Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Education’

Is it Biblical?: “Education is . . . a Life”

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask how they line up with the Bible. You can find links to the earlier posts here and my most recent post on “Education is an atmosphere . . . ” here.

What Charlotte says

In my last post in this series, I began to look at Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle:

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.'”

That post focused specifically on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I would like to leap-frog over ” . . .a discipline . . .” for now and focus on ” . . .and a life.” (Do not fear — I will return to “discipline” in my next post.)

This idea, that education is a life, is expanded in the 8th principle:

“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”

We could even include in this discussion the 9th through 11th principles which further expand upon this notion and specifically reject some of the counter-views of Charlotte’s own day:

“9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

“10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is ,’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

“11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

I have to say I am somewhat relieved to cover this particular principle; it seems fairly straightforward compared to some of the other ideas we have discussed. Children need intellectual and moral sustenance, and intellectual sustenance consists of ideas; they are the food of the mind:

“. . . the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 25)

This feeding of the mind is a spiritual exercise. Indeed the food itself, the ideas, are a spiritual thing:

“‘Education,’ said Lord Haldane, some time ago, ‘is a matter of the spirit,’––no wiser word has been said on the subject, . . .” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“. . . .the mind, in fact, requires sustenance––as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images). I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 10)

Ideas are contrasted with information, that is, facts to be memorized:

“But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?).” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

Notice the comparison between information and a stone; a stone is not a living thing; it is inert and cannot be consumed. But an idea is “[a] live thing of the mind” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 105). It is not, of course, that our children will not learn facts, but that these facts must come in the form of ideas:

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 40)

It is as if we were to say, “my child needs potassium to live” and so we give him the mineral potassium to ingest. Modern science (conveniently for the purposes my of analogy) has shown that our bodies to not absorb vitamins and minerals so well in pill form. But if that potassium comes clothed as a banana, the body can take it in and gets a lot more pleasure in doing so.

But we cannot take this analogy too far. Ideas are more than an attractive way to get our children to ingest facts. Ideas themselves are what move us. Ideas have consequences. Charlotte tells us that “[a]ll action comes out of the ideas we hold . . .”(Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80).

Ideas, these spiritual things of the mind, come from God Himself. Charlotte references Isaiah 28:24-26 (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 106-7) :

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.” (All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

Note that the ideas here are not high-falutin, philosophical things. The idea that comes from God in this case is when the farmer should plough and harvest and how he should arrange his crops.

This passage, I think, sums up  most of what we have seen already and adds a new concept as well:

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. ”  (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

Note how these spiritual ideas, which originate with God, are transferred — they go from person to person, from mind to mind, through the media of speech, writing, music and art.

The main points, for our purposes seem to be:

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.
  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.
  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.
  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.
  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.
  • Ideas come from God.
  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

What the Bible says

As we turn to the biblical evidence, we can’t expect it to use the same language which Charlotte does. But I do think we can look at these points and see if they have any counterpart in the Scriptures. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that we need not find every principle Charlotte poses expressly delineated in the biblical text; it is not primarily a manual on education. Our goal is only to see if her ideas are “founded on and agreeable to” the Scriptures.

I am going to take the points above mostly in order (with one exception)–

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.

We have discussed what the Bible has to say about children before (see this post). Suffice it to say that children are viewed as full people. And people, we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, are made up of various parts, of which mind is one (Deut. 6:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.

Not all these points are addressed directly. But note the passage known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (shema means “hear” in Hebrew):

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of thought (the liver was actually the seat of emotion). So after referring to this seat of thought (which they call the heart and we call the mind), God says to keep His words on your heart (read: mind) and to teach it diligently to your children. If children can handle the Word of God, the ultimate living book, then surely they can handle other spiritual matter.

  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.

The Bible tells us that it is what is within us that influences our behavior:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19)

  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.

We have already seen in Deuteronomy that parents are instructed to teach their children the things they have learned from God. We find this again in the Psalms:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps 78:1-4)

And a verse I quote a lot in this series, tells us it is important what we put in our minds:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

  • Ideas come from God.

Charlotte herself quotes Isaiah 28 to support this claim. Remember that in that passage, the knowledge spoken of had to do with the particulars of how the farmer does his work. Elsewhere we are told that artistic knowledge and skill come from God (Exod. 35:1-5).

