Charlotte Mason on the Authority of Scripture

Charlotte Mason on the Authority of Scripture

Last year I received an email from a friend that included the following:

When you have a moment, I would be very interested in your thoughts on this from Ourselves: “Nay, that very story of the stopping of the sun in its course, an embedded myth, let us say, is recorded, we may believe, by the inspiration of God. We have all had times in our lives when the sun has not been permitted to go down upon us until we have wrought a deliverance, escaped a peril, done a work.”… Can it be that Miss Mason did not believe the sun stopped? That would be a huge disappointment to me.

My friend was quoting from Ourselves Book II p. 88. Earlier on that page, Mason writes:

The narration of such an incident (and there are many of them in the Bible) is merely one of accidental, outside truth, with little illuminating value. How the essential truth may be revealed to us, whether by parable or record, we cannot say…

This notion of “essential truth” and “accidental truth” is by no means limited to Ourselves; it is a motif through all of Mason’s writings. For more than a decade I have read and heard the attempts of many people to interpret and explain this concept. The interpretations vary widely, so I thought it would be helpful to systematically review all of Mason’s statements about the Bible to see if we can narrow down what she really believed about the authority and accuracy of Scripture.

I sympathize with my friend’s concern. I understand why it would be a “huge disappointment” for her to discover that Mason did not believe the sun stopped in the sky on the day that Joshua led the armies of Israel at Gibeon. The desire to assert the historical veracity of Old Testament miracles is common among many evangelicals, including myself.[1] This desire is so strong that in 1978, the topic was discussed at the first conference of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.[2] The conference produced what is known as “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” a statement which asserted:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.[3]

We may ask whether Charlotte Mason would have agreed to the Chicago Statement if it had been proposed in her lifetime. As an Anglican, she quoted and most likely assented to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1662, one of which reads:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.[4]

It has been noted that this article “attacks any attempt to add to (as distinct from drawing from) the teaching of Scripture,”[5] rather than to assert specific properties of the sacred text itself. This same angle is found even in contemporary statements by confessing Anglicans. For example, the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration states:

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.[6]

In Charlotte Mason’s own writings, we can find many affirmations about Scripture which align with these Anglican statements, from both 1662 and 2008. However, unlike the “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” these Anglican documents are silent on the question of Scripture’s reliability and accuracy regarding “the events of world history.” To determine whether Mason would have agreed with the Chicago statement, we’ll have to probe more deeply.

Before we do so, however, I think it is helpful to consider the example of another Anglican, C. S. Lewis. Lewis has been called “the foremost, if not the most influential, of modern apologists for the Christian faith.”[7] His theological writings are loved and studied by a wide range of Christians, including many evangelicals who hold to a strict view of Biblical inerrancy. However, readers of Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters might not be aware of Lewis’s view of the authority of Scripture:

Lewis has a broad view of inspiration. Not only were the Biblical writers inspired of God, but the Jews and the Christians who preserved and canonized the writings, and the redactors and editors who modified them, also had a divine pressure exerted on them, whether consciously or unconsciously, so that the end product, the Holy Scripture as we have it, is inspired of God. But it is important to note what Lewis means by this. Not all the Scripture is inspired for the same purpose or in the same way. As a literary man, Lewis was aware of the varied literary genres and the mixed elements in the Scripture. He was aware of the errors, contradictions, and sub-Christian ideas. By inspiration he does not mean that every sentence of the Old Testament, for example, has scientific or historical truth. He views The Book of Job or the story of Jonah as unhistorical and the early stories of Genesis as mythical. But this says nothing about their spiritual truth. Lewis is convinced that the writers have been guided by God.[8]

Lewis’s understanding of inspiration may be difficult for evangelicals such as myself to grasp. On the one hand, he affirms that the entire Bible is inspired of God. But on the other hand, he claims that the Old Testament may have unhistorical elements. How can these two seemingly contradictory assertions be reconciled? The key is in the mention that all Scripture conveys “spiritual truth” even where it may be lacking “scientific or historical truth.” Or to use other terminology, the “essential truth” (“spiritual truth”) is without error, but the “accidental truth” (“historical truth”) may (at least in the Old Testament) deviate from reality.

