Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Book List: Bible and Theology

Dear Reader,

One goal for the summer is to get out a series of booklists with titles we have used over the years. I thought that I had at one point given a list of Bible and Theology books we have used but upon searching find that doesn’t appear to be true. For this topic, more than any other, I think it is important to know where I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different theological perspective, this list may not fit your needs. I would recommend consulting your pastor or older (homeschooling) moms within your church for their suggestions.

You can find all my booklists here.

Bible and Theology Resources

Bible

This may seem obvious but one of the best books you can use to study the Bible and theology is . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible. I myself am pretty comfortable with just opening up the Bible and reading and discussing  [1], but I realize others may not be there yet.

The Beginner’s Bible — I am not a huge fan of children’s Bibles. In general, my advice would be to try to move tour kids to the full Word of God as soon as you can. But little kids are little kids and sometimes a children’s Bible can be helpful. My husband in particular read stories from this one to our kids. I am less comfortable than I used to be with the depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. This one is at a picture book or preschool level.

The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos —  Vos has another children’s Bible. This one is more at an elementary level. I tried to use Vos’ volume with my preschool Sunday school class thinking it would be easier and found that often the stories were actually longer because of the commentary interspersed in them. If you yourself are uncomfortable commenting on the text, then this might be a way to go as it provides some interpretation along with the text (though as it is written you might not know what is text and what is interpretation).

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study by Starr Meade — This is a workbook-y series for children which guides you through reading the Bible itself. Again for my tastes it was too workbook-y but we did it aloud and I didn’t have my kids fill in all the blanks (or any of them for that matter). I do like that it divides up the Bible into manageable chunks.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola — This is a thinner volume that guides you through reading the epistles as well as sections from the book of Acts. Viola has his own slant — he is very pro-house church — but it gives some good background to the epistles and their contexts. I would use this one with older children (middle school +).

What’s in the Bible by R.C. Sproul — This is more of a reference book. It could be good to use yourself to get some background on a biblical book you plan to read (part of that getting more comfortable with that text yourself) or to give to an older child to aid their reading. Another similar book is How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart.

The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here.

Herein is Love series by Nancy Ganz — Though I have not used them, I am including Nancy Ganz’s series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. I have heard very good things about them and Ganz is a member of my denomination. Elementary level again.

General Theology

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children by James Beeke — Beeke goes through basic doctrines at a child’s level. His take on things is not identical to mine. He is King James only (I edited the verses he gives as I read them) and his denomination uses the three forms of Unity which mine does not. But the basics of the theology here pretty solid. Topics covered include sin, the covenant of grace, Christ as mediator, etc. It is a bit workbook-y for my (Charlotte Mason-y) tastes but again I edited a but as I went. We did it all aloud as a family. There are also older children versions of these volumes which seem to cover the same material just at a higher level.

What is a Christian Worldview? by Philip Ryken — This is a thin book, practically a pamphlet. The title is a bit misleading. Basically, this is an explanation of the five points of Calvinism. I gave it to my kids in middle school. It’s a great volume to give to friends interested in what Calvinism is as well.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — A classic on why one should believe in God. I had my kids read this one mainly because it is a classic and I felt that they should be familiar with it. Of course, Lewis has a number of other volumes that could be good as well.

31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God by Rick Stedman — This book is similar to Mere Christianity in some ways. It is fairly basic. I believe I had my children skip some chapters as it gets a bit repetitive. We used it in middle school.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by  Daniel Treier — I picked up this newer book recently and read through it. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I did so and decided I would have my two high schoolers read is, or selections from it, next school year. My plan is to have them read a couple of pages at a time and then to discuss it with them. This is an introductory book (as its title suggests) and does not go in-depth on any particular topic. Its strength is that it gives the lay of the land, outlining possible positions, on a number of issues. I will post our reading schedule when I have it typed up (likely in the fall). You can also see my review here.

Calvin’s Institutes — At some point we should all read the quintessential Calvin. I found it much more accessible than I had anticipated (for me) but it is not an easy book. This one is definitely high school level and probably upper high school (though if you have a range of kids as I do some may be getting it earlier than others). I read it aloud to my kids in short chunks over a three year period. I would read a day ahead of time. We skipped some sections and some whole chapters. Calvin often argues against the other opinions popular in his day and/or gives a number of biblical verses as evidence so I did find that there were bits we could skip.  Once you get the hang of how he constructs his arguments, it makes more sense. Don’t feel you need to read the whole thing in order. The last chapter on the Christian life is one of the most accessible and wouldn’t be a bad place to start. One project I have in mind is to arrange the Institutes much as Plutarch is laid out on Ambleside Online in short readings with some notes and questions so if that is something you would use please let me know.

Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof — Of course there are a lot of systematic theologies out there. I happen to own Berkhof’s and to find its concise style fairly accessible as a reference work when I want more information on a given topic. I wouldn’t read this one from cover to cover but it is nice to have such a resource on hand when questions arise.

Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and sometimes this can work better for children too. I had one high schooler do a series on theology/apologetics by listening to podcasts, the primary one being the Reformed Brotherhood. You can find the schedule for that here.

Christian Living and Encouragement

A Handful of Stars and other books by Frank Boreham — Boreham is one of my favorite authors. He was a pastor in the early 1900s (I believe) in Australia and New Zealand. His books are collections of short essays. He was not reformed but I still love a lot of what he wrote. He is more pastoral than theological, For kids, I’d recommend the volumes that give brief biographies and talk about the passages that influenced particular people’s lives. Many are available free or very cheap on Kindle.

A Little Book on the Christian Life and Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin — Though he is known for his in-depth theology, Calvin has a few volumes which are brief, pastoral, and very encouraging.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken — The story of a man’s spiritual journey after the loss of his wife. A tear-jerker.

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss — Another tear-jerker. This one is the spiritual journey of a young woman into adulthood and motherhood. Probably not for boys (not inappropriate, just girly). You (moms) should read it yourself if you haven’t.

Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper — This book is essentially an abridged version of Piper’s Desiring God. I have a few reservations about Piper’s view, called Christian hedonism, but I also like the encouragement this little volume gives to delight in God.

Specific Topics

The Hand of God and Satan Cast Out by Frederick Leahy — I believe Leahy was an Irish pastor. His work is solid and fairly accessible for middle school and up. The Hand of God is about God’s sovereignty and Satan Cast Out  is about, you guessed it, Satan. My kids really liked reading about Satan. I think it’s one of those subjects they have a natural curiosity about but aren’t likely to get a lot of preaching on.

Discovering God’s Will by Sinclair Ferguson — It’s been years since I read this book but Ferguson is a solid author and the topic is a very timely one for teenagers.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker is Catholic but he is one of my favorite authors (you will see him a few times on this list). This volume is about how things from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare show the Creator.  High school level and up.

Worldview and Philosophy

God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here.

The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin — I am not crazy about this book but there are some good parts. I appreciated his comparison of Frankenstein and Dracula and, if I am remembering the right book, the French and American revolutions.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer — This is the don’t-miss book for this section. We do both the book and video for this book to make sure my kids get it. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner — I am not a huge fan of  the term “worldview” and how it is used in Christian circles. Even less so of “worldview education.” Yet if that is a thing, it should mean not just learning the “right” worldview but learning how to discern the worldview of others on their writing and art. Horner’s Meaning at the Movies is a good, short book for helping one learn how to discern the view behind a work of art. Movies are short, quick glimpses into another’s mind and kids like watching them. I have my high schoolers do one year of “movies as literature” using this book (see this post for some specifics).

On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here.

My oldest son also did a year on political philosophy. You can find the full booklist for that here. A couple I would highlight that you might want to use and which come from a Christian perspective are Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read and The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul.

Politics

Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker — Another Wiker book. Very well done. High school level plus.

Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore — This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

Messiah the Prince by William Symington — This is the classic Reformed Presbyterian work on Christ’s Messianic Kingship. I usually have my kids skip some chpaters as they don’t really need to read about Christ’s rule over the church. There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited but I think it loses something.

Creation and Evolution

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker does a great job of showing how Darwin’s personality and beliefs affected his famous theory.

We usually cover this topic as part of high school biology. I have my kids read books on a couple of sides of the issue and then for their exam for the term write what the various views are and what they find most convincing. I also have a post on dinosaurs in the Bible here. 

Gender Related Issues

It is hard to avoid these subjects today and your kids will encounter them (of they haven’t already) when they go to college. My gender and marriage booklist is here. I have my teens read Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion story in her Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the position papers of the RPCNA, The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (published by Crown and Covenant).

Art

I have one child who is particularly interested in art and it is one of those subjects in which one needs to think a bit about how to do it Christianly. Two books I would recommend for that are:

Liberated Imagination by Leland Ryken (my review here)

The Christian, the Arts and Truth by Frank Gaebelein (my review here)

Church History

History Lives series by Mindy Withrow — A four volume set with manageable chunks on church history from the earlier times on. I did find it a little bit undiscriminating in who it calls a hero of the faith but overall it is very good. Begin reading it aloud in the elementary years.

Sketches from Church History by Houghton — There is also a student workbook which I would skip but the book itself is not badly written. Middle school level I believe.

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — A wonderful, fair book on Purtian life and belief. We included it in history but it could also be read with theology or church history.

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton — Classic life of Martin Luther.

The Reformation 500 Years Later by Benjamin Wiker — A Catholic writing on the Reformation = I don’t agree with everything here but it is a well-wrtten, easy to read book and may make you think. It does a good job of showing all the threads that played into the Reformation. I gave my kids specific questions to answer in place of straight narrations. You can find those here. My review is here.

Nebby

[1] My degrees are in biblical Hebrew though I think that ultimately every Christian should be or get comfortable with their Bible, while acknowledging that we do not read it apart from our interpretive traditions.

Reformed Thinkers on Education: Johann Sturm

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I am returning again to my “Reformed Thinkers on Education” series-within-a-series to look at Johann Sturm. Sturm is an older writer — about as old as you can get and merit the label reformed! — a contemporary of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. I have just read a few essays from Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning [ed. Lewis Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995)], but I think they are enough to give me a pretty good idea of his approach and philosophy. Though he is an older writer and in many ways what he has to say may not seem applicable to today’s world, his influence on later educators, both Protestant and Catholic (p. 12), has been great so it is well worth our time to see just what Sturm was all about.

Sturm’s philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in literature (p. 57) was seen as the way to produce good morals (p.71).

“For there is nothing in the nature of the universe that cultivates morality as does the study of letters.” (p. 72)

Sturm acknowledged the place of nature and experience but argued for the role of learning in further shaping character (p. 73). This learning, of course, might not be available to all but was a powerful force in the lives of those suited to it. [Sturm’s educational program was not universal. He did advocate for the inclusion of select poorer boys but girls were left out entirely (p. 16) as were those deemed “slow” (p. 78).]

Though definitively Christian and reformed — he “represented a Calvinist element within the church” (p. 350) — Sturm valued classical authors, seeing them as “a harbinger of rather than a challenge to Christian morality” (p. 45).  In practice, classical authors were exalted even above Christian ones. They were assumed to give the proper moral base and distinctly Christian subjects like dogmatics were left out of the core curriculum (p. 50).  Despite this lack of Christian sources, the teacher was expected to be a Christian and to provide the right mindset and perspective through which to view the materials studied (p. 54). And education was said to be useless if not “imbued with sound Christian values” (p. 347).

As is common in the classical tradition, Sturm placed a high value on being able to speak well, saying that “eloquence without knowledge was as dangerous as knowledge without eloquence” (p, 49). This indeed seems to have been the motivating factor in Sturm’s approach to education and his return to classical sources — he saw in his own day a lack of learning which paled beside the vision he had of the ancients and turned to classical sources and oratory as a way to recover learning (p. 119). The early years in particular were given over to the development of morality and proper speech (p. 74) so that these habits, ingrained early, might form a proper basis for the later years. The end goal was a “wise and eloquent piety” (p.85), combing the three goals of morality, knowledge, and eloquence.

Sturm advocated for a large role for parents in the early years (p. 19), but ideally expected qualifying boys to enter school around age 6 (p. 86). At that time they would go to centralized schools. Sturm preferred a very centralized education, both in terms of geography and curriculum. Thus boys would be expected to go to the big city (wherever that might be) and the curriculum was standardized. Large classes were the ideal (p. 84). This was not interest-led learning. Even individual teachers did not make decisions about what was to be taught, but everything was standardized across the school so that all students would learn the same material.

In “The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters (1538)” Sturm presents his program, year by year, outlining which books of Cicero, for example, were to be studied in which year. The first nine years, to age 15 or so, would be for general “boyhood education” and then five more for advanced education (p. 85). In terms of methodology, Sturm was very modern in that he threw everything he had at students. Many different approaches were tried so that if one didn’t work with a particular student, another might (p. 51). He advocated strongly for the use of rewards and prizes as motivations to learning (pp. 51, 88), playing upon students’ innate desires for validation and victory in competition (p. 65).

