Posts Tagged ‘Christian theology’

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Dear Reader,

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

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

What is Arminianism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Charlotte Mason Have Believed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrowing in: The Theology of J. Paterson Smythe

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

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

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

The Theology of Charlotte Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again:

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

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

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

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

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

Once she uses the phrase “redeemed human race”:

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

And finally, this most revealing quote:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Edited 8/24/2020: I now have a follow-up post to this one which looks at Charlotte Mason’s Theology in her Scale How Meditations.


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

[2] Treier, p. 228.

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

[4] Treier, p. 228.

[5] Treier, p. 241.

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Treier, p. 268.

[12] Treier, p. 230.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Christian, The Arts and Truth

Dear Reader,

Frank Gaebelein is one of my favorite writers on Christian education (see previous reviews of his work here and here) so I was eager to read this volume on the arts. The Christian, The Arts, and Truth [ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985)] is a collection of essays which fit together fairly well. Gaebelein argues for a Christian understanding of and approach to the arts and the humanities in general.

A common theme of the book is that genius, including artistic genius, is a gift of God, falling under the heading of common grace, and that when we despise the work of non-Christians we reject what God has given (pp. 54, 64, 66, 76, 252). He urges us to judge art based on its quality and the truth it conveys, not based on the character of the artist (p. 67).

Christians should not abandon the field of art to secular society. They must engage in the arts (p. 71) and they must do so with discrimination. Gaebelein is quite critical of Christian art which finds its only justification in being Christian and ignores standards of beauty and taste. “[I]inferior art,” he tells us, “doesn’t become true and good art because it is baptized by religious usage” (p. 65).

What then are the standards by which art –both Christian and non-Christian — should be judged? Gaebelein holds up the Scriptures, themselves a piece of art, as the standard of excellence (p. 70) and looks to them for answers. It is important to note, however, that while truth is always truth, beauty is not inherently true but can be used to communicate lies (p. 47). Those fields which are most subjective, including the arts, are most prone to corruption (pp. 74-5, 127). What Gaebeleien most looks for in art, then, is truth. He goes on to delineate four marks of truth in art: durability (ability to speak to other eras), unity (of form and structure with meaning), integrity, and inevitability (pp. 86-93). Integrity demands that each part of the work contribute to the whole and inevitability is that quality that makes you hear or see a new piece of art and say, “ah, this is how it should be.”

Gaebelein goes on to discuss various specific topics related to his overall theme: education, music (with a chapter in Beethoven particularly), literature (with a chapter on Pilgrim’s Progress), and social justice. I cannot relate all of this (and you should read the book yourself), but here are some of the points which most struck me:

In the context of his discussion of the arts and education, Gaebelein makes a plea for high standards, the highest standards in fact. His call is for excellence, a standard which cannot be measured by human means:

“There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” (p. 143)

Though Gaebelein here does not explicitly argue against classical models of education, he does point us again and again to God and His Word as the proper models of excellence. It is these he identifies with the “vision of greatness” which Alfred North Whitehead called for in his oft-repeated: “‘Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness'” (p. 189).

I have argued for a fairly non-standardized form of education and I was happy to see theological arguments for this. In addition to arguing for high standards by which to measure knowledge, Gaebelien, following Pascal, also argues that we must allow independent, unique thought:

“In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” (p. 152)

In his section on literature, Gaebelein shows how even non-believing authors used to be quite immersed in biblical language which infiltrated their writing, both through direct references and in terms of style. This is actually quite a convicting section. Most of us today, I fear, just don’t have this deep familiarity with the Scriptures.

Of course, Christian writers (hopefully) have something more as well. Gaebelien uses a German word Weltanschauung which roughly translates to “worldview” to describe it.  It is “a God-centered view of life and the world” which “will color all of his work and all of his thinking”  (p. 186). Such a pervasive perspective is not limited to writers but should be held by all Christians no matter their field. This is an idea we have seen in a number of writers (and I have argued for something similar in education). Gaebelein here sums it up well. I have struggled to find just the right word to encapsulate the idea and I like the appeal to a German term as it takes it beyond our usual vocabulary (“worldview” etc.) which has a tendency to get quite trite and overused.

The Christian, The Arts, and Truth has a lot to recommend it. Gaebelein presents a vision that is quite compelling. It is hard not to be inspired and humbled by his devotion to the Word of God. The book itself comes in manageable chunks and is easy to read. Overall, this is a book well worth one’s time.







My Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I have been working on this series for almost two years now. In that time, I have read a lot of books and done a lot of posts. As promised, I am now ready to offer some conclusions. Of the making of many books there is no end; neither will this be the end of my study of this topic. My hope is that it is enough of a beginning to aid those of you who seek to educate others, in whatever context.

I am going to offer my modest proposal as a series of bullet points which I hope work together to gradually build up a philosophy of education founded on Reformed Christian principles. As I said, I have been working on this series for two years (and there were years of preliminary study behind that). What follows is a summary of what I have read and gleaned. While there is some logical sequence, the numbers are given mainly to aid in discussion. [Unfortunately, WordPress does not seem to allow me to use a continuing sequence of numbers; if you look at the Google Doc version of this proposal (link below), you will see that it is actually a 100-point plan.] Behind all this is the belief I started with, that any philosophy of education, as it makes assumptions about the nature of man and about his ends, is an inherently theological enterprise (see here, here, and here). 

As much as possible I have given links to the posts in which I originally discussed each concept. If you have any questions or disputes, I encourage you first to click through and read the arguments behind each one. After that, I am happy to discuss so feel free to comment below or to contact me

Proposal for a Reformed Christian Philosophy of Education 

[This proposal can also be viewed as a Google Doc here]

Epistemology: The Source of Knowledge:

  1. The Triune God is the source of all wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. (John 14:6; Gaebelein on Truth; Bavinck on Art; Frank Gaebelein)
  2. Truth, goodness, and beauty stand apart from man, outside him. 
  3. God has graciously chosen to reveal some measure of His truth, goodness, and beauty to humankind.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. He does so through His two “books” which we call special and general revelation; they are His written Word in the Scriptures and His Creation respectively. (Gaebelein on Truth; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  5. In the pre-Fall world, the two books or revelation would have been equally accessible and operated in perfect unity.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: Man’s Ability to Know:

  1. The Fall has not changed God’s general revelation to us. The knowledge which God gives is still out there, uncorrupted and in theory available to all people, believers and non-believers. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  2. The Fall has corrupted man’s reason by which he accesses and evaluates this knowledge.  In this life at least, man’s reason is imperfect and incomplete. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology)
  3. Reason was never meant to be and cannot be our sole means of knowing.  It is a tool and was not meant to function apart from Revelation. (Crisis in Epistemology; Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  4. Only those who are united to God by faith can rightly know, though their knowledge too is limited and often corrupted by the effects of sin. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology; Frank Gaebelein)
  5. Non-believers suppress the right knowledge of God. Nonetheless, non-believers still have reason, now corrupted, through which they access knowledge. (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)
  6. The unregenerate say many true things and their scholarship and creative arts may be useful to and appreciated by us. (Common Grace, Part 1; Christianity, Science and Truth)
  7. Though at times they may deceive us, our senses are basically reliable. We are able to use them to know about the world around us.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Epistemology: The Nature of Knowledge:

  1. Knowledge, because it is of God, is good in and of itself. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth)
  2. Knowledge should be a source of delight. (John Edwards, History of Education:1500-1800;  John Milton on Education; The Christian Home-School)
  3. True knowledge is not merely rational but is intimate. (Oppewal on Epistemology; History of Education:1500-1800)
  4. Knowledge is also relational. To know is to have a relationship. (Jaarsma on Uniting the Heart and Mind; Oppewal on Epistemology)
  5. Knowledge, as the Bible uses the term, is never just head-knowledge. It is practical in that it affects one’s behavior and life.  
  6. Godly knowledge — and goodness and beauty — are active, effective, and transformative. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth and On Frameworks and How We Know What’sTrue; Lockerbie on Teachers)

Epistemology: What We Know:

  1. The Creation reflects the character of its Creator. (In Defense of Truth and Beauty)
  2. There is no field — from history and anthropology to chemistry and mathematics  — which falls outside of God’s dominion. The laws and forces behind each have been created and are sustained by Him. (Frank Gaebelein)
  3. Each area of study has the potential to tell us something about God.  (Frank Gaebelein; In Defense of Truth and Beauty; A Broad Education; Fine Arts; Bavinck on Art)
  4. This limit will come earlier in some fields than in others. The more subjective a field, the more it deals with God and man directly, the more quickly it will go astray. (Frank Gaebelein)

On God’s Providential Workings:

  1. God is the Giver of all knowledge and wisdom.
  2. God rules over all, but He does not rule over the elect and the nonelect in the same way.
  3. For the elect, the knowledge God gives is part of their sanctification and is ultimately for their good that they may be reunited with Him.
  4. For the unregenerate, God, by the common workings of his Holy Spirit, still gives knowledge, but this knowledge because it does not cause them to glorify God or to respond in humility and obedience, ultimately serves to condemn them all the more. (Common Grace, part 1)

The Nature of Man, and of the Child:

  1. Children are not a separate category of being. That is to say, they are at a most basic level the same sort of creature as adults. (Children in the Bible)
  2. All people, including children, consist of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Though the Bible speaks of the mind, heart, soul, and strength, it does not divide up a person in such a way that one of these parts can be addressed or can operate in isolation from the others. (Deut. 6:5; Mk. 12:30; Hearts and Minds; The Tech-Wise Family)
  3. All aspects of our nature were corrupted in the Fall (WCF IV:II) and are in need of redemption and transformation (WCF XIII:II). 
  4. Our minds and hearts are thus corrupted and in need of redemption. It is God who is able to restore the heart/mind. (Education and the Covenant Child)
  5.  Children are included in the body of God’s people and are called to obey God’s law. (Children in the Bible)
  6. Children are capable both of sin and of faith (through grace, of course). (Children in the Bible)
  7. Because knowledge is intimate and relational (see #s 15 & 16 above), even the youngest children are capable of knowing. (History of Education:1500-1800; Babies Can Think)
  8. Though they are in all these ways the same as adults, children are nonetheless ignorant and foolish. They are in particular need of education and discipline and the Bible says one’s youth is the best time for these activities. (Children in the Bible)

On the Nature of Education [1]:

  1. Education acts on the mind and heart. We must always be aware, however, that the mind/heart does not operate in isolation from the other parts of the person.  (Hearts and Minds; Defining Education; Education and the Covenant Child;
  2.  God’s General Revelation is the fodder of education.  In education, we present to the child the things of God, all the truth and beauty and goodness that God has revealed. (Common Grace, Part 2) [2]
  3. God Himself is the ultimate Educator of all men. This is true of all areas of knowledge. Whether practical skills, creative arts, intellectual knowledge, or spiritual wisdom, God is the source. (History of Education: Church Fathers; also Teaching in the Old Testament) [3]
  4. Because education is ultimately a work of God, we cannot force children to learn. How knowledge is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit. (Teaching in the New Testament)

On the Purpose of Education: the Big Picture:

  1. Education will work differently in the life of the believer and the non-believer. (cf. #26 above)
  2. In the life of an unregenerate person, the effect is that of a Call. Either the person will, by grace, respond in faith, or, if he does not, the effect will ultimately be for his condemnation. When we educate non-believing students, those outside the covenant community of God, we are playing a part in the process that will ultimately either lead to their salvation or seal their fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity. (Common Grace, Part 1 and Part 2; Van Til on Education)
  3.  In education we bring before our believing students the things of God. When God’s people learn and think about what He has made and done, they are transformed. This transformation is an element of what we call sanctification.  (Education and Sanctification; Education and the Covenant Child; Lockerbie; also CM and the Puritans on Education)
  4. In so far as it transforms the minds and hearts of God’s people, election builds up the Church and glorifies God.  (Education and the Covenant Child; see also History of Jewish Education)

On the Purpose of Education: Human Perspective: [4]

  1. Education is part of God’s ordinary means. This is particularly true in the lives of covenant children for whom education is a means God uses to fulfill their baptismal promises. (Louis Berkhof)
  2. The purpose of education is to be found in the purpose of man’s life. To the extent that man’s purpose is to “know God and enjoy Him forever,” this also is the purpose of education.  (Henry Zylstra; Nicholas Beversluis)
  3. Education is a part of God’s grand plan, the end of which is His own glory. It brings His general revelation to men.  (JG Vos on Education; The Purpose of Education, Part 1; Common Grace, part 2)
  4. While there are certainly larger and more societal aspects to education, the primary goal on a day-to-day basis should be for the individual. (The Purpose of Education, Part 2)
  5. While education can serve both long- and short-term goals, because they are more likely to be lost in the business of life, we should keep the long-term goals always before us. (The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  6. In the lives of the elect, the primary goal of education is the long-term transformation of the individual more and more into the image of Christ. It is then a part of the process we call sanctification. (cf. #41 above)
  7. To be transformed is to become more and more “whole-hearted.” The effect of sin is to divide us, to make us double-minded beings. Our hearts and minds are transformed when the effect of sin in them grows less and they more and more are united to a single purpose which aligns with the will of God. (Henry Schultze on the Integrated Personality; Lockerbie on Christian Paideia)
  8. Education thus serves to undo the effects of the Fall. (John Milton on Education; JG Vos on Education; Goals and Purposes)
  9. There will be secondary goals which are achieved along the way as well: a man will be prepared for the work God calls him to; the Church will be built; God’s kingdom in this world will be furthered. These are not secondary goals because they are unimportant but because if we, in our fallenness, make them primary goals of education, we tend to go astray. In God’s providence all things work together for His purposes which are many-layered. We are not God and so when we take the focus off of the sanctification of each individual we tend to go astray. 
  10. While there are certainly good, practical outcomes to education, we must guard against a degeneration into utilitarianism. (Zylstra on the Transforming Power of Truth; Mathematics)

Practical Aspects: The Student:

  1. Because children are sinners and because of the ignorance of their youth, they are in need of training. There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. Our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We cannot, as the Unschooling movement does [5], trust children to their own devices. (Children in the Bible; Core Knowledge)
  2. Learning continues throughout life . . .  (Teaching in the Old Testament; The Purpose of Education, Part 1)
  3.  . . . But children are particularly in need of instruction.  (Children in the Bible)
  4. Children all complete persons with the same spiritual capacity as adults. Therefore we must not hinder them or deprive them of the things of God.  (Children in the Bible; see also Babies Can Think)
  5. Education is for all people, male and female, those whom society deems exceptional or average or backward. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)

Practical Aspects: The Role of the Teacher:

  1. The attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. A teacher should always expect the most and hope the best. He should expect that God will work in the lives and hearts and minds of his students, whether they are regenerate or not. (A Teacher’s Expectation)
  2. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them. (A Teacher’s Attitude; Frank Gaebelein)

Practical Aspects: The Framework:

  1. Proper understanding, in any area, is not possible without a godly framework. (History of Education: Church Fathers; Framework) [6]
  2. The most important thing we can convey to our students is a proper framework in which to understand all that they learn. Other words which might be used to describe this are mindset or worldview. ( Framework; Zylstra on Frameworks)
  3. Our conceptual framework must be biblical.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  4. Not all non-biblical frameworks are equally wrong. (Synopses of Short Articles)
  5. Even many “Christian” worldviews are either insufficient or unacceptable. We need a distinctly reformed view. (Van Til on Education)
  6. We must be careful that we are not too narrow in our worldview. What we are seeking is something broad and all-encompassing, not a narrow worldview which boils down all of God’s Truth to a few propositions.  (Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology)

Practical Aspects: What We Learn:

  1. All subjects are the fodder of education and all are under the sovereignty of God. There is no “sacred” and “secular.” (Calvinist Beliefs and Education; CM and the Puritans on Education)
  2. Children should be given a broad education, covering a wide range of subjects. (A Broad EducationCore Knowledge; CM and the Puritans on Education; History of Reformed Education)
  3. It is reasonable and logical to require children to learn certain basic skills. (Core Knowledge)
  4. But we should not deprive young children of real, meaty learning by withholding bigger ideas until later years. Even young children should be put in touch with the things of God. (Core Knowledge)

Practical Aspects: What We Teach & Materials:

  1. There is no culture [7] that has a monopoly on truth or culture. All are fallen. While they may make some contributions, they will also contain error. All should be approached with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on Education)
  2. Christians are not called to and should not withdraw from the culture. (Synopses of Short Articles; Frank Gaebelein)
  3. We can and should use non-Christian books and resources . . .  (In Defense of Truth and Beauty; Zylstra on the Love of Literature)
  4. But we should also expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources. (Christianity, Science and Truth)
  5. We must not rob children of the inherent delight and interest they should have in the things of God by making education boring . . . (The Christian Home-School)
  6.  . . . But neither should we try to dress up the things of God to make entertainment for children. (Interesting but not Entertaining)
  7. Language is inherent to how humans communicate and therefore learn. Narrative is a powerful medium and is a primary means used by God Himself to communicate with His people (Language; Literature; The Power of Narrative)
  8. Words, and particularly books, should be the backbone of our approach to education. (Living Books and the Living Word; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks)
  9. Most human knowledge is communicated from mind to mind therefore we should choose our teachers well. (Two Views of the Teacher; See Pick Your Teachers Well for tips on how to do so)
  10. So too we must pick our books well. Our goal should be to use “living books.” Living books are written by people who love their subject matter and know it well.  (See Living Books and the Living Word for more criteria for discerning living books; also The Power of Narrative; Should We Use Textbooks; Literature)
  11. Because one is unlikely to succeed when he expects to fail, we should use discernment in how we set the bar for children. On one hand, we should not provoke them to despair with things that are too far beyond them or which generate repeated failure. On the other hand, education is work and it is through our trials that character is built. The best image I can think of is one of stretching, providing work which does not break but constantly requires more of the child. (The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard; Frank Gaebelein; The Tech-Wise Family)
  12. Because man is both spirit and body, education should also involve the physical. This “hands-on” side of education should not involve merely physical action but should seek to employ the body in ways which also engage the mind. The ideal is not what we today call “physical education” but a kind of hands-on, technical, educated craftsmanship.   (Whitehead Follow-Up)

Practical Aspects: Learning Outcomes & Testing:

  1. The Fall has corrupted man’s relationship with work. Education, as the work of the child, will at times be frustrating and fruitless. Nonetheless, we are called to persevere and, by God’s grace, we are also able to see fruit and to rejoice in the work we are given. (Whitehead Follow-Up)
  2. Each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.  (Core Knowledge)
  3. In evaluating children and measuring what they have learned, we should be wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating Students)
  4. Because each child is a unique individual and because education is ultimately the work of God in his life, even when presented with the same materials, we should not expect every child to glean the same knowledge.  (Synthesizing Ideas; see also The History of Worksheets)
  5. Narration — telling back in one’s own words — is highly recommended as a way for children to synthesize and reproduce what they have learned. This is because it: a) allows each child to express what they have learned rather than being required to reproduce a set body of facts determined by the teacher; b) makes use of a capacity (retelling what they have learned or done) which is inherent to children; and c) reflects the biblical practice of retelling events as a way of both teaching the next generation and of expressing thanks.  (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating StudentsThe Tech-Wise Family)
  6. There are subjects and times when more standardized forms of evaluation and reproduction are warranted. Narration must not become an excuse for complete subjectivity.  (Synthesizing Ideas)
  7. We must be careful in teaching that out methods do not tend to substitute lesser, immediate goals (the obtaining of small prizes, pleasing one’s teacher) for the larger, more primary goal of building the child’s character and furthering his desire for knowledge, which is of God. (Motivating Students)

Practical Aspects: On Schooling:

  1. There are three God-given institutions: the Church, the Government, and the Family. (History of Education: Biblical Times; Church, State . . . and School?)
  2. The school is not a God-given institution. (Church, State . . . and School?; Lockerbie on Schools)
  3. Parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children. (Church, State, and School)
  4. It is not wrong for parents to use other resources in educating their children, but they cannot cede their God-given authority in this area.  (Church, State, and School)
  5. The Church should support and encourage parents in educating their children. (History of Reformed Education)
  6. Parents who do not feel able to educate their children should seek to “qualify themselves to the task” as best they can (Erasmus, History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation)
  7. If parents use other teachers or outsource aspects of their child’s education, they should remain intimately involved in their children’s education. (History of Education: Humanism and the Reformation) [8]
  8. In the ideal society, the State supports the work of the Church. Modern American society is not ideal.  (Synopses of Short Articles)
  9. The basis of thought in the public schools is not and cannot be neutral. Neutrality does not exist. (History of Education: the 1800s)
  10. State-supported education will have state-ordained goals. (The Crisis of Western Education)
  11. It is impossible to confine public education to academic spheres. Education is inherently intrusive and naturally draws in other parts of the person and other aspects of life.  (Public Education in America)
  12. Modern American public schools are based on ideas which arise out of an ungodly, evolutionary mindset. (John Dewey, Evolution and Socialization; Evolution is a Mindset; Education and the Source of Evil)
  13. Education in our public schools today has a fragmentary effect — it fragments knowledge into discrete subjects and it fragments people from each other and from other communities. (Public Education in America)
  14. Every school, every curriculum, every approach to education rests on certain underlying philosophical and/or theological principles. Each one makes assumptions about man and his nature. Parents should therefore be discerning, whatever method they choose. (Implementing a Christian Education)
  15. We live in an imperfect world and we are imperfect people. There is not going to be any perfect education choice; each will have pros and cons. Whatever choice they make for their children, parents should stay involved and make the best of the situation they have. (The Christian Home-School; see Implementing a Christian Education for ideas on how to do so)

[1] Many of the points in this section were given previously in this earlier post.

[2]  Of course, believing parents will also teach their children the Scriptures, but the bulk of what we teach falls under the heading of God’s General Revelation.

[3] Augustine called Christ the magister interior, the inward teacher.