Personally, I have never known an evangelical (or any Christian for that matter) to shun any of Lewis’s writings on the grounds that he maintains a distinction between essential (spiritual) and accidental (historical) truth. I personally love many of Lewis’s books, and one of his books is a cornerstone of the study of apologetics in my homeschool. My daughter has continued this pattern in college by reading Mere Christianity with her spiritual mentor.

That being said, as much as I value the writings of the great twentieth-century apologist, when my children have questions about the historicity of Job or Jonah I turn to other resources. I also personally would not look to Lewis to guide me in an understanding of the long day of Joshua 10. I say this not in any way to impugn Lewis’s theological brilliance. Rather, I discriminate between what I see as essential and accidental within his own writings.

With Lewis as a backdrop, let’s look at what Mason said about the Bible.

Charlotte Mason’s Affirmations About the Bible

1. The Bible is the “Word of God.”[9] Mason also refers to the Bible as the “sacred text”[10] and the “Holy Scriptures.”[11]

2. The Bible is inspired by God. Mason asks rhetorically, “Whence is this, if not by the inspiration of God?”[12] She writes:

If the Bible were not an inspired book we should here have descriptions of her sensations and wonder, but with divine reticence we hear nothing of all this.[13]

3. The Bible is the revelation of God to man. Mason says that “the raison d’être of the Bible [is] its teaching of religion, its revelation of God to man.”[14] She insists that “We must know with absolute certainty that here is revelation.”[15]

4. The sacred writers “were charged with the revelation of God.”[16] They were a “great company elected to hand on to us the counsels of God.”[17]

5. The Bible contains the complete revelation of God. Mason writes:

We rightly regard the Bible as the entire collection of our Sacred Books. We have absolutely nothing to teach but what we find written therein.[18]

The Bible is “as full a revelation as we are able to bear concerning our God.”[19]

6. The Bible is the unique source of spiritual truth. Mason writes that “there is but one source of illumination, the Bible itself.”[20] Thus “the Bible is unique as containing original revelations of God.”[21] In the books of the Bible “is to be found, and nowhere but in these, a revealed knowledge of God.”[22]

7. The Bible is the only way that we can obtain a knowledge of God. Mason writes:

Where shall we find our material?—for we can only think as we are supplied with the material for thought. First and last, in the Bible; for the knowledge of God comes by revelation. We can only know Him as he declares and manifests Himself to us.[23]

Thus, Mason refers to the Bible as “the one way of approach to the knowledge of God.”[24]

8. The Bible is self-authenticating. Mason writes that “the truth of the Book is confirmed to us; and we know, without proof.”[25]

9. The Bible is “the Chief Source of Moral Ideas.”[26] Mason writes:

… all the literatures of the world put together utterly fail to give us a system of ethics, in precept and example, motive and sanction, complete as that to which we have been born as our common inheritance in the Bible.[27]

Mason states that the Bible contains “the most perfect ethical system, the most inspiring and heart-enthralling, that the world has ever possessed,”[28] and therefore “it is to the Bible itself we must go as to the great storehouse of moral impressions.”[29]

10. The Bible has an intended meaning for all peoples and times. Mason asserts that the Scriptures are properly interpreted by the faithful in community, rather than by individuals in isolation. She writes:

… we are equally careful as to how we receive private interpretations of the Scriptures, which are put before us as having escaped the vigilance of the Church until to-day.[30]

Mason writes that we must “build upon the foundation which is laid—the teaching of the Church—for no Scripture is of private interpretation,”[31] and in a footnote, she defines “the Church” as “The blessed company of all faithful people.”[32]