Though there is a strong emphasis on competition as a motivating factor for the boys, yet Sturm seems to have valued cooperation above all in his teachers. The students’ ambition was used against them (or for them, depending on your perspective) to urge them on in their studies. Yet, for his faculty, Sturm says “nothing corrupts religion more than ambition . . .  When men are contorted by envy and tossed by ambition, there is no loyalty in them, and nothing perfect” (p. 116). The theory in the younger years seems to have been that competition breeds friendship among boys (p. 117). I am not a male so perhaps this is lost on me, but this seems like a very fine line to tread, using a quality you ultimately don’t want to inculcate.

Though he was not opposed to corporal punishment, above all his goal seems to have been to make learning enjoyable for students, to keep their motivation up. To aid in this, lessons were to be kept short and varied (p. 92). Yet too much variation in one day was also to be avoided; Sturm advocated no more than three subjects per day (p. 93). In all this, there was a large role for the teacher in keeping up students’ motivation and appropriately varying the curriculum (yet without varying it too much).

Latin and Latin authors were the backbone of the curriculum. One began with Cicero in grade 9 (which was the youngest grade; Sturm counted from grade 9 up to grade 1; p. 89). Sturm made much use of memorization (p. 55) and in the early years one goal was to train the faculty of memory (p. 91). Greek and Greek authors would be introduced in fifth grade (p. 95). In the last years (grades 2 and 1 for him), the emphasis was particularly on “ornate speech” (p. 102), defined as speech which is “literary, embellished by learning, worth of a free man, and appropriate to the occasion and the person” (p. 103). Subjects like math and astronomy would also come up in these last years.

Though, as we have said, “Christian” subjects were not part of the main curriculum, they were included in some ways. Festival days were for “sacred lectures” and boys were expected to know “the entire history of Christ and the apostles” (p. 104). When this was supposed to happen is not clear, but there was apparently a good amount of reading expected to be done apart from school hours. In all subjects original sources were preferred to later commentaries (p. 48) and this was true of the Scriptures as well (p. 106). In the last years of schooling, the catechism would be explained and Hebrew grammar taught (p. 104).

Sturm believed all subjects were inter-related and warned against over-specialization especially in those first nine years of education. As we have seen, the curriculum was very much a top-down, standardized affair so that there would be few if any options for boys.  Older students, those in the five years of advanced education, were at the age of specialization but were also encouraged to attend lectures in fields outside their main interest (p. 49).

There is no doubt Sturm has been influential, on both classical and non-classical educators, Protestants and Catholics. He lived at a time when the reformed church, brand new itself, had a new situation to deal with. Education had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy but an educated laity as well, yet in an environment in which few structures were already in place.  Sturm was called in to build a school system essentially from scratch, a rare opportunity.

As he began to do so, Sturm looked around and saw an appalling lack of education in his own day, especially in comparison with the educational level of the past (or at least the perceived level). At a time when the gospel was once again begin preached and spread abroad, it is no wonder he felt very much the need for not just Christian morality but eloquence. The great orators of Greece and Rome seemed to provide just the model he needed and so it was to them that he turned, developing an approach to education which was almost the definition of neo-classical.

I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a big fan of classical education. As we evaluate Sturm’s work we need to keep in mind the environment in which he lived and the resources available to him. What he created was of incredible value for the church and the society of the time. But we must also realize that we live in a different situation. We have many more centuries of thought about education behind us. We have different needs, different ways of communicating, even different bodies of knowledge, and many, many more resources. We can appreciate Sturm’s work, and take from it what might still be useful to us, but it would be foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the proper foundation. Sturm does this as well. In his case, I think it was much more excusable; he was in a unique situation and had little else to turn to. We don’t have the same excuses.

Nebby

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Dear Reader,

I am a Reformed Christian who has been reading and posting on issues relating to education, homeschooling, Charlotte Mason, and Reformed Theology for a number of years. Among other topics, I have written in the past on how Charlotte Mason’s thoughts line up with the Scriptures and why Charlotte Mason’s views are not reformed. Today I would like to take that last assertion a step further and argue that in addition to not being reformed, Charlotte Mason had Arminian tendencies. I am not willing to say that she was Arminian in terms of having a well worked out Arminian theology that she held to, but I do think that her underlying theology shows Arminian tendencies.

Setting the Stage

I am not an expert in Charlotte Mason, theology, or Anglicanism (my educational background is in Biblical Hebrew). I am a homeschool mom who has read and thought about these things for a number of years. I have read Charlotte Mason’s six-volume homeschool series cover to cover once through and with various other readings here and there I would guess I have read everything she has written in that series at least twice, some books or sections more than others. I have read a few other articles by Charlotte Mason when they have come up. I am just beginning to read her volume of poetry on the gospels because I feel I should in order to get a more accurate idea of her theology. My initial impression is that her poetic volumes are going to have little to contribute to our understanding of Mason’s theology. It is very hard to discern a theology from poetry with any confidence. I have heard it said that Wesley was an Arminian in his theology and a Calvinist in his hymns. Though I doubt I will find Calvinism in Mason’s gospel poetry, the point that more artistic expressions can betray a different theology that one might not adhere to if pressed is worth mentioning.

Charlotte Mason lived and worked in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was a member of the Church of England. These facts about her should already orient us somewhat as we begin to examine her theology. Within the broad realm of Christendom, they narrow things down a bit and begin to give us some expectations about what she believed. The Church of England is a fairly broad umbrella, however, so they don’t narrow things down too, too much, especially on the issues we will consider today.

I would point you particularly to this earlier post I did on Miss Mason’s Anglican foundations. There I very briefly reviewed Benjamin Bernier’s “Education for the Kingdom“. Bernier shows the Anglican roots and influences of Mason’s thought which, while “Christ-centered,” embodies a kind of “mere Christianity” that is not terribly specific theologically. The same may be said of Anglicanism in general. It rests not on a rigorous confession like that of Westminster but on the non-binding standards of the Thirty-Nine Articles and various later proceedings known as the Lambeth Conferences. [1] Thus knowing Mason’s Anglicanism tells us something about her beliefs but leaves a lot still undetermined. There is a range of things she could have believed and still been a good 19th-20th century Anglican.

It is always worth remembering as well that Charlotte Mason was not writing theology (though again we will come back to her gospel-based poetry in a future post). My contention has long been that education is an inherently theological enterprise but often we have to ferret out what those theologies are. Mason is more direct than some but her goal in the Home Education series is not to give us her theology but her philosophy of education. We often have to read between the lines to try to determine what she believed. My contention on this blog has been that the underlying ideas behind any approach to education will out themselves in the end and that we should be aware of what they are, even if the authors themselves do not know or acknowledge them. So I think it is worth our while to look more closely at Mason and to ask what her ideas were so that we can adapt her approach as need be and bring it better into alignment with our own views.

This is going to be one of my longer posts because I want to take some time to establish the background. We will begin by defining Arminianism. This is very important as it is a term that is used in many different ways. We will then look at the overall theological environment in which Mason lived in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Beginning to narrow in, we will look at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe whose works Mason used in her schools. Finally, we will turn to Mason’s own words from her six-volume Home Education series.

What is Arminianism?

“Arminian” is a label which gets thrown a lot around in reformed circles. Anyone we disagree with might be termed Arminian. But I want to be specific today about what that term entails and what it doesn’t.

Within the spectrum of possible theologies, Arminianism is not the opposite of Reformed theology. That award goes to Pelagianism. In between fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. For our purposes today we are going to look at two related issues: the nature of man (that is, his goodness or badness) and his role in his own salvation.

Reformed theology (aka Calvinism) says that man, after the Fall, is totally depraved, which is not to say that he is as evil as he could possibly be but that every aspect of his nature is fallen and corrupted by sin. Though it is a false dichotomy to say that Reformed theology champions divine sovereignty over human free will, man, apart from saving grace, is so bound by his own sinful nature that he can’t be said to be truly free to choose good. Because man is unable to contribute to his own salvation, his election must be unconditional, not dependent on his own character or actions. His salvation is entirely a work of God. Saving grace is essential, particular (bestowed on a particular people, the elect; not general), and irresistible (man cannot turn down God’s saving grace).

Pelagianism, at the other end of the spectrum, says that “humans can freely choose to obey God’s commands rather than sinning.” [2] Adam’s sin was not passed on to his descendants as such but men sin in imitation of Adam. They are free not to sin. Grace is general in Pelagianism, and saving grace can even be said to be unnecessary.

In between these two extremes fall Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. There is a fine line between these two. In Semi-Pelagianism the first step is taken by man; in Arminianism it is taken by God. [3] Semi-Pelagianism says that “initial faith is a free human act, only later increased . . . by divine grace.” [4]

Arminianism does not deny the effects of the Fall on man’s nature, even perhaps admitting total depravity, but it posits a kind of intervening grace which is general and enables man to have faith. [5] This preparing grace is called prevenient grace (or sometimes preventing grace). [6] There is some variety in belief here but usually it is considered to be general, i.e. to go out to all men, and to undo the effects of the fall to the extent that man is able to make a first step toward God.  Thus man in this state does have some real ability to choose good. His election is not unconditional but is dependent upon God’s foreknowledge. God looks ahead to see which will have faith. Because of prevenient grace, man is able to believe, an act which precedes saving grace.

To sum up, there are four basic positions (with many possible convolutions thereof):

  1. Pelagianism: Man does not inherit Adam’s sinful nature. Man is free to do good and makes the first steps toward salvation. Grace is all but irrelevant.
  2. Semi-Pelagianism:  Man makes the first step toward salvation and then God’s saving grace comes in.
  3. Arminianism: Man does inherit Adam’s sin and may even be totally depraved, but by a general act of grace (called prevenient or preventing grace), he is made able to take the first step toward God. Saving grace comes after this initial step.
  4. Reformed Theology: Man is totally depraved and unable to do or choose actual good or to take a step towards God. God’s saving grace, which is only for the elect, must act first. Man is unable to resist this grace.

The argument I am making is not that Charlotte Mason falls into categories 1 or 2, but that she falls into category 3, Arminianism, in that she believed that there is a kind of grace which enables all men to be able to choose good and to make that first step towards God. I am not saying that she did not believe in original sin or even possibly total depravity (though I am skeptical that she would have used that term).

What Might Charlotte Mason Have Believed?

Before turning to Charlotte’s own words, I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at ideas that existed within her time and culture. [7] My goal here is to show what ideas were circulating in the culture. An article I have looked at previously summarizes an interview conducted in England in 1905 about the salvation of children. [8] Those interviewed for this survey were a low churchman (of the Church of England), a high churchman (ditto), two Presbyterians, a Wesleyan (Methodist), three Congregationalists, a Baptist, and a Unitarian. The first thing we can notice here is the variety of denominations represented.

The question particularly addressed is whether some children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. The low churchman, the baptist, and one Presbyterian believed that all children must be born again.  The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believed that children may be born saved. The Unitarian believed that all children are born into the Kingdom. The positions of the others are not specified in the summary article. The second point to notice, then, is the variety of beliefs represented and that within a given denomination (COE, Presbyterianism) there was not necessarily agreement.

Among those surveyed, there were four positions: 1) no children are born into the Kingdom of God (the position of the Baptist minister); 2) all children are born into the Kingdom (the Unitarian position); 3) children born to Christian parents are in the Kingdom; and 4) children born in a Christian nation are born into the Kingdom. [9] While we are not given the reasons behind these positions, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to think that some at least saw a kind of general grace at work, either inducting children into the Kingdom or preparing them for it.

The position of the Wesleyan Methodist minister is not specified but here we can make some fairly solid guesses. By my reckoning, around the year 1900 about 2.5% of the population of England would have been Methodist. [10] The theology of this English-born denomination is based in that of John and Charles Wesley (1700s) who themselves came out of the Church of England. Wesleyan theology is Arminian to its core. John Wesley “followed Arminius in holding that prevenient grace enables all humans to respond freely to the gospel. This universal work of the Spirit overcomes the dire effects of original sin.” [11] Prevenient grace is general; it is “a universal benefit of Christ’s crucifixion,” [12] general and universal in that it is applicable to all men, not just the elect.

The Church of England is, as I have said, a fairly broad umbrella. I have struggled to find a clear source to explain to me the Anglican take on prevenient grace. What I have found is this: Wesley based the Articles of Faith on which Methodism is founded upon the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles.  In fact, he changed these articles very little. Of particular importance to us is Article X (Article VIII of the Methodist Articles of Religion) which reads:

“The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” The Thirty-Nine Articles X (= Articles of Religion VIII; emphasis added)

Note the word “preventing” which is used here. Prevenient grace, you may recall, can also be called preventing grace. Wesley and the Methodists take this Article to mean that prevenient grace enables man to have a good will. Is this how the COE understood the same words? Based on my research thus far, I am not clear on that. It is certainly a possible understanding of these words, however. The Gospel Coalition, in their article on Methodism, speaks of Wesley drawing on the Arminianism “implicit in the articles as they stand.” [13]

At least one Anglican of Charlotte’s day did take the Arminian understanding. Joseph Miller says that:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts? Observe that [The Thirty-Nine Articles, chapter IX] says, that ‘man is very far gone from original righteousness,’ not ‘altogether.’” [14] (emphasis added)

A few points to note: There is an explicit rejection of the doctrine of irresistible grace. The conclusion that man must be able to make some movement towards his own salvation is based on a rejection of that doctrine.

