outward aspect of the image; it is something we show or represent.

  • Man cannot be killed with impunity (Gen. 9:6) because of his creational relationship with God. 
  • Christ is the image of God. In the NT, we are told to put off the old man and to put on the new. This is a renewal of the image of God. It is only in Christ, through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, that man comes into his true nature as God intended him (in Genesis 1) to be (p. 99). This is a new creation. 
  • The image of God in us is linked to sonship. We reflect him as children do their parents but we do not become God. 
  • There is a now and not yet aspect to the image. It becomes clearer and clearer in us as we are sanctified. 
  • Those who speak of a remnant of the image in man tend to end up speaking of some residual goodness in him. Scripture shows man as totally corrupt with no goodness in him and that we need to maintain this standard. 
  • We must always consider the whole man. In Genesis man is not a body with a soul attached but the body becomes a soul. The two cannot be divided. There may be a duality (two complementary parts) but we cannot accept a dualism (two parts in conflict with each other or where one is the greater and one the lesser). The whole man is saved. Judgment also affects the whole man.
  • The image is often identified with what makes us human (as opposed to angels or animals). True human nature becomes more pronounced in right relationship to God. 
  • There is always a threat that we will be dehumanized or demonized. “Common grace” is God’s restraining (nor preserving) work. Our humanness is always threatened but there is a limit placed on our corruption.
  • “[L]ife is being-with-Christ.” 
  • Man lost “free will” at the fall but it is not that he no longer wills but that he is no longer free to choose good. It is enslavement to sin. Divine grace makes us once again free to do good.
  • “Man rediscovers his destiny only in sonship, in which the following of God restores the image of God.” (p. 352)

The Purpose of Man in the Purpose of Education

Dear Reader,

I have made the argument repeatedly here that our approach to education inherently says things about our view of man’s nature and purpose. Today I would like to nuance that a little.

I am inspired by a remark made on the Mortification of Spin podcast. In their episode on the Davenant Institute (December 30, 2020), the hosts were interviewing two of the men behind that school, Brad Littlejohn and Colin Redemer. I am not sure which of the two made the remark [1], but the gist of it is that when we make education utilitarian, we make people utilitarian. The speaker emphasized that, while most colleges and universities lure students in with promises that their degrees will lead to jobs and money, they proudly make no such claim but educate for education’s sake with no practical end in view.

There is a circular-ness here. On one hand, our views of man’s purpose will inform our approach to education. On the other, our approach to education will influence how we view ourselves and others. When we say “this school will enable you to get a good job that earns a good salary” we are sending the message that a graduate’s value is in his ability to earn. Even with a slightly different emphasis — if, for instance, a school stresses service or contributing to the greater good — there is still some implied utilitarian purpose. We are telling students that their value is in what they give back. And giving back is good. Serving others is good. But the flip side is that those who cannot contribute — the old, the young, the sick, the disabled — are devalued.

In younger years, the emphasis is not so much on money or productivity, but it still tends toward utilitarianism. More often than not, each age is just seen as preparation for the next. High schoolers are prepared for college, middle schoolers are prepared for high school, and so on down the line till even three and four-year-olds must be prepared for kindergarten. The message that we send to children is that their life and their value are somewhere in the future. It is a good instinct in them to rebel against this.

To avoid this, we must turn the thing on its head and ask first what message we wish to send. Is it that the one who earns most is the most valuable? Is it that your value hinges on what you can contribute? Or is it that each person is inherently valuable? That knowledge for its own sake is good?

In my own philosophy of education, I have argued that what we do in education is to put before children the things of God. Our goal, what we hope for, is the transformation of the mind which, theologically speaking, falls under what we call sanctification, the renewing of man’s fallen nature. I recognize as I say this that there is something utilitarian here. There is still an end goal we are working towards, albeit an intensely personal, internal one. Yet because it is ultimately God who works and not us, we cannot be results-oriented. Our motivation — as teachers and students — must be about love — love of knowledge, truth, goodness, and beauty; and love of God from whom all these flow. If in how we educate students we are communicating to them something about their worth let it be this: your worth is found in Christ in whom you live and move and have your being (Acts 17:28).


[1] I find it hard at times when listening to discern who is speaking.

Book Reviews: C.R. Wiley on the Household and the Cosmos

Dear Reader,

I recently read not one but two books from C.R. Wiley, a Presbyterian pastor from Connecticut. I actually read the second book, The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019), first, because a friend had asked my opinion on it. I realized as I did so that this book was actually a follow up to Wiley’s earlier work, Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart (Eugene, OR: Resource Publication, 2017), and that it did not stand well on its own. I walked away from Cosmos with a number of questions, often unsure at what Wiley was getting at, so I decided I had better read Man of the House, a longer book which explains his theories a little more fully. 

Though Wiley himself is a pastor, my short take on these two volumes together is that they are just not inherently Christian. The big idea Wiley presents will certainly appeal to some Christians and he does make use of the Bible in making his arguments, but he also looks to non-Christian sources, particularly Roman ones, and the theories he presents are more about economics and political order than about theology.  Now these things are not unrelated — everything ultimately comes back to our worldview and our ideas about God and the universe — and so we may evaluate Wiley’s ideas in the light of a biblical worldview, but how he gets where he gets is not an inherently theological exercise, if that makes sense. It actually helped me greatly to understand this. After reading Cosmos and to a lesser extent while reading Man of the House, I was left wondering about Wiley’s positions on certain high intensity theological debates of our day. He seemed at times to skirt various controversial issues but not to clearly state his view on them. When I realized he was just not giving me theological arguments, this made a little more sense. So while some of his positions may tend to support this school of thought or that one, if you are looking for books on Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) or the Family Church movement, these are not really the place to go. 

The heart of Wiley’s books is to present a particular view of Creation (the cosmos, that is) and to make an argument for how we should live and structure our households within that greater structure. There are a few big assumptions which he makes from the outset which really shape his argument. He also covers a lot of ground so I have struggled in writing this to know how to organize all the material. In the end I think the best way to proceed is for me to go topic by topic and to sum up his arguments and give my reflections on each and then at the end to try to pull it all together and look at the bigger themes. 

Wiley on  . . . the State of the World Today

We can begin to see where Wiley is coming from even from the titles of his books. The Household and the War for the Cosmos tells us that there is a battle afoot, and  Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart tells us that Wiley thinks that a catastrophe is coming and that we need to prepare now. There is a tone of survivalism here but Wiley does not advocate running off to the wilderness with a stock of canned goods. Though he fears a breakdown of society, one which he would say has already come in many ways, his solutions have to do with building one’s own household and especially becoming self-sufficient in an economic sense. He does not advocate a retreat and actually does urge us to become involved with our neighbors and with local politics. 

One of the big assumptions Wiley makes is that the world is not in a good place and is headed for a worse one. He seems to idealize a past age, looking to a time before the rise of atheism and “sciencism” as the epitome of human civilization (Cosmos, p. 100). The modern world, on the other hand, is a low point. Even the paganism which came before Christianity is better than where we are now (Cosmos p. 101). While he is not without some optimism for the future (Cosmos p. 102), his theory is based on the premise that civilization will end and that it will do so relatively soon (Man p. xiii). It is a long, slow end he predicts and so his suggestions are not the “run away” type but the “build your life to withstand the coming cataclysm” type (Man, p. xiv).  What does the “end of civilization” look like? Beyond the breakdown of the family, Wiley mentions political disintegration and economic failure including such things as banks collapsing (Man, p. 9). 

I find Wiley’s critiques are often good and I like his point about how all the things the family used to do (eg. education, care of the elderly) have been taken away and outsourced to others. I am less inclined to agree with his assessment of the current situation vis-a-vis the past and the future. There is an eschatology underlying this all, one that says that the world is getting worse. Yet Wiley does not look to the end times for relief but anticipates a cataclysmic event which Christians can survive. It would be interesting to hear where Wiley places himself in the whole post-, pre-, a-millennial spectrum. The “world is going to hell in a handbag” attitude smacks of premillennialism, but he seems to look for answers, not in a rapture or the Second Coming, but in this time.

On  . . . Piety and the Cosmos

In Cosmos Wiley champions the virtue of piety. In our society “piety” has been downgraded first to “devotions” and then to “quiet times” (or even “QTs”). These take something that was meant to be all-encompassing and make it a personal matter accomplished in 15 minutes in the morning (Cosmos p. 14). When we eliminate the word “piety,” we also eliminate the idea (Cosmos p. 17).  For the definition of true piety, Wiley turns to both classical, especially Roman, sources and to the Bible. Based on Acts 17:23, he defines piety as reverent action towards God, leaders, family, and all to whom reverence is due (Cosmos p. 25). 

Piety is based on a certain understanding of the world which was believed in ancient times, both in (pagan) Roman culture and among Christians, but which has been lost to us today. Again, his sources are both biblical and classical, though he tends to lean heavily on the Roman ones. This worldview is summed up in the word “cosmos.” This word implies that everything that is is part of one unified and ordered system. It includes both the physical world and the spiritual one, and every thing and every being within this system has its place. Wiley advocates a return to the idea that everything is connected and that it has order. With order comes hierarchy. Piety, right duty to the other members of the hierarchy, holds the whole thing together (Man, p. 93). 