11. The Bible’s testimony about the spiritual realm is trustworthy. The Bible describes the activities of angels and demons, immaterial beings whose nature precludes normal scientific investigation. Although there is no scientific confirmation of the existence of such beings, Mason asserts their reality on the basis of biblical revelation as confirmed by subjective experience:

The fact that we have not foreseen these falls, points to a cause outside ourselves—to those powers and principalities in high places, whose struggle for dominion over us the Bible reveals; and the revelation is confirmed by our own sad and familiar experience.[33]

Mason directly challenges the skeptic when she writes:

We are born with possibilities good and evil, but the testimony of the ‘Word,’ and our own experience of sudden suggestions of evil, and then of overflowings of ungodliness, should bring conviction of the access to our spirits of an evil spirit. There is a feeling abroad to-day that there is no external evil personality; that man’s good and evil exists in himself. Let us beware of ‘spiritual weakness in high places.’[34]

12. The Bible is used in a special way by the Holy Spirit. Mason asserts that “the process followed by the Holy Spirit [is] to teach us by an arresting illumination, from time to time, of some phrase written in the Bible.”[35] As far as I know, Mason does not make this claim about any other book.

13. There is no scientific basis for denying the miracles of the Bible. Mason’s concern about miracles extends beyond the question of the authority of Scripture. In her view, Christianity is untenable if miracles are impossible. “Eliminate the ‘miraculous,’” she writes, “and the whole fabric of Christianity disappears.”[36] By contrast, if one accepts any form of theism, then miracles pose no problem philosophically: “Grant the possibility of miracles, that is, of the voluntary action of a Personal God, and who will venture to assign limits of less or more?”[37]

Mason then argues that due to its inherent epistemological limitations, science is unable to render a verdict against the possibility of miracles:

As for the incredibility of the Gospel miracles, so fit and precious as evidences of the mind of Christ, all that scientists can say against them is that such a circumstance as the turning of water into wine, for example, has not come within their experience. They can no longer say that such acts are impossible, nor that they are contrary to the laws of nature. The amazing discoveries of recent years have made scientific men modest; they perceive that they do not know the laws of nature, and are only acquainted with a few of the ways of nature; and therefore they know that nothing is impossible.[38]

In fact, according to Mason, the only way science can disprove miracles is by becoming a religion itself:

For if Nature have laws which she has presumably originated, if these be the only laws we know and obey, then is Nature sentient and we are in danger of reviving, under the august name of science, the Nature worship of more primitive societies.[39]

Interestingly, however, while Mason argues for the general possibility of miracles, she also proposes a rule for testing whether any particular recorded miracle is plausible. Rather than evaluating whether a recorded miracle is consistent with natural law, she says to evaluate whether it is consistent with God’s character:

There is no middle way between absolute faith in God which is able to receive any miracle consistent with the divine character and further unfolding this character to us, and the standpoint of the materialist to whom miracle, prayer, and spirit are alike meaningless.[40]

She expresses the same rule in poetic form:

Yet there be tests

Whereby to try each several miracle,
Is it indeed of Christ? Not … meting out His works
By our infantine lore of natural law:
But, Doth each sign we read of show His glory?[41]

It is notable that Mason does not say to “try each several miracle” by whether it is simply recorded in the Bible. For reasons about to be seen, Mason apparently believed that an additional test was required.

14. The Bible contains human elements that are not inspired. After considering all the above affirmations about the Bible by Mason, one may be surprised to read the following:

As for distinguishing between the merely human and the inspired elements in the Bible, the way to this is not by critical study and destructive criticism, but by a gradual absorption of the idea of God as it is unfolded to us through the long preparation of the Old Testament, the glorious manifestation of the Gospels, and the application to the life of the Church which we find in the Acts and the Epistles. By long, slow study and by quick heart’s love we shall learn to discern God, to know in an instant those words which are not of him; to know that ‘break their teeth in their jaws,’ for instance, is no word of God, but an utterance of the violent human heart, allowed to pass without comment, as are most of the ways and words of men recorded in the Bible.[42]

Mason appears to be referring to Psalm 58:6a as an example of a “human” element that is “no word of God.” In the King James Version the verse reads, “Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth.” Her statement that this was “allowed to pass without comment” into Holy Scripture is ambiguous. Does she mean that it was allowed by the Holy Spirit to pass into the Bible for a divine teaching purpose? Or does she mean it was allowed to pass into the Bible by human agency alone? In other words, is this verse a remnant of chaff among the wheat?