Proverbs and James both tell us that knowledge comes from God:

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ” (Jam. 1:5)

  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

This idea is again not expressed directly in the Scriptures. But, as we have already seen, parents are to communicate ideas to their children. And when it comes to the Word of God, at least, we are told how knowledge is passed from person to person:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)

We see this again and again in the book of Acts — that people hear and then believe (Acts 4:4, 13:48, 21:20).

  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.

This is the one point I wanted to save for last. Up until this point, I hope we have established that children, as spiritual beings, are capable of receiving and should be given, the Word of God; that what we put in our minds is important and that it affects what we do; and that all wisdom and knowledge come from God though they may do so through the mediation of other people.

The Bible does not tell us, that I can see, that all ideas are living, spiritual things. But there is one body of knowledge which the Bible calls living — the Word of God itself:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebr. 4:12)

God Himself is living (Deut. 5:26, among many others), and something that is spoken of as living, in the Bible, comes from Him and is living in the sense that it gives spiritual life(cf. John 4:10-11 in which Jesus speaks of the living waters). Here we see that the Word of God too is living.


What then can we say? I don’t think every aspect of what Charlotte means when she says “education is a life” can be fully substantiated by the Scriptures. But I do think she is firmly in the realm of biblical thought. God is Spirit. We, originally created in His image, are spiritual beings. Wisdom and knowledge come from God. The Word of God, the ultimate body of ideas, comes from Him and is said to be spiritual and living. And it is communicated from mind to mind through human speech and through His written word, just as Charlotte describes. I don’t think that we can get quite to where Charlotte is from this; we have not shown that all ideas are spiritual, but I think we get very close.

I’d like to close with a verse Charlotte quotes from the gospel of Matthew. Note that Charlotte is not the first to speak of ideas as a kind of spiritual food:

“But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by breadalone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’””  (Mt 4:4)

Next time: Discipline!



Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.







CM’s “Gospel” Principles

Dear Reader,

I have been slowly working my way through Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education in an effort to answer the question: Are Charlotte’s ideas founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures? To catch up and get some background, check out these posts:

On the reasoning behind this series: What does it mean to be pure CM?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (plus a digression: Man in the Image of God, or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

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

CM’s first principle revisited

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Whew! Up to speed yet? Until now, we have been fairly theoretical, discussing the ideas behind Charlotte’s approach to education. Having laid a groundwork by discussing who the child is, his nature, and his relationship to his Creator, I’d like to move on to more practical considerations.

My original plan had been to work my way through Charlotte’s 20 Principles. I am finding, however, that I know would like to take a slightly different tack. I will be skipping over Charlotte’s third principle entirely — not because it is not important but actually because it seems one of the least controversial. This is the one, you may recall, which discusses authority and obedience. These concepts are so central to the Bible, to parenthood, and to our relationship with God, that I hope we will have no dispute in them (though if you have specific questions, please speak up).

As we move on to numbers 4 and 5, we begin to get into the practical details which is where I’d like to spend my time now. In her fourth principle Charlotte lays out what we may not do in education and in the fifth she gives us the tools which are at our disposal. Here she uses that phrase so familiar to CM educators: “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As her fifth principle follows the fourth, so these positive ideas arise from negative commands. In other words, when we cross out what we cannot do, we are left with what we can do.

Where does Charlotte get these ideas? The wording is not quite the same but the concept — first eliminating the negative and then seeing what, positively, is left to us, is very similar to what Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education.” Here she finds a series of prohibitions telling us what we may not do in educating and training our children; from the negatives she then derives the corresponding positives. Here is how Charlotte explains it:

“So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from––that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, pp. 12-13)

Charlotte’s Gospel Code

My modus operandi has been to let Charlotte speak for herself, to look at the biblical evidence, and then to try to evaluate her idea in light of the Scriptures with an eye to answering the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures? Let us begin then by looking at what Charlotte calls “the code of education in the gospels.”

“It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)

This code, Charlotte tells us, is not just derived from the gospels but is “expressly laid down by Christ.” I take this to mean that, in her view, Christ here deliberately gives us commandments regarding how we may treat children. The overarching theme is “do not sort of injury, ” a theme which is filled out by the three negative commands: “offend not, despise not, hinder not.” Let us take each of these three in turn, then, and examine both its biblical basis and how Charlotte defines it.