Summing up, what we see is that England circa 1900 was a diverse place both denominationally and theologically. The Arminian view that there is a kind of universal grace, called prevenient grace, which enables men to have a good will and thus to make the first step toward their own salvation, was evident. This view is implicit, but not explicit, in the COE’s Thirty-Nine Articles. Because the COE is a fairly broad umbrella, it is hard to say how Article X which seems to allude to this universal grace was interpreted at the time or how a particular Anglican (in this case Charlotte Mason) would have understood it, though there is evidence that some (as Joseph Miller) took an Arminian view. [15]

Narrowing in: The Theology of J. Paterson Smythe

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

What we saw in those posts was that while Smythe holds to some widely accepted Christian tenets — the sinful nature of man, his need of a savior, and that Christ is that savior — he also takes a very clearly Arminian view. He makes quite clear that God’s will to save us is dependent upon our willingness to be saved. Specifically, Smythe speaks of man’s Will as the key deciding factor. That is, the first step that is required of man is that he must make a conscious and deliberate act of the Will to choose to align himself with God. In the absence of this act of the Will, his fate remains undecided. The default option seems to be neither condemnation nor salvation. Man must ultimately move one way or the other. If he does not clearly do so in this life, he will be given another chance in the next. This latter bit is not necessarily characteristic of Arminianism, but the idea that man must act and contribute to his salvation is and Smythe adds some specification: that what man contributes is that act of the Will.

Now Charlotte Mason, as we have said, recommended and used Smythe’s book for teachers. This does not imply that she adhered to all his theology, but it does point us in a certain direction. So next we must turn to Charlotte’s own words.

The Theology of Charlotte Mason

As we move to looking at what Charlotte herself said, I want to clarify again the questions we are asking. We are not asking if she believed men are sinful. Arminianism admits original sin and perhaps even total depravity. We are asking if there is a kind of general grace which affects all men and enables them to do any good. We are asking if they contribute in any way to their own salvation. And in light of Smythe’s writings, we are looking particularly at whether the Will might be that contributing factor.

In her six-volume Home Education series [16], Mason addresses issues of the Will and faith most directly in four places: chapter 6 of volume 1 (Home Education) which is on the Will; volume 2 (Parents and Children) beginning on p. 127 when she discusses a series of sermons by a Rev. Canon Beeching on faith; volume 4 (Ourselves), book 2, parts 2 and 3 on the Will and the Soul respectively; and book 1, chapter 6 of volume 6 (Towards a Philosophy of Education) which is again on the Will. Much of the material in the chapters on the Will in volumes 1, 4, and 6 is the same, sometimes word-for-word. I would say that volume 1 introduces a topic, already fairly fully formed, which becomes expanded in volume 4 and recapped in volume 6. It is interesting to note that while Mason wrote her series over quite a span of time — volume 1 was written in 1886 and volume 6 was published in 1923 — her ideas of the topics we will address seem to have changed very little.

In volume 1 and again in volume 4, Charlotte Mason offers us a kind of anthropology or psychology of the inner man. The inmost person, she says, consists of 3 chambers, a structure analogous to that of the Israelite temple (vol. 1, p. 317). The outermost is the Will (p. 317). Next is the Conscience (p. 330) and the “holy of holies,” the innermost chamber, is the Soul (p. 342).

If you have read much Mason, you know that she talks about what she calls the Way of the Will quite a bit. Charlotte herself says the Will is hard to define (vol. 1, p. 318). She seems often to speak of it in two ways. When she discusses the training of children, much of what she says of the Will will seem acceptable to us. Under this heading she speaks at length about the difference between being wilful and will-less and she notes that making use of one’s Will, while essential to true advancement in faith, is not a prerequisite of the Christian life (vol. 1, p. 322).  Much of what she says is good, practical parenting advice and I encourage you to read it. Yet, as we will see below, at other times she speaks of a certain act of the Will as the first step towards God. It is this latter use of “Will” that concerns us today. 

The Will is the executive, or commanding, power (vol 1, p. 317). The Will orders all the other human faculties — reason and the emotions among them (vol. 4, p. 127). There is an important distinction between the Will and what we commonly call being wilful. Those who are wilful actually do not exercise their Wills at all but are carried away by their own desires. Esau was a wilful man; he sacrificed his inheritance for an immediate appetite (vol. 4, p. 130). Jacob worked for a higher end though his methods were not always good (p. 131). Thus we see on one hand that some men, like Esau, never use their Wills, and, on the other, that the Will is not inherently good or bad. It is amoral and can be used in the service of either good or evil. Neither does using one’s Will inherently make one a great man nor does being great mean one makes use of his Will. Mason gives the example of Napoleon who was not a man of Will but was led by his desires and yet conquered most of Europe (vol. 4, p. 132). 

Though some men may neglect this ability, Mason says men are made to will as kings are made to reign (vol. 4, p. 140). The Will always has an object outside itself (vol. 4, p. 139). The ideal is a “simple, rectified Will, what our Lord calls ‘the single eye’”  (vol. 4, p. 138). I am not entirely sure what she means by this but my guess is that she is talking about having one, focused Will, being what the Bible calls whole-hearted. 

 “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose” (vol. 6, p. 133). For Mason, the Will is a free agent, the only faculty of man that is free (vol. 4, p. 143).  According to her definition of Will, it cannot be anything but free (vol. 4, p. 173). Whenever the Will chooses one option, it inherently rejects another (vol. 4, p. 147). [17] Every choice is ultimately not a matter of one action or person versus another but of choosing between ideas (vol. 4, p 147). This use of the word “idea,” which runs throughout Mason’s work may seem a little odd to us. In the context of her discussion of the Will, one might think of ideals. Even seemingly simple choices, she tells us, as that between purchasing one suit versus another, may rest on deeper values (vol. 4, p.148). 

There are many choices one makes in life, but one is ultimate: the choice between serving God (and secondarily one’s fellow man) and the service of self (vol. 6, .p 135; cf. vol. 4, p. 172). Mason says that this choice is open to all but urges that one not wait to make it (vol. 4, pp. 150-51). Note that this choice too is presented as a choice man makes and as an act of Will. 

The next chamber Mason speaks of it that of the Conscience. According to Mason, each man is born with a conscience. He is born to love the good and hate the evil (vol. 1, p. 333). Yet a child’s conscience is immature and must be instructed (vol. 1, pp. 333-34). This is not an endless process. Maturity is possible: “The instructed conscience may claim to be, if not infallible, at any rate nearly always right” (vol. 1, p. 335). 

The innermost chamber is what Mason calls the Divine Life or the Soul. Only God can satisfy men’s souls and the Soul is made for God (vol. 1, p. 342; vol. 4, p. 175). Yet the Soul has its “disabilities” (vol. 4, p. 177). Mason speaks of the souls of some men as dead, but later contradicts this and says they are not dead but asleep (vol. 4, p.177). Elsewhere she uses the words “nascent,” “torpid” (vol.1, p. 343),  “lethargic” (vol. 4, p. 177), and “crippled” (vol. 4, p. 179). The child is not born with an awakened soul, but one that needs to be unfolded like a flower opening (vol.1, p. 343).

Though the human soul is made to love God and has that inclination yet it is also averse to God (vol. 4, p. 179). The initial aversion to God is not in itself sin. To deliberately reject God is sin, but one’s innate aversion is not sinful (vol. 4, p. 180).

The choice of which of these two inclinations to follow is a free one for Mason (vol. 4; bk 2, pt 3, ch 2). “[F]aith is the act of Will by which we choose Him whom we have learned to know” (vol. 4, p. 199). This freedom she views as a good: ” . . . if our hearts flew to God as inevitably as raindrops to the earth where would our election, our willing choice of God before all things, come in? Where would be the sense of victory in our allegiance?” (vol. 4, p. 180). Note the use of the word “election” here. Mason is not referring to God’s election of us but our election of Him. 

The dormant soul, whether of a child or an adult, is awakened when it is confronted with the idea of God (vol. 4, p. 178). Remember that it is ideas, for Mason, that the Will must choose between. For her to say that children must be presented with the idea of God is as much as to say they must be presented with God.  For children it is their parents who are to present this idea to them, though they cannot control whether the child accepts the idea (vol.1, pp. 343-44). She also speaks of the necessity of God’s written Word as the means by which we know Him (vol. 4, pp. 184-85). These both, then, the witness of the Bible and of other people, are tools used by God Himself to present the one most needful idea to our Souls. 

There seems to be some initial action on the part of God in this. It is He who reaches out to the Soul (vol.1, p. 322, 344; vol. 4, p. 177). But our response is by no means inevitable; the Will must choose and the Soul must respond. 

“But, fit and necessary as it is to us to know our God, it is by no means inevitable . . . We must begin with an act of steadfast will, a deliberate choice . . .” (vol. 4, p. 186)

This issue of God’s role versus ours is key to the question we have before us today. If we neglect the means of grace given to us, Mason says, “I do not see much ground for hoping that divine grace will step in as a substitute for any and every power we choose to leave unused or misdirected” (vol. 1, p. 331). Quite often Mason speaks as if God’s effort depends upon our own:

“It is even so; in every department of life, physical or spiritual, human effort appears to be the condition of the Divine energizing; there must be a stretching forth of the withered arm before it receives strength; and we have every reason to believe that the instructed conscience, being faithfully followed, is divinely illuminated.” (vol. 1, pp. 340-41; empahsis original)

“But there is one great, perfect and satisfying Intimacy open to us all . . . We are abashed when we think of the promotion open to every poor human soul . . . and this knowledge, this exalted intimacy, is open to us all, on one condition only––if we choose . . . it is startling to know that this supreme friendship is to be had by each of us if he will, because every human soul has capacity for the knowledge of God” (vol. 4, p. 183; emphasis original)

In her discussion of Canon Beeching’s sermons, Mason speaks clearly of the human ability to turn to God:

“ . . . just that measure of moral light and leading which a man lays himself open to receive is freely given to him.” (vol. 2, p. 135)

And again:

 “‘ . . . He is so far from declaring that men can do no good thing, that He assumes always that man in his proper state of dependence upon God has the power to do righteousness. ‘Whosoever shall do the will of My Father, which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.’” (vol. 2, pp. 139-40; emphasis added)

Elsewhere, she says that “faith is itself no self-originated impulsebut (quoting Beeching) “‘the springing up of a man’s heart in response to the encircling pressure of the ‘Everlasting Arms”” (vol. 2, p. 137). There is some ambiguity, then, in Mason’s thought as to which comes first, God’s grace or our faith.

To conjecture that Mason adhered to something like the prevenient grace of the Arminians seems to resolve this discrepancy. This doctrine, you will recall, says that there is a grace which enables all men to have faith if they will. God then responds to this faith with saving grace. Because grace which ultimately leads to salvation enters into the process at two points, one can both say that grace precedes faith and that grace is a response to human faith. 

In defense of such a supposition, I would point to Mason’s use of the phrase “redeemed world” [18]. She speaks of our “redeemed world” as a lovely place in which children turn naturally to their Savior as flowers turn toward the sun:

“And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Saviour and God with unconscious delight and trust.” (vol. 1, p. 20; emphasis added; cf. p. 331)

Once she uses the phrase “redeemed human race”:

“… believing that there is such ‘progress in character and virtue’ possible to the redeemed human race as has not yet been realised or even imagined.” (vol. 2, p. 248; emphasis added)

And finally, this most revealing quote:

“But we live in a redeemed world, and one of the meanings which that unfathomable phrase bears is, that it is the duty of those who have the care of childhood to eradicate each vulgar and hateful trait, to plant and foster the fruits of that kingdom in the children who have been delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace; that is to say, all children born into this redeemed world.” (vol. 2, p. 65; emphasis added)

Note what she is saying here: all children born into this redeemed world have been delivered from the Kingdom of Nature to that of Grace. I conclude from such quotes, and from the other statements that we have seen Mason makes about human ability, that she does believe in a kind of prevenient grace which, since the work of Christ, enables all men to have faith if they will, that is, if they make a conscious act of the Will.

Conclusion

We have seen that the Arminian position, that there is a kind of prevenient grace which precedes saving grace and allows men to be able to have faith and choose God, was extant in Charlotte Mason’s society. This position would have been well within the realm of belief in her own denomination at the time and was that of J. Paterson Smythe, a source she used and recommended.