Elsewhere Mason praises the Bible authors for recording the “ways and words of men” without comment. “Where,” she asks, “in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, of prophet, priest, or king, have we moral disquisitions?”[43] Consider, for example, when David says to Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you’” (1 Samuel 21:2, ESV). A natural reading of the context, supported by every Bible commentary I have consulted, indicates that David is lying. The Bible allows this brazen lie to “pass without comment.” However, this lie does not impugn the truth of the Bible because it is a historical fact that David said it. Is that then how we are to understand Psalm 58:6a? That it is a factual record of David’s true desire, but a violent desire that is the moral equivalent of his lie to Ahimelech?

That may be Mason’s view, but it is not the historical view of the Church. Christians have traditionally ascribed a prophetic element to the Psalms. This statement in The Navarre Bible is representative:

“With regard to the curses called down on the wicked by holy men…, it is clear from the teachings of the Holy Fathers that either the curses were predictions of evil things that would inevitably come to pass, or they were condemnations of the sins of the wicked to destroy the effects of those faults, and so allow the people to be saved” (Roman Catechism, 4, 5, 7)[44]

If what Mason calls “human elements” have made their way into the Psalms, could they appear in other books of the Bible as well? In other words, must the modern Bible reader be on the lookout for chaff among the wheat? In a revealing poem in The Saviour of the World, Mason implies that the answer is yes, at least for the Old Testament. She imagines Jesus Christ as a boy reading the Jewish Scriptures:

Letters, too, learned [Christ], though not in the Schools:
The Scriptures of His people, every jot,
He knew by conning through laborious years,
A patient Scholar—spared no labour here:
And all the weary glosses on the text,
These, too, He knew; how, else, to separate
Wheat from the chaff in the full day to come?[45]

In Mason’s view, the chaff could include not only human sentiment but also inaccurate statement:

There may be inaccuracies of statement; for verbal inspiration, the use of the writer as an amanuensis, would destroy the human element which appears to be essential in all the communications of God with men. But let us not be in a hurry to cry, ‘Away with all such fables!’[46]

Although Mason allows for the possibility of human inaccuracies in the Bible, we see that she urges caution when attempting to identify such elements. Interestingly, she points to a different methodology than the textual criticism which was so influential in her day:

Little or no attempt at textual criticism is made in these volumes, because we are probably approaching an era of yet “Higher Criticism,” based upon a truer apprehension of the Divine Person; and towards this Higher Criticism every devout study is a contribution.[47]

Elsewhere she refers to this “yet ‘Higher Criticism” as “personal”:

Are we not on the verge of a new criticism, not historical, and not natural, but personal?[48]

With “personal criticism,” the separation of the wheat from the chaff is not delegated to scientists, archeologists, or textual scholars. Rather, we come to know God as a Person, and we come to recognize what is in character or out of character for Him. It is a form of criticism that can only be applied by true believers who have already given themselves over in absolute loyalty to their King.

Through her own application of “personal criticism,” Mason apparently reached different conclusions about the Old Testament and the New. As far as the Gospels are concerned, she characterizes the human inaccuracies as “trifling”:

Trifling inaccuracies—these but prove
Men wrote those things that they had learnt to love[49]

To further explore Mason’s distinction between the Old and New Testaments, let’s consider her affirmations about them separately.