Offend Not

To Offend Not concerns “sins of commission” (p. 13). Here the active sins we may commit against children are in view. “An offence,” Charlotte tells us, ” . . . is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall” (p. 13). Charlotte begins in this section by telling us that children are “born law-abiding “and with “a sense . . . of right and wrong” (p. 14), that is, a conscience. [I have dealt extensively with Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature in my posts on her second principle; I will not revisit the topic here.] The parent begins to “offend” the child  when she laughs at his transgressions, thinking them cute, and when she fails to follow through on a “no” she has given. By these she teaches him that he may be bad.

But it is not only in the moral realm that we may offend. As we have seen, Charlotte’s philosophy encompasses all areas of life. On this point too we may speak of the physical and intellectual realms and of the affections as well. In the physical realm, we offend when we give “unwholesome food” or otherwise disregard “the simple laws of health” (p. 16). In the intellectual realm, we offend when we allow a child to dawdle over their lessons. We offend their affections when we play favorites among the children.

In each of these ways then, and in many others, we offend in that we cause sin to spring up in the heart of a child. It may be the sin of being a bad steward of one’s body or mind, of not working diligently, of jealousy of a sibling. Whatever the sin, the parent has had some role in allowing it to begin and to come to fruition.

Charlotte does not cite chapter and verse for her “gospel code.” I take this a stylistic point at best. She clearly is immersed in the Scriptures and uses their language. So, while she does not directly refer us to the Gospel of Matthew, I think we can see in her language that she bases this first prohibition on Matthew 18:6:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Emphasis added; All biblical quotes are taken from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Despise Not

Charlotte closely links the first two prohibitions. As offend not warns against sins of commission, despise not cautions us against sins of omission. To despise, Charlotte tells us, is to have to low an opinion of. Parents despise their children when they do not give them the best of themselves; when they do not guard them against bad influences (Charlotte speaks particularly of poor nursemaids); when they do not take their sins seriously enough, that is, when they allow their sins to pass as mere childish behavior and do not address it (pp. 18-19; cf. School Education, p. 49). This is very similar to the offense Charlotte spoke of; the difference seems to be that in one the parent says “no” but undercuts their own command and in the other, the parent fails to even address the sin. To despise, then, is to neglect, not in a criminal way, but to fail to truly attend to the child’s spiritual needs for good influences and correction.

Again we may find the reference Charlotte alludes to in Matthew 18:

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10; Emphasis added)

Hinder Not

Children, Charlotte tells us, naturally come to their Savior “when they are not hindered by their elders” (p. 20). Hindering, as she here defines it, is a particularly grievous subset of despising. When we despise the children, we impede their moral training; when we hinder, we, perhaps unknowingly, forbid the children to come to the Lord.

How do we hinder children? We speak to them of God’s judgment and not His love. We show them only “listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (p. 20; cf. School Education, p. 48). In other words, we do not show them God or give them access to the real things of God. The highest function of parents, Charlotte tells us elsewhere is to be “revealers of God to their children” (School Education, p. 50).

In  introducing this issue, Charlotte uses the words “suffer” and “forbid.” These show us that the passage she has in mind is Matthew 19:13-14:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Emphasis added)

These, then, are the three points that Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education” — we must not cause children to sin, we must not overlook their sin or allow them to fall into sin through our neglect, and we must not prevent them from coming to God. In this last especially we begin to see the positive injunctions that Charlotte promised us as well — we must show them God.

The Biblical Evidence: Matthew 18-19

Charlotte has made my task easy this time. Though she does not give us references, her language clearly shows us that she is basing her ideas upon Matthew 18-19. I have already spent some time on these chapters in my post on The Greatness of the Child as a Person. In that post, looking once again at Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature, I did not agree with her interpretation of these chapters. Today, however, though we cannot entirely distance ourselves from the question of the child’s inherent nature, our focus is slightly different. The question is not who the child is but what we should, or should not, do to him.

Charlotte has isolated three phrases from the biblical text and given us an interpretation of each. The question before us then is whether in each of these she rightly represents the biblical text. Now interpretation is, well, a matter of interpretation. But I think we can at least ask if the interpretations Charlotte gives us are reasonable, if they seem to make sense in the context of the passage and to be in line with the rest of the Word of God.

