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 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 CARM.org)
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 Christianity.stackexchange.com)
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)
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 the-highway.com)
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 . . .”
- 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 . . . “
- 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].
- 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.