Charlotte Mason’s Affirmations About the New Testament

1. The miracles recorded in the Gospels really happened. Mason emphasizes that the miracles of Christ are foundational and essential, and anything but extraneous or accidental. The most important miracle of the New Testament is the bodily resurrection of Christ, and Mason asserts that without this miracle, there is no God of revelation:

We believe that Christ rose again the third day and ascended into heaven; or we accept the far more incredible hypothesis that ‘there is no God’; or, anyway, the God of revelation, in his adorable Personality, has ceased to be for us.[50]

In John 2:1–11, we read that Jesus miraculously transformed water into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. In her comments on these verses Mason writes:

Can we, in very truth, receive this history as a fact? Does the simplicity and courtesy and fitness of the act commend it to our hearts as just the very thing that Christ would have done? Well for us if this is so. For indeed the question of miracles is no by-issue, but is the crux of Christianity; we cannot accept the one without the other.[51]

For Mason, this supernatural occurrence is no fable, parable, inaccuracy, or invention. It is historical fact. As we reflect on it, we are not considering some side issue of secondary importance; we are facing the heart of the Christian faith. She reiterates this point in a poetic reflection:

“Dost thou believe that Christ wrought many signs,
Made dumb to speak, the blind receive their sight,
The lame to leap, and for the poor poured forth
The treasures of His wisdom?”

“I believe!”

To-day must catechumen sure respond:
Else what is left? A holy man of God,
The great exemplar of our halting lives?[52]

Another reason Mason supports the historical veracity of the Gospel miracles is that they pass the “personal criticism” test that she proposes for authenticating passages of Scripture:

This should be a great gain in the spiritual life; that henceforth a miracle is accredited, not merely by the fact that it is recorded in the sacred history, but by its essential fitness with the divine Character; just as, if we may reverently compare human things with divine, we say of a friend, ‘Oh, he would never do that!’ or, ‘That is just like him.’ Tried by this test, how unostentatious, simple, meekly serviceable are the miracles of Christ…[53]

Mason extends her faith even to the most remarkable miracles of the Gospels, the restoration of life to the dead:

Our Lord’s allusion is, we may believe, to the three resurrections He is about to work, when the visible, fleshly bodies of the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus, should pass out of the visible earthly death and back again into the visible earthly life, which, after all, is only a part and a figure of the far richer, fuller, gift of eternal life.[54]

To date, I have not been able to find a single instance where Mason casts doubt on a Gospel miracle.

2. The Gospels accurately describe the true Jesus of history. Thanks to the Gospels, according to Mason, “There is no personage of history whom we have the means of knowing so completely as we may know our Lord.”[55]

3. The apostles Matthew and John were the actual authors of their respective Gospels. Mason says that “it matters very little … that such and such passages should be ascribed to other authors than those whose name they bear.”[56] Nevertheless, in the case of the Gospel of John, she assumes that the title names the author:

This last of the Gospels is the final revelation of Christ, the last word, so to speak, which comes to us from one who knew; for insight, comprehension, is the privilege of love, and none of the Twelve was so prepared for the fullest inspirations of the Holy Spirit (“Who” says our Lord “shall testify of Me”) as that disciple whom Jesus loved, and who gave the one most welcome return for love—St. John understood his Master.[57]

Mason also assumes that the Gospel of Matthew was written by one of the twelve apostles. In her poem “The Calling of the Twelve,” which contains her reflections on Luke 6:13–16 and Mark 3:14–19, she writes:

Glad, we, that modest Levi here to meet
Amongst the chosen Twelve, graced with a name
Dear to all Christian folk, as one of Four
Who for us wrote Evangel of our Lord[58]

Levi here is understood to be Matthew’s name before his conversion.[59] It seems likely to me that Mason accepted the traditional authorship of the other New Testament books as well, but I have not been able to locate specific statements to prove it.

4. Statements in the Gospels about historical events can be trusted even when not confirmed by other historical sources. In one of her wonderful poems, Charlotte Mason upholds the historicity of the Massacre of the Innocents, even though the record appears only in the Gospel of Matthew:

Too small a thing

For History’s record, this: any day a score
Might die of infant ailment, and who care,
Save that fond mother who fed eyes on each,
That father of whose flesh and blood each was?[60]

In an era where some doubt the veracity of Matthew’s account due to the lack of extrabiblical evidence, Mason’s trust in the Gospel as history is notable.