[4] This post on goal and purposes also explains the points in this section. 

[5] For some background on Unschooling, see this post and this one.

[6] Augustine said credo ut intelligum, “I believe in order that I may understand,” which is to say that true understanding is only possible through faith. 

[7] The only possible exception would be Old Testament Israel, though in practice more often than not they did not follow the rules and customs God gave them. 

[8]  Erasmus says they should visit the schoolroom often.

— Nebby


Rut Etheridge on the Crisis in Epistemology

Dear Reader,

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

Over the past year I have spent a lot of time reading books on the very broad topic of reformed theology in education. As I promised you last time, I hope to soon provide some conclusions. Before I do so, I have one more book to touch upon; it is God Breathed: Connecting through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself by Rut Etheridge III (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2019).

Etheridge’s purpose is to speak to a generation disillusioned by the Church. Along the way, he addresses the underlying philosophy of the modern mindset which in turn raises the issue of epistemology — what we know and how we know it. Though Etheridge does not touch on education as such, the question of epistemology is at the heart of our discussion.

Our Epistemological Problem and How We Got Here

In a world of “alternative facts,” it should be no surprise that young people in particular have no belief in absolute truth. Etheridge coins a phrase, “the ceiling of self,” to describe the current state of things. What this phrase embodies is the idea that we cannot get beyond our own experience. We cannot know beyond ourselves.

“Beneath the ceiling of self, we can never get beyond ourselves in our knowledge of reality. All we have is perception” (p. 5).

This is a very sad place to be. Though Etheridge primarily wants to reach young adults trapped under this “ceiling,” my purpose today is simply to talk about how we got here.

After the rise of an increasingly authoritarian Church in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation swept in like a refreshing wind, bringing a return to both Revelation and Reason. Our reformed confessions speak of two sources of divine revelation — God’s written Word and His Creation work together. Our God-given Reason allows us to access both. [1]

As with so many issues in life, the problem comes when we humans over-emphasize one side at the expense of the other. Rene Descartes believed God could be proven by Reason alone. He famously said: “I think therefore I am.” By this he meant that “human reason, by itself, could teach us everything we needed to know about God” (p. 3).  As Etheridge explains, he went wrong right from the start, making his own Reason the first principle by which all else, even God, is judged.

A century or so later, Immanuel Kant drove another nail in the coffin. He perhaps had good motives, seeking to preserve God’s dignity, when he argued that we cannot know God. This is really where Etheridge’s “ceiling of self” begins. Kant said that we cannot get beyond our own perceptions (p.5). Perception thus becomes our reality. If my senses tell me something different than what your senses tell you, we very quickly get to the point of saying that we each live in our own unique realities. What is true for me need not necessarily be true for you (and vice-versa).

In the wake of Kant we enter fully into the Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment, human Reason would be elevated as the supreme standard to the exclusion of Revelation and with little acknowledgment of the effects of human fallenness. Deism, the religion of the day, says that though God may exist, He is distant and unknowable. We live our lives largely without His direct influence and action. [2] With God safely tucked away, the Enlightenment thinkers elevated Reason as the only means to know truth. This again makes truth individualistic. I know truth by looking inward, to my own Reason. You may look inward and not find the same truth. My inward Reason becomes the judge of all that is external. The Enlightenment assumed the infallibility of Reason. It was a very optimistic time, sure of human progress. The disillusionment was to come later.

For all their flaws, Descartes and Kant still held on to some belief that there was a God, however unknowable. The Enlightenment thinkers placed God at a distance. Friedrich Nietzsche took their beliefs to their logical conclusion and got God out of the equation altogether. Using Etheridge’s analogy, “Nietzsche didn’t believe in the ceiling because he didn’t believe in anything above it” (p. 65). Kant said we could not know the absolute; Nietzsche denied there was an absolute.

Where We Are and Where We Need to Be

Thus the philosophical underpinnings of our current epistemological crisis. Of course, most people aren’t thinking about Descartes or Nietzsche. At best they have a vague sense either that there is no absolute truth or that, if it is out there somewhere, that we can’t know it.

The philosophical situation we have inherited from Kant, Nietzsche, and others is unsustainable. It breeds conflict as my truth quickly runs up against your truth. There is an internal struggle as well. Despite our best efforts to suppress it, we all have some inborn sense of right and wrong, but with no absolute, external standard we are hard-pressed to convince others or to explain our own beliefs and actions. Trying to live in the world relying only on our fallen human Reason as a guide is a bit like running around with bent, broken sticks trying to measure things. We all have different standards and none of them is accurate anyway.

Even if we can’t put it into words, we sense that this situation is deficient and unsustainable. Disillusioned with Reason, some have turned to Feeling to replace it. If thinking is suspect, how about emotion and intuition as substitutes? Of course, this is just another internal, fallible standard.

Etheridge provides an alternative: “God never meant human reason to try to function apart from his revelation of his own character” (p. 92). Reason must be acknowledged as fallible and it must be subordinated to a higher, infallible standard. When we do so, when we submit Reason to Revelation, everything else begins to make sense

“The humility that accepts the Bible’s first ten words as true simply admits that we are not in ultimate control — of anything . . . Everything besides God . . . finds its true worth and meaning in  relationship to God.” (p.43)

Implications for Education

In the beginning of this post, I used the words “epistemological crisis.” I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that we as a society are in crisis mode. While I am not young, I have two children in high school and two in college and their reports are that their friends simply do not believe in absolute truth. They are a generation adrift with nothing to hold on to because they do not believe there is an absolute and, even if there were, they do not believe they can know it.

I have been arguing in this series that we need a Reformed Christian approach to education and, as a part of that, a biblical epistemology. If we do not have a biblically-based theory of knowing, we end up, well, there we are. The essentials of this biblical epistemology are simple: There is an absolute Truth which exists apart of us humans. We are able to know because God has chosen to reveal this Truth to us through His two books: Revelation and Creation. There we access through our God-given, albeit fallen, Reason. As promised, I am working on my summary of all we have read about education and reformed theology, but this is the foundation. It is about what is to be known and how we can know it.



[1] For a more complete discussion see this earlier post on Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics. A fairly accessible book on the ideas behind the Reformation is Benjamin Wiker’s The Reformation 500 Years Later (though it should be taken with some reservation as Wiker himself is Roman Catholic; see my review here).

[2] Kant, Etheridge tells us, would not have been a fan of Deism (p. 54). Nonetheless, it is a logical conclusion of his philosophy.

Veith and Kern on Classical Education

Dear Reader,

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

Recently we talked about the variety that exists with the modern classical education movement. Today we add one more piece to that puzzle.

In  Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington, D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2015) Dr. Gene Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern give an overview of the movement. I know of Andrew Kern from the Circe Institute and I had wanted to include  Circe that earlier post. I could not find one concise statement of their take on classical online. I picked up this book in the hopes of getting a clearer idea of their view. I do not know that this book presents the view of the Circe Institute, but at least we can say that it is the work of Kern who also heads up the Circe Institute (along with Veith, of course).

Classical Education is not primarily written to promote a particular view of classical education but as a polemic in favor of neo-classical education and an overview of its major branches. The authors’ views do come through to some extent, however, and it is these I would like to focus on.