Within the cosmos are microcosms. The most basic unit within this order is the household. The cosmos itself is like one giant household of which Jesus is the governing Lord (Cosmos pp. 63, 64). The structure of the cosmos he compares to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The household is the smallest but also the most essential unit. Households together form villages, which in turn form cities, and so on. 

The purpose of our households is to serve as microcosms of the largest “cosm” of all (Cosmos p. 88). The head of the household is a kind of mediator, standing “between his household and heaven, representing each to the other” (Cosmos p. 74). Even the small household has power, like the fulcrum of a lever, to impact the world (Cosmos, p. 116). 

Though he relies more on Roman than biblical texts to support this view, I do think Wiley has something with this view of cosmos. The Bible certainly does give us an ordered Creation, containing both physical and spiritual beings, with God as the Creator of all and the Authority over all. I am a little less enamored of some of his particular emphases. I think there are dangers in the nesting doll image he uses and he overemphasizes authority structures, points we will explore as we delve a little deeper. 

Sidebar (Wiley uses lots of sidebars within his first book so I am going to use them too, to discuss a few points which would not otherwise fit well in the overall narrative): Within the layered cosmos, Wiley says: “Just a little above us, there are principalities and powers . . . Paul actually names their chief: ‘the Prince of the Power of the Air’” (Cosmos p. 56). This name is, of course, given to Satan. But this is not the biblical order. Satan is not our rightful ruler. Nor are we subject to spiritual authorities (other than God Himself), but we will rule over and judge them. Wiley later says: “The principalities continue to rage against the Lord of the Cosmos (Cosmos, p. 114), again implying that there is an active and powerful role that Satan plays in our world whereas the witness of Scripture is that Satan is bound. Yes, our battle is a spiritual one, but our enemy is not a powerful one.

On . . .  the Household

Wiley traces the origin of the household as the basic human structure to the first chapters of Genesis.The command to households there is to be fruitful, a task which he applies to work, procreation, and culture (Cosmos, pp. 117-18). Woman is given to man because “it is not good for him to be alone,” which Wiley understands as meaning that he will not be as fruitful alone (Man, p. 58). [Certainly he will not produce children alone!] For his biblical model, Wiley looks primarily to Abraham’s household which includes not just his wife and son but also many slaves or servants (the Hebrew word is the same). A household is a family but more than a family. A household is a stronghold (Man, p. xvi). Built rightly it can withstand the cataclysm to come.

Part of being built rightly is to have the right structure. There is duty within a household because there is an authority structure.There is also a common goal. Because the sons inherit, they are in a sense working for themselves when they contribute to the family business. They have a stake in the greater enterprise which a slave or hired man does not. Wiley makes a nice connection here to our status within God’s household — we also are heirs and when we work for His Kingdom, we are working for our own good as well (Cosmos, p. 97). 

A household has an economy and a polity and a law. A husband and wife together form the smallest polity (Man, p. 14). Even within such a small unit, a head is needed (Man, p. 15). There is a common good which is worked for and each member has a role to play and something real to contribute, even young children. This is the economy. The law refers to the rules and duties which structure the household interactions. 

The structure within the household Wiley compares to that of a Sovereign and his subjects. The king defends the subjects and they in turn support him (Man, p. 7). The responsibility of the one is defense and of the other is obedience. In this analogy, the husband and father plays the role of king and his wife and children are the subjects. Working towards a common goal — which bringing one’s work home again allows — helps cement these authority structures (Man, p. 71). Within that structure, everyone has a role to play: “In a justly ordered house there are roles to assign; but we should also exercise wisdom when working with people and their idiosyncrasies” (Man, p. 70). The family business, whatever it is, gives everyone a role since it provides more work to go around. Of course, there is other work to do as well. Wiley seems very much in favor of homeschooling (Man, p. 45), but there are of course other jobs that need done to make a household run smoothly as well. I will say for Wiley that he seems to value everyone’s contribution, men and women, adults and children. Wiley does favor traditional sex roles, though his argument is not from Scripture but from nature — the traditional roles work well because men and women have natural strengths and weaknesses (Man, p. 46). Children, too, are contributors to the household and Wiley argues that we would have more children if we valued them for their economic and labor contributions (Man, p. 61).

The household is indeed an important biblical concept. Though Wiley makes it a cornerstone of his schema, his conception of it is ill-defined. He seems to imply that all people should be part of households but he does not address how this happens. Singleness, for Wiley, is not an ideal choice.Though he references the biblical text in which the Apostle Paul seems to praise singles as better able to serve God, he does not seem to accept this principle but to be rather dismissive of it, saying that:

“Rather than challenge [the choice to opt out of family life], or even question it, many evangelicals, especially in coastal cities, justify it, citing 1 Corinthians 7 and Paul’s reflections on the advantages he enjoyed as an unmarried apostle.” (Cosmos p. 8) 

Even if singles were to join themselves to households, it is not clear what role they would play. Abraham’s household which included many servants/slaves is Wiley’s model and yet when he discusses the household he speaks as if every man should be the head of a household. There is no place for workers in his schema (as we shall see when we look at his economic views). Yet big households don’t run without labor. If you are to have a successful family business, you will need eventually to hire people beyond your spouse and children. Wiley’s model seems to necessitate and yet disparage those who work for others.

Wiley does not address those households mentioned in the New Testament. In many ways, these would strengthen his argument. Often we see households operating, and being saved, as a unit. There is certainly much here for us independent, individualistic Amercians to think about. But there are also some ideas which may not fit well in Wiley’s schema. We see, for instance, women as the head of households in the New Testament. (The roles of men and women within the household will be discussed further below.)

On  . . .  the Household Economy

The problem Wiley sees in modern society is that all these parts of the household have broken down. There is no head and so there is no law. A major focus is the lack of an economy. As people began to work outside the home more and more, there was no common purpose for the family and thus nothing to tie its members together. As an antidote Wiley urges each household to build its own economy. What this looks like practically speaking is owning a means of production and working for oneself: “Productive property gives the household economy something to work on together, something to offer the world in exchange for a living” (Man, p. 30).  To work for another he calls “wage slavery” (Man, pp. 40ff, 116), a loaded term if ever there was one. “Here is the truth: if you do not own productive property you work for someone who does. Ownership is freedom and wage earners are not owners. It is just that simple”(Man, p. 39). By essentially establishing a family business, the household decreases its dependence on the larger societal system but also gives its members a reason to once again work together. 

“The goal is to bring your work home with you — to make the household the center of productive enterprise once again. This can mean bringing members of your household into the venture at some point” (Man, p. 42). Beyond working out of the home, Wiley also advocates other practices which make one less dependent on the border economy, from gardening to homeschooling to a certain kind of estate planning.

It is odd actually to read these books in the midst of 2020, a time of pandemic and unrest, when many have lost their jobs, stability and possibly their health. It is odd, but it is also instructive. I suppose we all evaluate things based on our own experience. For me, my husband spent some years working as a “freelancer” (something Wiley praises) though he is now once again working for a (relatively) big company. He has also worked with and for friends who have started their own businesses. I have been in the craft world and know many people who make and sell goods as a way to support themselves. I have to say any kind of working for yourself is tough and when the hard times have hit, as they have in 2020, these people have taken a big hit.  I am much happier and more secure with my husband working for a big company that has some deep pockets to help it ride out this rough spell than I would be if he were still “freelancing”, or than my friends are who work for themselves. [It is actually quite heartbreaking to read their stories.]

Wiley says that self-employment brings freedom and security and that working for a wage is slavery (Man, p. 40). I would say that is not necessarily the case. As I would think anyone who owns their own business would say, there is a lot of “slavery” involved in that as well. You cannot walk away from it. You cannot go on vacation easily. There are lots of ways we are bound and constrained in life and working for oneself is often less certain and more constricting. Wiley does acknowledge that there are trade offs, but comes down firmly on the side of owning one’s own business: “Most people today depend on the corporate economy to maintain their freedom from the demands of self-employment and business ownership. But the price of that freedom is wage slavery.” (Man, p. 129) Yet those who work for themselves are still in many ways dependent upon other people. You need customers to patronize your business and to buy your goods or services. When a crisis like COVID comes and the economy shuts down and people have less money, those with small businesses are hit hardest. There are different kinds of crises of course, but in the current one, the person working for a large company is a lot more likely to still have an income than the small businessman.

