Posts Tagged ‘theology’

Book List: Bible and Theology

Dear Reader,

One goal for the summer is to get out a series of booklists with titles we have used over the years. I thought that I had at one point given a list of Bible and Theology books we have used but upon searching find that doesn’t appear to be true. For this topic, more than any other, I think it is important to know where I come from. My approach to education has been largely influenced by Charlotte Mason though I have my own philosophy of education. Most importantly, I am a Reformed Christian (aka Calvinist). If you come from a different theological perspective, this list may not fit your needs. I would recommend consulting your pastor or older (homeschooling) moms within your church for their suggestions.

You can find all my booklists here.

Bible and Theology Resources


This may seem obvious but one of the best books you can use to study the Bible and theology is . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible. I myself am pretty comfortable with just opening up the Bible and reading and discussing  [1], but I realize others may not be there yet.

The Beginner’s Bible — I am not a huge fan of children’s Bibles. In general, my advice would be to try to move tour kids to the full Word of God as soon as you can. But little kids are little kids and sometimes a children’s Bible can be helpful. My husband in particular read stories from this one to our kids. I am less comfortable than I used to be with the depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. This one is at a picture book or preschool level.

The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos —  Vos has another children’s Bible. This one is more at an elementary level. I tried to use Vos’ volume with my preschool Sunday school class thinking it would be easier and found that often the stories were actually longer because of the commentary interspersed in them. If you yourself are uncomfortable commenting on the text, then this might be a way to go as it provides some interpretation along with the text (though as it is written you might not know what is text and what is interpretation).

The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study by Starr Meade — This is a workbook-y series for children which guides you through reading the Bible itself. Again for my tastes it was too workbook-y but we did it aloud and I didn’t have my kids fill in all the blanks (or any of them for that matter). I do like that it divides up the Bible into manageable chunks.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola — This is a thinner volume that guides you through reading the epistles as well as sections from the book of Acts. Viola has his own slant — he is very pro-house church — but it gives some good background to the epistles and their contexts. I would use this one with older children (middle school +).

What’s in the Bible by R.C. Sproul — This is more of a reference book. It could be good to use yourself to get some background on a biblical book you plan to read (part of that getting more comfortable with that text yourself) or to give to an older child to aid their reading. Another similar book is How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Fee and Stuart.

The Life of Jesus Christ for the Young by Richard Newton — I ran across this two-volume series after my kids were beyond the age for it. I actually stumbled across Newton’s work because Simply Charlotte Mason uses quotes from him frequently in their copywork series. I don’t know a lot about Newton’s theology. He seems to have been an Anglican minister (which doesn’t narrow it down much, but they say Spurgeon recommended him. I’d say these are elementary level. A similar set which Charlotte Mason used but which I would not recommend are J. Paterson Smythe’s guides for teachers. You can read about why I don’t recommend them for reformed people here.

Herein is Love series by Nancy Ganz — Though I have not used them, I am including Nancy Ganz’s series of commentaries on the Pentateuch. I have heard very good things about them and Ganz is a member of my denomination. Elementary level again.

General Theology

Bible Doctrine for Younger Children by James Beeke — Beeke goes through basic doctrines at a child’s level. His take on things is not identical to mine. He is King James only (I edited the verses he gives as I read them) and his denomination uses the three forms of Unity which mine does not. But the basics of the theology here pretty solid. Topics covered include sin, the covenant of grace, Christ as mediator, etc. It is a bit workbook-y for my (Charlotte Mason-y) tastes but again I edited a but as I went. We did it all aloud as a family. There are also older children versions of these volumes which seem to cover the same material just at a higher level.

What is a Christian Worldview? by Philip Ryken — This is a thin book, practically a pamphlet. The title is a bit misleading. Basically, this is an explanation of the five points of Calvinism. I gave it to my kids in middle school. It’s a great volume to give to friends interested in what Calvinism is as well.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis — A classic on why one should believe in God. I had my kids read this one mainly because it is a classic and I felt that they should be familiar with it. Of course, Lewis has a number of other volumes that could be good as well.