Looking at Mason’s own words, we have seen that she too speaks of the Will as the faculty by which men choose and that she attributes faith to an act of the Will. Though she clearly acknowledges human sinfulness, she speaks of the ability of all men to make this choice for God. God’s grace is at times said to precede human action but just as often, if not more so, to be dependent upon human action. Though Mason herself does to use words like “prevenient grace,” she does speak of us living in a redeemed world and she relates this concept to our innate ability to have faith. In my reading, Mason’s theology seems to be quite clearly Arminian.

Though we have not dwelt on all these points, for those of us who are Reformed it may be helpful to hold up Mason’s theology to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. She does believe in man’s sinfulness, though she might not use the term “total depravity.”  There is some difference from the reformed understanding of sin in that she does not count our natural aversion to God as in itself sinful. Mason does not speak of our election but once at least speaks of us electing (i.e. choosing) God. Perhaps due to the initial working of a kind of prevenient, or preparing, grace, she sees salvation as being open to all men. The workings of grace and the effect of Christ’s work are then nor limited and particular for her but general or universal. She occasionally speaks as if grace were irresistible, but when she does so she seems to be talking of universal salvation. [19] God’s saving grace is made dependent on human action. It is again not clear if she expects men, once having chosen God and received saving grace, to remain always in that state, but she does seem to tend in this direction. As we saw with Smythe, one’s path is determined by a number of small actions and choices in one direction to the other. So for Mason, it seems that once one is on the path towards God, there is not much opportunity to get going back the other direction. [20]

If we are Reformed and Charlotte Mason is not, this does not mean that there is nothing  good in her philosophy of education that we can make use of. I have spent quite a long time working out my own philosophy of education and I have found myself back quite close to Mason in many, many ways. But I do think we need to be realistic about what she said and to take her at her words. It does neither her nor us any good to pretend she believed things she did not. We need ultimately to be discerning and to recognize that no one person is going to get everything right. We need to come at Mason with clear eyes, taking the good but being alert for things she may have got wrong, and we need to be willing to see that because her theology differs from ours, there may also be aspects of her philosophy of education to which we need to take exception.

Nebby

[1] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019) p. 263. Because I have been reading it recently, I am relying heavily on Treier’s recent and comprehensive work for various theological definitions and concepts. I don’t believe any of these are particularly controversial ideas, however.

[2] Treier, p. 228.

[3] John Hendryx, “Differences between Semi-Pelagianism and Arminian Beliefs,” Monergism (accessed 4/10/2020).

[4] Treier, p. 228.

[5] Treier, p. 241.

[6] It is important to note that prevenient grace is not the same as the Reformed doctrine of common grace. The latter has no power to save. In the life of the unbeliever, common grace ultimately serves only to further condemn (see this earlier post). For a good discussion of prevenient grace and the similarities and differences between Arminianism and Reformed theology, see John Hendryx, “A Short Response to the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace . . .,” Monergism (accessed 4/13/2020).

[7] See this earlier post for a more general survey of Christian beliefs on the effects of the Fall.

[8] “The Child and Religion,” Crown Theological Library (1905). Available from Forgotten Books here or from Archive.org here. See also this earlier post for a discussion of this article.

[9] This latter category may be a little foreign to us in the modern political environment in which we live. This is not a category we tend to think of, but they lived in a different time, one in which England could be said to be a Christian nation in that it had one majority religion, not to mention a state church.

[10] According to Wikipedia [“Demography of England,” (accessed 4/13/2020)] the population of England was approximately 30,000,000 in 1901 and 33,000,000 in 1911. “Methodism in Numbers” (July 2018) tells us that in 1906 there were upwards of 800,000 Methodists in England. By my calculations this means that in 1906, roughly 2.5% of the population was Methodist. For the sake of comparison, in 1901 England was 4.8% Roman Catholic [“Catholic Church in England and Wales,” Wikipedia (accessed 4/14/2020)].

[11] Treier, p. 268.

[12] Treier, p. 230.

[13] Thomas Nettles, “Methodist Theology,” The Gospel Coalition (accessed 4/14/2020).

[14] Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition( 1885) pp. 25-26.

[15] Still in the 2000s the question of whether The Thirty-Nine Articles present a reformed position is up for debate. J.I. Packer has argued they are reformed as opposed to Lutheran, but Martin Davie takes a contrary position. He argues that the Articles do not fall into either of these categories, nor would the writers have thought in terms of these categories, but that they present a more eclectic theology [Martin Davie, The Inheritance of Our Faith (Gilead Boks, 2013)].

[16] There are a number of editions of the series available today. Because it is free and easily accessible, I will refer to the page numbers in Ambleside Online’s online editions in my citations.

[17] Note that this, for Mason, does not mean rejection of authority,  whether ecclesiastical or civil; to submit to authority is also an act of the Will (vol. 4, p. 145).

[18] I have previously discussed one of these in my post The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought. 

[19] This is not a point we got into, but Mason does at times speak as if she expects all men to be saved: “He will draw all men, because it is not possible for any human soul to resist the divine loveliness once it is fairly and fully presented to his vision” (vol. 2, p. 138). I suspect that this is not as much a doctrine she has worked out clearly for herself as an inclination she has. 

[20] “ . . . when we see that, in desiring God, we have set before us a great aim, requiring all our courage and constancy, then the Will rises, chooses, ranks itself steadfastly on the side of God; and, though there be many failings away and repentings after this one great act of Will, yet, we may venture to hope, the Soul has chosen its side for good and all.” (vol. 4, p. 182)

Book Review: The Liturgy of Creation

Dear Reader,

Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) presents an interesting new approach to Genesis 1. LeFebvre is a member of my own denomination, a pastor, and a professor at the denominational seminary. He is clearly an intelligent scholar who has done a lot of study and put a lot of thought into the argument he makes. Having read the book and taken some time to ponder it, I am still not entirely sure where I fall on its argument.

My own background is in biblical Hebrew [1] and I have given some thought to the creation story in the past. Going into this book I would have said I am somewhat agnostic on creation issues, tending toward an Old Earth creationism but certainly not a literal 6-day creationism. [2] I also would say (and have said) that Genesis 1 is a unique narrative. It stands not just at the beginning of our Bible but as an introduction to the Pentateuch, the Old Testamen,t and the Scriptures as a whole. Despite attempts to define it, it is not really like any other section of Scripture in terms of its style and genre. Therefore it is hard to know how to take it.  I have argued, for instance, that though literal creationists want to compare the use of days with numbers attached to other such uses in the Pentateuch, that these can not really be compared on an equal footing since they are not the same kinds of texts.

LeFebvre has no doubt gotten and will get a lot of flack for his book from literal 6-day creationists. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to saying, again and again, that Genesis 1 cannot be used to say anything about the scientific aspects of when and how the earth was created. This is not my problem with the book. I went into the book already half-way on LeFebvre’s side in that I did not take the six days literally and I do take Genesis 1 as a different kind of genre, though I had no real answer to the question of what that genre is.

LeFebvre provides an answer to the question. The thesis of his book is that Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative (p. 6). As far as I know this is a genre he has uniquely identified and defined. The arguments he makes are built something like a brick wall in that they all hold together and work toward a common goal but it would be possible to disagree with some points here and there without knocking down the whole edifice. To mix my metaphors, one might say many of his arguments are circumstantial evidence. No one alone proves his point but when taken altogether he does make a compelling case.

I can’t possibly address everything LeFebvre brings into the discussion. I am going to leave aside all the scientific/creationist issues because (a) I am sure others will address those at length and (b) they are not issues for me personally. What I would like to focus on are just a few of the bigger issues and implications of Lefebvre’s argument.

Simply put, LeFeFebvre’s argument is that there is a genre within the Old Testament which he calls calendar narrative. He begins by looking at other passages from the Pentateuch and showing how the dates in them make no sense if taken literally (or at least pose serious issues). He shows how these dates line up with the festival holidays of Israel and argues that they were never meant to be taken literally but to tie Israel’s history to its calendar observances. These dates, he says, were for “liturgical remembrance,” not “journalistic detail” (p. 60). They were meant for the instruction of later generations (p. 66). Whereas the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures might tie their festivals to their myths, Israel’s festivals were rooted in their history (p. 14). Thus the story of the Passover, for one, is not intended to provide a precise history but to give instruction and meaning to the worshipper who will come later (p. 77).

Having learned “a reading strategy” (p. 66) from these other passages, LeFebvre turns to Genesis 1 and argues that the seven-day week it describes was also never meant to be taken literally. Like those other dates, the narrative of Genesis 1, according to Lefebvre, provides a justification for Israel’s festivals. In this case it is the weekly work cycle culminating in the Sabbath which is the focus (p. 113).  Note that it is not the Sabbath alone which Genesis 1 points to but the whole week. It is an example to us as much of what we should be doing the first six days of the week as what we should be doing on the final day. The description of God’s work week in Genesis 1 establishes the pattern for the human week. As LeFebvre describes the events of that first week, there are the normal patterns of plants growing and the normal taxonomy of animals with which the Israelite farmer would have been familiar (p. 173). There is nothing miraculous here; the original audience would have recognized what happens in Genesis 1 as mirroring their normal work. God, in this scenario, is the pattern for humans (p. 137). He is the Model Farmer (p. 165). The culmination of the week, the seventh day, is a time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It is a day of feasting.

On one level, there is a lot of appeal to LeFebvre’s theory. As I said, it tends to be in line with where my thoughts were going anyway — that Genesis has a unique genre and that we need to understand it as such. I think we also need to admit that there are some parts of the Bible that are just hard to take as literal history. Some dates don’t seem to line up or to make sense. There are various ways to deal with these seeming contradictions and some are more convincing than others. LeFebvre’s theory does an end-run around such arguments by saying that these dates were never meant to be taken literally.  He rather elegantly does away with the seeming contradictions without undermining the text or robbing them of it meaning.

LeFebvre spends some time explaining how the Bible deals with the scientific theories and beliefs of its day. Basically his argument is that the Bible never contradicts what its original readers would have believed. It never stretches them scientifically even if what they believed was wrong (a geocentric universe for example). In the context of his overall argument, this is perfectly acceptable. Since the Bible was not meant as science, it has no need to correct wrong science or to teach right science. I do actually like how he explains all this. It was not something I had thought about in this way but it makes sense.

I am less persuaded by some of his other arguments. (Recall that these arguments are like bricks in a wall; if we remove too many the whole will fall but to reject one or two is not necessarily to overthrow the whole.) He largely discounts miraculous explanations for the seeming contradictions. Not that he is a denier of miracles altogether, but he argues that if “the supernatural help of the Lord” were needed to accomplish large tasks such as the making of the utensils for the tabernacle in a relatively short amount of time that the text would have made this explicit (p. 87). This seems like a big assumption to me. One could argue on the other side that because there are so many instances where things were accomplished in humanly impossible (or at least improbable) amounts of time that this is how the text operates — these things happen and it does not comment on them. As with so many aspects of the biblical story, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

The thesis of LeFebvre’s book is that Genesis 1 is something he calls a calendar narrative. He bases this identification on the analogy with the other Pentateuchal texts which give dates. While he makes a compelling argument that the other passages use dates in a liturgical way, I don’t think he has established that there is a genre called calendar narrative or that Genesis 1 necessarily uses dates in the same way. As LeFebvre points out, the dates in Genesis 1 are different. They are days of the week with no reference to months (p. 115). He would say that this is because Genesis 1 speaks of the repeated weekly cycle rather than the yearly festivals, but, nonetheless, it is a difference. Genesis 1 is also one compact, discrete, and highly organized narrative. Compare this to the Flood story or the descriptions of Passover. My belief going into this was that Genesis 1 stands apart from the other Old Testament narratives we have because of its form and organization. LeFebvre has made a connection via the use of dates but he has not shown me that there is a genre here or what its defining characteristics would be, other than the use of specific dates which hardly seems enough to define a genre.

There is a difference as well in how LeFebvre himself deals with the details of these narratives. When speaking of the other narratives, he seems to take their details literally, apart from the issue of timing. Thus he can discuss how long it would have taken to make the utensils for the Tabernacle because he assumes that these utensils were made just as the text says and that the other events also happened as well in roughly the order they are presented. Yet when he comes to Genesis 1, there seems to be very little that he takes literally. To dismiss the idea of a literal week is one thing, but LeFebvre also says that the events of Creation need not have happened in the order they are presented (p. 138) and that even the mechanism of Creation is not meant literally (p. 146).

