Posts Tagged ‘Christian theology’

The Key to Charlotte Mason’s Thought

Dear Reader,

If you have been around here, you know I have been working through a series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask “Is it biblical?” (Find all the posts here, under the heading “Are Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles Biblical?”). In the past I’ve looked at many philosophies of education (see here), and what I’ve concluded is that each, whether consciously or not, is founded upon certain ideas about who we are as humans. I am also firmly under the conviction that the ideas behind what we do matter; they will always come out over time. So when I look at Charlotte’s philosophy, as much as I want to accept it all wholesale I have to ask if her view of the child is truly biblical.

I am a reformed Christian — 5 points of Calvinism, TULIP, total depravity, limited atonement, and all that. As such, Charlotte’s second principle has always been a sticking point. She says that:

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

I have read a lot of explanations of this principle. Most dismiss what Charlotte is saying here by arguing that it is not really a theological statement about the moral nature of children. It took me three posts in the current blog series to get through this principle. I began by looking at how Charlotte herself explains it. The short story is this: Charlotte believed that “the possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” When she says this, she is not just talking about their ability to be educated but the whole child “body and soul, body and mind, body, soul and spirit.” In other words, she is saying children are able to choose and do good and it is a moral statement (read my post here to see how I came to that conclusion).  In the second post, I place Charlotte’s position (and mine) within the spectrum of Christian thought (read about that here). In the third I wrestle with how I can accept her educational ideas when we have different views of the nature of children (here).

I am returning to this topic and wrestling some more because I recently ran across a quote in Charlotte’s second volume, Parents and Children, which, while shedding light on Charlotte’s own thought, also places her more at odds with my (reformed) theology.  Here is the 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.” (Parents and Children, p. 65; emphasis added)

Let that sink in for a minute — We live in a redeemed world, and all children born into this redeemed world have been “delivered from the kingdom of nature into the kingdom of grace.” If you are like me, you are thinking how can that be? Is she saying what I think she is saying and if so, where on earth did this idea come from and how can she believe it? Personally, I have never heard anyone put forward this position — that everyone born in the redeemed world, which would be since the time of Christ, is automatically in “the kingdom of grace.” So I began to google things and found that this was actually an idea around in Charlotte’s time.

In 1905 Crown Theological Library published a collection of essays under the title “The Child and Religion.” It is available from Forgotten Books here or from Archive.org here. The book itself is the outcome of what began as a debate within one congregation. As is explained in the book’s introduction, some children, ages 8 to 12, wanted to become members of the church and the leadership was unsure how to proceed. They were wondering if children even had the capacity to be saved, if they could have union with Christ. They therefore appealed to wide range of pastors of their day. The book is a compilation of essays from these men. A summary of the views they encountered was given by The Expository Times  (Oct. 1904 – Sept. 1905). They asked the following questions: “(1) Is the child born in the Kingdom? (2) Is conversion necessary to make it a child of God? (3) Are all children in a state of favour with God? (4) Are all unconverted outside the Kingdom? (5) May they grow up within the Kingdom without consciously being alienated from God?” (Expository Times, vol. 16, p. 481). The men they asked 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 (and probably a partridge in a pear tree, if they could find one).

Their answers to the first question are enough to address our purpose. Here is how The Expository Times reports it:

“The first question runs, ‘ Is the child born in the Kingdom ? ‘ What child ? Does Mr. Stephens mean all children that are born into the world? Can you say that the children of Muhammadan parents are born within the Kingdom of Christ ? Or is the meaning as narrow as the child born of truly Christian parents ? The most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes. But Mr. Stanley, the Unitarian, says bravely that all children are born in the Kingdom of God. He says, ‘ The child comes to our earth from the hand of God with a fresh mind and a pure heart, and evokes our reverence for the mystery and sanctity of life. The little one cannot be regarded as a child of wrath, for it has wonderful and fair capacities, and where all influences favour a righteous development, it may be led to admire and cleave to holy things.’ In Mr. Stanley’s belief, the Muhammadan child is born within the Kingdom of God.” (pp. 481-2)

The position of Stanley, the Unitarian among them, is an extreme one. At the other end of the spectrum is the Baptist, a man named Lewis, who believed that “no children whatever are born in the Kingdom” (p. 482). The others are along a spectrum between these two. As far as I can distinguish them, there seem to be two main positions between these two extremes:

  1. The low churchman and one Presbyterian believe that while all must be born again, “the second birth may occur so near the first as to be practically identical with it.” Children may thus be saved in “unconscious infancy.”
  2. The other Presbyterian and the three Congregationalists believe that children may be born saved but do not say that all are. “‘[A] child may be born into the Kingdom of God when it is born into the world,'” says Watson, a Presbyterian. Similarly, Thomas, a Congregationalist says: “‘Christ claims the children, as He has redeemed them.'” But, the editor tells us, “Both seem to think of the children of Christian parents.”