31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God by Rick Stedman — This book is similar to Mere Christianity in some ways. It is fairly basic. I believe I had my children skip some chapters as it gets a bit repetitive. We used it in middle school.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by  Daniel Treier — I picked up this newer book recently and read through it. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I did so and decided I would have my two high schoolers read is, or selections from it, next school year. My plan is to have them read a couple of pages at a time and then to discuss it with them. This is an introductory book (as its title suggests) and does not go in-depth on any particular topic. Its strength is that it gives the lay of the land, outlining possible positions, on a number of issues. I will post our reading schedule when I have it typed up (likely in the fall). You can also see my review here.

Calvin’s Institutes — At some point we should all read the quintessential Calvin. I found it much more accessible than I had anticipated (for me) but it is not an easy book. This one is definitely high school level and probably upper high school (though if you have a range of kids as I do some may be getting it earlier than others). I read it aloud to my kids in short chunks over a three year period. I would read a day ahead of time. We skipped some sections and some whole chapters. Calvin often argues against the other opinions popular in his day and/or gives a number of biblical verses as evidence so I did find that there were bits we could skip.  Once you get the hang of how he constructs his arguments, it makes more sense. Don’t feel you need to read the whole thing in order. The last chapter on the Christian life is one of the most accessible and wouldn’t be a bad place to start. One project I have in mind is to arrange the Institutes much as Plutarch is laid out on Ambleside Online in short readings with some notes and questions so if that is something you would use please let me know.

Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof — Of course there are a lot of systematic theologies out there. I happen to own Berkhof’s and to find its concise style fairly accessible as a reference work when I want more information on a given topic. I wouldn’t read this one from cover to cover but it is nice to have such a resource on hand when questions arise.

Personally, I listen to a lot of podcasts and sometimes this can work better for children too. I had one high schooler do a series on theology/apologetics by listening to podcasts, the primary one being the Reformed Brotherhood. You can find the schedule for that here.

Christian Living and Encouragement

A Handful of Stars and other books by Frank Boreham — Boreham is one of my favorite authors. He was a pastor in the early 1900s (I believe) in Australia and New Zealand. His books are collections of short essays. He was not reformed but I still love a lot of what he wrote. He is more pastoral than theological, For kids, I’d recommend the volumes that give brief biographies and talk about the passages that influenced particular people’s lives. Many are available free or very cheap on Kindle.

A Little Book on the Christian Life and Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life by John Calvin — Though he is known for his in-depth theology, Calvin has a few volumes which are brief, pastoral, and very encouraging.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken — The story of a man’s spiritual journey after the loss of his wife. A tear-jerker.

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss — Another tear-jerker. This one is the spiritual journey of a young woman into adulthood and motherhood. Probably not for boys (not inappropriate, just girly). You (moms) should read it yourself if you haven’t.

Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper — This book is essentially an abridged version of Piper’s Desiring God. I have a few reservations about Piper’s view, called Christian hedonism, but I also like the encouragement this little volume gives to delight in God.

Specific Topics

The Hand of God and Satan Cast Out by Frederick Leahy — I believe Leahy was an Irish pastor. His work is solid and fairly accessible for middle school and up. The Hand of God is about God’s sovereignty and Satan Cast Out  is about, you guessed it, Satan. My kids really liked reading about Satan. I think it’s one of those subjects they have a natural curiosity about but aren’t likely to get a lot of preaching on.

Discovering God’s Will by Sinclair Ferguson — It’s been years since I read this book but Ferguson is a solid author and the topic is a very timely one for teenagers.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker is Catholic but he is one of my favorite authors (you will see him a few times on this list). This volume is about how things from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare show the Creator.  High school level and up.

Worldview and Philosophy

God-Breathed by Rut Etheridge — This volume is written to teens and young adults who were raised in Christian homes but have become disillusioned or never really gotten what true Christian faith is. I was not crazy about this book but there are some good bits, particularly those in which Etheridge discusses philosophy. My full review is here.

The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin — I am not crazy about this book but there are some good parts. I appreciated his comparison of Frankenstein and Dracula and, if I am remembering the right book, the French and American revolutions.

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer — This is the don’t-miss book for this section. We do both the book and video for this book to make sure my kids get it. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner — I am not a huge fan of  the term “worldview” and how it is used in Christian circles. Even less so of “worldview education.” Yet if that is a thing, it should mean not just learning the “right” worldview but learning how to discern the worldview of others on their writing and art. Horner’s Meaning at the Movies is a good, short book for helping one learn how to discern the view behind a work of art. Movies are short, quick glimpses into another’s mind and kids like watching them. I have my high schoolers do one year of “movies as literature” using this book (see this post for some specifics).