LeFebvre’s overall argument makes a very strong case for the Sabbath which I am not at all opposed to but it does so at the expense of other meaning. Coming as Genesis 1 does at the beginning of the whole Bible and being as it is a highly ordered narrative (a fairly unique thing within the Scriptures) one expects it to give an introduction to everything that follows, to set the tone if you will. [3] For Lefebvre, that introduction boils down to the Sabbath and the Sabbath alone:

“When the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Pentateuch, the sabbath-week calendar was placed at the front — literally in its first chapter (Gen 1:1-2:3). The cadence taught in that passage is the foundation from which our vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded in the rest of Scripture.” (p. 218)

In other words: “The Sabbath promise is literally the framing paradigm for all Scripture” (p. 219). This is quite a bold statement yet it comes at the end of the book with little discussion of how this would play out for our interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Let me say this again: LeFebvre is proposing a new paradigm for understanding all of Scripture.  Now the Sabbath is a wonderful thing and I think he could go a long way by talking about the ideal Sabbath rest which was set before us in Genesis 1, lost, found again in Jesus, and awaits us in eternity. But is this the paradigm by which we should understand all of Scripture? There are surely competing options. Covenant comes to mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture points to Him. If we are to say that Sabbath is the paradigm then at the very least that needs to be understood under the heading of Jesus as our Sabbath rest in which case it is not really the Sabbath which is key but Christ.

LeFebvre makes grand claims for Genesis 1 and yet in many ways he seems to rob it of meaning. His view of Genesis 1 is very focused and narrow. He concentrates on the weekly cycle of work and rest but in his understanding there is little else that Genesis 1 has to tell us. Personally, I think God tends to be a little more multifunctional than that. If we compare Genesis 1 to the Flood story, another of his calendar narratives, we find that while we might follow LeFebvre in not taking the dates literally there is still a lot the text has to tell us about not just big concepts like sin and judgment (not to mention baptism) but even about details like how many animals came in. If there is such a thing as calendar narrative, we still need to ask and answer questions about how we are to understand this genre. It is not enough to say “calendar narrative” as a way to explain the dates in a story and then to ignore the rest of what that narrative has to tell us. Considering the genre of any piece is useful in that it helps us know how to read that piece. LeFebvre has given a theory about how to understand the dates of certain texts, but he hasn’t spoken to how this helps our understanding of the rest of the details of these narratives.

As LeFebvre explains it, there is little left in Genesis 1 that would have been new information for its original audience. He makes a point of the fact that its agricultural details would have been very familiar to the average ancient Israelite. The actions and details of Genesis 1 would have been completely representative of the weekly cycle of work and rest of the average person. So much so that LeFebvre calls God “the Model Farmer.” I am willing to give LeFebvre the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean it this way but it is hard not to feel at times that, rather than man following the example of God here, God is being made in the image of man.

Often throughout the book I found myself wondering if what we have here is a chicken-and-egg problem. That is, which came first? If the Passover story (as an example) is being told in a way that instructs about the later celebration of that festival at the expense of the actual details about how the original Passover happened, which is the original story? Are there events which happened upon which the festival is based? Or is the story about Moses and the Israelites told to justify the festival? Again, this may not be how LeFebvre himself sees it (and I suspect it is not) but this is quite how modern, non-religious scholars take such texts — every story is created to explain a situation the audience already is quite familiar with. This is the definition of myth (with no implied judgment on its truthiness). Thus in Greek mythology the story of Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons and the Tower of Babel story explains why people speak different languages. LeFebvre’s understanding of Genesis 1 seems to fall into this same pattern — it explains something the audience already knew (agricultural cycles) and why they have certain practices (weekly work/rest pattern) but it would not have been informative for the original audience. In such an understanding, it is a story to explain why we do things the way we do not to tell us how to do something. The question for Genesis 1, then, is: Is the creation story written this way to justify the weekly practice or do the people have the weekly practice because this is how creation happened?

In his understanding of how dates are used in the Pentateuch, I do think LeFebvre has hit on something that deserves more attention. He has shown quite clearly how the various specific dates given lined up with Israel’s various festivals and feasts and that is quite compelling. He has not convinced me that there is a genre here that can be used to understand Genesis 1 in particular.  What I would like to see is a fuller description of the defining characteristics of this genre and how we are to interpret it, especially how we are to understand the details of such a story given its genre. I tend to agree with LeFebvre that there is not much we can get about chronology from Genesis 1 but that does not mean that there is not more that the story is telling us beyond the weekly cycle of work and rest.

LeFebvre is quite right when he says that his interpretation makes the Sabbath the paradigm for all of Scripture. But that is a huge claim. It is a fairly daunting thing in the year 2000-something to say “I have a new paradigm for understanding Scripture.” If he means it, I think he also needs to speak to how that paradigm shapes our understanding of the rest of the Bible.

If I can close by returning to the analogy I started with, I think LeFebvre has some very interesting bricks here. I am not convinced he has built a wall. When he speaks of the Sabbath paradigm, I feel he is saying “look, I can see a totally new country from my wall,” but he doesn’t tell me enough about what that country looks like.

Nebby

[1] I have a bachelors and masters in Hebrew from one secular university and was ABD “all but dissertation” in a Ph.D. Program at another prestigious secular university.

[2] You can find earlier posts I did on the whole creation/evolution thing here.

[3] Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms in much the same way.

[4] “Secular” here describes the institutions which had no religious affiliation (except perhaps a very distant historical one). The students and staff held to a range of beliefs. Some, students especially, professed various forms of Christianity. Some, professors especially, were fairly religious Jews.

The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

Last time we looked at the theology of J. Paterson Smythe as evidenced in his  The Bible for Home and School, a book you might consider using if you are a Charlotte Mason homeschooler. My object in writing these posts is two-fold. First, to elucidate Smythe’s theology so you can make a wise decision about whether to sue his book in your homeschool. There is not going to be one answer to this question. Your decision will depend on your own theology and how it lines up with Smythe’s. My second purpose is to look at the theology of someone whom Charlotte herself read and recommended to get a better idea of her own theology. We will not get into Mason’s theology today but I am in the midst of quite a long post on that for which this one will provide some of the background material. 

When we looked at Smythe on Mark (and Acts), we found that his basic theology is quite orthodox: man has a sinful nature, he needs a Savior who is Christ, but that he does have a particular bent. He seems to believe that saving grace is available to all men and that their salvation rests largely in their own hands, so much so that they can thwart the will of God to save them. God Himself is portrayed as loving and self-sacrificial to a fault, forced by man’s evil into occasionally punishing him. Self-sacrifice is held as the highest good. The Kingdom of God is looked for both in the world to come and in the present age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then

Nebby

 

 

The Theology of J Paterson Smythe (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

Who is J. Paterson Smythe and why should we care about his theology? The answer to the first question is that he was a minister in the Church of Ireland in the early 1900s. The answer to the second is that if you are not a fan of the Charlotte Mason approach to education, you probably have no reason to care. But if you do try to follow Charlotte’s principles, you may want to consider Smythe. Mason recommended Smythe’s The Bible for Home and School to be used in her schools. More and more I see those trying to use her methods today turning to the actual books she used, including Smythe, so I thought it would be worthwhile to try to find out who this fellow is and what he believed.  

A quick internet search turned up Smythe’s writings but little about the man himself or his theology. In addition to the book for teachers which Charlotte used, Smythe also wrote some volumes for adults, a number on the Bible itself [1] and some others of a more pastoral nature. To date I have read two of Symthe’s books, volume 8 of The Bible for Home and School which is on St. Mark’s gospel and also includes a good chunk of the Book of Acts, and On the Rim of the World which addresses death and salvation specifically. While Smythe has many more volumes, these seemed like two good, representative samples which get at the heart of his theology.

Smythe on Mark

Because it is the book I read first and the one you might consider using in your homeschool (as being intended for teachers) I will begin today with Smythe’s notes on St. Mark’s Gospel. His “On the Rim of the World” will be covered in part 2. I say “notes” because really this is an aid for the teacher and is not meant to be read by the student. Smythe correlates what he gives you with the biblical text but his comments are fairly brief and often take the form of ways to guide the discussion and questions to ask the students. His language is often terse.

It is a little hard to discern a whole theology from notes for the teaching of children (but we will get to that when we look at his other book). There are a number of passages here which could be taken multiple ways.  As a reformed Christian, I often found myself thinking that while I might not put something a particular way it was not technically incorrect. A small example — when Jesus answers His accuser and says “I AM,” Smythe comments: “How grand, how God-like the answer!” (Lesson 14, section 1). Now saying “I AM” in the biblical context is not God-like; it is an identification with God Himself as He revealed Himself to Moses. It is not wrong to call it “God-like” and Smythe very soon after makes clear he knows that Jesus is God, but I just find it a very odd comment to make.

Smythe makes clear that “[a]ll mankind is fallen” and that even children are not sinless and need a Savior (Lesson 10).  Yet God hates sin “with an awful hatred” (Lesson 21). But Jesus “was the Divine Sin-bearer, bearing the world’s sin” and that the punishment He bore was to be abandoned by God (the Father; Lesson 15). In order to be saved, Smythe says, one must: “First repent–be sorry. Then believe in the love and forgiveness of Christ. Then come forward and be baptized . . .  and thus join the ranks of the Kingdom of God.” (Lesson 2, section 3). Thus far I would say we are on fairly solid, orthodox theological ground.

There are other points, however, which may prove more controversial. Many times Smythe urges readers to do what they can to do good. “Get the strength for the Kingdom’s work,” he says (Lesson, 2, section 6). And again:

All this time the poor man waiting with his dead arm by his side. What next? Could he stretch it forth? Was it not dead? Yes; but when Christ told him, the poor fellow tried to do it, and with the effort to obey came the power. So with us–weak, powerless–can’t love God; can’t conquer sin, can’t be truly faithful. But let us say, “Lord, I can’t love you much; I can’t serve as I should; I can’t be good as I ought; but, Lord, I’ll try!” and with the effort to obey will come the power.” (Lesson 3)

Now one could argue that Smythe is talking to children and that there may be an assumption as well that these are believers, that he is not talking about coming to faith but about how we continue. These things are certainly true. Still there is strong emphasis here on our ability to do good and our responsibility to do so which may not sit well with us reformed folk.

There is some idea as well that Christ’s power is limited. He is hindered by our unbelief:

“What a wonderful fact–that Christ so wanted to be trusted. His power seems hindered by doubt and distrust. To be trusted is such a help to Him.” (Lesson 9)

He was unable to save the Sadducees:

“Did he convert them? No–too obstinate and bigoted. We never hear of a Sadducee being converted.” (Lesson 20)

And regarding Judas Smythe says:

“Why did Christ, who knew his heart, let him in amongst the Apostles? Perhaps because of His love, that “hopeth all things,” and hoped he might repent. Why did Christ, knowing his weakness, let him have the bag? Perhaps to give him the opportunity of great loss. Which would be better for Judas’s character–to take away the temptation, or to let him conquer it?” (Lesson 12, section 2)

Despite all this, I will say in Smythe’s defense that he also says at one point that “God’s eternal purposes cannot be defeated by men’s opposition” (Lesson 22, section 4).

Our salvation, according to Smythe, seems to depend, at least in part on our own actions:

“What, then, does God want? The will to trust in Him. The will only is in our own power . . . Many a poor doubter has had to cry out eagerly like this man: “Lord, I believe; I want to believe, help my unbelief!” And this is real faith, and God accepts it and strengthens it. If one says, “I can’t believe in God,” the answer should be: “Have you prayed in deep earnest–as for dear life–for light and faith?” If not, the doubt is your own fault.” (Lesson 9)

At least once God is portrayed as a loving God who is forced into justice by our poor behavior:

“ Sometimes sinners force Him to be stern; and, dearly though He loves poor sinners, He hates sin with an awful hatred. If terrible punishment is necessary to prevent terrible evil, He will inflict it.” (Lesson 21)

Smythe is clearly not Reformed. He believes in human sin and the need for salvation through Christ, but he rejects irresistible grace (that God can save whomever He wills) and election. He sees some good within man which enables him to accept Christ. As a reformed person myself, I was particularly disturbed by this quote:

“”You call me good. Why? Is it that you believe I am God? God only is entirely good; entirely able to satisfy your desire for good.”” (Lesson 11; emphasis added)

Note the word I have put in bold: “entirely.” This word is not in the biblical text. That God alone is good is used to support the doctrine of total depravity and man’s inability to contribute to his own salvation. Smythe has added “entirely,” changing the meaning of the passage.

There are two concepts which rise to the surface in Smythe’s commentary on Mark. They are the Kingdom of God and self-sacrifice.

Smythe speaks often of the Kingdom of God which he sees as not just an eventual reality but a present concept. He seems to be a post-millennialist, not an uncommon thing in the time he lived. Many, both reformed and not, were post-millennial at the time. The basic belief is that Christ’s Kingdom will be manifested on earth before He comes again.

“Understand our Lord’s beautiful ideal for that Kingdom. Get class to see that the object of the Church is the realizing that ideal on earth. If Christians forget that object, they forget the purpose for which Christ wants them in His Church.” 