Veith and Kern are accepting of all forms of modern classical education. They do not analyze presuppositions and they do not judge which school of thought is best or most true to its classical roots. Though their book shows that there is a lot of variety within modern classical education, they tend to gloss over differences, choosing instead to emphasize commonalities. In order to do so, they provide a list of what they consider the salient features of classical education. For Veith and Kern the distinguishing features of classical education are (pp. 13ff):

  • Classical education includes a high view of man. Included in this is the goal of classical education: to cultivate virtue (p. 14).
  • It is logocentric. That is, it believes there is a unifying principle and that truth can be known. For Christians, the unifying principle is Christ, the Logos (pp. 14-15).
  • It prioritizes western tradition. Veith and Kern are concerned to make clear that they do not idealize western culture. Yet they just as clearly see the West as the culture that “can sustain the political ideals of liberty and human rights” (pp. 15-16; see below).
  • It has a pedagogy that sustains these commitments. This pedagogy is connected with the Trivium, a three-fold hierarchy of learning popularized in modern times by Dorothy Sayers in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” (see my review here).

I’d like to look at each of these in turn.

A High View of Man. To have a “high view of man” means three things:

  1. Man is more than an animal and more than material. The components of his nature may be delineated in various ways but it all boils down to: there is a spiritual element.
  2. We must take man as a whole, recognizing and addressing all the components of his nature.
  3. Man is able to interact with and to know things which are themselves of a higher nature — the good, true, and beautiful.

My over-riding goal is to propose a biblical philosophy of education. To some extent, at least, all three of these propositions are biblical. I think we need to be careful in how we apply them, however, especially the last one. I also think we need to address not just the nature of the man but also of the child.

In a boots on the ground, practical way, every philosophy of education must deal with the fact that things don’t always go well. People don’t always appreciate the wonderful things we put before them and they don’t always learn the lessons we want them to learn. In our Christian understanding, the root of the problem boils down to sin. Man is alienated from God and on his own he cannot do or choose or be good. As Christian educators, we need to ask how we can educate sinful and unregenerate people. But even as we do so, we recognize that the primary problem and therefore the primary solution is not educational. Sin is a problem only God can solve.

Every non-Christian philosophy of education sees education as in some way salvific. That is, education solves man’s problems.  Most equate wrong with ignorance; if we only knew enough or knew the right stuff or understood it in the right way, we would be and do good. Some, like Rousseau, see traditional, formal education as the problem rather than the solution. But either way, education is wrapped up in salvation.

As David Hicks shows in his Norms and Nobility (see my review here), the classical education of the Greeks starts with this assumption: that education can solve our fundamental problem. I don’t want to caricaturize classical education, but it is a bit like a machine. The expectation is that if we have the right input, the machine will spit out the right output. The problem is that the machine does not work the way we expect it to because it is not a machine but a sinful person. Like the famous joke about the physicist who assumes a spherical cow, we assume a perfect person who is able to react appropriately to all the good stuff we give him. If the desired results aren’t produced, we change the input — the content and the methods — and hope for a better output. But ultimately we fail because it is the machine that is faulty (which is not to say that content and methods don’t matter).

As far as I have yet seen (and I have read a fair amount I think) Christian classical does nothing differently. It either, like its non-Christian counterpart, assumes the best, or it chooses to use only those “machines” which will give it good output. Which is to say, it educates the children of believers but ignores the unsaved.

All of which is a very long way to say that classical education — Christian or secular — assumes the ability of human beings to appreciate and receive the good and true and beautiful.

The Nature of the Child.  While classical education assumes too much about the man’s ability, it assumes too little about the child. Though it has a high view of man, classical education often seems to have quite a low view of children. This is something I first noticed in reading Sayers’ infamous article (again see that review here). For the youngest children in particular, the assumption is that they are memorizing machines but that they are not inherently creative, thoughtful beings.

I have looked at what the Bible has to say about children and my conclusion is that they are fully human. They have body and soul, mind and heart. They are capable of sin and they are capable (by the grace of God) of having a relationship with their Creator. They are not blank slates to be written on or lumps of clay to be molded by us. They are, in short, human, and I agree with Charlotte Mason that in intellectual matters we need to give them a varied, nutritious, human diet.

Sayers’ main argument for the confining young children to the grammar stage with its emphasis on imbibing facts was her own experience (see below) so I too will appeal to my experience — I have four kids (now all teens) and I have been teaching two- to six-year-olds in Sunday school for a few years now. My observation is that even the youngest children are quite capable of grasping ideas, of employing well-reasoned arguments, of understanding more than mere facts.

The Purpose of Education. For classical educators, the end goal is to inculcate values. As David Hicks explains so well in his book Norms and Nobility (again, see this post and this one) there is some vision of the Ideal. The goal is conformity to this Ideal, while acknowledging that this will be an ongoing process. On the surface, this sounds Christian. The problem is that our goal as Christians is not ultimately to be moral. Yes, we are called to live moral lives, but the Christian ideal is something more than virtue or even holiness. It is union with Christ. It’s more about relationship and less about morality. Education that aims for morality may achieve it, but it also may not go beyond morality to that something more.

A Unifying Principle. I may have more to say on this topic as I am currently reading another book which touches on the question of unifying principles. For now, I am going to concede the point that a unifying principle to all of knowledge is a good thing. My problem is that there is no one unifying principle across classical education. Can we say that all these approaches — from the ancient to all the modern variants — are truly the same if they have different unifying principles?

Western Tradition. One thing that unites the various classical approaches is a common foundation in Western civilization (by which is meant ancient Greek and Latin writers and thinkers and everyone in Europe and the west who comes after). For Douglas Wilson all but baptizes Western civilization, saying in essence that, as God allowed His Church to grow in the soil of western culture, it is superior to other cultures.

The take of Veith and Kern is a little different. They acknowledge that there is no golden age of Western civilization. Rather, we stand in a stream which continues to flow. We must know what came before us but we also adapt what comes out of us. The phrase “Great Conversation” is used to indicate that this is an ongoing communication in which we also participate.

There is a level, however, on which Veith and Kern do unquestioningly accept the values of western civilization and thereby idealize it. Specifically, they hold a liberal ideal which exalts political freedom above all else. “Truth alone,” they tell us, “can sustain the political ideals of liberty and human rights” (pp. 15-16). There is here an exaltation of individual liberty (human rights) and of political liberty which is very western. I am not at all opposed to liberty but we must be careful that we do not read the ideals of our own civilization back into our theology.

Eastern cultures, for example, tend to value the community above the individual. Douglas Wilson would argue that Christianity grew up in the West because its ideals matched those of western culture. But this is not necessarily the case. There is also a lot about the community in the Bible. We all fell in Adam and all believers are raised in Christ. The Church is called both a building and a body. Conversions and baptisms in the early church seemed to have been done on the household rather than the individual level.  There is here a very good argument for studying other cultures; perhaps there is something in there understanding which we are missing because we are so bound by our own western ideals.

Veith and Kern find their ideal of political liberty in the Bible — but they do so with some bad exegesis. “Christ,” they say, “formulated the essential political doctrine of the West: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free'” (p. 15). The problem is that this verse is not about political freedom. They are quoting John 8:32. In the next verse, the Jews — like Veith and Kern — misunderstand Jesus; they think He is talking about slavery. But Jesus goes on to make clear on verse 34 that they are not free because they are slaves to sin. The freedom He offers is freedom from sin. It has nothing to do with whether they are slaves and it has nothing to do with political freedom.