On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here.

My oldest son also did a year on political philosophy. You can find the full booklist for that here. A couple I would highlight that you might want to use and which come from a Christian perspective are Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read and The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul.


Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker — Another Wiker book. Very well done. High school level plus.

Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore — This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

Messiah the Prince by William Symington — This is the classic Reformed Presbyterian work on Christ’s Messianic Kingship. I usually have my kids skip some chpaters as they don’t really need to read about Christ’s rule over the church. There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited but I think it loses something.

Creation and Evolution

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — Wiker does a great job of showing how Darwin’s personality and beliefs affected his famous theory.

We usually cover this topic as part of high school biology. I have my kids read books on a couple of sides of the issue and then for their exam for the term write what the various views are and what they find most convincing. I also have a post on dinosaurs in the Bible here. 

Gender Related Issues

It is hard to avoid these subjects today and your kids will encounter them (of they haven’t already) when they go to college. My gender and marriage booklist is here. I have my teens read Rosaria Butterfield’s conversion story in her Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and the position papers of the RPCNA, The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (published by Crown and Covenant).


I have one child who is particularly interested in art and it is one of those subjects in which one needs to think a bit about how to do it Christianly. Two books I would recommend for that are:

Liberated Imagination by Leland Ryken (my review here)

The Christian, the Arts and Truth by Frank Gaebelein (my review here)

Church History

History Lives series by Mindy Withrow — A four volume set with manageable chunks on church history from the earlier times on. I did find it a little bit undiscriminating in who it calls a hero of the faith but overall it is very good. Begin reading it aloud in the elementary years.

Sketches from Church History by Houghton — There is also a student workbook which I would skip but the book itself is not badly written. Middle school level I believe.

Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken — A wonderful, fair book on Purtian life and belief. We included it in history but it could also be read with theology or church history.

Here I Stand by Roland Bainton — Classic life of Martin Luther.

The Reformation 500 Years Later by Benjamin Wiker — A Catholic writing on the Reformation = I don’t agree with everything here but it is a well-wrtten, easy to read book and may make you think. It does a good job of showing all the threads that played into the Reformation. I gave my kids specific questions to answer in place of straight narrations. You can find those here. My review is here.


[1] My degrees are in biblical Hebrew though I think that ultimately every Christian should be or get comfortable with their Bible, while acknowledging that we do not read it apart from our interpretive traditions.

Was Charlotte Mason Arminian?

Dear Reader,

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

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

What is Arminianism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Charlotte Mason Have Believed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrowing in: The Theology of J. Paterson Smythe

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

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

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

The Theology of Charlotte Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again:

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

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

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

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

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

Once she uses the phrase “redeemed human race”:

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

And finally, this most revealing quote:

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

[2] Treier, p. 228.

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

[4] Treier, p. 228.

[5] Treier, p. 241.

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Treier, p. 268.

[12] Treier, p. 230.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booklist: Marriage and Gender Issues

Dear Reader,

Without intending to, I have ended up reading a number of books on marriage and gender over the past year. These are tough and yet quite topical subjects so I thought I would share some of the best of them. A word of warning: the nature of the topic is adult. You should pre-read any books you give to teens and most are not appropriate for younger children.

Books on Marriage and Gender Issues

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz (Penguin Books, 2005) — A history of marriage across cultures and time from the earliest days of humanity till the present. It’s quite an undertaking but this is a well-written, thorough book and a great place to start for some historical perspective. The author is not Christian but the scholarship seems solid; I have read much the same things in Christian books (see below).

Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax (New York: Harmony Books, 2017) — Like the above book this one is by a non-Christian but gives some solid scholarship and lays a good foundation for later reading. For anyone who works with kids (or perhaps anyone of the opposite gender) there are some useful bits of information here to aid in communication and mutual understanding. FYI look for the updated 2017 version. I’m not sure exactly what has been changed but gender issues in the public eye have changed a lot since the book was originally published in 2005.

Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction by David Ayers (Lexham Press, 2019) — Comprehensive does not begin to sum up this thick volume. Ayers clearly loves statistics but he is fairly easy to read and has lots of practical suggestions as well, especially for parents and ministers. The book covers almost every topic relating to marriage and sex that you could think of and gives numbers for most of it with a special emphasis on comparing what “evangelicals” believe relative the to wider culture. This is not the best book for reading cover to cover; selecting sections of particular interest would work better. I got the Kindle version and that was not ideal as it makes the many charts hard to read.

Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? by Gary Thomas (Zondervan, 2015) — The subtitle here tells you where the author is going, and it is a good place. This was not my all time favorite book but I had picked it up looking for a gift for an at-best-weak-Christian friend who was getting married and I think it filled that role nicely in that it gives a different perspective on marriage than our culture does. See my full review of the book here.

Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage Church and Society by Rachel Green Miller (2019) — As I write this I am in the midst of reading Miller’s book. I have heard her speak on numerous podcasts as well (see below). Overall I would say I share her take on the roles and relationship of men and women. Her book is mainly a response and correction to certain overly rigid Christian views that come from the complementarian side, particularly the view known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS). Miller is not an egalitarian but the thesis of her book is, as its title suggests, that we need to see beyond the authority/submission paradigm. Where she addresses the history of marriage, her book seems to fall in line with Coontz’s (see above). Her take on the various waves of feminism is also quite helpful.

Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (2012) and Openness Unhindered (2015) by Rosaria Butterfield (both published by Crown and Covenant) — Rosaria was an openly lesbian university professor when she came to faith. The first book, Secret Thoughts, is the story of her conversion, with a fair amount of theology woven in. Openness Unhindered continues the discussion (she also has at least one later book on hospitality). A very personal story, Rosaria’s works help breed understanding for those that, frankly, Christians are not always compassionate towards, without compromising the truth.

The Gospel & Sexual Orientation and Gender as Calling: the Gospel and Gender Identity (Crown and Covenant) — These fairly thin volumes are concise, pastoral statements on how we should view those with gender-related issues and how to counsel them. Even if you are not a pastor, they are well worth reading.

And some fiction: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each of these books shows the real-life effects of adultery and sexual sin. I am sure there are many more that could be added to the list but I happened to have (re-)read these three in the past year.

Finally, for those who don’t always have time to read, a few sermons and podcasts:

On divorce: “Divorce with Pastor Todd Bordow” from Theology Gals (2019). Rachel Miller (above) has actually joined this podcast recently and they have been doing a lot of episodes on marriage-related issues. I found the one on divorce particularly thoughtful and well-balanced. I have not read it but their guest, Todd Burdow, also has an article that is probably worth picking up if you want to delve deeper.

On the role of women in the church: “Women are to Keep Silent in the Churches” by Cliff Blair on Sermon Audio (3/25/2018) — I stumbled across Pastor Blair’s sermons somehow or other and have been very pleased with them. His style is a very careful, well-explained, and close exegesis of the texts. In this one he tackles 1 Corinthians 14. I haven’t heard anything better or clearer on the passage. Spoiler: despite his title, he is not arguing for absolute silence from women.

On headcoverings: “Headcoverings, parts 1, 2 & 3” by Cliff Blair on Sermon Audio (January, 2018) — Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Pastor Blair preached three sermons on headcoverings. Again, his exegesis is clear, thorough and well-balanced. I do not end up where he does, practically speaking (see below), but his explanations of the relevant verses are the best I have heard.

And again, on headcoverings: “Contra Mundum: Interview with Pastor Scott Wilkinson on headcoverings” from Sermon Audio (10/4/2017)– The reason I don’t end up where Blair does on the headcovering issue is because of that one phrase “praying and prophesying.” In this interview Pastor Scott Wilkinson explains how he interprets the passage and I tend to follow him on this.

That’s what I’ve got so far. Any other recommendations?




Evolution is a Mindset

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Movie Review: Calvinist

Dear Reader,

This is not inherently education related but I am going to try to tie it in 😉  (You can see all the posts in my current series on reformed Christian education here.)

The Calvinist Movie was made fairly recently by a guy names Les Lanphere. It is available on DVD, Blue-Ray or as a digital download from his website here. My short take on this is that it is well worth watching and even buying (price to rent is $5 and $15 to buy). There are really two parts to the movie– the bulk of it is about trends in evangelicalism and how and why Calvinism has become hip and new again. Sandwiched in the middle is about half an hour (of 1.5 hrs total) which explains Calvinism with lots of biblical quotes and (intentionally?) cheesy graphics.