“Try to bring home to children the nearness of Christ, His longing after His ideal Kingdom of God on the earth, the way in which each can help that ideal in common daily life.” (Lesson 17)

Self-sacrifice is Smythe’s highest ideal:

“He [Jesus] thought self-sacrifice for others’ sake the noblest of all things.” (Lesson 8, section 1)

The following quote, more than any other, seems to sum up Smythe’s view, incorporating the key ideas of the Kingdom and self-sacrifice, as well as the emphasis on our effort to do good:

“What a delightful world in the great Hereafter, where all is love, and nobleness, and self-sacrifice; where no selfish thought could exist . . . Think of that same unselfishness as the glory of the earthly life. Only one perfectly unselfish life ever on earth. He lived the heavenly life here. He wore Himself out trying to help, and teach, and comfort men, and then set His face steadfastly towards Calvary, to be despised, and rejected, and tortured to death for the sake of the very people who hated and murdered Him. Then He said to all who would follow Him that they, too, must live the life of self-sacrifice, the life of the “Kingdom of God.” Shall we not all try?” (Lesson 8, section 1)

Lastly, on this book, there are a few places where Smythe’s denominational views come out (which may be a concern if you do not share them). He is for infant baptism (Lesson 10). He touts the structure of the Church of Ireland, with its three offices (deacon, priest, and bishop) as the biblical one (Lesson 22, section 3). But he argues strongly against having a pope (Lesson 23, section 2). He argues as well for a Book of Common Prayer (Lesson 19), even giving historical evidence for it. (This is not a non-controversial point; the Scottish Covenanters strongly resisted the Book of Common Prayer.) He also argues for regular Communion, presumably weekly or close to it, and against having many small sects.

Wrapping up this section, we can say that though Smythe’s basic theology (man’s sinful nature, the need for a Savior who is Christ) is certainly orthodox, he does have a particular bent. He seems to believe that saving grace is available to all men and that their salvation rests largely in their own hands, so much so that they can thwart the will of God to save them. God Himself is portrayed as loving and self-sacrificial to a fault, forced by man’s evil into occasionally punishing him. Self-sacrifice is held as the highest good. The Kingdom of God is looked for both in the world to come and in the present age. And some of Smythe’s own denominational based views slip in as well.

My goal here is not to judge whether these views are right or wrong (though I have my own ideas) but to say: This is what Smythe believes and teaches. Based on your own theology, you should make the determination whether it is appropriate to read his work and to teach it to your children. If his views do not line up with your own, perhaps it would be wiser to find other resources.

Nebby

[1] The Documentary Hypothesis, a theory about how our Bible came to be, was fairly new in Smythe’s day. I haven’t actually read what he wrote on it (yet) but I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush into reading these writings. I suspect what is there is fairly dated as scholarship has moved on over the years.

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

This is the third and final part in my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

IMG_2415

In part 1, we looked at what Clark and Jain have to contribute to classical education and where they stand in relation to previous writers. Last time we looked at how their philosophy would answer a series of questions including:

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

Today I’d like to look at a few issues that I have yet to address in detail and to give my overall thoughts and conclusions on The Liberal Arts Tradition.

Schooling

The subject of formal schooling, public or private, versus homeschooling is one I have addressed in many previous posts [1]. Clark and Jain’s book is an argument for a certain approach to education. Though they do not address homeschooling directly [2], their ideal seems to be Christian schooling. I will deal with the “Christian” part of that phrase below when looking at Christian culture.

For now I’d like to look at the argument for schooling as opposed to home education. As I said, Clark and Jain do not make this argument directly, but their approach does seem to push one towards a traditional school setting. This is due largely to the prominent role of the teacher. As we saw inpart 2, their method relies upon imitation and discipleship. The course of study is largely set by the interests and abilities of the teacher.

One problem with giving the teacher such a large role is that it inevitably diminishes the role of the child’s God-given instructors, his parents. Clark and Jain, like most other Christian educators I have read, acknowledge that God gives parents the responsibility to educate their children. The teachers operate in loco parentis (pp. 217, 247). The problem I have with this is that the parent cannot give away their responsibility to educate and train their children. They can, of course, delegate that responsibility to others for certain times. We all do this and I don’t want to be unrealistic about that. But in my mind there is a big difference between hiring a babysitter for a night, sending your child to Sunday school, or using online classes and sending your child to a school for 6+ hours a day and allowing that school and its employees to make vital decisions about how education will occur and what resources will be used. Because humans are complex individuals, composed of body and soul; heart, mind, spirit, and strength, education, however well-intended, tends to suck in more and more areas of life. It is impossible for it not to. [3]

I realize there are some issues that my pro-family stance raises. There are pros and cons to each approach to education. One is that not all families are well equipped to educate their own children. Clark and Jain allude to this. It is not abundantly clear if they believe all families are incapable of the task or only some. They seem to imply that while piety (a bottom-level subject) can be taught at home that moral philosophy is beyond families (p. 161). This I would not agree with, though our disagreement would largely stem from my rejection of their hierarchal view of the subjects one learns (discussed in part 1 of this mini-series). I am not sure that the best solution to the problem of incapable parents is formal schooling all around. I do think parents need to be equipped and helped and I do think the Christian community needs to think more creatively about how this can be done.

Which brings me to another possible objection — I do think that the larger Christian community, which is to say the Church, has some interest in making sure its children are educated (p. 178). The parents are not meant to stand or fall on their own. In my denomination the congregation also makes vows at a child’s baptism to support and encourage the parents. These are vows we need to think more about in terms of practical application. If we do so, I believe we can devise novel solutions which will help without undercutting the parents’ God-given responsibility.

Christian Culture

Clark and Jain advocate not just schooling but Christian schooling. Which is to say, education with specifically with Christian curricula taught by Christian teachers and aimed at Christian students.

While I do not share their view of the role of the teacher, yet I can see there are good reasons to desire Christian teachers for our children. I am not as convinced that our schools (if we have them) should cater exclusively to Christian students. Like many others, Clark and Jain gear their educational approach to covenant children, those being raised in Christian homes (pp. 211, 228). Such a philosophy has little to say to or about those outside the covenant community. It is not an approach to education for all people, but only for some.  In my own search for a philosophy of education, my goal has been to find an approach which applies to all children. If (as I have argued) in education we put before children the things of God, then we must also ask if this has any meaning or effect for those who are not yet redeemed and may never be redeemed. This is a theoretical concern, but also a practical one. Most of us who spend time with children will at one time or another have children who are not from good Christian families under our care. (I hope that we will even seek out such opportunities!) How are we to address these children? Must we preach to them first and see them saved before we can begin to educate them?  These are questions our philosophy of education needs to answer and so it also needs to think about education more broadly, as something that does not just influence the Church but as something that goes beyond it to the world.

The question of the curriculum is actually quite a similar one. Just as we must ask what education can do for non-believers so we must also ask what they can contribute to education. Clark and Jain don’t go deep into specifics in this book, but they argue that the main thing to be taught is “Christian culture” (pp. 231ff). Here I will admit a fair degree of ignorance: I am just not sure what they mean by this phrase. I am not sure if they are referring to a particular body of knowledge or if they are referring to something more akin to a worldview or mindset (as I discussed here). Though there is certainly some aspect of the latter in their philosophy, they seem to be thinking of the former as well. That is, that one should study Christian thinkers and writers and historians and scientists. The question one must always answer, then, is: What of the works coming out of non-Christians? Is there a place for their study? Not surprisingly, as they rely heavily on ancient pagan sources themselves, Clark and Jain acknowledge that we can “respect and appropriate the learning of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures” (p. 239). Though I am nor sure they use the phrase “common grace,” they do subscribe to the belief that, as God is the author of Truth and as He has given gifts to all men, that there are good and true things which we can learn from non-Christians (p. 240). How we do so remains a bit of an open question and brings us to the final topic of the day . . .

Western Civilization and Culture

Closely tied up with questions of Christian culture are those of Western civilization and culture. Here I am indebted as well to a podcast interview with Ravi Jain on Forma [4]. In this interview he goes a bit further than the book in explaining how their approach may apply to other, non-western cultures. The key phrase here seems to be “appropriating” or “redeeming” culture. That is, one must use discernment in evaluating non-Christian cultures — whether ancient Greek or Chinese — and deciding what can be used and what must be rejected. While I was slightly uncomfortable with the degree of acceptance given to western culture in the book, the podcast did assuage some of my concerns. And Jain has said, I think this is still a topic which needs further thought. I am not a fan of the view advanced by Wilson and others that Greek and Roman culture was somehow uniquely suited to the Christian message. I do think that God had prepared a time and place for the incarnation and work of Christ, but I think many go too far in assuming that that means that Greek and Roman culture are somehow exalted above others. The pax romana certainly aided the spread of the gospel, but so too did persecution. One could make an argument that it was the vast sinfulness of Roman culture which made the work of the Church stand out.

The flip-side of this is the lack of consideration of Hebraic culture. If there was any people and culture God was preparing for the advent of His Son, it was the nation of Israel (and they rejected Him). Clark and Jain (like so many others) spend very little time on what that culture has to contribute to the field of education. [5] They do tie piety (again, an early age part of education) to Hebrew culture (p. 17). They note the use of stories in the Old Testment (p. 223), and they argue for the learning of Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek (p. 275). Overall, however, in a book of some 300 pages, one or two paragraphs worth are spent on Hebraic culture.

Conclusions

This observation brings me to the conclusion to this series and my main overarching problem with The Liberal Arts Tradition. Let me emphasize again that there is a lot to like here. If you read one book on classical education, it should be this one. Clark and Jain have given me a lot to think about and expanded my thought on education in a number of ways. But my lingering issue has to do with where they start. They assume a classical foundation. They start with what the Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Church, have said and work from there. The points where I end up disagreeing most with them are just those points which still line up with classical education. These include a hierarchy of subjects, a developmental view of the child that reserves some subjects for later years, and the prominent role of the teacher. One wonders if Clark and Jain had started elsewhere rather from a classical foundation if they would have ended up in just the same spot.

Nebby

[1] See: Implementing a Christian Education; Church, State . . . and School?;  Lockerbie on Schools; also: History of Education: Biblical Times; History of Reformed Education; History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation; Public Education in America

[2] As far as I can tell, the only direct reference to homeschooling is in a footnote on p. 244.

[3] I discussed the expansive nature of education briefly in this post.

[4] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[5] For some posts on what Hebraic education was and what it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek Education.

Characteristics of Classical Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I wanted to talk a little about the characteristics of classical education. The term is used very broadly to refer to education movements and styles from antiquity, the middle ages, and modern times. In each of these eras there can by any number of classical educators, each with their own unique take (even the ancient world was not uniform; see this post for some background on the varieties of classical ed). If we pick any two at random we may find little that seems to unite them. Many fruitless conversations happen in online forums, discussing whether such-and-such a person is classical because we have no one good definition.

What I’d like to propose today is a list of criteria. If the curriculum you are looking at has all of the following characteristics, it is classical. If it has none, it is not. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. I am inspired in this approach by a book I read recently about some scientists researching near-death experiences. They talk in the book about typical elements, some of which are quite common (seeing a light, being in a tunnel, seeing loved ones) and some of which are less so. The IRS’s list of criteria for what makes one a small business versus a hobby is similar — it is a list to use in evaluating the issue but there is no clear line drawn. Still another way to think of this might be as: “You might be a classical educator if . . . ”

So, without further ado, here is my list of

Characteristics of Classical Education

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

A Test Case: Is Charlotte Mason Classical?

Though it is really not my sole purpose in putting together this list, the oft-disputed online question of whether Charlotte Mason’s (CM) philosophy of education is classical serves as a nice test case to show how we might use these criteria.

Let’s start with what is CM on this list. She does use classical sources (#2). Plutarch stands forth quite notably. Though I would venture to say that she might use fewer than some others. She also believed in the learning of ancient languages (#16). She also believed that there is a body of knowledge outside of man (#8) and that truth can be known (#12). She very definitely had a high view of man (#13).

Next let’s look at those characteristics which are distinctly not present in CM. She does not primarily quote classical sources as the foundation of her philosophy (#1). While it is quite possible she knows these sources and is relying on them, she points to the gospels as the source of her ideas. She does not use the term virtue overly often (#3, 4). There is some element of developing virtue in her philosophy; it is not that she in unconcerned about virtue, but she does not speak of it as classical educators usually do and does not frame it as the goal of her approach. The role of the teacher is distinctly different than in classical education (#5, 6). The teacher provides material, as one spreads a feast, and then largely steps back. While there is some common body of knowledge (#9) and, given her own cultural situation, she relies largely on western civilization (#10), she does not expect every child to glean the same things. So one might say in her philosophy there is a common body of knowledge but not every child will take in the same parts of it. She does not particularly emphasize or make use of questioning (#14), rhetoric (#15), or logic (#17). While she seems open to modern science, because of her time period, it is not an issue she addresses head-on (#18, 19). If I had to guess I would say she might reject the modern reliance on scientific knowledge alone. She rejects a staged approach to education (#20) and does not present a hierarchical or pyramidal view of the fields of knowledge (#21).

Overall then, I would say that Charlotte Mason really does not fall in the classical camp as I define it. I don’t have any illusions that this will end the debate, and it is not that there aren’t points of overlap, but if I were to quantify it, I would say she is not more than 25% classical. In contrast, many of the other authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these criteria.