Wiley starts with an economic assumption — that to work for someone else for a wage is akin to slavery. He equates freedom with ownership and minimizes other obligations and risks that come with owning one’s own business. I would add that in doing so he also minimizes the difference between actual slavery in which one person owns another and simply having a job one can walk away from. In the words of Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick:

“Who aint [sic] a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about — however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

Side bar: As I have said, Wiley doesn’t spend a lot of time on theology as such but he does occasionally touch on the topic. In discussing the roles of people within the household, he dares a comparison to the roles within the Godhead:

“In the Trinity, each of the persons is equally God, yet each has a function within an ordered hierarchy. The Son obeys the Father, but the Father does not take orders from the Son. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but the Father and the Son do not proceed from the Spirit. By using the Trinity as a model for understanding human hierarchies, people are free to honor those above them without degrading themselves. And those in authority can honor those beneath them without any loss of authority.” (Man, p. 21). 

Though it is not completely clear how Wiley would draw the lines here, this sounds a lot like the heresy known as Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) or Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS). By either name, this heresy says that in eternity (and not just during Jesus’ time on earth) the Son has been and will continue to be subordinate to the Father. The problem with this idea is that it makes the Son less than the Father and thus inserts a difference within the Godhead, ultimately making the Son less God than the Father is. For more on this topic, I would refer you to the Reformed Brotherhood and The Aquila Report

On . . .  Marriage and Headship

In his second book, Wiley addresses the biblical commands for a husband to love his wife and a wife to submit to her husband. Here he says that submission is a stumbling block for many but that it should be something to be proud of because in submitting, one is playing their part within the larger order (Cosmos, p. 108). His argument grates a little because it emphasizes the command to wives to submit and largely ignores the command to the husband to love. I think he could actually make a much stronger argument if he were to appeal as well to the commands for Christians to submit to one another. In a context in which submission flows in many directions and everyone has those they submit to, the whole thing becomes more palatable to modern sensibilities and highlights as well the ordered schema Wiley proposes.

When it comes to arguing for the husband as the head of the household, it is not to the Scriptures that Wiley turns. His arguments on this point come from what we might call natural law or perhaps just good old-fashioned common sense. In order to lead and judge, he says, the head of the house must be able to distance himself from the other members of the household. A mother, he says, is not able emotionally to do this (Man, p. 75). Physical strength is also a factor: “When it comes to household order, might must serve right. In the vast majority of households the father is the best equipped for the job” (Man, p. 75; emphasis original). The leader must have what he calls “gravitas” which we might define as the weight of authority. One with gravitas commands respect by his mere presence. This, Wiley says, comes more naturally to men: “Here’s something else egalitarians don’t like about gravitas: it is easier for men to acquire it than women, Physical strength is a big reason, but not the only one — height helps — as does a deeper voice” (Man, p. 78). As he defines it later, this gravitas comes down to a willingness to walk away if need be (Man, p. 81), not something that I would consider a good quality in a husband and father. The rule that the man of the house exerts, for Wiley, is one of power and the ability to bring physical judgment to bear (Man, p. 79). And, as he makes clear, the law of the house is to be one of justice, not primarily of love (Man p. 68). 

In terms of how a man is to lead, Wiley argues that the man of the house should be above all just. He must not lord it over his “subjects” but must have self-mastery. In order to do so a man must follow the command to — here Wiley appeals to the wisdom of the oracle at Delphi — “know thyself” (Man, p. 82). 

There is an assumption here that might makes right. The man is the head of the household, not because this is what the Scriptures dictate, but because of his physical, and to a lesser degree his emotional, characteristics. One is left wondering, if a wife were the physically stronger party if it would be okay for her to be the head.

Biblical ideas and models of leadership are not discussed. The command to the husband to love his wife is downplayed and biblical servant-leadership seems to be completely unconsidered. Instead, a man attains leadership because of his physical superiority and maintains it through a combination of physical power, economic savvy, and emotional distance. 

Sidebar: As has been alluded to above, the man of the house is also a mediator between the household and the rest of the cosmos within which it is nested (remember those Russian nesting dolls?): “In order to honor the past, or what is above, people in your house will need to pass through you to do so. It is simply a matter of where you are in relationship to these things. You come between . . . You are the priest of your house. You are the first of many layers.” (Man, p. 95). Here again we teeter on the edge of a particular heresy. And again it is not completely clear where Wiley stands theologically but what he has to say sounds very much like the Family Church movement — good words that nonetheless convey a bad idea. Simply put this theology posits a kind of series of “umbrellas of protection.”  A man’s wife and kids are under his umbrella of protection. They are safe as long as they stay there. The man in turn represents them to the larger world, including both the church leadership and God Himself. Practically speaking if a wife has a question, she is to go to her husband and does not have direct access to her elders. That can be quite problematic of course if she has issues with her husband. But even more problematic is that the husband/father is made the mediator for his family whereas Scripture tells us that there is one Mediator, Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). For more on this topic see  Theology Gals.   

On . . .  Parenting

Wiley doesn’t have a lot to say directly on parenting. He does tell one rather disturbing story from his own teenage years in which he decided he no longer had to obey his mother. In the heat of argument she tried to slap him, he ducked and she ended up injured. For Wiley the point of this story is that the father, who is bigger and more powerful, is necessary to keep the child in line (Man, p. 67). The entire dynamic here is again one of might makes right. It is sad to me that Wiley endured this as a child, but it is even sadder that it is still the dynamic he expects as an adult. There is no talk here of training, no mention of sin or of guilt, and nothing about addressing the child’s heart attitude. 

In a schema in which there must be one leader in each household, it is unclear how a child transitions to adulthood and at what point new households are formed. Because the person your child marries essentially comes into the family business, Wiley is in favor of, if not arranged marriages, at least parents having a strong say in whom their children marry (Man, p. 131). Children (presumably fairly grown ones) may also be exiled from the household. While he cautions patience, Wiley also says children must earn their inheritance and some are simply incorrigible and must be disowned: “[I]t may be necessary to cut a child off completely” (Man, p. 132).   

Side bar: Wiley also speaks to how children should address adults:

“All other adults should be ma’am and sir. Should it happen that some adult eschews such respect and says to your child something like, “Mr. Johnson is my father — call me Bob!” you ought to take him aside and let him know the ground rules with your children. If Bob can’t handle adulthood, don’t let your children spend time with him.” (Man, p. 97)

I have a couple of thoughts here. Ma’am and sir are fairly cultural. We had a family in our church for a while whose kids ma’am-ed and sir-ed everyone. They were from the south and it came naturally from them. My son picked up the habit but it did not come naturally to him. When he said ma’am to a dear sweet 90-something year old friend of ours, she was horrified and thought she had offended him and began apologizing profusely. In New England, ma’am and sir don’t always sound polite (though Wiley is in Connecticut so I don’t know why he doesn’t see this). I teach my kids that attitude in how they speak to adults is the most important thing. You can say ma’am and sir and still be sassy. You can not say them and still convey respect. When I told my teens about this passage, they thought it was rather rude not to call Bob, Bob, if that is what he prefers. To cut Bob out of one’s life seems cruel. Maybe he is a good Christian man at church whose influence would benefit your kids. Maybe he is not, but maybe your family’s influence would benefit him. 

On  . . .  Government

The household is the smallest institution and the government is the largest but in between there are others (Man, p. 114). It is the biggest institutions that Wiley is most critical of, including the government and large corporations: “[P]eople build institutions for shelter. But here is another thing: when it comes to institutions, bigger isn’t always better. Bigger usually comes with hidden costs” (Man, p. 62). 

While he acknowledges that a “[j]ust civil authority is a good thing” (Man, p. 103), Wiley does not seem to find much good in the government. They serve their own interests: “Governments are Janus-faced things, looking after your interests with one face, while pursuing their own with the other.” (Man, p. 103) The bigger and more powerful the government is, the worse it is: “The state continues to grow and centralize, technology tracks us (and increasingly it is used to manipulate us), progressive multinational corporations standardize us and commodify us, popular media seek to indoctrinate us and addict us, and state-run education and healthcare are eliminating private rivals so as to make us ever more dependent on government largess.” (Cosmos p. 115).

Not surprisingly a major function of government, as Wiley sees it, is to protect private property as well as to preserve order (Man, p. 104). In general, “householders should favor limited government” (Man, p. 108). He is not big on the welfare state, saying it undermines the household, and argues that child-care and eldercare should both return to the home (Man, p. 110). Though he is very careful not to advocate disobeying one’s government, Wiley gives specific advice on how to (legally) keep from paying too much in taxes (Man, pp. 108ff). It should be noted that most of his vitriol is reserved for big government. He advocates being involved in one’s local community and sees the value of local government (Man, p. 106). 

Again we see that there is a particular view espoused, and it is one that is fairly anti-government. This is not the biblical view. The Scriptures tell us that, however its powers may be abused, government is a God-ordained institution which is given as a blessing for mankind. Even under one of the most egregious governments known, Paul is able to say that governments are given by God for man’s good (Rom. 13:1ff). 

