Posts Tagged ‘God’s law’

Method vs. System in the Law of God and Living Books

Dear Reader,

In the very CM spirit of making connections, I would like to discuss educational methods,  living books, and the Law of God.

In Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education, she urges parents to consider the “method” behind their parenting but not to be sucked into accepting a “system.” Following a method, she says, implies “an idea, a mental image, of the end of object to be arrived at” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education; Wilder Publications, 2008; p. 18). But, Charlotte warns, a method may degenerate into a system which “is pledged to more definite calculable results” (p. 18) and “is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being” (p. 19). Notice the contrasts: A method is an idea, a system is mechanical; a method aims at an image whereas the results one gets from a system are quantifiable. With a method, you have a picture in your head of where you are going. With a system, you can use a checklist: Have I done this or that? You can assign a number (a test score perhaps).

A system is not living and should not be used on living beings; it is for things. But a method takes into account the needs of living beings. It accounts for personality. If a method is an idea, it follows that a system is fact-based. So we see the first connection: as a method is to a system so living books are to textbooks. The one gives ideas and feeds a living soul; the other is mechanical and fact-based. It is not fit food for a living being. The attraction of a system is that it is quantifiable — you can measure it and you know what you are getting. So too when we assign a non-living book, we can give fill in the blank questions. We know what we want — specific facts — and we can check off whether the student has learned them. Not so a living book which demands narrations. One test of a living book is that Jane and Bob will get different things out of it or even that if Bob rereads it he may get new things out of it. Its results are unpredictable, but of far greater value than the facts we get from our textbooks.

I am indebted to one of the members of my local CM discussion group for the second connection. She equated method and system to the Law and Gospel. I am going to alter this slightly. I think the line is not between Law and Gospel but between what God’s Law truly is and how we portray it. God’s Law (and have said before in this post and this one) is a perfect image. God in  His being defines what is good. His Law is not a list of do’s and don’ts but is a perfect picture. If we were doing picture study, I would show you a picture — let’s say it’s the Mona Lisa — and ask you to describe it. You might do a wonderful job and tell me about the woman and what she is wearing and how she is smiling and even maybe say something about the artist’s brushstrokes and how he achieved his effect (if you are very good at these things). But if I took your description and handed it to another artist and said “now paint this,” would he produce the Mona Lisa? Of course not. No matter how good your description of the picture is it cannot truly convey the picture itself. So too our synopses of the Law of God do not accurately convey the Law. Even the best of them — of which the 10 Commandments is one — are only approximations. This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees when He chastises them for obeying the letter and not the spirit of the Law. It is what He teaches when He says that “Thou shalt not murder” also means don’t curse your brother or that lust is akin to adultery. The best summation of the Law is the briefest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” But we don’t like this because it is hard to see if we are doing it. We want that checklist; we want quantifiable results. God humors us in that to a certain extent; He does give us the Ten Commandments, as well as various other summations of His Law, but they are all imperfect; they cannot truly encapsulate a Law that is just as full and perfect as its Creator.

I started with Charlotte Mason’s discussion of parenting philosophies so I will end there. Parenting is a big, important job. It’s not one you can do over (at least not with the same child) and, because we love our children, we consider the outcomes vitally important. We really, really don’t want to mess this one up. I think we often start with a method in our heads; we have some picture or where we want to go. But we get tense about the results and whether we are really getting there so, as Charlotte says, we let it degenerate into a system with quantifiable results. It doesn’t help that this is a long-term project and the outcomes are not easily or soon visible. But — just as in our efforts to keep God’s Law — the answer is not in ourselves. The answer is in the Gospel. It is Grace. It is God doing for us what we cannot do ourselves.


Household Rules

Dear Reader,

Here is a nice short quote from Charlotte Mason’s second volume, Parents and Children:

“Happy is the household that has few rules”                                   [p.18]

It is easy to make a lot of rules to try to establish peace in one’s household. But more rules can also lead to more complexity. The idea here is not that we do away with rules or standards but that in a happy home, few rules are necessary because children know the standard of behavior that is expected of them. There is no reason to have lists like: “no biting, no kicking, no hitting, no stomping on your sister’s nose, . . .”  Instead there is  a standard which is understood that covers all these situations.

Of course, in early years more must be done to instill this standard in the children. But over time, they should know what is expected of them without being told every little iota.