The best part of this movie is the middle bit exlaining what Calvinism is. I could definitely see showing this section to anyone who asks “Reformed? What does that mean?” (which actually happens a fair amount when I say the name of my church). Admittedly they are preaching to the choir with me, but I went away from this section thinking “Why on earth wouldn’t anyone believe this?” They do a very good job of highlighting (literally) biblical verses to support all they say. The one lack, if there is one, is that while they show reformed theology to be biblical, little is said about what comes between the New Testament and the Reformation. I’m sure time was limited and one had to pick and choose but you wouldn’t know from this video that there was any good theology in the early church which the reformers were returning to.

Two-thirds of the movie is about the trend that has been called “Young, restless and reformed.” I think I am old enough that I am not part of this trend though my own journey (from Catholicism to 4 or 5 years as a generic evengelical to reformed faith) is not so different from many in the video. It was interesting to me as the study of a social movement. I don’t think this bit would be for non-Christians. I do plan to show it to my soon-to-be college student because, though he has been raised in the reformed faith, I think it would be good as he goes out in the world to have some sense of where his Christian peers may be coming from.

The Calvinist Movie does a good job of showing where the evengelical movement is lacking and how the continual altar calls with no emphasis on what comes after have left church kids empty and anxious. Though this is not my own experience, the feelings I got from growing up Catholic, with the continual need to repent, were similar. The movie makes the point that we have been depriving our kids by exiling them to children’s church where they are basically entertained. We need to treat them like people and to include them in the worship of the church, a position I fully support (see this post on children in the Bible).

A major theme in the movie is that what we believe matters; we can’t just boil down the gospel to the simplest terms. People (children too) need the meat of theology. This is a point I have been making on this blog for years — ideas  matter. To bring it back to the topic of this series — it is why we need a reformed theology of education. There is one particularly good quote near the end where one of the interviewees (Joel Beeke, I believe) says that theology changes us and flows out and affects our feelings and actions as well.  I completely agree with this. I would extend it and say that, perhaps to a lesser extent, the other, not inherently theological, ideas that we take in do this also. Our ideas shape us.

If there is one flaw in this movie, it is that it doesn’t go far enough. The core beliefs of reformed theology (I have just learned we call now these  “the doctrines of grace”) are clearly presented but beyond that there is no effort to present a biblical ecclesiology or a biblical doctrine of worship. And while I would agree that there is some diminishing importance and that we can’t get hung up debating every point small point of doctrine, some of these other issues are still quite important. I am not going to dwell on worship because though the film shows mostly what I would consider unbiblical worship, I hear that the filmmaker has since come to a more biblical understanding of worhip and that his next project will be on the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the latter half of the film, Lanphere addresses Mark Driscoll, a popular reformed pastor who suffered a dramatic downfall from his ministry.  He then moves to talking about the various reformed Confessions, the implication being that adhering to Confessions will keep us from getting into situations where we are too dependent on the personality of one charismatic leader. Confessions are good, but I would argue that what we need is a biblical ecclesiology. In the movie’s defense, it uses the word ecclesiology a lot but it fails to take that added step and argue that there is a biblical ecclesiology and that we need to adhere to it (I would argue that what the Bible depicts is essentially a Presbyterian structure — one with a lot of accountability).

I definitely recommend the Calvinist Movie. The bulk of it is best for those who are already Christian and even reformed but the half an hour in the middle (actually about 15 minutes in, I think) is a very good, concise and clear way to present reformed theology to anyojne who shows an interest.


Common Grace, Part 2

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find them all here.

In part 1 of this post, we began to look at the idea of “common grace” as it relates to education. The questions before us are:

  1. Can non-Christians be educated? Are they capable of receiving what is good and true?
  2. Can we learn from non-Christians? How are we to view the seemingly good and true things which they communicate to us?

In part 1, I looked at Cornelius Van Til’s definition of common grace in Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and  Reformed Publishing, 1974). I didn’t want to rely on Van Til alone, however, so I sought out other sources on the topic of common grace. The goal for today is to see if Van Til’s depiction (or perhaps just my understanding of it) is in line with general reformed thought and if there are any further conclusions we can draw with regard to education.