The Trivium. Veith and Kern claim that all classical education is united by a pedagogy which they equate with the Trivium as Dorothy Sayers presented it. There are a few problems with this. The first is that not all the approaches they discuss do rely on the Trivium. As far as I can tell (and I have read both their books) neither David Hicks nor James S. Taylor (author of Poetic Knowledge) makes uses of the Trivium.

A second issue is that the Trivium itself, as conceived by Sayers, has been largely discredited. In an article published by the Circe Institute (Kern’s organization), Shawn Barnett argues that Sayers largely made up the modern understanding of the Trivium [1]. The term itself is older, going back to the Middle Ages, but Sayers particular interpretation, which equates each element — grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric — with a stage of child development is her innovation. Though Doug Wilson tries to make a biblical defense of this three-fold division (which I will address in another post), the main argument for this three-stage Trivium is observational. Sayers admits that it is based on her perception of her own personal development.

Though they tout Sayers’ Trivium as the classical pedagogy, when initially describing the Trivium Veith and Kern give a much more, well, classical description.  Theirs is actually one of the best descriptions I have read of the Trivium. As they describe it, it is not about developmental stages but more about how we understand a subject, particularly language or any language-based subject. (Likewise, their explanation of the quadrivium, which is about mathematical knowledge, makes a lot of sense, though it is less filled out.) Having once given this description, however, they seem to forget it and favor a much more rigid, again developmentally-based understanding of the Trivium when it comes to the nitty-gritty of pedagogy and how we educate.


My short take on Classical Education is that it is a useful little book for some things. It begins a quick fly-over of education in America, its history and its flaws. The bulk of the book provides an introduction to the many varieties of modern classical education.  If what you are looking for is a survey of what is out there, this is a very handy little book.

For my purposes, I find Veith and Kern’s take on classical education too broad. They gloss over differences and tend to remain on the surface, describing approaches but not delving into presuppositions. Where the authors’ own ideas come through, they exhibit a somewhat surprising degree of attachment to Sayers’ Trivium and an uncritical adoption of western traditions.


[1] Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).


Education and the Source of Evil

Dear Reader,

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

A major contention of this series is that any philosophy of education (and if you are educating someone, you have a philosophy, whether you know it or not) rests in some pretty profound assumptions about the nature of man and of knowledge. Today I’d like to focus in on what some common approaches to education have to say about the source of evil in men’s lives.

I hope we can all agree that not all people are good all the time. If you can’t see it in your own life, you can probably see it in other people.  We do bad things. The question before us today is why? Where does this evil within men come from?

There are two possible answers to this question: the evil we do comes from within us; it is built into us OR the evil we do comes from without; it is not built into us.

The first answer is the Christian one. Whether one believes in total depravity or original sin, there is some awareness that evil is within us from birth or before (see this post for some of the major Christian positions on just how fallen we are).

The answer the world often gives is that evil is not inherent to our natures but that it comes from without. Within this belief, there are again two possibilities, each of which corresponds to a major school of educational thought. One the one hand Rousseau believed that one’s natural state is his best possible state. The babe in the woods — and he seems to have preferred that his babes be raised in the woods by wolves — is the ideal. “Education” is the work of civilization and civilization is bad. It is what his elders teach him that corrupts the child. The best the educator can do, especially in the early years, is to leave the child to himself and to nature. The modern brain-child of Rousseau is the Unschooling movement which assumes the natural goodness of the child and his ability to choose what is best for himself. Its motto might be, in one word, non-interference.

On the other hand, there are those who, while not admitting to anything like Original Sin, still see a vital role for, for lack of a better term, educational interference. The child may not be inherently evil, but, left to his own devices, neither will he turn out the right way. Education saves him from the evil that he would otherwise learn. Rousseau sought to save children from education; this view sees education itself as salvific. Classical education (by which I mean actual classical education, that of the ancient Greeks) saw education this way. Education teaches one to think and if one could only think properly one would not do evil. Evil is essentially ignorance, and ignorance is evil (see this post).

The champion of modern progressive education, John Dewey, while no classicist, believed essentially the same thing (see this post). Education is what makes us fit members of society. Dewey’s approach is progressive in that it exalts progress. It is very much rooted in an evolutionary mindset which views the world in terms of becoming, not being. It’s motto might be: To stay still is to die. Like sharks, we must always keep going, changing from one thing to another. Education is what keeps us going and makes sure that we are progressing — moving in the optimal direction.

What Dewey and Rousseau have in common is the belief that evil is not inherent to man’s nature. Because evil is outside of us, it is affected by what we do. For Christians who believe that the problem of evil is an internal one, only internal solutions will do. Which is not to say that education is unimportant, but it cannot solve the problem of the evil in men’s hearts. For Dewey and Rousseau and Plato, education does play a role. It may make us worse or it may make us better, but either way there is the fundamental assumption that something external to us, something that is done to us, is able to affect our nature.


Evolution is a Mindset

Dear Reader,

I recently narrated for you Herman Bavinck’s article “Of Beauty and Aesthetics” [from Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)]. Today I’d like to tackle another from the same volume entitled simply “Evolution.”

My own education was faulty (I went to the public schools), and it was only in fairly recent years in educating my own children that I realized the profound impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution in other areas beyond science. Take, for instance, education. As I wrote recently, John Dewey’s very influential, pragmatic approach to education rests heavily on evolutionary assumptions. It assumes, for instance, that there is a kind of “progress,” a never-ending process of change which nonetheless aims toward no definite goal.

In its more sinister applications, evolution leads to eugenics. If humanity has evolved, if the process is never-ending, then we must be continuing to change. That means some of us are more evolved than others.  Funny how nobody seems to assume that they or their ethnic group is among the less-evolved. It is always the other guy who isn’t as advanced. This allows us to dehumanize him, maybe to experiment on him, maybe to try to wipe out his whole race.

A tree is known by its fruit, and more than the theological and biblical and scientific arguments, the ways that Darwin’s theory of evolution has played out in other areas has served to convince me that it is not fundamentally good.

What I am realizing from Bavinck’s article, and also from a book by Benjamin Wiker which I read recently, is that it is not so much that Darwin and his theory were influential, though they certainly were, but that they also were part of a larger movement, a philosophical trend if you will. Darwin is a product of his time as are Dewey and Marx and a host of others.

In The Darwin Myth (see my brief blurb here), Wiker shows that Charles Darwin was not the originator of the idea of evolution and that he was driven in his thinking by his own life circumstances. Wiker addresses the topic again in The Reformation 500 Years Later. Here he argues that the basic ideas behind Darwin’s theory go back to antiquity to a man named Lucretius. Lucretius’ philosophy is nothing more than materialism, He denies the spiritual and describes “how everything, from planets and stars to plants, animals, and humans, can be explained by the random interaction of atoms over infinite time” (p. 73).  His philosophy was not only non-religious; it was anti-religious. “‘[R]eligion,'” he says, “‘is the very thing that gives birth to wickedness and impious deeds'” (p. 72). Because in this philosophy life is no more than the interaction of atoms, it is not inherently valuable. Thus Lucretius, and those who follow him, are not only atheistic but anti-life (p. 73).

Bavinck delves deeper into the philosophical roots. Heraclitus, he tells us, rejected the idea of being and argued that movement, becoming, is the true reality. Aristotle also saw development in the world. “The higher always presupposes the lower,” Bavinck tells us, ” . . . but the higher is never the mere product of the lower; it in turn is something independent that rises above the lower” (p. 106). This way of viewing reality, applies not just to science but to other areas such as history. For the Greeks, history is ultimately un-understandable. It is the rise and fall of nations but there is no end towards which it moves. “[T]here is no progress, no hope of an eternal rest” (p. 107). Contrast this with Christianity which tells us that there is a purpose because there is an end towards which all is moving.