On  . . the Church

The Church is also a kind of household. As microcosms, our households bear witness to God’s: “Your household can even be a witness to the household of God by the way it works.” (Man, p. 134) In the end times, our households will not continue as they are but there still will be a Household: “Now, the bridge that connects the houses we live in today, and the one we will dwell in someday, is the Church. It is the witness to and even an inchoate embodiment of the eschatological household.” (Man, p. 98) 

But the Church is also a contemporary institution. Though quite skeptical of large secular institutions, Wiley does say that: “Households can’t stand alone.” They can and should unite with other households. In order to do so, they must find common ground. This common ground Wiley calls moral goodness. The Church is the mediating institution which promotes moral goodness (Man, p. 122). For a pastor, he has surprisingly little to say beyond this on the role of the church or its relationship to the individual households which comprise it. 

While there is some grand language about it, there is little practical discussion of how individual households relate to the Church. I would argue on the contrary that, while it is a great blessing to have one’s biological family as part of one’s spiritual family, for Christians the spiritual family, i.e. the Church, is the primary unit. This understanding helps resolve some of the problems which Wiley’s understanding of the household raises. Singles, who are not otherwise  part of a household, have a place within God’s household. The Church itself should not be viewed as a confederation of separate households but as the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). Nor is it bound together by “moral goodness.” It is rather our union in Christ which unites us. 

On  . . . Virtue

Though he does not spend a lot of time discussing it directly, virtue is an important subject for Wiley. This is how he ends his first book:  “[I]f your household can retain its independence through moral virtue, like Noah and his house, your heirs may someday step into in [sic] a world wiped clean.” (Man, p. 136) There is an implication here that just as Noah’s family, out of all his contemporaries, was saved because he was a righteous man, so our families too will be delivered because of our virtue. Elsewhere he says: “If the members of your household are virtuous, then even if they lose everything, they stand a good chance of recovering their fortunes, given time” (Man, p. 125). There is an element of prosperity gospel in this — we are rewarded for our virtue with material success. 

There is no doubt that for Wiley the primary virtue to be cultivated is piety, that right relation to others within the household and the cosmos (which seems to come down more than anything else to submission to those who hold a position of authority over one). How then does one cultivate piety or any other virtue? Wiley says: “But virtue is the most difficult thing of all to give someone, because it isn’t really ours to give. It has to be drawn out of the person himself.” (Man, p. 134) This is an interesting statement. We have seen that Wiley relies fairly heavily on classical sources, especially Roman ones, and I detect the flavor of classical thought here as well (See this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility in which I discuss how the classical approach known as dialectic assumes that knowledge is within man and must be drawn out). Wiley seems to say that virtue is something inherent within us that must be brought out. This is not biblical Christianity. Goodness is defined by the character of God. As fallen people, we have no inherent goodness unless and until He redeems us. 

Drawing Some Conclusions

There is a lot of material in these two short books of Wiley’s and much to respond to. Above all I would say that what Wiley gives us is not a theological treatise but an economic and to a lesser extent a social one.  Though his books have an eschatological tone, the crises he sees and solutions he proposes are very much of this world. The heart of his theory is an economic view which says that freedom, protection, and deliverance come through ownership and work. The end goal is to have sufficient financial independence to withstand economic and societal crises in this world. There is little here that is spiritual. The overall outlook is quite materialistic in that it speaks to and about the physical world and its problems. 

In his sources, Wiley as often as not turns to non-Christian, even pagan, classical sources.  When he does use biblical sources, he does not look at the whole counsel of Scripture on a subject. For instance, his take on households is based on Abraham and Noah but does not consider how households are spoken of in the New Testament. Even when there are good biblical arguments, eg. for the husband/father as the head of the household, Wiley turns to non-biblical arguments. 

I don’t want to imply that there is nothing good here. Wiley’s critiques of our modern society and especially of how certain policies undermine the family are on point. His argument for the cosmos as a greater structure which has order, particularly as contrasted with modern views of a completely materialistic “cosmos,” are also good. 

The bottom line on both Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos is that they are promoting a particular view of what a household, and particularly the work of that household, should look like. While it may be a position some Christians take, it is not an inherently Christian position nor is it the only way Christians can see the issue. Christ’s work on the cross, His incarnation and His act of redemption on our behalf make absolutely no difference to Wiley’s theory. 


[1] Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart (Eugene, OR: Resource Publication, 2017)

The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019)

Charlotte Mason: the Intersection of Her Theology and Her Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

Note: I am developing something of a series on Charlotte Mason’s theology. You might also want to check out:

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Charlotte Mason’s Theology: The Scale How Meditations


I recently wrote on Charlotte Mason’s theology, and particularly her soteriology (i.e. theology of salvation) as delineated in her Scale How Meditations (edited by Benjamin Bernier,, 2011; see link above for that post). These meditations, which are on the first part of the Gospel of John, also highlight some interesting connections between Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education. Having read them, I have a new appreciation for how the one led to the other. Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry has also written recently on The Scale How Meditations [1]. He observes that “the Gospels were at the heart of her philosophy” and that “the key ideas of the Sunday meditations were none other than the key tenets of Mason’s philosophy of education.”

The question before us today is how Mason’s theology influenced her approach to education and how we, as reformed Christians who may not share her exact theology, can incorporate her educational ideas.

Mason’s Philosophy and Theology

The key theme that tuns through both Mason’s theology and her philosophy of education is that of ideas. Ideas for Mason are the stuff of education as well as  the beginning and end of faith.

If you know her educational philosophy, you will know that for Mason ideas are the food of the mind. In her motto “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,” ideas are the “life” part of the equation. They are living things which are passed from mind to mind  — often through “living” books but also through art and other media as well as personal contacts. Like food, ideas must be digested. In education this is usually done through the work of narration which requires the student to interact with what he has read (or heard or seen) in a unique and personal way. Thus a relationship is built with the material (“education is the science of relations”). The end goal is for the student to have relationships with as many things as possible.

All these elements we can see in Mason’s theology as well. We can look at the “food” of faith, how we digest the things of God, and what the end goal is.

Ideas as sustenance

For Mason, God in Christ is the source of “all that nourishes men in body, soul, and spirit” (p. 170). Just as our daily bread ultimately comes from Him, so too He is the source of the nourishment of our minds. And the mind, for Mason, feeds on ideas, ideas that are communicated through books and poetry and art and music. When discussing a Charlotte Mason education, we often say that she saw no distinction between sacred and secular, and here we find the justification for that claim: all is of God because it all ultimately comes from Him.

These ideas that we consume are powerful things. It is through ideas that we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (p. 35; cf. Rom. 12:2).

“We know that a great idea seizes hold of a man, has power to modify the tissues of the material organ by means of which he thinks, has power to alter the whole course of his life.” (p. 95)

Mason speaks of the power of ideas to alter the life and career of the poet, painter, and philanthropist, but also of their power in our spiritual life. For Mason, it is by acceptance of an idea that we are saved:

” . . . that master thought which should have the power to subdue the hearts of all mankind — the idea of Christ lifted up upon the cross, as presented to the soul of each man with overpowering and all subduing force by the intimate Spirit of our God . . .” (p. 95) 

Thus in both our intellectual and spiritual lives, it is the ideas we take in which nourish and transform us.

Ideas must be digested

As our physical food must be digested, so ideas must be incorporated into our being. This is an active process which requires some volition on our part. In education, the work of ingesting the ideas we get from our books (and art and music) is done through the process of narration. Karen Glass explains the value of narration:

“As the mind works on the material it has read or heard, and the child tells it back, the knowledge is being digested — becoming a part of the child’s own experience and self.” [2]

In our spiritual life, it is not enough to hear a sermon or to read a passage of Scripture, again we must do some work or the ideas we encounter will simply wash over us and their power will not be realized. This process Mason calls meditation:

“Indeed, this spiritual process [meditation] is analogous to that of digestion. It is not what we read or what we hear that sustains us, but what we appropriate; what we take home to our minds and ruminate upon, — reading a passage over and over, or dwelling, again and again upon a thought, rejoicing in a ‘fresh thought of God’ as a thing to be thankful for, a quickening influence to make us alive and active when a palsy of deadness and staleness  appears to be creeping over us. We all have a spiritual life to sustain and we all need the periodic nourishment of new, or newly put, thoughts of God.” (p. 36)

In Middlekauff’s words: “Here Mason explicitly equates meditation with “mental narration,” an act that is by definition an act of solitude. I like to call it “narration of the heart.”” [3]

We may note as well that for Mason this act of incorporating ideas through narration or meditation is a thing of the mind, not the emotions:

” . . . an idea received by the mind works itself out in the life, whereas a mere wave of emotion passes without a mark.” (p. 141)

” . . .we must believe with our understanding, with our reason; the things of religion must be received by the mind before they can be felt by the heart . . . ” (p. 142)

Ideas produce abundant life

So we see that ideas, properly digested, are the sustenance of one’s mental and spiritual life. We can extend the analogy further: just as bread gives life to the body so ideas give life to the mind. Mason connects the life-giving power of ideas to the full life which Christ promises His disciples when He says: “‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.'” This abundant life is one of those now-and-not-yet things; it is fulfilled both in this world and in the next.