In Matthew 18:6 Christ tells us that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to “offend one of these little ones.” In the preceding verses, a child has been placed before Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus speaks of cutting off one’s hand if it “offends” one. It seems quite clear, and indeed it is the common interpretation, that to “offend” is to “to cause to sin.”

To despise, as we said above, comes from verse 10 of Matthew 18. It is not clear from the biblical context what this means which is perhaps why Charlotte resorts to her dictionary. It is a unclear how much we should make of the immediate context. These chapters have the feel of a series of utterances that may not have originally been spoken together but which have been grouped together because of some common words and themes. Nonetheless there seems to be a link with what follows as verse 11 begins with a “For . . .” — “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” What follows is a brief parable about a man who has 100 sheep and loses one yet leaves the 99 to go look for the lost one. And then in verse 14, we read:

“Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

The connecting words (“for” and “even so”) seem to make these verses a unit as does the return to the idea of “little ones” in verse 14. Does this help us understand what it means to “despise”? The shepherd, it would seem, “despised not” his sheep when he noted its absence and went in search of it.  To despise may then be the opposite of to notice and to care for. The shepherd does not want his sheep to be lost; the Father does not want a little one to perish. If the shepherd had despised his sheep, he would have allowed it to stay lost. If we despise “one of these little ones,” does that mean we allow them to perish — spiritually perhaps, if not physically? I think these are reasonable conclusions from the immediate context; I don’t feel rock-solid in them. Though Charlotte does not draw out these connections, her idea of “despise” seems very similar and I would have to  say it seems in line with the little context we have.

The following chapter, Matthew 19, is seen by most scholars to begin a new section. Still the subject of “little ones” appear again here. In the midst of verses about divorce, eunuchs and eternal life, we find this short section of three verses:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” (Matt. 19:13-15)

On the most literal level, Jesus here tells his disciples to allow children to physically approach him. It is common, and not to great a stretch I think, to extend this to a more spiritual application — children are able and encouraged to approach their Savior. We are not to forbid them from doing so. Charlotte adds that we are not to hinder and again I think this is a reasonable addition.


I have only thus far touched on the negative commands which Charlotte calls the “gospel code” — offend not, hinder not, despise not. Though I am not convinced that these are laid out for us as the rule of education, they clearly have a firm biblical basis and in each case Charlotte’s interpretation seems to fit well with the biblical context.

Next time I would like to look at the positive principles which she derives from these negative commands.

Until then


“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Dear Reader,

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

Where we are and how we got there

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

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

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

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

What Charlotte Mason Means

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

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

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

There are two questions immediately before us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biblical Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evidence of General Revelation

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

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

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



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

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

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

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




Is It Biblical?: CM’s First Principle Revisited

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th principle

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

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

The Import of the 1911 Article

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

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

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

The four points before us then are:

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

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

Liberty and Freedom from Oppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admiration, Hope and Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatness of the Child

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time







Personhood and the Special Needs Child

Dear Reader,

I recently stumbled upon a chain of posts on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children with autism. I do not have a child with autism (though I know a good handful) and I don’t really have any expertise at all in this area so I can’t really evaluate this therapy and don’t particularly want to wade into all the controversy around it. But I am struck by how Charlotte Mason’s principles do (or don’t) play out.  Whether it is true or not (I can’t judge), the article I read paints an extreme picture, but I think it points to some very real underlying issues, not just in dealing with special needs kids but in education today. [Disclaimer: I know some object to the term “special needs.” I don’t know what else to use — challenged? handicapped? — so if I am offending, I am sorry in advance.]

Charlotte Mason’s first principle is “Children are born persons.” I have written recently on what that means and won’t rehash it now, but I think we can see that a respect  personhood is not what is described here:

“To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of  ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.” (Birdmadgrrl, “I Abused Children for a Living,” from Mad as Bird Blog, April 3, 2017)

If you are looking for a contrary understanding of what it means to have an atypical child, A Delectable Education, a Charlotte Mason method podcast, has a wonderful program on Special Needs which makes clear above all that the special needs child is a person just as any other and that for every deficit they may have, there is likely some other area in which they are advantaged or can excel. But even if a child is severely challenged, they are still a whole person and can benefit from what Miss Mason calls the feast — a broad curriculum that feeds the whole person.