This philosophy was revived in the 19th century. Advances in science helped its cause. With new inventions and new ideas, it was easy to believe that things were progressing. Scientific discoveries showed us how chemical and atoms interacted, and physical, purely materialistic explanations were applied across the board. As Bavinck points out, in such a system there is no way to evaluate what is progress, what is “better” and “higher.” And yet people saw that lawless tribes became civilized societies. The assumption was almost always that what we are moving toward is better than what came before. And if that is true, then we will continue to improve. It should not surprise us, then, that soon after Darwin’s day, social movements arose which truly believed that we could achieve a utopia on earth. Even the church was not immune, as optimistic postmillennialism and the social gospel surged.

There are, of course, flaws in this system, some of which we have already hinted at. It has no morality. It is unable to say what is good and what is bad. Because everything is predicated on change, its practitioners in various areas always assume that what is newer is better, but there is no real way to decide. It offers no explanation of ultimate origins. All creation is assumed to work like a machine which operates according to scientific laws, but there is no explanation for where the machine came from or what set it into motion. There is nothing which separates living from non-living, no explanation for why life itself came to be.

These criticisms apply not just to Darwinian evolution but to the whole materialistic philosophical movement. Bavinck goes on to give some specific critiques of Darwinian evolution. It assumes that likeness implies descent. We see similarities, say between apes and men, and so we assume that they are related and we use descent to explain their relationship (possibly descent from a common ancestor). But science has also shown us that sometimes animals that look the most alike are not the most closely related. Even today when we are able to analyze DNA, we must be open to other interpretations.

Again the same tendencies can be seen in other areas. As scholars unearthed (literally) texts from the Ancient Near East, they discovered flood stories and other myths which seemed reminiscent of the Genesis stories. What did they conclude? That they must all have a common source and that the Genesis account, being written down later (as they say), is therefore derivative.

I am reminded of how people, even small children, are apt to see faces where there are none (for example in car tail lights). We are so programmed to recognize faces that we see them where they are not. Bavinck implies that we also also programmed to see analogies. Perhaps then we also seem them where they are not. We focus in on likeness and attribute meaning to it. Correlation is not causation, but we are hard-pressed to assume otherwise (check out this website my kids love for weird correlations which I sincerely hope are not causations).

Nonetheless neither Bavinck nor Wiker denies a kind of evolution. What they deny is Darwinian evolution, a particular theory articulated by a particular man. In The Darwin Myth Wiker makes quite a lovely (though as yet unspecific) argument for a theory of evolution which depends not on conflict but on something else as the driving force. Bavinck does not reject the idea of change. There are natural processes at work which we must admit. It is the becoming without the being that he rejects. “Provided that evolution is not understood in a mechanical sense,” he tells us, “there is . . . no antithesis between creation and development” (p. 117).



A Few More Thoughts on Grammar

Dear Reader,

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

We are returning for a moment to the “what we study and why” section of this series. I did a post on language already — both foreign language and all the fun stuff like grammar and spelling — here, but I have recently read a short article by Henry Zylstra that has made me reconsider some things.

In “Formal Discipline Reaffirmed,” [from Testament of Vision Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958)], Zylstra argues for a formal or prescriptive approach to grammar as opposed to a normative or descriptive one. I did not think I would come down on this side of the argument but he has some lovely things to say that I do find convincing.

Simply put, there are two ways to consider the field of English grammar. One way, which Zylstra favors, is prescriptive. This means it tells us what grammar should be. The alternative is the more modern, normative approach which describes the language as people speak and use it. It is more scientific, but Zylstra argues that it stays on the surface and does not look at principles.

Though Zylstra acknowledges that language is psychological and sociological and even biological, he argues that:

” . . . these natural dimensions of language do not exhaust it. There is that about it which reaches beyond the natural into the rational or spiritual, and it is precisely this aspect of it which is normative, definitive, and ideal. What I object to in functionalism is that it ignores this spiritual reach of language.” (p. 168)

For those who fail to see the spiritual aspect of language, remember that God the Son is called the Word and that God created by His Word. It is through the Word that He communicates with us. “In studying language, consequently,” Zylstra tells us, “one is studying something more permanent and universal than popular speech practice. One is studying the truth of that reality which reason apprehends . . . reason informs language. Language . . . is expressive of principle” (pp. 168-69).

The Greek word logos which we find identified with Christ in John 1 contains the notions of both reason and word:

“Logos is only half translated word (language), the other half being reason (thought). It is the keyword to the rational nature. It is the keyword also to the human being . . . Language therefore distinguishes man: it proves him rational, free.” (p. 169)

It is for this reason, Zylstra tells us, that classical education placed grammar alongside logic. The modern version of classical education misunderstands this, making grammar a preliminary stage which is about memorization and not about thought.

Zylstra once again inspires me, as anyone who loves his subject is apt to. He is a bit short on the practical details and I wish he gave some examples or some indication of how this all works in real life. He does speak briefly at the end of a student studying Beowulf  and how he can then learn “what the sentence is, magnificent embodiment as it is of mind speaking, seen as a whole and in its parts: substantive, predicate, complement, and modifiers” (p. 171). I have some sense of how words enable us to not just express but to understand and encapsulate ideas. How this works on a broader plane, how it expands when we look at sentences and paragraphs and the like is not something I have considered or grasped yet.


Henry Zylstra and the Love of Literature

Dear Reader,

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

In my never-ending search for more to read about reformed education, I recently picked up Henry Zylstra’s Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958). Though there is a good section on this book on education (which I will return to; see also this earlier post on Zylstra), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first half of the book is devoted to his thoughts on literature. I have been arguing, among other things, that we should be reading people who love their subjects. Zylstra’s love is clearly literature. I thought about just emending my earlier post on why we study literature but decided that Zylstra’s thoughts merit their own post.

Zylstra argues that being well-educated used to mean being well-read, that literature used to be the focal point of education and that it should be again (p. 26). In today’s world, everything is STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math (or perhaps STEAM, with a nod to art). Van Til, as we have seen, argues that history should be the core since it is about man. Zylstra argues for literature which he believes is philosophical and embodies the thinking of an age:

“If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that age and that time. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about. I am thinking now, of course, of the real literature, the honest and soul-searching literaure, the valid and undissimulating literature.” (p. 15)

Zylstra goes on to make clear that he does not includng the pop culture of an era, its popular fiction, movies, etc. This is mere entertainment, but the literature of a time and place is “important, literally full of import.” It conveys the knowledge and should be the principal means of education (p. 27).

Other areas of study may give us facts, but literature interprets those facts. “In fiction,” Zylstra tells us, “the skeleton of life takes on the body” (p. 49). Though he does not flesh out (pun intended) the allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, one thinks that for Zylstra the other subjects must be dry and dead until they are vivified and given spirit by the literary arts. He singles out poetry as particularly life-giving:

“More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us . . . to sustain us. Without poetry, science will appear incomplete.” (p. 27)

We have seen that various reformed thinkers trace the work of education to the early chapters of Genesis. Some place its origins in the Fall as a correction to the corruption of mankind. Others trace it back to Genesis 1 and the “cultural mandate,” the commands given to Adam to care for God’s Creation. Zylstra here places the origins of literature in Genesis 2:

“In a way, the novelist is doing what Adam did in Paradise. I do not mean the pruning and the trimming. I mean the naming of created things. Words are poems really. This name-giving is artistic work.” (p. 47)

When we start talking about literatute, a couple of questions always arise — What makes a book literature? and Should we only read Christian authors?