This is, I think, much the way the law of God works. His people have gotten in trouble over the millenia when they have not understood this. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that the list of rules was the law, and they didn’t understand that the law is more comprehensive than any list could be. The lists God has given in various ages were for our benefit when we were like small children who need simple commands. But as we, His people, mature we are supposed to realize that it is not all about specific do’s and don’ts. This is why Jesus expands upon the Ten Commandments:

” ‘You have heard that it was said to those of old,  “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable  to judgment.” But I say to you that  everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable  to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!’ will be liable to  the hell of fire . . .  You have heard that it was said,  “You shall not commit adultery.”But I say to you that  everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”      [Matthew 5:21-28; ESV]

He was not giving anything new but trying to  show them that the law goes beyond what they had thought. The Ten Commandments were one summary of the law. A better one is even briefer:

” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And  a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend  all the Law and the Prophets.’ ”

[Matthew 22:37-40; ESV]

Of course, this was not new; it was also present in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 6:5). The law given to Moses was boiled down to a list of rules that could be written on stone tablets. But when we truly understand the whole law of God it is because it is written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). It is a standard of holiness. Any list of rules will fail to capture the whole of it. But because of our sinful nature and our lack of understanding we require these lists to show us our sin and point us in the right direction.

So too as our children grow up, our household rules need not be specified one by one. We can expect them to understand something of our family standard which hopefully is itself a reflection of the law of God. What starts out as a list of rules –don’t hit, don’t bite, share your legos–  becomes something briefer and yet more comprehensive. And then perhaps a happier household will result as well.


Seeing the Big Picture

Dear Reader,

I posted recently on God’s law and how it is one unified whole and we diminish it somewhat when we reduce it to a list fo rules. Just as we cannot sum up a great work of art with words, we cannot fully encompass God’s law with our lists of rules.

I was reminded of this point by two things recently. The first is this post. It explains how to in order to learn to draw we must often flip what we are drawing upside down. We have to look at it in a new way that doesn’t make sense immediately to our brains. Then we can trick them into not seeing the whole picture but seeing all the lines. Only this way can we see how the whole is made and trace the lines.

The second thing was a conversation in our adult Sunday school class. A group of seasoned, mature Christians was trying to parse the differences between justification and sanctification and how they work. We made some progress I think. But ultimately, it seems our words can’t sum up the work of God.

So it seems to me that it is not just the law of God which fails to be encompassed by our words. It is His whole work. We need to use words to comprehend it. But our words are not big enough to express it all at once in its complexity. I am not saying we shouldn’t try. I do think that the specifics of what we believe are important. But we also need to understand that we will never get it all at once. Sometimes we need to step back and forget the theological summaries and just gaze at the masterpiece. We need to look on the face and work of God and soak it in.

And getting back to the Childlight post, sometimes I think we need to turn the whole thing upside down and just trace the lines. There is a time for trying to parse out the specifics of our theology. And there is a time to just focus on the details. To trust that God is good and just to follow the lines He has drawn. I think especially in times of trouble, all the truths we can espouse fall short. Instead we need to trust God’s character and we need to follow where He leads, one little line, one step at a time, and not try to focus on the big picture.


God’s Law

Dear Reader,

The law of God is one big whole. We want to break it into simple parts, a list of rules, even a long list of rules, but a list nonetheless that we can obey and check off. But it doesn’t really work that way. God’s law is told in many places and many ways in the Bible. There is the 10 commandments of course. But Jesus tells us that if we just stick to them literally then we are missing the point (Matthew 5:21ff). And there are longer lists with more specifics in the Old Testament. But if anything these longer lists seem to do a worse job of actually summing up the law. Jesus tells us that the best summary is this: “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40). These two short statements are the best summary of God’s law. And yet we want specifics. We want God to spell out for us what it all means. How do I love God? How do I love my neighbor?  But as soon as we begin to give specifics we get further from the whole of God’s law. We begin to think the specifics are all there is and we forget all the shades of meaning. We forget that “don’t commit murder” means that I should not hate my brother or call him names.

I think of it like a picture by a great painter. You can try to tell someone what a Monet (for example) looks like by saying that it is a picture of waterlilies. You can add that there is a pond and a bridge in the picture. You can talk about the colors and the little lines and specks that make them up. But no matter how much you talk you are not going to sum up the picture. You have to see it to have a complete view of it. And it is the same with God’s law. We try to sum it up, to express it in more and more words. But to truly get it you have to look on the face of a holy, perfect God. We need not a code of rules but to have the law written on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10).

And if one part of that masterpiece gets tarnished, the whole thing is ruined. It becomes imperfect. So it is with God’s law. If we break one part, we have broken the whole thing (James 2:10).


The 10 Commandments

Dear Reader,

There are some Christian issues that I just don’t feel I can get behind. Having the 10 commandments displayed in public places is one of those. Now, I am not against the commandments themselves. They are God’s Word. They are part of the moral law. Christians should obey them. In general I am for having God’s Word out there more prominently.