The primary source I am relying on for this post is Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (The Ephesians Four Group, 2017; originally pub. 1932). While Van Til’s work was on education and common grace came into it incidentally, Berkhof’s is from the start a systematic theology. He is a well-known and, as far as I know, a well-respected name. Plus he gives a good introduction to the subject including background material and some discussion of the different views and thoughts.  I will summarize what he has to say and then return at the end to a few of my own thoughts.

Common Grace, a la Berkhof

The doctrine of common grace is one of those which does not arise by name in the Scriptures (a fact which we can not necessarily hold against it as even the Trinity is not named as such). Rather it arises as the solution to a seeming inconsistency:

“The question arose, How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? . . . How can we account for it that sinful man still ‘retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior’? . . . How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?” (Berkhof, Kindle loc. 10291)

Augustine did not teach common grace. His concern was to show that the “so-called virtues [of heathens] were sins, because they did not spring from faith . . . He denies that such deeds are the fruit of any natural goodness in man” (Berkhof, loc. 10300; cf. Heb. 11:6).

Luther made a distinction between the earthly and heavenly spheres, arguing that unregenerate man can do good in the former but not the latter (loc. 10320).

Calvin, though he does not use the term in the sense we now do (loc. 10340), is the first formulator of the doctrine of common grace as we know it. With Augustine, and against Luther, Calvin “firmly maintained that the natural man can of himself do no good work whatsoever” (loc. 10331). But he did argue for a grace which “curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men”(loc. 10331).

As we understand it today, common grace is not a separate act of God (loc. 10362) but refers to “(a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him” (loc. 10382).  Berkhof later goes on to list specific outworkings of common grace (loc. 10517) which are:

  • The full brunt of the punishment for sin is delayed.
  • Man’s sinful nature is restrained. At times, we see that God gives the unregenerate over to their evil desires (Rom. 1:24ff) so that we may conclude that other times He does not do so but restrains sin from its full range. 
  • Man retains some sense of the good, true and beautiful. Included in this is man’s natural inclination towards some form of religion.
  • Man performs what is called “civil good.” These are not actual good works as they do not stem from right motives and therefore cannot please God. Nonetheless they are in harmony with the law of God. Common grace does not produce any good in the unbeliever (cf. loc. 10401) but merely restrains evil so that we can agree with Augustine that they are incapable of true good. 
  • Man receives natural “blessings.” This is where the sun and the rain come in (cf. Matt. 5:45). I put “blessings” in quotes, because, though Berkhof uses the word, he is careful to note that God does not bless the unrighteous as such.

Common grace does not change the hearts of men and is not saving. Berkhof ties it to God’s creative work, as opposed to His redemptive work (loc. 10275), while yet arguing that common grace would not be possible without the redemptive work of Christ (loc. 10436). Common grace is “subservient to the execution of the plan of God in the life of the elect and in the development of the Church. But in addition to that it also serves an independent purpose, namely, to bring to light and to harness for the service of man the hidden forces of nature, and to develop the powers and talents that are latent in the human race, in order that man may ever-increasingly exercise dominion over the lower creation, to the glory of God the Creator” (loc. 10466).

Berkhof goes further and gives us some specifics regarding the means of common grace (loc. 10496). They are:

  • God’s general revelation. He includes under this heading man’s conscience.
  • Civil governments which maintain order, promote good and discourage evil.
  • Public opinion. Which is to say that men care what other men think and will alter their behavior to seek approval or avoid disapproval.
  • Just consequences. Actions often have natural consequences. The child who returns a lost item is rewarded. The teen who engages in bad behavior gets a nasty disease.

Common Grace and Education

When we looked at Van Til on common grace, I drew two  (provisional) conclusions:

  • That one aspect of common grace is the call which goes out, through general revelation, to all mankind and that education functions within this call.
  • That the unregenerate, while not able to do good in the sense of pleasing God, do nonetheless make real contributions to the cause of truth and beauty. God uses what they do, often in spite of themselves, to further His ultimate end.

Neither of these is at odds with Berkhof’s conception of common grace as well. Berkhof’s common grace may be more than this, but it is not less. He speaks both of the call of general revelation (loc. 10485, 10600) and of the role of common grace in working out God’s greater plan (loc. 10466). Berkhof does not refer to education as such. My inclination is to place education under “general revelation” in his list of the means of common grace [1]. Education is largely how we know about general revelation.