In this world, an abundant life, for Mason, is one filled with interests and relationships:

“It is not difficult to distinguish between ‘eternal’ life and that life of the hour with which men seek to full the void when the eternal life is not theirs. Eternal life is like the life of God, because it is the life of God. It is outgoing, generous, always giving, never grasping and seeking: nature and art, literature and history, all men every where, — these are its interests; these offer the wide field for its expansion.” (pp. 134-35)

The good things we create in this world do not pass away but are as “treasures” stored up for the next:

“No heroic impulse, no inspiring thought, no conception of beauty, no act of service to each other, no single thing instinct with the life of Christ, shall be lost; but all this ‘treasure laid up in Heaven will go to the fulfilling and enriching of the broader, deeper life.'” (p. 175)

Thus the good things of this life are continued into the next. Our resurrected life will also be characterized by the same things, by productive work and a variety of interests:

“We shall all hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth, ‘they that have done good unto the resurrection of life’ to the fulfillment of all aspirations, the unlimited expansion of interests, to work, perhaps, which shall be without labour, and which shall accomplish its intent, to fullness of love and of light an [sic] of joy.” (p. 137)


Middlekauff sees The Scale How Meditations as the key to understanding Mason’s philosophy of education:

“But the links in the chain of Mason’s reasoning from the Scriptures to the volumes is not always self-evident. Why did Mason say that children are born persons? Why did she believe knowledge is so important? What makes nature study so special? We can guess at the answers when we guess at Mason’s sources. But in the Scale How Meditations, the guesswork is taken away. She reveals the core Scriptural principles from which the rest are drawn.” [4]

While we have by no means exhausted Mason’s thought in her Meditations, we have seen that ideas are a key concept which ties together her theology and her philosophy of education. There is little separation in her thought between the mind and the spirit, between the intellectual life and the religious life. The same processes are at work in both. The idea of Christ is for Mason necessary to salvation, but other ideas, while less vital,  are also spiritual in nature. They all come from God and they all nourish both mind and spirit.

There is a lot here to appeal to the reformed mind, but there are perhaps also some areas of concern. 

The role of God

One of the things that first attracted me to Mason’s philosophy was the role of God in it — we place truth before children but we have no power to make them accept it; that is His work. Mason’s 20th principles sum up her philosophy of education. The final one, one might say the culmination of them, reads as follows: 

“We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.” [5]

Note that education here is the work of the “Divine Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) whom Mason elsewhere calls the Great Educator.

As we have seen, Mason in the Meditations ascribes power to man to will his own salvation. Yet in her educational philosophy, God is the prime Actor. I find this discrepancy a bit odd, but the important thing for our purposes is that Mason in her philosophy of education espouses a good reformed principle — that God is the Prime Mover and the source of knowledge

The role of sin

For any given subject we are trying to teach, we may expect some children to “get it” and some not to. Mason’s philosophy allows for individual variation in this acknowledging that not every child is going to take in every idea. Having said which, there are still going to be times when students just don’t seem to be learning much of anything or connecting with the material in any way. We see the same thing in our spiritual lives. Obviously not everyone accepts that one great idea, the idea of Christ, as Mason puts it.  So we may ask whose fault is it when people don’t “get it,” whether in the intellectual or the spiritual realm?

The blame for human failings can either fall on our environments, things external to our selves, or on the individual, things internal to the person. Under the category of environment, we may include other people, perhaps teachers or parents, or circumstances, a lack of access to the proper materials or to necessary information, for example. If we lay the blame on the person, we are speaking of more internal causes, things inherent to one’s nature.

Mason seems to place externally. If a child does not develop interests, it is the fault of the teacher and/or the educational program:

“When governess or nurse, aunt or uncle, even mother or father, fails to get hold of children, it is usually because he or she is a person of unsimple character.” (p. 21) [6]

The flip-side of this is to say that given the right education any child will develop in the ideal way. In the spiritual realm, we would say that if the gospel is just presented in the right way, if the person’s circumstances do not interfere, then they will come to faith which is indeed what Mason says:

“The reason why any soul of man is not subdued before the love of Christ is that the idea has never been presented at all or that the presentation has been poor and inadequate.” (p. 95)

What I don’t see in Mason, either in her theology or her philosophy, is a discussion of the effects of sin. I do not doubt that Mason believed in Original Sin — this is a point of discussion often in CM circles so I think it is worth noting — but Original Sin can mean many things in the many different Christian traditions [7]. The question before us is what goes wrong when someone doesn’t “digest” a good idea that they should have taken in. The reformed answer is that the fault lies in the individual whose nature has been corrupted by the effects of the Fall. Man no longer responds as he should to the things of God, whether those that relate directly to faith or those that are of a more peripheral nature. The cause of our failings is not external but internal. 

Here then we see a clear difference between Mason’s thought and traditional reformed theology. This lack of consideration for the effects fo the Fall is, I think, the major deficiency in Mason’s thought. [8]


In both her theology and her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges the capacity of even the youngest children to respond to the things of God. Her first principle reads simply: “Children are born persons.” Mason does not withhold ideas, which as we have seen are the sustenance of the mind, even from young children. So too in her theology, she says, “no thought is too deep for any human being if it is only put in the right way” (p. 112). Since ideas are of God for Mason her offering of them even to young children and her confidence that they can accept them shows that she sees them as persons, as beings able to having a relationship with their Creator [9].

Man: body & soul, heart & mind

I am intrigued by Mason’s emphasis on the mind as paramount to both faith and learning. This is in sharp contrast to most modern approaches to education which focus very much on the physical. I am convinced that this emphasis in the latter comes from an evolutionary mindset that assumes only the material world and does not take into account the spiritual. With young children in particular, modern approaches emphasize things like “sensory-motor” learning in which everything is believed to be learned through bodily sensations and experiences. Mason does not ignore the hands-on element in her approach to education, but true knowledge, for her, comes through the mind. There may be temptation here to fall too far the other way and to discount the body altogether (this is the gnostic mistake), but I do not think Mason goes that far. 

As we have seen Mason emphasizes the role of the mind in faith. To believe for her is an act of the will and faith is an intellectual acceptance of an idea (though not without practical outcomes in one’s life). I am a little torn in how to understand this idea. On the one hand, there is much that can go wrong when faith comes from a very emotional place and I agree with Mason that what comes by “waves of emotion” (p. 141) will tend to pass quickly. On the other hand, I think when we separate the heart and the mind we make a false, unbiblical distinction. I have argued that the two are really one in biblical language. Though Mason does not talk much about the role of the emotions, I think we mischaracterize her if we take this to mean that she discounts them altogether. In truth her approach to education relies greatly on feeling as both the motivation for and the end of education. It is through interest that the child is first drawn in and producing relationships, making the child care, is the aim of education. These are perhaps not transitory emotions that sweep one away, but they are feelings, and so we may say the heart is not neglected in Mason’s philosophy. 

The Interplay of the Intellectual and Spiritual

For Mason man’s intellectual and spiritual lives are closely linked. Experientially, we often find this to be true. I think many believers have had the experience that studying some aspect of God’s Creation deepens their faith. Indeed, this is the purpose of general revelation, that we may know our Creator (cf. Rom. 1:20). [10] Yet we must also use some caution here. As with so many things in the Christian life we must be careful not to overcorrect. In this area the danger is that we exalt the intellectual to such a degree that it supplants the spiritual. Intellectual knowledge can easily become the primary goal and special revelation with its message of salvation is pushed to the background. This is, for example, what we see in Transcendentalism, an exaltation of general revelation (nature) as a source of knowledge but a dismissal of special revelation and with it the need for salvation.  


As we look at the big ideas or trends in Mason’s thought, overall I am impressed by how much lines up with reformed theology. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here, places where one can easily slide off too far in one direction or the other, but I do not think Mason does so.  She manages to steer a middle course, acknowledging man’s physical nature and his spiritual side, balancing the emotional and the intellectual, and incorporating both intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Her emphasis on the personhood of the child I find to be quite biblical. While I am less enamored of her (Arminian) theology, in her philosophy of education, Mason acknowledges God as the Great Educator and Prime Mover. He is the source of all knowledge and it is He, not the teacher and not even the student, who acts in the process of education. The one big flaw in Mason’s ideology is in her lack of acknowledgment of man’s sinful nature and its effects on his ability to discern good and to know. This omission is a big one and I don’t think we can ignore it. It has implications for how we educate that need to be worked through. 


[1] Middlekauff, Art. “The Story of the Scale How Meditations,Charlotte Mason Poetry (August 25, 2020).

[2] Karen Glass. Know and Tell (2018) p. 20. 

[3] Middlekauff, “The Story of . . .”

[4] Ibid.

[5] “CM’s 20 Principles,” Ambleside Online. These principles are also given at the beginning of most of the volumes of her home education series (there is some variation, especially in earlier volumes). 

[6] Being of “unsimple character” perhaps needs some explanation. Mason discusses this idea a bit. The short answer, as far as I understand it, would be that to be of simple character is to be single-minded in the good sense of having one (godly) devotion. 