Nebby

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

As promised, this is part 2 of my review of The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion and where they stand in relation to previous writers on classical education. My short take on all that is that while I have generally been critical of classical education, Clark and Jain do a lot to win me over to their side. I am not fully convinced and I do have some questions and concerns, but I like how they frame the purpose of education and I like how they relate the various subjects one studies.

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Last time was for the biggest issues, today I’d like to look at some of the other points I liked as well as those I had questions about. In the past, when looking at various approaches to education, I have asked a series of questions so I’d like to follow that model today. The questions we will be asking are (this is a somewhat modified version of the list I used in this post):

  1. What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?
  2. Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?
  3. What do they believe is the goal of education?
  4. How do they believe education works?
  5. What is the role of the teacher?
  6. What does this approach say about God and His nature?

What do they assume about human nature and/or the nature of children?

One of the fundamental beliefs underlying this whole blog is that every philosophy of education makes assumptions about the nature of man and, as a subset of that, the nature of children. Some philosophies do so explicitly and some need to be ferreted out, but all do so. Though Clark and Jain do not lay their assumptions about human nature out in one place, they seem to have some pretty clear beliefs on the subject. I would add that I find them to be quite biblical. Because it is easiest, I’ll give these as bullet points:

  • Humans are “unities of body and soul” (p.5; cf. p. 29). At one point they speak of the heart as a “middle element” between the two (p. 33). I have my own ideas about the relationship of the heart and mind in the biblical conception, but I don’t think the distinction is worth quibbling about. The implication of man’s composite nature (physical and spiritual) for education is, as many other Christian educators have argued, that we need a “holistic” approach to education which addresses and takes into account both aspects (p. 254). As something of a side note, Clark and Jain also make an argument for spiritual disciplines which I am a little less comfortable with as it seems to tend towards a kind of Gnosticism, implying that the soul is benefited when the body is deprived (pp. 222f).
  • Language is essential to human nature. Citing Aristotle, language more than reason here is called the defining human trait. Making a connection to the Word of God (in the manifold meanings of that phrase), language is able “to change reality, to exercise authority, and to lead men’s souls” (p. 46). There are clear implications for education here — we would expect to be very language-based and developing communication skills becomes a major goal.
  • Man is made for relationship, with his Creator and with his fellow man (pp. 161-62). The implication for education: “All learning occurs within the network of relationships” (p. 283).
  • Man is rational, but fallen (p. 161). His reason was never meant to operate in isolation and must be informed by revelation (p. 207).
  • “Man also possesses a will, or volition . . . which allows man to act and create” reflecting “God’s creative ability” (p. 163).  I think we need to be a little careful how we state this lest our will seem to be completely free, unbounded by our own fallenness, but I agree with the basic point and I am intrigued by the connection between will and creativity.

Some philosophies have different conclusions for the child vis-a-vis the adult. For the most part, this does not seem to be the case for Clark and Jain. They have a covenantal view of children (pp. 211, 228) which tends to emphasize their personhood. They also make clear that all human faculties are innate to the child (pp. 29, 47, 67). They need to be developed and trained but not taught or inculcated. As we shall see in the next section, however, there does seem to be a transition point from child-who-needs-educated to educated adult.

Are children seen to have a multi-staged development and if so what are the stages?

While The Liberal Arts Tradition does not have the strict stages found in some other versions of classical education (particularly “neo-classical versions), there is a progression here. The youngest children are in the gymnastics/piety/music stage. At this age imitation (see below) and the filling of the memory (though not rote memorization) are immediate goals (p. 25). Afterward comes the Trivium/Quadrivium stage which gives one the necessary skills to move on to the philosophies and ultimately metaphysics and theology. I am not entirely sure how all this plays out for Clark and Jain practically speaking. As discussed in part 1, they do speak of the earliest years as a time to fill the imagination (though not through rote memorization as some would have it), and they also speak as if there is an end to education and a time when the child is fully outfitted, so to speak.

What do they believe is the goal of education?

We discussed the goal of education in part 1, so I will not dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that for Clark and Jain there are some subsidiary goals but the end goal of education is to transmit the culture of the Church, to train the child’s innate human abilities, and to cultivate virtue while acknowledging that this cannot be done apart from union with Christ.

How do they believe education works?

There are a couple of levels on which we can answer this question. On a big picture, theoretical kind of level, Clark and Jain say, quoting Anselm and the book of Proverbs, that faith must proceed understanding (pp. 148, 218), and therefore, one would assume, there is little true understanding for those without faith. (It’s looking like there will be a “part 3” so I will address this more fully next time.)

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit the Great Educator. Clark and Jain are not so explicit but they do say that “Christian education cannot be accomplished merely by human effort” (p. 220). I take this as a book of Esther-like allusion [1] to the role of God in education. And, as we have seen, Clark and Jain acknowledge that virtue, which is a goal of education, is impossible without union with Christ.

The place of God in education can also be seen in the assertion that “all human knowledge finds fulfillment in the knowledge of God” (p. 209). This is a bit of a heady concept. As far as I can discern, the idea is that all truth, beauty, and goodness (the transcendentals) reside with God and originate with Him. To know these things is both to possess them and to be mastered by them. Our knowledge, of course, is always finite. “We know reality truly but only analogously to the way God knows it” (p. 118).

Without minimizing the role of God, there is also a transformative power to what one learns. This is particularly true of those “musical” subjects which young children are exposed to  — poetry and stories and music tune the soul and make one “receptive to truth and goodness” (pp. 32, 223).

On a much more mundane level, we can look at the methods of education. Narrative is seen to be central to human understanding, a position which is founded in the Scriptures themselves (pp. 209, 223). It is used even in subjects which may appear non-narrative. For example, science and math include the history of those disciplines (p. 125).

There is a hands-on element as well as students are encouraged to work through experiments for themselves and to keep sketchbooks.

Imitation is a word which Clark and Jain use frequently. Education as imitation happens on a couple of levels. Very literally, children are encouraged at a young age to copy good things, whether art or music or writing (p. 25). Imitation is seen as a precursor to creativity (p. 40).

Even at a later age, imitation still plays a large role. We imitate nature (pp. 110-11) and we imitate other people. There is an element of submission to our imitation of nature. There is a level on which I understand this. As our knowledge follows God’s and as what we learn is His truth, submission seems appropriate. On a very literal level, we can see that much science and technology derives from nature (as when a new technology is based upon a characteristic seen in animals). On another level, I do have some concerns. There can be a false elevation of nature. We are told not to submit to Creation but to master it. Biblically, it is nature that should submit to man. I am particularly concerned about statements like “societal patterns should be fitted rightly to nature” (pp. 151-52). I have no evidence that Clark and Jain take this idea too far but I have read other educators who clearly do. [2]

One can also imitate other people. This is true both of people long gone and of those who stand in front of us every day. Clark and Jain advocate putting students in touch with great thinkers of the past through their writings so that they can “emulate genius” (p. 128). Perhaps even more important, however, is the imitation of our contemporaries which brings us to . . .

What is the role of the teacher?

As with much of classical education, the role of the teacher is key.  Based on the time they spend on it, I would say that for Clark and Jain the imitation of the teacher looms larger than the emulation of those more archaic minds. Education, they would say, is discipleship. Ultimately, the goal is not to make the student the disciple of his teacher but of Christ (pp. 215-16, 243; and here they are on firmer ground at least than many classical educators). Still the teacher is key. They say, for instance, that there is no one curriculum which suits all schools or all classrooms (a point I like) because the individuality is largely determined by the teacher and his interests (p. 245).

Where does this idea of imitation come from? With narrative, we saw that a link is made to God and the nature of His revelation to man. With imitation, the biblical basis is less clear (though certainly discipleship is a biblical idea). Education for Clark and Jain is largely the passing on of a culture, the end of goal of which is the development of virtue. This emphasis on culture seems to lead them to the emphasis on imitation. That is, the culture is a thing which must be passed from (living) person to person so there is an intimate, relational element. [And, they say, “One cannot develop virtue in isolation” (p. 161; why this is, I am not sure).]

When we looked at the work of Bruce Lockerbie, I briefly outlined two views of the teacher. In Lockerbie’s view the teacher is essential and therefore his personal character is as essential as his knowledge if not more so. In contrast, for Charlotte Mason the teacher’s role is largely to step back.  Ideas, for Mason, are communicated from mind to mind, but the minds from which we get our ideas are largely those we find in our books (or art or music). Clark and Jain tend more toward Lockerbie’s side of things. Though there is a place for the teacher to put the student in touch with other minds through the medium of books, the role of the teacher is still fairly large and so his character is also important (p. 216). Charlotte Mason would say that the teacher spreads a feast of ideas for the students and what they take in is up to God. For Clark and Jain, “[t]he teacher’s job is then to mediate that Great Conversation” (p. 128; emphasis added). This seems a much more hands-on, involved role. It is the teacher’s interests that drive the curriculum (pp. 244-45). Though there is an overarching focus on Christ, the teacher is in some sense the immediate master to whom the child is discipled. Mason would agree that “[a]ll learning occurs within a network of relationships” (p. 283)  but would argue that the relationship is with the material and the minds behind it, not necessarily with the teacher.

A consequence of this view of the teacher as mediator and discipler is that his role in his students’ lives is a profoundly influential and important one, a fact which we will discuss further in part 3.

What does this approach say about God and His nature?

In Clark and Jain’s version of classical education, there are transcendentals — being, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity (p. 196) — which give shape to all of Creation and which find their meaning in God Himself. God is good. He is knowable. His attributes, particularly His ability to know and His creativity, are reflected in man. As noted above, man’s knowledge is a poorer and imperfect reflection of God’s. Nonetheless, it shares to some degree the character of God’s knowledge.

These transcendentals are knowable (p. 104), and as they appear in Creation they reflect God’s character: “a perfect God had woven mathematical harmonies into the world that reflected the truth of reality” (p. 96).

Conclusions

There are many ways in which Clark and Jain’s philosophy as presented in The Liberal Arts Tradition is profoundly biblical and Christian. There are also ways in which it shows its classical roots. For myself, there is much I agree with and a few things I would take some issue with. Next time in part 3, we will look at a few remaining issues and make some more conclusive comments.

Nebby

[1] The biblical book of Esther is the only one not to mention God explicitly. However, in Esther 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she will not help her people, salvation will come to them “from another place” (ESV). This is traditionally taken as a reference to God.

[2] John Dewey comes to mind. His ideas about education were based on his evolutionary views. What was believed to be true of plants and animals was assumed also be true of humans.

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

Classical education is not a term which is easy to define. It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

Of all I have read on classical education, this volume is the most likely to make me veer in that direction. (That is actually high praise as I have been fairly critical of other classical sources I have reviewed.) There is a lot in this book so I will likely spread it out over a few posts. Today I’d like to try to introduce Clark ans Jain’s philosophy to you and to focus on what makes it classical, what makes it Christian, and where it stands in the broader field of classical ed. 

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Purposes and Intellectual Context

The authors offer two justifications for their book. They argue that “the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own” and that “the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” (p. 2). The first of these refers to how the various fields of knowledge relate to one another. The second alludes to the goals of education.

The bulk of The Liberal Arts Tradition addresses the first goal — providing a paradigm for how all fields of knowledge relate to one another. Many of the term used are familiar from other (neo-)classical sources, but Clark and Jain provide a new understanding which often uses the same words in different ways. They give them their own spin to words like grammar and dialectic and rhetoric, trivium and quadrivium. This actually made the book a bit hard to read; it is hard to see a word you think you know the meaning of and to remember that it now has a different lexical range than what you are used to. This is not meant to be a criticism, however. Overall I much prefer what Clark and Jain have to say, but it is a warning that one may need to put in a little more effort here to keep definitions straight. 

It is in the realm of goals that Clark and Jain do the most towards taking classical traditions and putting them in a Christian context. Though the purposes of their approach to education are stated in various ways through the course fo the book, in the introduction they give perhaps the fullest definition:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fit harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus . . . ” (p. 3)

Each of these could take quite some time to unpack. Before diving into specifics, I’d like to try and place Clark and Jain within the field of classical and Christian classical education. Though they are very polite about it and never openly criticize anyone else’s work, it is clear that Clark and Jain reject some key aspects of what may be called modern classical education, that which began with Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” At least in practice, modern classical can become a very stiff, rote thing with lots of memorization and strict stages of learning. There is little of that here. Though the same terms are used, new meaning is given to them. From the authors’ perspective, they would say that the terms so typical of modern classical — grammar and trivium, for instance — have been misunderstood and therefore misapplied.

Clark and Jain look back instead to the ancient Greek classical roots and to medieval Christian ones. They speak of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, though they also acknowledge that we must see their contributions through the lens of Christianity which they did not have. Among Christian sources, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heavily cited. So, for example, the authors cite Plato when giving reasons for the study of mathematics (p. 66), but the Trivium and Quadrivium are rooted in medieval sources (p. 44).  I will add here that Clark and Jain themselves seem to be fairly solid evangelical and even reformed Christians (the end of book bios tell me both attended Reformed Theological Seminary). 