Looking at the second question first, Zylstra argues that we need not only read Christians. Though our object is to see interpretations of life and though non-Christians will get some things wrong, yet there is truth that they can reveal to us (p. 51). In fact, Zylstra argues, most modern Christian literature is not worth reading because it does not wrestle with issues or question ideas.

What then is literature? Whereas “[t]he popular novel accepts and affirms the existing values of the people of its time, …. the great literature challenges those values” (p. 65). It includes “fidelity to the truth about life” (p. 59). Zylstra’s one sentence definition of literature might be:

“A novel is literature if a comprehensive vision of life, sensitively perceived, is given aesthetic embodiment in it.” (p. 52)

Because this vision of life is not necessarily our vision, Zylstra gives some insight into how we should approach literature. We should “look for the author’s uncritically accepted religious dogmas” (p. 67). “Since the light falls on [a given piece of literature] from the wrong angle, we must in the knowledge of faith cause it to fall from the right one” (p. 68). In the end good literature, though the author’s own assumptions and views may be faulty, will drive us to Christ. Of Thomas Hardy he says that:

“There is more of you, after reading Hardy, to be Christian with than there was before you read him, and there is also more conviction that you want to be it.” (p. 67).

If Zylstra’s goal was to give me a better appreciation for literature and desire to get reading, he has achieved it. I don’t know if I am willing to say that literature should be the backbone of the curriculum. I am half-convinced but need to think on it a little more. I am beginning to plot what books I will make my high schoolers read next year and I have compiled a list of the authors that Zylstra commends for my own reading. If nothing else, Zylstra shows us once again how someone who loves his field can inspire that love in others. He has certainly done so for me.



Should We Use Textbooks?

Dear Reader,

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

I seem to be on a roll with practical posts (quite unusual for me). Last time we talked about how theology impacts our methodology in education. This time I’d like to touch on the kinds of books we use, specifically whether textbooks are a good idea.

In A Reformed Christian Perspective on Education (Grand Rapid: ChapBooks Press, 2011) Donald Oppewal argues for Christian textbooks. The point he is making is that Christian schools need Christian textbooks. He is not making an argument for textbooks as opposed to other kinds of books or materials. Nonetheless, his comments give us some insight into how textbooks operate.

Whereas secular textbooks, such as are used in the public schools, assume a materialistic, godless worldview, Christian textbooks “contain many explicit examples of faith integration” (p. 229). Oppewal gives the example of a literature textbook which gives “several pages of introduction” in which “the student is given biblical explanations of the importance of choosing properly and making careful decisions” (p. 228). Though the stories themselves are given without commentary, they are carefully selected. Likewise, the civics book provides a certain view of the role of government in society. The science books are laced with a “type of commentary [which] is repeated throughout the series” (p. 229). Thus in both their selection of material and in the commentary at the beginning and perhaps throughout the book, a certain viewpoint is being given and the child is being guided (to say the least) into how to think about the material.

Because books are not neutral, and texbooks themselves are curated collections, we should approach them with discernment. “More parents and teachers than ever before,” Oppewal tells us, “are realizing that textbooks contain not just bare information but also have a point of view, a perspective on the subject” (p. 231).   In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to recognize that textbooks are no more neutral than any other book, and, as they choose material and put it in a framework, so we need to be discerning in choosing them and in how we use them.

There may be times and situations in which textbooks are our best available choice. Certainly for some subjects, such as math or foreign language, they seem quite appropriate. But there is also an unnecessary building up of layers here. The parents choose a school. The school chooses teachers. The teacher chooses a textbook, the content of which has itself been choosen by someone else, possibly by a committee of people and a number of editors. The texbook presents not just material but a certain take on that material. And perhaps the teacher also gives her own spin to the whole thing by choosing which parts of the book to use and by adding her own commentary. That’s a lot of people and a lot of minds between the parent and the student and between the material and the student.

I would like suggest that we take a page from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and eliminate as many of these layers as possible. In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen speaks of the “pecularities of authorship” (p. 103; see this earlier post). I don’t know how the textbooks Oppewal advocates were written, but many have multiple authors not to mention editors. An individual gives a particular view and communicates ideas in a way that a committee cannot. As Esolen says later: “Five people can have a conversation. A thousand people can only make noise” (p. 206). The more people we invite into the conversation that is our children’s education, the more chaotic it becomes.

Charlotte Mason believed that the main thing in education was to put children in contact with other minds. Ideas, she believed, are caught from one mind to another. Given contact with other minds, children do not need a lot of commentary from us which only serves to interrupt the conversation (so to speak):

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation . . . they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 204; see this post)

Thus Mason urges teachers to engage in “[t]he art of standing aside” (School Education, p. 54):

“Half the teaching one sees and hears is more or less obtrusive. The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various  minds . . .” (Ibid., p. 54)

There is still a role for the teacher. We know that not everything in this world is good and true and beautiful so we must choose what minds to put our children in contact with. Those minds come with their own built-in worldviews, whether they themselves are aware of them or not, so discernment is needed.

Whether — or perhaps we had better say when — we expose our children to minds whose views differ from our own is a point which requires some insight. As I have discussed on a number of occasions (see this post), as reformed people we do believe that there is some measure of truth which is revealed to non-Christians. We do not exclude them from the conversation. I would like to propose a scheme in which there is a gradual opening up. For the youngest children we are probably not going to choose as many resources with views that differ from our own. But as they age, it is perfectly appropriate to expose them to a wider variety of materials. Though Mason was opposed to much commentary from the teacher, viewing it as a barrier between the student and the mind behind his book, some commentary, infrequently given, can guide students into being able to discern the underlying assumptions behind a book (or commercial or movie or song or …).

Better yet — we can provide books which themselves show us how to identify underlying assumptions. Two I would recommend are Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies and Francis Schaeffer’s How Then Should We Live. Though the former is about movies, it is a good introduction to how to think about the assumptions behind an artistic creation. The latter is a classic on how large trends in western thought have shaped culture. Another book I found quite helpful is Deconstructing Penguins. This is not a book for the student to read (though an older one certainly could). It describes a book club for younger children and how the authors walked them through identify protagonists and antagonists, point-of-view, and also world views in various classic children’s books. I used this book to construct a kind of mini-course for my own children. Using books that were too easy for them I think actually worked quite well. We could concentrate on the ideas behind the books without getting bogged down.

Books are powerful things. Through them we encounter other minds which may be separated from us by time and space. We believe there is good and evil in this world so we do not want to give our children free rein to all that is out there, especially at a young age before they have developed any discernment of their own. But we do want them to be able to interact with these other minds. Our tendency, I think, is too often to jump in and interrupt this conversation. Textbooks are simply not as good a choice a living books by one author who knows and loves his subject. They add layers, making the conversation more like a game of telephone. They bring more voices in and they mute the original voices by taking them out of context. If we want to use textbooks, Oppewal is perfectly right that Christian ones are preferable. But there is even a better way — actual, real, living books. In the words of Henry Zylstra,

” . . . the teacher and the textbooks are but guides and interpreters of traditions of life and thought which are embodied in book.” [Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958) p. 84]