[7] For some discussion of this, see this post on Original Sin. 

[8] Much debate has focused on Mason’s second principle which says that “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” I have discussed this at length in previous posts so I will not rehash it here. See especially Was Charlotte Mason ReformedIs CM’s 2nd Principle Biblical (part 3) and Why Not Charlotte Mason. 

[9] For more on the biblical view of the child see this post

[10] That this is not the case for the non-elect is the fault of their fallen natures but does not negate the purpose of general revelation.

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.



[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.



[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,


Major Theories in Developmental Psychology

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. Last time we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide is with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. Much has been written of the various theories of child development and I am not the best person to rehash them all (but see the reading list at the end of this post). What I would like to do is to give a brief introduction to each of the major contributors with a particular focus on the underlying beliefs which affect their overall philosophy. This will be the fodder for future posts in which we delve a little more deeply into the trends in child psychology and how we as Christians should view them. (I also have an earlier, less detailed post, similar to this one which you can find here.)

Major Thinkers in Developmental Psychology

(roughly in chronological order)

John Amos Comenius (see also this earlier post on the history of Christian education)

Who, Where and When:  a Brethren pastor from Moravia (1592-1670) Major Contributions: Tried to create a universal education system which was “pansophic,” i.e. in which all extant knowledge was included (a goal which probably seemed more possible in his day and age). Education should follow the stages of mental development, happen through the medium of the senses, and take into account children’s interests (common ideas, as we will see). He saw language enrichment as a pre-requisite for learning and interest and attention as indicators of readiness to learn. The goal of education is to give the individual a happy, productive life and to ensure the continued morality of society. Beliefs and Assumptions: Comenius believed education should be begun before the mind is corrupted (which tells us that he did not believe in total depravity) and that the child has a predisposition to learn. He speaks of the “seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety” being within children (Elkind, p. 35). John Locke (Locke is also mentioned in this post) Who, Where and When: Enlightenment philosopher (1632-1704). Though his family was Puritan and Lockerbie argues that he was Christian, it is not at all clear he was. Major Contributions: The mind is blank at birth (the so-called tabula rasa idea). What we know comes to us through our senses. Character is formed early on. Children should learn early to deny themselves their own desires. Children learn best when their minds are in tune. Formal education should be delayed so as to not kill the love of learning. Learning is done through scientific experimentation. The goal of education is primarily to preserve the status quo. Beliefs and Assumptions: There are no universally accepted truths. Our reason leads us to the knowledge of self-evident truths (think the Declaration of Independence here) including the belief that there is a being we call God, but a God who would have the same attributes no matter what we call him. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (discussed in this post on the origin of evil) Who, Where and When: A French philosopher (1712-1778) and a really bad parent who abandoned his own (illegitimate) children. Major Contributions: Education should be natural — preferably in the country, away from society. Learning is through direct experience and the child will have a natural inclination to learn. Books are downplayed (except Robinson Crusoe). The goal is to enable natural man to be able to live in society without being corrupted by its influences. Proper education is for the individual, not the society. Beliefs and Assumptions: Man is naturally good and it is society that corrupts him and makes him evil. Our first, natural impulses are good. Formal education is corrupting and bad. Nature is best.  Organized religion is unnecessary, most governments are bad and adults should not exert authority over children. (And, by the way, he said females’ only role is to please men.) Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi Who, Where and When: Swiss educational reformer (1746-1827). The famous Prussian schools which in turn influenced American ones were based upon his model. Major Contributions: The goal of education is the development of the individual, not meeting society’s needs. Education is not the imposing of knowledge but the development of potential. All human activity must be self-generated, not imposed from the outside. He emphasized the child’s experiences rather than verbal instruction.  The best model for education is the first — that is, the family and especially the mother-child relationship. He emphasized a home-like environment and teachers who truly loved each child. Movement from the simple to the complex, eg. from hands-on manipulatives to theoretical ideas. The goal of education is primarily social in that it deals with the child’s relationships and interactions. Beliefs and Assumptions: The sacredness of personality and the potential of the child.  Education can create responsible citizens who know right from wrong and ultimately lead to the happiness of humanity. The child is basically good and will naturally develop in good lines without negative outside influences. Friedrich Froebel (see this post specifically on Froebel) Who, Where and When: (1782-1852); studied under Pestalozzi; known as the founder of modern kindergarten Major Contributions:  He stressed the importance of the early years and thought young children could learn much more than had been thought possible. Though he invented kindergarten which implies children are hothouse flowers (hence the garten of kindergarten), he actually had studied crystal formation and thought of their development as like that of crystals — just as each element will develop a certain form and structure as it crystallizes, so the child’s natural development is contained within himself.  He believed there were some perfect forms that children could learn from through life so he gave them spheres, cylinders, and cubes. The goal of education is metaphysical unity of man, nature, universe and spirit (see below). The role of the teacher is very important and he also emphasized the role of the mother in infancy. Beliefs and Assumptions: Froebel denied the existence of original sin but believed man in his natural state is uncorrupted. If there is bad that enters into the child, then it comes from the adults in his life interfering in what is naturally good. Each one has an inner self which is good and an outer self which is the source of the bad in him. Children need to realize their good inner selves (which they do by playing with his perfect forms). All is Unity (big “U”) which is identified with God; this Unity is the goal of education. The child goes through an evolution which mirrors that of humanity. Johann Friedrich Herbart Who, Where and When: (1776-1841) Major Contributions: Herbart devised a method of teaching called Herbartianism which was influential in America in the 19th century. He was the first to connect psychology and education. He developed a five-step pedagogy in which teachers select a topic, connect it to what the students already know, encourage their interest and perception of it, coalesce that they have learned and apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is found in being a good citizen.  Education (which at the time meant moral training) is done through teaching (which is the conveying of knowledge). Beliefs and Assumptions: Pluralistic realism. He saw children born as something like blank slates with no innate ideas or categories of thought and not inherently good or evil. Moral character (the goal of education) is a gradual acquisition. Ethics is subsumed under aesthetics. Morality can be taught. Horace Mann (see this post and this one) Who, Where and When: Father of the common school movement in the US (1796-1859) Major Contributions: The goal of education is to turn unruly children into disciplined, judicial citizens. Education should be public and non-sectarian and administered by trained teachers. Common schools with all classes of society to equalize men’s conditions. Moral education was also the domain of the school. Though his schools were to be religiously neutral they did include Christian morals and Bible teaching, though at essentially the lowest common denominator. Beliefs and Assumptions: Unitarian. He believed children should decide for themselves what to believe. Humanitarian optimism: the gradual advancement of the human race in dignity and happiness. John Dewey (I have discussed Dewey a lot — see especially this post and this one) Who, Where and When: The father of the modern American school system (1859-1952); Major Contributions: The purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to share a social experience and integrate the child into democratic ideas. Education serves democracy which is almost a spiritual community. Children participate in their own learning, but he is not entirely child-led. Material should be presented in a way that allows the student to relate it to previous knowledge. He advocated progressive education in which children are given educative experiences which they then react to and thus adapt and progress (but not all experiences are good; some are miseducative). The teacher guides this process and selects the curriculum and experiences based on the child’s interests. Beliefs and Assumptions: Secular idealism. Morals are social and pragmatic. Democracy is almost a religion with him. His ideas are based on an evolutionary mindset (see links above) and he believed there is no transcendence, i.e. there is no super-natural. Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education) Who, Where and When: Steiner (1861-1925) is the founder of the Waldorf school movement and also the creator of a philosophy known as anthroposophism. Major Contributions: In contrast to others, Steiner did not believe we know only through our senses but that the mind can grasp truth directly. Children advance through stages. In the first they are dominated by willing, in the second by feeling, and finally they are able to think. The goal is to integrate these three. Steiner included a lot of the arts and music in education. Beliefs and Assumptions: Steiner essentially created his own philosophy/religion. Anthroposophism comes out of the spiritualism of the late 1800s (which was itself a rejection of materialism). In contrast to theosophism Steiner did not believe in hidden spiritual knowledge only for a select group but believed that the spirit world could be known through observation and meditation. People have a three-fold nature consisting of thinking, feeling, and willing. Because children do not have all three yet (at least not in equal measure) they are more potential than actual human beings. Maria Montessori (see this post) Who, Where and When: First female, Italian doctor (1870-1952). Worked initially with “backwards” children. Major Contributions: Children can do much more for themselves if their environment is scaled to their size (it is thanks to Montessori that we now have kid-sized chairs). Believed the main part of education was to create an environment in which children can learn through self-directed activities. Children thrive in an uncluttered environment (I wish someone would tell my kids this . . .). Education through muscular and sensory education, not direct instruction. Not a big fan of play for its own sake. Beliefs and Assumptions: Especially at the end of her life, Montessori was into Theosophy, the spiritualism of the age. The child is born with potential for positive qualities but needs education to develop them. The goal of education is to promote civilized society, even to achieve world peace. Sigmund Freud Who, Where and When: The major psychoanalyst (1856-1939) who proposed a psychosexual theory of development. Major Contributions: Sexuality, even in infants, is a major contributor to psychology. This term is understood very broadly and one goes through developmental stages. Infants are controlled by their oral and anal desires. The goal is mastery of instincts and emotions in healthy ways. Beliefs and Assumptions: The human is another animal who can be studied using scientific methods and theories. Psychological determinism: our psychology is a product of the influences on us; it is not subject to chance or to our free-will. Human behavior is the product of unconscious fears, emotions, etc. It is our physical, bodily desires which drive our development. Jean Piaget Who, Where and When: A teacher and educational thinker (1896-1980) known for his work on the development of human intelligence. Major Contributions: Piaget’s work is mainly about epistemology — how we know what we know and particularly how children get knowledge and intelligence. He said that we learn through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis — that is, we have an idea (thesis) which is then challenged (antithesis) and thus we come to a new understanding (synthesis).  Children do reason but their reasoning is different than ours. Children start out egocentric and must learn to see others’ viewpoints. Children have unique worldviews; they do not view the world as adults do. Ideas that seem wrong to us are often age-appropriate thinking for children (eg. thinking whoever is taller must be older). Children construct their own reality based on what they know (constructivism). In the first stage (ages 0-2) children’s learning is sensory-motor and the main thing they need to learn is object permanence. In ages 2-7 they engage in transductive thinking. They must learn that things can be more than one thing (dog and animal) and have multiple relationships (mother and sister).  Between ages 7 and 11 they engage in concrete operations and only get to formal operations — being able to think about thinking and this learn grammar and algebra — at ages 12-15. After this there are no new mental systems. The goal of education is to make people who can create new things and think new thoughts. Beliefs and Assumptions: I have found very little on Piaget’s personal beliefs. He was a student of Freud and a follower of Darwin. One can see the evolutionary influence in his theory — the sequence of thesis, antithesis, synthesis is a kind of adaptation to a new environment.  There is also a natural development. Teachers do no really teach as such but children react to their environment and thus develop along natural lines (though abnormalities can occur to derail that natural progress). Though Piaget rejected the idea that the individual’s evolution mimics that of the human race, yet his ideas are clearly evolutionary in terms of the natural progression and the ways in which it is said to occur. David Elkind (see this post) Who, Where and When: A modern scholar (1931-) of child development and a student of Piaget. Major Contributions: Elkind largely follows Piaget but also blends in aspects from others. He sees a triad of elements which work together in education: play, love, and work. Each major stage is dominated by one of these — play first for young children, then work, then love in the teenage years. The goal is to integrate them to form a well-rounded individual. Beliefs and Assumptions: I don’t know a lot about Elkind’s belief system. It is clear from reading him that he is materialistic in his world view. Erk Erikson Who, Where and When: (1902-1994). A German who ended up working largely in the US. A student of Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and a trained Montessori teacher. Major Contributions: Erikson delineated no less than 8 stages of human development. He saw identity crises as the key to development. He was particularly interested in how one person’s identity crisis might have larger societal implications and wrote on Martin Luther and Gandhi. His 8 stages each represent a choice in which the child can end up going one way or another. Infants will either trust or mistrust, depending on whether their needs are met. Toddlers will either become autonomous (=self-mastery) or face shame and doubt. In the third stage the child will either begin to have initiative or face guilt. Education creates individual identity. Beliefs and Assumptions: Humans have a long childhood in which there is, if all goes right, a lot of development. Erikson is essentially hopeful about such development whole acknowledging that the negative can happen. He does see it as possible to catch up later in life, however, if one stage has gone wrong. Though he may be using the words differently than we would, he paints shame and guilt as negatives to be avoided.  Positive mental health is equated with self-esteem. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky Who, Where and When: A Russian (1896-1934) with no formal training in psychology. Major Contributions: The major forces in education are not biological but societal and cultural. People internalize the societal tools they are exposed to, things like language and mathematics. These tools then shape their higher mental processes. Thus one can imagine him saying that a peasant who may seem stupid to others is so because of his cultural circumstances not do to any genetic or biological fault in himself. He also believed in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which says that we are able to do things with help before we can do them independently. There is always a new skill which is not yet fully achieved but which one is progressing toward (this is in contrast to others who saw the stage of development more as sudden leaps). Children should thus be put in situations which stretch them and push them on to the next level. Beliefs and Assumptions: Heavily influenced by Marxism. Unlike others he did not see the maturing process as a natural trajectory but as entirely societal. B.F. Skinner Who, Where and When: A behaviorist (1904-1990). Major Contributions: Behaviorism looks at environmental influences and sees all behavior as driven by outer stimuli and by rewards and punishments. His goal for education, as depicted in a fictional book he wrote, seems to have been to create a utopian society through operant conditioning which reinforces behavior. Beliefs and Assumptions: Skinner took into account only the material; no consideration was given to man’s spiritual or even emotional nature. Children were experimented on in the same manner as lab rats. John Bowlby Who, Where and When: A researcher and child psychiatrist known for his attachment theory (1907-1990). Major Contributions: Children are born with a need for attachments. These attachments serve an evolutionary advantage as they would get the child cared for and protected. These attachments play a role in later development, particularly if they do not form normally. Infants need to know that their mother is available and reliable. Again there is a staged development as attachments form and progress. Beliefs and Assumptions: Again there is a distinct evolutionary basis. Though relationships are at the core of Bowlby’s attachment theory, even here they are given evolutionary justification. Albert Bandura Who, Where and When: A cognitive psychologist who advanced a social learning theory (1925-). Major Contributions: Learning can happen not just through doing but through observation and modeling. Not all learning is related to rewards and punishments (vs. Skinner). Internal reinforcements such as pride and a sense of accomplishment are also important. Social influences are important. Internal mental states are part of the learning process (again vs. Skinner). One’s mental state and motivation will affect whether one learns. Beliefs and Assumptions: I didn’t find much on his personal beliefs. Reuven Feuerstein Who, Where and When: A modern (1921-2014), Israeli cognitive psychologist Major Contributions: Feuerstein is a student of Piaget but also bears many similarities to Vygotsky. Both may be considered to have environmental theories of child development. His big contribution is the idea that intelligence is not fixed but modifiable. He worked with children who had endured very hard circumstances including the holocaust and immigration and saw that though they began culturally deprived they could advance. He believed that all children can learn to learn. Feuerstein divided all learning into direct or mediated through another human being. Mediated learning helps children get the prerequisites they need for direct learning. This is Mediated Learning Experience (MLE). He believed that this mediation, or interpretation of the environment, is the key for learning for all children, not just those with challenges. Learning problems may also be prevented through early interventions. He rejected the idea that there are critical periods for development which if missed make certain developmental milestones impossible. He rejected standard intelligence tests which assume intelligence is fixed and can be measured and provide nothing for the test subject. There is of necessity a large role for the teacher in his system though ultimately the goal is for the student to be able to learn directly, to modify himself. Beliefs and Assumptions: Feuerstein was a Orthodox Jew. He seems to have been a very compassionate man with an optimism about the potential of each person. He believed that all children “‘are human beings who have a Divine spirit in them’” (). He also believed that God cannot change anyone without that person’s help. He seems to have believed in a close connection between the physical and the intellectual or spiritual. He believed that the changes he saw would have physical components in the neurophysiology of the brain. Learning, in his system, seems to be about modification of the individual, not about absorbing a fixed body of knowledge. ——————————– Those are the major contributors to the field of developmental psychology as I understand them. Next time we will make some more general statements about the trends among them and how we as Christians should view their work.