In summary, Mason consistently defends the spiritual value, historical accuracy, and traditional authorship of the New Testament. When it comes to the Old Testament, however, her affirmations take a somewhat different form, although she strongly asserts its spiritual value.

Charlotte Mason’s Affirmations About the Old Testament

1. The Old Testament is relevant and applicable to modern life. Charlotte Mason writes that “we shall not do well if we tacitly treat the Old Testament as out-of-date as a guide to life.”[61] Mason devotes large sections of her writing to emphasize this point, such as Formation of Character pages 344–356 and Towards a Philosophy of Education pages 160–162. These extended passages amply support Mason’s assertion that “the teaching of the New Testament, not duly grounded upon that of the Old, fails to result in such thought of God [as] wide, all-embracing, all-permeating”[62] as it should be.

2. The Old Testament should be presented to children without exploring questions of historicity. When describing Bible lessons for children under the age of nine, Mason writes:

As for whether such and such a narrative be a myth, or a parable, or a circumstance that has actually occurred, such questions do not affect the sincere mind of a child, because they have nothing to do with the main issues… But this grace, at any rate, the children may claim at our hands, that they shall not be disturbed by questions of authenticity in their Bible reading any more than in their reading of English history.[63]

The discussion of essential truth versus accidental truth is to be deferred until the children are older.

3. If the child questions the historicity of a Bible passage, the teacher should direct him to a good resource which he can digest at his leisure. Mason provides this clear direction:

Are our children little sceptics, as was the young Goethe, who take a laughing joy in puzzling their teachers with a hundred difficulties? Like that wise old Dr. Albrecht, let us be in no haste to explain. Let us not try to put down or evade their questions, or to give them final answers, but introduce them as did he to some thoughtful commentator who weighs difficult questions with modesty and scrupulous care.[64]

This interesting advice instructs the parent not to be dogmatic in her answers. Mason urges a “masterly inactivity” that allows the child to reach his own conclusions:

But, give the young sceptic a good book bearing on the questions he has raised, let him digest it at his leisure without comment or discussion, and, according to his degree of candour and intelligence, he will lay himself open to conviction.[65]

Perhaps surprisingly, Mason does not say which “good book” to give to the child. She notes that Dr. Albrecht gave Goethe a “great English ‘Bible-work’ … which attempted the interpretation of difficult passages in a thoughtful and judicious way.”[66] However, she could only say wistfully that “It would be good to know all about that Commentary which satisfied so keen a young mind.”[67] I would point out, though, that given Goethe’s date of birth, this book was probably published before 1750. This was well before the advent of form criticism and the rise of scientific naturalism. The most well-known “English ‘Bible-work’” of the early 18thcentury is probably Matthew Henry’s famous commentary. If Goethe had consulted that volume at Dr. Albrecht’s direction, he would have read the following about Joshua 10:13:

Notwithstanding the vast distance between the earth and the sun, at the word of Joshua the sun stopped immediately; for the same God that rules in heaven above rules at the same time on this earth, and, when he pleases, even the heavens shall hear the earth, as here.[68]

Indeed, given the era, it is hard to suppose that there was any book that Goethe could have consulted which would have explained Old Testament miracles by differentiating between essential and accidental truth.