ABA (according to its critics), in contrast, presents an ideal to which the child must conform and concentrates very intensely (up to 40 hours per week of therapy) on getting the child to meet those goals:

“The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix.” (Ibid.)

Charlotte warns us against using the child’s natural desires — his need for acceptance, his desire for praise — against him. These are tools that are easily employed and produce a result but they are manipulative and again do not respect the child as person. Adults are apt to turn to these tools because they are easy to use and, in the short-term, they achieve a goal.  Our ABA critic again tells us:

“I don’t doubt that Timmy is having fun in the moment. The kids I worked with often seemed to be having fun. But the thing is, a lot of this abuse takes place on a subconscious level. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.” (Ibid.)

ABA is the only scientifically backed treatment for autism and thus is the one that insurance is likely to pay for. It achieves its goals, though we may question whether those are the right goals. If the child also seems to be enjoying it, that seems like a win-win, right?

As I said at the start, ABA and autism are not my area of expertise by any means. I understand that there are probably deeper issues here and that I have really only looked at one side of the argument. But I think the argument itself raises some questions which all of us parents, whether our children are “normal” or not, should be asking ourselves.

The biggest question, and the one out of which all the others flow, is: Am I valuing the child as a person? Do I see and appreciate the good alongside the challenges? As that ADE podcast I referenced suggests, do I see that there can be value even in the challenges? Or am I trying to fit a person into a mold that maybe not all of us need to fit? I’m not trying to say that we need to just let every child be as they are. Charlotte Mason did advocate for habit-training, a practice which acknowledges that we all need some  guidance in how we develop. And certainly, it helps to be able to get along in society. If there are behaviors that others will view as inappropriate, we may need to address them. But there is at the least a balance here. Because the norm in our society is institutional schooling and because dealing with large groups of students doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, we tend to try to fit children into an ideal mold, whether it’s the very active child who is expected to sit still all day or the child who maybe needs to wait to learn to read bit is pushed to do so in kindergarten or first grade.

If we do acknowledge the personhood of the child, we also need to look at what tools we are using in education. Rewards in the form of prizes and grades and praise are easy solutions. Children seem to like them and many are motivated by them so we get what seems to be a good result. But Charlotte would say that we are taking a natural desire and feeding it out of proportion and thereby allowing it to take over. The child who gets rewards for learning stops learning for any other reason. We get immediate results but warp the personality in the long-term. The immediate effect and even the child’s own pleasure in the moment cannot be our guide if we are on the right track.

Which leads us to the big question: What is our goal and what should it be? If we begin with the personhood of the child, then our goals must also fit this vision. A goal that presents a model and fits the individual to it does not respect one’s personhood. If we aim for academic or career success but warp the personality along the way we are also not truly valuing that individual. We need to care more about who each child is, not what they become or how much they know or whether they get into college or whether they can hold a job or even whether they can function in society.

I will say once more that I cannot judge ABA or any other particular therapy. But I think the problems that its critics see are not isolated to this one approach; they are problems that arise from a much broader misconception in our society that views the child as something to be molded rather than a person to be guided.




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

Dear Reader,

This is part 2 of a 3 part series within a series. Read part 1 here.

A Bit of Review: CM’s own words and Defining the issues

In my previous post, I asked how Charlotte Mason herself explained her oft-discussed second principle. Here again is that principle:

“They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)

Based on a section from her sixth volume, I concluded that:

  • “The possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” These possibilities or tendencies are what we might call predispositions. Some people are more prone to certain errors than others but we all have areas of particular temptation or weakness, just as one person might be more prone to infection, allergies, or alcoholism.
  • The whole child is in view, “body and mind, heart and soul.”
  • Evil tendencies of the body include physical weakness or susceptibility to disease.
  • Tendencies of the mind include, on the positive side, an affinity for or facility at certain academic subjects and, on the negative, a tendency to laziness, for example, or even an over-attachment to certain subjects to the exclusion of others.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the “heart” or “feelings” she is really speaking of what we would call the virtues.  Foremost among these are love and justice but many others flow out of them such as generosity, kindness, and even gladness.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the soul, she addresses our ability and desire to have a relationship with our Creator.

It is these last two — the heart and soul — which we most need to address. Because most Christians recognize that human beings, since the Fall, have a propensity for evil, the real question is to what degree we still have a tendency to good.