Reading List

“25 Things Research Says about Child Development,” Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, 2004. Cherry, Kendra. “Child Development Theories and Examples,” Very Well Mind (accessed 7/8/2020). ~~ This site contains many other good articles by Cherry as well. “Child Development, History of the Concept of,” (Updated 7/4/2020). Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2015. ____________ The Power of Play. Da Capo Press, 2007. Lockerbie, Bruce. A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Designs, 2007 (first published 1994). Mooney, Carol Garhart. Theories of Childhood. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press, 2013 (2nd ed.). Murk, Donald. “Piaget, Erikson, Kolhberg, & Jesus: Growing the Soul,” Messiah College, 2017. Oswalt, Angela. “CHILD & ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW,” Gulf Bend Center (accessed 7/8/2020). Steinberg, Beth.  “Intelligence Is Modifiable: A Q&A with Dr. Reuven Feuerstein,” Brain World Magazine, Jan. 27, 2020 “‘We cannot afford to lose even one child’: Rabbi David Ariel Sher on the life of Professor Reuven Feuerstein,” The Psychologist, June 28, 2019.

Charlotte Mason’s Theology: The Scale How Meditations

Dear Reader,

Note: I am developing something of a series on Charlotte Mason’s theology. You might also want to check out:

Charlotte Mason, Anglicanism, and You

Was Charlotte Mason Reformed?