Charlotte Mason proposes an educational method founded in part on the idea that children have “possibilities for good and evil.” Her philosophy assumes that there is good, or at least the potential for good, in the children she is educating. Another way to put it would be to say that in order to be educable, children must be able to choose the good. We see this paly out in Charlotte’s philosophy; she uses inherently good materials — living books, fine art, etc. — spreading a feast and allowing the children to choose what they “ingest.” If the children were not able to choose the good, then this method would make no sense. Charlotte believes all children are educable, therefore she must believe all children have this capability.

The question before us then is of which children is this true? As the Expository Times article makes clear there are a number of answers to this question. The main possibilities are: (1) no children can be converted/regenerated and made able to believe and do good before a certain age at which they are able to make a conscious decision to believe; (2) some children are saved either before birth or in “unconscious infancy”; or (3) all children are capable of good and are, as it were, born into the Kingdom of God. Within the second category — “some” children– there are still more possibilities. We must ask with The Expository Times “What child?” Those quoted in the article seem to give two answers: (2a) children born to Christian parents and (2b) children born in Christian nations.*

It is a bit unclear where Charlotte stands. On the surface, her statement seems to place her in  camp 3, all children are born into the Kingdom of God, but I think it is also possible given her time and location that she would be in 2b, children born in Christian nations are born into the Kingdom.

Having looked at where Charlotte stands, we must also ask where we fall in this spectrum. The reformed doctrine of total depravity teaches that all people, since the Fall, are, apart from saving grace, unable to choose or do good. However, grace is not dependent on our ability to choose it but upon God’s election. The psalmist speaks of having faith from his other’s womb and John the Baptists recognizes his Savior even in utero. The Apostle Paul tells us that the children of believers are holy (I Cor. 7:14). Our church baptizes infants on the belief that the covenant of God is for us and our children (Acts 2:39). In other words, children of believers are considered part of the people of God, the visible church. As such, I believe in option (2a) above: some children, namely the children of believing parents, are born into the Kingdom of God.

So what does all of this matter? On one level, it does not. Charlotte bases her system of education on the assumption that the children being educated are able to choose and do good. I believe that my children, as covenant children, have this ability, so, well and good, I can use her method in my homeschool. She is educating children she believes to have the potential for good and so am I.

On another level, however, we are quite a world apart. There is a lot of theology behind any of these positions. No theological tenet stands in isolation from others but all depend upon the other. If we say that all children are born into God’s Kingdom, we are also making statements about the nature of the atonement, the sovereignty of God, and the perseverance of the saints.

 

In the end, I am not very far from where I started. I understand Charlotte’s view better but at the same time I find myself farther from her. The provisional conclusions I had made in that earlier post still stand; while I do not agree with Charlotte’s view of all children, yet I can apply her philosophy to my children. I also feel I have a better sense of the questions I still want to answer. Above all, I feel more greatly the need for a truly reformed philosophy of education.

Nebby

*The writer of the Expository Times synopsis says that “most of Mr. Stephens’ correspondents seem to take the question in a middle way, in the sense of children born in a Christian country. And they mostly answer Yes” (p.482). However, he does not specify which corresponds hold this position. It is hard to believe that anyone today would hold such a position for it is very hard in our day to say what is a Christian country, but both these men and Charlotte herself were living in a different time.

 

 

 

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“Education is a Discipline,” Part 2

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parenting in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

The Book of Hebrews has more to say:

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

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

nor be weary when reproved by him.

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

It is for discipline that you have to endure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipline in the Old Testament

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

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

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

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

The Hebrew Roots ykh and ysr: Rebuke and Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another root: hnk, “to train up”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

  • Discipline is discipleship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Bible has to say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Though Charlotte lists many specific habits to work on (obedience, attention, etc.), behind them all is what she elsewhere calls “the Way of the Will,” that is, the ability to make oneself do what one ought, not what one will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Provisional) Conclusions

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

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

Nebby

 

 

Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Dear Reader,

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

Where we are and how we got there

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

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

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

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

What Charlotte Mason Means

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

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

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

There are two questions immediately before us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biblical Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evidence of General Revelation

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

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

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

 

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Nebby

 

 

Is It Biblical?: CM’s First Principle Revisited

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th principle

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

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

The Import of the 1911 Article

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

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

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

The four points before us then are:

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

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

Liberty and Freedom from Oppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admiration, Hope and Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatness of the Child

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Until next time

Nebby

 

 

 

 

 

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

Dear Reader,

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

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

Recapping where we are

Charlotte’s second principle says:

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to Terms with the Second Principle

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

Option 1: Decide it’s not a problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 2: Common Grace

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

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

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

Option 3: Covenant Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 4: Re-defining “Potential”

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

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

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

Corollary: CM’s Method Can Benefit Non-believers

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

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

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

Conclusions?

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

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

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

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

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

Nebby

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

Bible verses on man’s sinful nature:

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

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

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

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

Classically Charlotte: The nature of children,” from Simply Convivial.com

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

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

And some of my own posts on this principle:

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

CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children”

 

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