I began with two questions. I feel that we have gone a long way towards answering the second — there is real truth and beauty that can come to us through non-Christians sources because God uses them as a part of His larger plan. This is not inherent goodness on their part as without faith they are unable to please God. They may often be unaware or unwitting cogs in His plan. I think we will need to talk more about when and how and if to use non-Christian resources when we get to some of the more practical details of education. For now I am willing to say that we should not reject outright all things that come to us through non-believers but that we must approach them with caution, testing them as we would any new teacher (1 John 4:1-6; for a little introduction to this topic, check out this sermon).

The other question was about our students — Can we present what is good and true to them if they are unregenerate? Are they able to receive what we present and to be educated in any way? We have part of the answer to this — education is subsumed under the call that goes out to all the earth and as such we can and should present it, without prejudice, to all children (indeed, all people), not just to those we know to be saved.

But that it only half an answer; it does not tell us if they are able to receive any of what we present. Of course, we do not know who is among the elect. That is why I say we present education without prejudice — we must not assume this child is saved and that one is not.  That is up to God and does not rely on us or our efforts.

But does education have a beneficial effect, does it make any headway, even among the non-elect? The doctrine of common grace, as Berkhof presents it, would seem to tell us it does. Not that it can produce true goodness but that it can be one of the means God uses to restrain evil.

I have some level of discomfort in saying this. I don’t want us to think that we can educate anyone into being virtuous. If we make virtue our goal — and it is the goal of classical education —  we will go astray. To the extent that education may restrain evil in the non-elect it is not producing real good. That is impossible without saving grace and that it not something we can educate into children.  We desire far more than the appearance of goodness. Ultimately, we desire their salvation and their sanctification. In education, we present God’s general revelation (which is not to say that we don’t also teach the Scriptures of course). There may be some good than comes from this even without saving grace as evil is restrained, but whether that call is effective is beyond us; it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make it take root or not.


[1]  Education, especially the education of children, is closely linked with discipline which may in turn be tied to that means which I have called “just consequences.” Parental justice — i.e. discipline — is often the immediate means of divine justice.


Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,


Book Review: A Meaningful World

Dear Reader,

I bought A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt looking for something for my artsy child to read. My son had read some of Wiker’s books when he studied political philosophy and we had found them very accessible and enjoyable, especially given the complexity of the subject. While Meaningful World is not quite what I was looking for when I purchased it, it still gets a definite “must read” recommendation from me.

This book is an amazing amalgamation of literature, philosophy, science, theology and art. Beginning with Shakespeare and moving through chemistry and biology, touching on astrophysics and subatomic physics, this book shows how materialistic reductionism has invaded scholarship across the board and, more importantly, why it ultimately fails. The book ends with what is essentially a plea for the scholarly community to abandon  this approach which the authors see as a once working theory which, though it has yielded some greater insights, has now been disproven.

What is materialistic reductionism? Simply put, it is the assumption that the material world is all there is. Beginning with this presupposition, the authors show, leads to a reductionism in that everything, from Shakespeare to  the cow, is seen as no more than its most basic elements. As Shakespeare is a combination of words which might equally as well have been typed by monkeys given enough time (the real world rebuttal of this oft-quoted theory alone makes this book worth reading), so the cow is nothing more than its DNA, a random sequence of proteins arising without meaning from a chemical soup.

The counterview which Wiker and Witt espouse is stated simply: “the universe is meaning-full” (p. 15). If it were not, there would be no point to science, and the more one delves into it, the more meaning one finds.

There is a lot here and this is a dense book. I am quite in awe of its authors’ breadth of knowledge. It was not what I was looking for simply because it is too dense and packed with scientific info for my artsy high-schooler. I am, however, going to have her and her more mathematically inclined brother read selections from it. A Meaningful World is an enjoyable and challenging read for advanced high shcoolers and up and I would definitely give a copy to any student heading off to college to study sciences (and possibly also literature and mathematics).



Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Reader,

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

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

Recapping where we are

Charlotte’s second principle says:

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to Terms with the Second Principle

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

Option 1: Decide it’s not a problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 2: Common Grace

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

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

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

Option 3: Covenant Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 4: Re-defining “Potential”

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

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

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

Corollary: CM’s Method Can Benefit Non-believers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Bible verses on man’s sinful nature:

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

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

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

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

Classically Charlotte: The nature of children,” from Simply

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

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

And some of my own posts on this principle:

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

CM on the Goodness (and Badness) of Children”


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