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

After my recent post “Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?” it was suggested to me that I should read her Scale How Meditations (edited by Benjamin Bernier,, 2011). This book contains a series of meditations on the first chapters of the Gospel of John given by Miss Mason to her students at the House of Education.

In that earlier post I was trying to discern Mason’s theology, and particularly her soteriology (=theology of salvation), from her writings in the Home Education series. The problem of course was that she was not intending to write theology in that series. In Scale How we are dealing with biblical interpretation and Mason’s theology is made quite clear.

I am gratified to find that the things I had deduced about Mason’s theology seem to hold up. Specifically, I had argued that her theology falls into the category “Arminian” [1] in that it assumes that there is an ability man has which precedes saving grace which enables him to play some part in his own salvation. Mason identifies this ability with what she calls “the Will.”

There are a number of passages from Scale How which make it quite clear that there is an act of man which Mason calls the will which is necessary for salvation:

“Let us not suppose that God wills, chooses, that some of us should receive the power to become sons of God and others should never have this power. Is it not rather that our will must embrace the will of God, must accept the ineffable mystery, adore the grace, be so united with the will of God that no perplexity baffles our understanding, because we do not seek to understand?” (p. 48)

“The active will to believe appears to be the one condition enacted by our Lord. Men must bring the will; Christ will give the power, and by the union of the two the miracle of the new birth is accomplished.” (p. 117)

“He, Who came for the healing of the nations, makes one condition — the active will.” (p. 122)

What is this willing Mason speaks of? It is not a “vague aspiration” but a focused decision which requires some level of mental or spiritual effort:

” . . . willing fulfills itself by an effort of attention. Let us fix our thoughts upon that which we desire to know or to do, and turn away our thoughts from that which we should avoid and we have the secret to willing.” (p. 118)

“‘Heigho! I wish I were a better man’ or ‘a better woman’  — does not count. Nothing but that strenuous bending of the attention, which we have seen to be the mode in which the will acts, can fulfill the conditions.” (p. 122)

“Willing the will, like working the work, is, probably, to hold ourselves in that willing and obedient attitude of soul in which conviction is possible; to keep the single eye, to ponder upon the things of Christ . . . To this attitudeof soul comes faith — the free gift of God.” (p. 200)

Though she speaks here of a “free gift,” it is a gift which comes in response to man’s act in willing. God in Christ is to some extent helpless to save men, apart from their own act in thus willing:

“So, too, of the spiritual life, though the Bread of Life, and the Water of Life, and the light of the Life, are brought to our very doors, though He stand at the door and knock. We must eat, we must drink, we must open, that is, we must turn our thoughts steadfactly upon Him Who is our salvation, and He will meet the willing will and fill us with Himself.” (p. 122)

Christ is depicted not as One who acts definitively but as One who asks and who must convince men to believe in Him (p. 141).

There is an explicit rejection of the doctrine of election here:

“‘even so the Son also quickeneth whom He will.’ ‘Whom He will’ –no arbitrary selection is, we may believe, implied but he that will to believe is he whom the Son wills to quicken.” (pp. 129-30; cf.p. 173)

” . . . it is the divine will that all should believe; but here we see where the election comes in. It is we who choose.” (p. 176)

Note what Mason is saying here — she rejects “arbitrary selection,” i.e. unconditional election, and says rather that God chooses to save those whom He foresees will choose Him by an act of their will to believe.

If salvation is dependent upon man’s act, to will and therefore to be saved is open to all people:

” . . . the Judge who came not to condemn but to show to every man the best that is possible to him, the unsuspected good that is in him.” (p. 76)

Here we think also of Miss Mason’s infamous second principle — children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil” — which has caused some debate in educational circles. This principle is often taken as referring only to education as if it did not also apply to man’s spiritual state, but Mason here makes clear that she does apply this principle more broadly (p. 42) and that man is able, before saving grace, to do some good, even if that good is only to will.

Ultimately, through a lifetime of choices, men sort themselves into two camps:

“[Christ] comes to save the world; but even so, a natural, incidental judgment is going on. Of their own accord men judge themselves, and range themselves into the sheep and the goats.” (p. 100)

Thus in Mason’s manner of speaking God judges and condemns no one but “the sinner practically pronounces judgment on himself when he chooses darkness rather than light” (p. 107). Though Mason does hold open the possibility that there may be a second chance after death for those who have not turned to Christ in this life (p. 138).

I have used Mason’s own words as much as possible. I think it is clear from the quotes above that she rejects the doctrine of unconditional election and that she makes man’s salvation dependent upon his own act, what she calls willing. In so doing she rejects also irresistible grace and limited atonement. Though my contention is that Mason’s theology falls clearly within the Arminian camp, this is not to say that she was not a Christian. As I read her words in these meditations, I am often struck by the depth and sincerity of her faith.

The big question for us as reformed people who are nonetheless attracted to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is how deeply her theology has influenced her views on education and to what extent we can trust and employ her methods knowing that her foundation, while Christian, is not identical to our own. I have tried in many ways to answer these questions as I have developed my own philosophy of education. Though this volume of meditations is not on education, there are points at which she touches on ideas which we can recognize from her philosophy of education and so I think I will also take one more post on this book to try to ferret out these ideas and to see how they are influenced by her theology.

Until then,


[1] “Arminian” can be a loaded, and quite derogatory, term in reformed circles so I would refer you to that earlier post for a good working definition of how I am using the term.


Christianity and Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology I want  to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are. There are really very few Christian sources I can find on this topic for reasons which seem to be inherent to the study itself. Frankly, humanity went a few millennia without this (and many other social sciences) being a field of study.  Developmental psychology arises in the 1800s as a by-product of certain other scientific theories, evolution being a key one.

On the one hand, I do think that all truth is God’s truth and that secular scholars can find truth and that we should not discount their work. On the other, this field in particular has its basis in some very non-Christian presuppositions so we need to be very careful how we approach it.

A friend pointed me to an article from Christian Education Journal which discusses just this issue. In “Reading the Social Sciences Theologically (Part 1): Approaching and Qualifying Models of Human Development” [1], John Trentham discusses the problems in the social sciences, how Christians might approach them, and how they should. I will say from the start that though I found Trentham’s language harder than it needs to be, he appears to be not just Christian but reformed and I like his overall take on things.

Trentham starts by outlining the problem: as Christians we approach the social sciences with a very different framework than secular scholars. “The social sciences are, essentially, a modern secularist enterprise” (p. 462). They are materialistic in their assumptions. What can be known in the social sciences is only what can be observed. There is nothing of the transcendent, either in man’s nature or outside it. While it is not inherently wrong to study child development, the very discipline seems to rest on the idea that children are yet another species to be studied and that the same methods and assumptions that are applied to studying other animals will work here.

As Christians, science is not the enemy.  Indeed, true scientific thought is not possible without the assumptions that Christianity brings to the table — that the universe is knowable and makes sense. Science is part of God’s general revelation. If and when general revelation comes into conflict with special revelation (i.e. the Scriptures) we must give preference to the latter. Because developmental psychology looks at the child, including his nature and our goals for him, it is going to touch on “religious” topics. Scripture has something to say about these issues. Yet there are still things that can be known through general revelation. Our task then is to discern between the two: when is secular science giving us helpful insight and when are its presuppositions skewing its outlook? In the words of Trentham:

“Nonbelievers (i.e. those not ‘rightly related to [their] Creator’) will not lack insight into the existence and condition of humanity, but they will lack the redemptively postured interpretive capacity of corresponding their observations and analysis to the ultimate patterns and aim of God’s purpose for humanity.” (p. 469)

In other words, they may have valuable insights but they fail to see the big picture.

As we approach developmental psychology in the coming weeks, then, we must be on the alert for two stumbling blocks in particular. False presuppositions often lead one to ask the wrong questions and to draw bad conclusions. And whatever good scholarship one might do, a wrong framework which fails to see the big picture, and in particular fails to account for the transcendental, spiritual side of both man and the universe, will misinterpret even good observations. Trentham speaks of temporal conclusions (p. 470) and I think this is key — secular scholars may have good insights into temporal things but at the point where they begin to touch on the eternal, they go astray. Their understanding may at once be accurate but inverted (p. 472). “Social science models of human development are typically oriented into counter-biblical ideals, even while they may describe modes and means of growth that reflect authentic patterns of personal maturity” (p. 474). Which is to say, they may be right on the small scale but tend to be wrong on the large scale. I think of it a bit like theories of evolution (to raise another controversial topic). Microevolution can be demonstrated — we see the changes within a given species when their environment changes. But when we try to scale that to the big picture, macroevolution, we end up with something undemonstrable which depends more on our presuppositions, on what we expect to find, than on the science.

In the coming weeks we will begin to look at some of the main thinkers in the field of child development, keeping in mind these cautions — that they all come to the subject from a secular perspective and that while they may have some good insights, especially as regards temporal concerns, they often start from a wrong place and do not see the larger context as we would.


[1] Unfortunately, I only have access to part one of this article.