My Object

My goal for this series has been to take each principle and ask “is it biblical?” and to confine myself to what the Bible says. But I find myself hard-pressed on this particular topic to say what the Bible says. The fact is that there is a range of belief in Christendom on the topic and all would claim that their view is biblical. We look at the same texts and come to different conclusions. I’d like to begin by looking at this range of views. My goal is for you, the reader, to come away with two things:

  • to see where Charlotte Mason herself fits in the range of beliefs
  • to find where you fit

Because there is such a range, we may not all come to the same conclusions, but if you can see where Charlotte fits and where you fit, then I think you can begin to decide for yourself whether you think her second principle is theologically sound or not.

An Overview of Christian Thought


On one end of the spectrum of belief is Pelagianism. Pelagius, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, is considered a heretic by all the big branches of Christianity — the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and historic Protestantism. Nonetheless, his position is worth considering as a foil against which to view others. Pelagius said that man is basically good and can choose to do good and to follow God without divine intervention:

“[He] taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. ” (“Pelagianism,” by Matt Slick from

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox have been accused of but deny being semi-Pelagian.  I think it is fair to put them towards this end of the spectrum, however. Their position rests on an alternate translation of Romans 5:12, translating “because all men sinned” instead of “in [Adam] all men sinned.” The significance of this difference is explained:

“If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam’s sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.” (“Orthodoxy’s ‘ancestral sin’ versus Calvinism’s total depravity,” from

Instead of the term “original sin,” the Orthodox prefer “ancestral sin.” Though people are born with the consequences of sin, they are not born sinful, that is, they do not bear Adam’s sin or its guilt. These consequences are both physical (pain and death) and moral. Though they reject the idea of total depravity (see “Reformed Theology” below), Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware is able to say that man is often “morally paralysed: we sincerely desire to choose the good, but we find ourselves caught in a situation where all our choices result in evil” yet “[e]ven in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him” (“The Consequences of the Fall,” Bishop Kallistos Ware).

The Roman Catholic Church

Moving along the continuum, we find Roman Catholicism. Everybody besides the Orthodox understands Romans 5:12 as “in [Adam] all men sinned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 402).  Since we all fell in Adam, we are all born bearing his sin (CCC, 403). This is what the Catholic Church refers by “original sin.” For Catholics, this sin is removed through baptism (CCC, 405). Adam, who had original holiness, then transmitted to his descendants not just this one sin but a fallen nature which the Catechism defines as “a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 404). Human nature has been deprived of something and men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted” (CCC, 405). The result is a conflict within man:

“By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” (CCC, 407)

The two key points here seem to be: a) that man remains free, that is free to choose good or evil and b) that human nature in the Fall has lost something, namely holiness, but has not been totally corrupted. A side note, since our initial subject is education, the Catechism goes on to say that we must understand this truth — of man’s evil inclination — in order form a right philosophy of education (CCC, 407).

The Church of England

Protestant belief varies from something pretty close to the Catholic view at one end to the Reformed (Calvinistic) view at the other. I will not touch on all the variations one might find but moving on, I do want to spend some time on the historic Anglican position. Charlotte Mason, you will remember, was a member of the Church of England (COE).

The foundational document for the COE is The Thirty-Nine Articles (1801) and the relevant sections are articled 9 and 10:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit . . .
X. Of Free-Will.
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, IX-X)

I found a wonderful, long article by Joseph Miller which goes to some length to explain not just the COE view but its place relative to other Christian positions. Miller was writing in 1885 (remember that Charlotte Mason lived from 1842-1923). Miller rejects the Catholic view, calling it semi-pelagian, saying that it allows for “the pura naturalia in fallen man after baptism, though weakened and deteriorated” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition, 1885, p. 22). In other words, the Catholic Church, according to Miller, does not view man as fallen enough. He does bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, but when that is removed by baptism, his moral capacity is not much diminished, relatively speaking. On the other side, Miller also rejects the Reformed view found in the Westminster Confession which speak of the “utter inability and opposition to all good in the natural man” (p. 24).

What then is the COE view which Miller propounds? He maintains that man retains a “formal freedom” though he has lost “real freedom.” Man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will” but he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (pp. 18-19). Miller believes that such “formal freedom” is a prerequisite for redemption for without it man would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption” (p. 19).