But I don’t but the arguments why we need to have them displayed. I don’t think our society is founded upon them. They are not in the Constitution. As a Christian, they are not foundational to my faith either. They are but a bit, a snapshot of God’s law. They come no where near to summing up the whole thing. (I have blogged on God’s law here.) I am neither saved by keeping the 10 commandments, nor is my goal as a redeemed person to keep them. If I kept the commandments only, I would be a pretty poor Christian. Jesus Himself showed us that they are but a summary, a beginning of the law which as I said in my earlier post is not a list of do’s and don’ts but a standard of holiness.

The argument is often made that our society had Judeo-Christian roots which we should not deny. The commandments they say are a part of this and that is why we must keep them displayed. The only Judeo-Christian roots I see come in the fact that our founders were Christians to some extent. Though many of them seem to have been pretty poor Christians actually. They believed in God certainly but often it seems not to have gone much beyond that. And frankly, this shows. Our constitution is not a Judeo-Christian document. Modern Christians seem to really want it to be but I just don’t see it there. I am far from an expert on the history of my denomination, but traditionally members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) have refused to hold public office or even to vote. Why? Because holding office means swearing to uphold the Constitution. This they felt they could not do because it does not acknowledge God as the Supreme Power, because they saw that it does not have a Christian basis. Proponents of keeping the commandments in public buildings are I think reading back into our history and documents what they want to see there. But it is not there. Maybe it should have been, but it isn’t.

And then I can understand where those who are not from a Judeo-Christian tradition are coming from. What if i lived in a society that had been founded by Muslims or Buddhists? Would I want to see their sacred texts on the wall when I go into a courthouse or some other government building? No, I wouldn’t. I would be very glad to see such things go. It is nice that my religion is the dominant one in this society but I have sympathy for those for whom that is not the case. And even if we want to win them over, I don’t think an engraving of the commandments on the wall is the best way to go about it. Perhaps we would do better to live out the gospel, to talk to our neighbors, to show the love of God and try to reach hearts rather than to fight over this issue.


God’s Law (and more on Bible curricula)

Dear Reader,

I think we tend toward error when we begin to think of God’s law as a list of do’s and don’ts. There are do’s and don’ts of course. It is hard to avoid that. But God’s law seems to be more of a complete whole. I view it as a big sheet of glass or a mirror. If you break off one corner, you say the whole thing is broken. You can’t break one part over here and claim that the rest of it is okay. We see this in James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” God gives us lists of things to do and not do because our minds need this. We need to be able to break things down and make them practical. “Love my neighbor”? What does that mean? Well, it means don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet, and so on. “Love the Lord” means don’t worship idols, don’t take His name in vain, and on and on. But if we focus too much on these specific commands, we forget that they are meant to flesh out the whole of the law not to completely sum it up. It is much easier to have a finite check list. But the check list is a aid; it is not the whole law. God’s law is a standard. A standard of perfect holiness. Of course we are unable to keep it. It is our goal. When Jesus talked about the commandments in Matthew 5, He showed that the spirit behind them is much more than the simple meaning of the words. For example, “do not murder” also includes within in “do not hate” and “do not call names.” The best summary of the law is what we find in Deuteronomy 6:5 (and again in the New Testament): “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, flows out of this first one. The law of God is at once simple–the whole may be best stated in but a few words– and incredibly complex. One could go on and on about what it means to “love God” and not cover all the bases. That is why God must write His law on our hearts.

All of this is why I find myself so dissatisfied with most kids’ Bible curricula. They seem to be focused a lot on individual commandments. There is a lot of morality in them. Now, morality is not something I am against, but it seems like we come at our kids a lot with rules that they need to obey and we rarely get to the heart of the matter. Obedient children are great. I love obedient children. But obedience to a set of rules is not our goal. Holiness is. Holiness though is hard to teach. So we boil it down into easier to chew bites. What I really want for my kids is for them to know God. So I would rather they learn about Him, and about their own need for Him. And hopefully as their faith grows, so will their obedience (to God, not me; well, secondarily to me and my husband). This is how it is for all of us–faith proceeds works. First we believe (by grace) and then we are able to follow (also by grace). It is no different for children than for adults. When we disciple adults who are new believers, we may address specific sin issues in their lives which loom large. But we don’t say “great, now you are saved, here is a long list of rules. Let’s study them in depth.” Neither should we do this with children. I guess what I see is just a very ineven balance between teaching kids who God is and what He requires of us. With children we tend to focus on the latter. My argument is that while we should know both, if we are going to err on one side or the other, it is better to focus too much on who God is. What he requires should come out of that anyway.


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