Knowledge in The Liberal Arts Tradition

One of the major contributions of this volume, relative to other modern works on classical education, is to provide a fresh paradigm for how we understand knowledge. Clark and Jain have a few pictures on their book of trees or concentric circles with words like trivium and musical knowledge and the like arranged in them. As I read the book I also found myself making little charts to illustrate what they were saying. Here is the picture I made (think of it as my narration):

IMG_2414

The liberal arts are the subject of education. The top line shows that they are interdependent with common arts and fine arts. (Common arts are those things that have a practical end — blacksmithing or plumbing for example. Fine arts are those which produce beauty.)

The pyramidal shape below “liberal arts” shows its constituent parts. Theology is the top of the pyramid, the highest of the liberal arts. At the bottom are those subjects which the youngest children begin with. Gymnastics refers very broadly to “the entire physical conditioning of a child” (p. 25). Gymnastics, like all education, trains abilities humans already have (p. 29). Musical education is likewise a very broad subject and the term music is perhaps misleading to us. It refers to all those things which the Greek muses covered — poetry and art and music but also history and astronomy (p.26). At this age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call it “soulcraft” (p. 32). Piety has to do with knowing one’s place in the order of things. It encompasses a proper attitude towards God, one’s parents and society (pp. 15ff). These three form the foundation of all later learning.

As the child moves into more traditionally academic subjects, the Trivium and Quadrivium are not as much subjects as tools or ways of learning. They are what gives one entrance into the higher subjects. This represents a fundamental difference with other modern classical approaches. Broadly speaking the Trivium is how one learns language-based subjects while the Quadrivium is for math-based subjects though there is much overlap.

The Trivium has three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are not, as in Sayers’ approach, three chronological stages though there is an escalation to them. The three together give all the tools one needs to understand a text. Grammar gives the basic tools — vocabulary and semantics and also things like the historical context (p 50). Dialectic looks at language itself and teaches one which questions to ask of the text and brings one in the Great Conversation of western civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. If you have ever reread a book from your younger years and been surprised how much more you were able to get out of it with some experience and knowledge under your belt, you have a sense of what this is all about. Appreciating a text is about more than just knowing the meaning of the words and the Trivium provides all the tools needed.

What the Trivium does for language-based learning, the Quadrivium does for numbers-based learning. As its name suggests is contains four stages: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Each of these is a fairly misleading name. Arithmetic has to do with discrete numbers and in addition to the basic functions we think of (adding, multiplying, etc.) includes things like sequences and series (p. 70). The emphasis again is on wonder, not on rote memorization. If arithmetic is discrete, geometry is continuous. Everything one needs to know about geometry was known by Euclid (p. 75). Geometry teaches one to think about numbers in something akin to the way dialectic teaches one to think about text. Astronomy takes mathematical data and observations and places them in a system (p. 85). Music addresses how systems work together. It assumes that all of reality is related in proportional, mathematical relationships (pp. 89-90).

Once these tools are in place, one moves higher in the pyramid. Towards the top are three broad fields of knowledge. Natural philosophy encompasses what we would call natural science but is more than that. Much of the difference is one of attitude. Natural philosophy focuses not on mastering nature but on submitting to it. The emphasis is on imitation and wonder which lead to worship (p. 110). In the younger years especially, there is a hands-on element. The common arts are combined with natural history which seeks to observe and classify the diversity of nature (p. 112). The use of sketchbooks is encouraged (p. 284). Tracing the history of scientific discovery is also emphasized and as much as possible the student should recreate important scientific milestones.  As the student ages, there is an emphasis on the hows and whys (what Aristotle called final and efficient causes; p. 119).

Moral Philosophy encompasses all those subjects which today we term the social sciences. Again there is much more that comes into play under the heading moral philosophy and the main difference is one of outlook or attitude. Moral philosophy looks at not just what humans do but what they are and what they should be (p. 191). It seeks to shape as much as to describe. In order to proceed all these “social” subjects — subjects like psychology and economics — must have a goal in mind (p. 148). To begin with moral philosophy, then, we must have some idea of what man’s end is. The authors discuss various definitions of happiness and various ways this ultimate goal has been formulated (quoting the likes of C.S. Lewis and Augustine). We will return to the questions of man’s nature and purpose later. On a practical level, Clark and Jain argue for a “narrative formulation” (p. 193). History, surely an anchor subject, would be studied not just for what it tells us about the past but as an impetus to moral contemplation (p. 193). Many of these subjects — history, geography, economics, literature, and the like — might also be combined (p. 194).

On a somewhat higher plane is divine philosophy, aka metaphysics. This subject looks at universals, those things which are transcendent. Among them are goodness, truth, beauty, and unity (p. 196). For the Christian, a central question of metaphysics is how God relates to His creation (p. 199). What of His nature is reflected in it and how does God’s causality relate to our own?

For the ancients, divine philosophy was as high as they could go, but for the Christian, there is another layer: theology. Theology is both the apex of the pyramid (p. 206) and what informs all the lower layers (p. 207). It says that there is something behind and above even the transcendentals of divine philosophy. There is meaning behind the goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is from the Scriptures, God’s special revelation, that we learn theology (p. 207). Theology provides a framework for everything else that is studied. It gives shape and justification to everything else. For Clark and Jain, our knowledge is in some sense a reflection of or a derivative of God’s knowledge (p. 209).

Purpose and Goals

With the exception of the top layer of theology, much if not all of what Jain and Clark have laid out can be found to some degree in classical, non-Christian sources. But their philosophy of education is inherently Christian and it is at the level of purpose or goals that this becomes most apparent. Though they give a statement of purpose early on (quoted above), on first reading I found it a little hard to discern what they would say the goal of education is. On further examination, I realized that this is because they speak of purpose at very levels. That is, studying language has one goal, moral philosophy another, and the whole enterprise one overarching goal. These are not radically different or contradictory goals. One might say they are layered, as their view of knowledge is layered. Thus the goal of rhetoric is to cultivate innate human potential so that men may lead souls through language (p. 62) whereas “the goal of moral philosophy is the cultivation of virtue for human flourishing” (p. 133). Elsewhere they speak of “the love of wisdom” (which is the literal meaning of philosophy) as “the common aim of both Christian and ancient education” (p. 202). They quote C.S. Lewis who says that one should pursue wisdom to “‘conform his soul to reality'” and Augustine who says that virtue “ordered loves” (p. 140). Considerable time is spent in the section on moral philosophy discussing how happiness has been identified. The authors seem to agree with Martin Seligman whom they quote at length that the highest and best form of happiness is to find meaning in attachment to something bigger than oneself (p. 160).

I have argued myself that the purpose of education is found in the purpose of man’s life. INSERT LINK There is no one clear statement in Christian thought of that purpose (though the Westminster Catechism — “to know God and enjoy Him forever” — is oft-quoted) so perhaps we should not be too hard on Clark and Jain if they do not offer one clear definition. Having read their book and listened to Jain on a podcast or two [1], I would sum up their goal as follows: Education transmits the culture of the Church which is itself formative in that it trains innate human abilities. Virtues are cultivated but these virtues themselves flow out of the foundation of piety (right relationship to God and man) apart from which they would be impossible (p. 230). There are also practical outcomes as one’s knowledge becomes wisdom which in turn leads one to serve God and neighbor (p. 7).

What I Liked

While I was a bit confused on first reading [2], I have to say I am quite enamored of the purpose of education as Clark and Jain lay it forth. It is actually quite similar to what I have been saying — the education serves a role in sanctification and that knowledge is itself transformative. LINK I particularly like the use of the phrase “fully integrated human beings” in the first quote above. We have seen this idea of integration as the goal of education from a number of other Christian writers on education (for example, Lockerbie and Gaebelein). My favorite definition of what this integration is comes from Henry Schultze who connects it with the biblical idea of being whole-hearted, that is, having an undivided heart which is unified and in line with the will of God. While Clark and Jain may not use the same words, I think we are all trying to get at essentially the same thing.

The bulk of the book, as we have seen, outlines the authors’ view on how all the fields of knowledge relate to one another. I found this discussion quite helpful. One problem any Christian philosophy of education faces is how to get from the theoretical to the practical. What does it mean, for instance, to say that we want to teach math or history or economics in a Christian way? Jain and Clark go a long way towards answering these questions. For the most part, they don’t get quite down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what I am going to teach my kids today, but they provide a framework to help us understand these subjects (and most others one could think of besides) and it is thinking about these subjects in a Christian way that we really need, not Bible verses appended to a page of math problems. (I do hear that there are various curricula coming out from Jain and others that will help with the even-more-practical questions.)

What I Have Questions About

There is a lot in The Liberal Arts Tradition and I think I will do at least one more post on it in which I deal with the minutia. For today I’d like to concentrate on the big issues. The two major goals Clark and Jain laid out in the introduction to their book had to do with the relationships between the fields of knowledge and the purpose of education. On both of these, I have a significant amount of agreement with them. So while what follows may be more critical, it should be taken with the understanding that there is quite a lot here which is good and thought-provoking.

My own view is that education is a life-long enterprise. This is a natural outflow of the place I give it as a subset of sanctification. In this life we are never perfectly sanctified and so we will never reach the end of our education. Youth is a time in which education is particularly concentrated, but it is not confined to one’s youth. Clark and Jain never explicitly say that education has an end but in a number of places they do speak as if there is an endpoint at which the student could be said to be educated and would then enter into a new stage of life. They say, for instance:

“When the students have fully learned and assimilated this curriculum, then  . . . they would be ‘bachelors of arts’ . . .” (p. 255)

And again:

“Once the students have been discipled unto Christ, received the culture of the Church, and been brought into the fellowship of friends who love the truth and can celebrate a feast, then, they are ready to become teachers; they are ready to be imitated.” (p. 256)

Discipleship, like sanctification, is a lifelong process. That statement looks not only forward but backward. That is to say, even while I am being discipled and I can and will disciple others. I am reminded of my 2- to 6-year-old Sunday school class. Those 2-year-olds are watching and copying everything the 6-year-olds do. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 6-year-olds are discipling others, sometimes into bad things, occasionally into good ones. I don’t believe there is a point at which imitation starts or a point at which we can say, “Now I know the culture of the church. Now I know the truth.” Our knowledge is always partial. Hopefully it will increase but there is no clear line I see between “educated” and “uneducated.”

This may seem like a minor point (and I suspect if I could talk with the authors that our positions would not really be terribly far apart), but there is also a deeper principle at stake. It has to do with the nature of the child and his standing before God. As Clark and Jain have phrased things, it sounds as if there is a point when children are grown and can begin discipling others and therefore can enter fully into the life of the Church.I would argue that covenant children are always a full part of the Church. They have a relationship to their Creator and a standing before Him. They are held accountable for sin and are capable of faith (by grace, of course). God is working in their lives as much as He works in the lives of their elders and they are just as able to serve Him. I don’t think Clark and Jain mean to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully human. There is no point at which they become ready to serve God; they should already be doing so.

To somewhat counterbalance what I have just said, I will add that I do like that Clark and Jain speak of education as developing children’s innate abilities. One does not need to produce these certain faculties in children but to direct what is already there (p. 29). This does seem to respect the personhood of the child and his completeness.

Though The Liberal Arts Tradition does not use a Sayers-like staged approach to the Trivium, there is a progression up the pyramid from one kind of learning to another. The youngest children learn piety, music, and gymnastics. At one point Jain and Clark speak of filling up the imagination of younger children (p. 55) as a precursor to later learning. While this may not be the rote learning of those who follow Sayers, it still seems to present a kind of “grammar” stage which is for learning facts before more advanced learning can begin. I tend to follow Charlotte Mason on this subject and to say that ideas are always the food of the mind, even for the youngest children.

In the middle comes a stage in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are the focus and then later the various philosophies — natural, moral, and eventually divine philosophy and finally theology.  The role of theology in particular is a bit confusing to me. While it is at the apex of the pyramid, it also is said to be foundational. I am not grasping what this means practically speaking. I am reserving judgment at this point, but I am wary of such a staged approach. I would not, for instance, say that young children should be spared from theology. There is, of course, some progression in what people can understand, but, in that what we present to children in their education are the things of God, I tend to favor giving them a rich diet which does not shy away from real, meaty issues. I would not say theology is reserved for higher ages.

Having touched upon what are some of the largest issues, I think I will leave things here for now. In part 2, I will look at some more secondary concerns.

Until then,

Nebby

[1] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[2] In his interview on the Forma podcast Jain speaks of having been thrown the classical use of the word virtue and it is this word that has also often put me off of classical formulations. It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who has been put off by the term and also to hear Jain speak of the relationship of virtue to faith and sanctification. He clearly states that one can only begin to achieve virtue through union with Christ.

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