In his own salvation, Miller believes, man must cooperate with God’s grace. He sees this view as being firmly founded in Scripture:

“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 Article says, that ” man is very far gone from original righteousness,” not ” altogether.”” (pp. 25-26)

Reformed Theology

As the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin is better called ancestral sin, the Reformed take on it is more aptly described by the phrase “total depravity.” I have learned recently that the acronym TULIP as a mnemonic for remembering the main tenets of reformed theology (oft called the 5 points of Calvinism) is a uniquely American invention. But if you are familiar with the acronym, you will know that the “T” of TULIP stands for total depravity. It is the foundation from which the other points flow.

Total depravity says that the effects of the Fall are profound. More than a mere loss of holiness, man in Adam had his entire nature corrupted so that no part of it is free from the effects of the Fall. In the words of the Westminster Confession, man became “wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], VI, 2). R.C. Sproul explains the use of “total” in this context:

“So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.” (R.C. Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity,” from Ligonier Ministries)

The Confession goes on:

“From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil . . .” (WCF, VI, 4)

This is not, as it is often supposed, a rejection of man’s freedom to choose, but a statement about what he, by nature, is able to choose:

“Man is a free agent but he cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself.” (Loraine Boettner, Total Depravity, 2, from

Boettner further explains:

“He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volitions, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it which led Luther to declare that “Free-will is an empty term, whose reality is lost. And a lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.” In matters pertaining to his salvation, the unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil, but only to choose between greater and lesser evil, which is not properly free will. The fact that fallen man still has ability to do certain acts morally good in themselves does not prove that he can do acts meriting salvation, for his motives may be wholly wrong.” (Ibid., 2)

Thus, “fallen man is so morally blind that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good” (Ibid., 2).

Regarding apparent good done by the unregenerate, the Confession says:

“This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (WCF, VI, 5)

Such seemingly good acts are not truly good because a deed is good not in and of itself but is justified by its motives:

“The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot give even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God,  . . .” (Boettner, 3)

Boettner, quoting Augustine, goes on to distinguish between those qualities which even the worldly may call virtues and true Christian virtues:

“Augustine did not deny the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity, which constitute a certain merit among men; but he drew a broad line of distinction between these and the specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.), which alone are good in the strict sense of the word, and which alone have value before God.” (Ibid., 3)


As you consider your own position, if you do not already know where you stand in this spectrum, some questions to ask yourself (and possibly your pastor) are:

  • What was the effect of the Fall on human nature? Do we bear Adam’s sin or only the consequences of his sin? What was lost in the Fall? How much of human nature was corrupted and how deeply has it been corrupted?
  • What is man able to do apart from God? Any good works? Is he able to evince any faith or virtues?
  • Is man free to choose to do good?

Here again are the major positions:


  • Man is basically good.
  • “[A] person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God  . . .”

Eastern Orthodoxy

  • Ancestral sin: Men, since Adam, bear the consequences of Adam’s sin but not his sin or guilt.
  • Though man may often find himself “morally paralysed,” “man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God . . . “

Roman Catholicism

  • In the Fall, man lost his original holiness.
  • Man is born bearing Adam’s sin (original sin) but this is removed through baptism.
  • Men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted.”
  • Men have freedom to choose good or evil.

Church of England (place CM here)

  • Though he has lost “real freedom,” man retains “formal freedom” without which he would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption.”
  • “Man is very far gone from original righteousness” but not “altogether” gone [emphasis added].

Reformed Theology

  • Total Depravity: The Fall affects all aspects of man’s nature — body, will, spirit, and mind. The “whole person” has “been infected by the power of sin.”
  • “[T]he unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil.” Though he is a “free agent,” he is in his nature unable to choose good.
  • By common grace, unregenerate men may appear to do good, but they are incapable of pleasing God or of the “specific Christian graces.”

My goal with this post has been to give the lay of the land so that you can see where Charlotte Mason probably stood and think about where you stand. I have done my best to present each position accurately but there is necessarily going to be some over-simplification when trying to treat such a thorny subject briefly. If you have been reading here at all, you will no doubt know that I adhere to a Reformed position.  It is this view whose adherents suffer the most pains when it comes to reconciling Charlotte’s ideas with one’s own theology. So in my final post in this series, I will talk about how we can either reconcile these two views or whether we need to reject some of what Charlotte says.



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