4. The Old Testament may contain legendary or mythical accounts; however, we should be “extremely chary” of attributing this status to any particular account. Notwithstanding Matthew Henry and the great Bible works available to the young Goethe, Mason writes the following:

We shall be able, as a reward of long study, to distinguish when a popular legend crops up, by the signs that it contains no revelation of God, no simple portrayal of man… The narration of such an incident (and there are many of them in the Bible) is merely one of accidental, outside truth, with little illuminating value. How the essential truth may be revealed to us, whether by parable or record, we cannot say; but we know that we have all heard the tempting voice in the garden, have all eaten the fruit, have all become miserably aware of ourselves, and have left, though not without hope, the paradise of innocent souls. Nay, that very story of the stopping of the sun in its course, an embedded myth, let us say, is recorded, we may believe, by the inspiration of God… But let us be extremely chary as to how we use this method of interpretation. No doubt God instructed his people by figures; but also, no doubt, he instructed them by facts; and when the simple fact carries its own interpretation, let us beware how we seek for another.[69]

It is important to note that both examples Mason gives are from the Old Testament: the story of the Fall (Genesis 3) and of Joshua’s long day (Joshua 10:11–13). Mason apparently regards these two stories as “figures” or parables, rather than factual accounts. However, she warns against indiscriminately assigning “figure” status to Bible narratives. It seems that she never does so with any New Testament passage, presumably because there each “fact carries its own interpretation.”

5. We can remain tentative and undecided about whether or not a particular Old Testament passage is historical. The final determination does not affect the spiritual authority (essential truth) or value of such accounts. Mason explains this, again only including examples from the Old Testament:

The thing that matters to us in the Bible stories is their essential Truth. All godly people have known the walls of Jericho to fall before their faith and the trumpet-blast of their prayers. They have known seas of difficulty, which threatened to overwhelm them, divide to let them go forward. They have heard the voice of the Lord in the cool of the evening speaking to quiet and obedient hearts; and they know out of the experience of their own lives that by means of song and story, psalm and prophecy, the Bible reveals the ways of God with man, and all that there is in the heart of man. These are the things that matter; so they are quite ready to wait the verdict of the critics as to whether a certain narrative records facts that took place in a given year; whether such a book was written by one man, or by two. All this is deeply interesting, but has nothing to do with the essential, permanent Truth, the revelation of the otherwise unknown about God and about man which stamps the several books of the Bible with the divine seal.[70]

While awaiting “the verdict of the critics,” one can still be edified by reading and meditating on a disputed passage:

Whether men choose to regard the story of the Fall as a record, a poem, a fable, a parable, a vision, its inherent teaching is the same.[71]

Indeed, in a startling sentence, Mason takes this position to its logical extreme:

If errors of statement, false ascriptions, and the rest were found and proven beyond doubt upon every page of his sacred books, yet he believes that in these is to be found, and nowhere but in these, a revealed knowledge of God.[72]

Of course, this is a hypothetical statement. Mason is not saying there are errors on every page, but neither is she saying there are no errors on any page. She is saying that for the Old Testament, at least, the trustworthiness of its historical assertions has no relationship with the trustworthiness of its spiritual assertions. In fact, even the identity of the human author is irrelevant in that respect:

… the instruction in righteousness is not less or more, whether Moses or another, Isaiah or another, wrote the words…[73]

Nevertheless, even though spiritual truth is not at stake, Mason repeatedly recommends a robust skepticism towards the critics:

[The lover of God] is willing and thankful that science and scholarship should do their work, that the laws of textual criticism should be applied; at the same time, he sees a thousand reasons for caution and reserve in accepting the latest dicta of the critics.[74]

This does not mean, however, an outright rejection of the critics. In fact, Mason seems to assume that Biblical literalism is only used to attack the Bible, not to defend it. In her view, literalism does not encourage one to harmonize geology and history with the Genesis record of a worldwide flood. Instead, literalism leads to absurdity. In a revealing passage, Mason writes:

Our Lord Himself gave some of his deepest teaching in the fabulous stories known to us as parables; and, when severely literal people (who do not realise that, as we have said, Truth is of two sorts, the merely accidental and the essential, the passing and the everlasting, the Truth for to-day and the Truth for all time), would fain throw scorn upon the Bible records by telling us that the Garden of Eden and the Serpent and the Apple, the Flood, and much besides, are mere fables or allegories, we are not staggered.[75]

According to Mason then, to fortify our faith, we should not look to a scientific analysis of the plausibility of a worldwide flood, but rather to a robust philosophy of essential versus accidental truth. To help develop this mindset in children, she recommends the commentaries of J. Paterson Smyth:

I know of no better help in the teaching of young children than we get in Canon Paterson Smyth’s Bible for the Young. Mr Smyth brings both modern criticism and research to bear, so that children taught from his little manuals will not be startled to be told later that the world was not made in six days; and, at the same time, they will be very sure that the world was made by God.[76]

Presumably, children listening to Paterson Smyth will eventually develop their own ability to differentiate between the accidental (creation in six days) and the essential (creation by God). Given Mason’s high regard for Paterson Smyth, it seems likely she would support his interpretation of Joshua’s long day. In The Bible for School and Home, he writes that Joshua 10:11–13 “was intended but as a poetic figure to express the lengthening of the clear daylight for Israel.”[77] He urges teachers to protect children from the literal interpretation which he assumes is only urged by the unbeliever:

It is worth while taking trouble to correct the mistake, if only to save the pupils in their after-days from the force of the infidel sneers on the subject.[78]

Mason refined her model of accidental versus essential truth to such an extent that she even applied it to other books besides the Bible:

I venture to call these two veracious records, though Jörn Uhl is a novel and Sartor Resartus offers us much the same thing, that is, facts seen through a veil of romance; because we perceive that both are essentially true, and are profitable for our instruction in righteousness.[79]

By definition, a work of fiction is not a statement of truth. But for Mason, it can still be classified as true if its underlying message or theme corresponds with truth. So too with the Old Testament, according to Mason. Mason summarizes the above points about the Old Testament in a single, concise statement in her sixth volume:

Having received a considerable knowledge of the Old Testament in detail from the words of the Bible itself and having been trained to accept difficulties freely without giving place to the notion that such difficulties invalidate the Bible as the oracle of God and our sole original source of knowledge concerning the nature of Almighty God and the manner of His government of the world, children are prepared for a further study of divinity, still following the Bible text.[80]

I would like to stress that this is a statement about the Old Testament. Mason has no similar statement about “difficulties” in the New.

Same Principles, Different Conclusion

In 1942, Vyvyan Richards wrote that “ideas of education” are “like rings in water”: “the waves which [Mason’s] first impulse set radiating have opened out widely, but always centred upon her essential principles.”[81] For what it’s worth, when I myself begin with Mason’s “essential principles,” the thoughts of my mind and my heart radiate to a different conclusion about the Old Testament. These essential affirmations by Charlotte Mason form my own faith in the Hebrew Scriptures:

1. “Accidental truth” carries a meaning after all. As noted earlier, Mason explains that “no doubt God instructed his people by figures; but also, no doubt, he instructed them by facts…” I personally accept this notion without caveat; for me the principle ends here. Mason adds, “when the simple fact carries its own interpretation, let us beware how we seek for another.” My belief is that the simple fact always carries its own interpretation.

2. Science does not have the last word. Mason writes:

But the temper of students, both of natural science and of historical criticism, is becoming daily more candid and gentle; they are less and less disposed to believe that the last word has been spoken, are more open to the conviction that fuller light might resolve their doubts.[82]

This affirmation enabled Mason to accept the miracle of the Lord rising from the tomb.[83] This affirmation enables me to accept the miracle of the sun stopping in the sky.

3. Theism grants all miracles. Mason writes, “Grant the possibility of miracles, that is, of the voluntary action of a Personal God, and who will venture to assign limits of less or more?”[84] I for one, would not dare. In School Education, Mason quotes Henry Latham’s Pastor Pastorum (1890),[85] so she was obviously familiar with the book. In a section not quoted by Mason, Latham writes, “In the presence of [God’s] infinity, the difference between great and small things may disappear; certainly His measure will be a very different one from ours.”[86] From the perspective of an atom, the scale involved in the changing of water into wine would be thought incredible. Perhaps in a similar way a miracle involving the earth’s motion relative to the sun seems incredible to us. But what is the size of the earth compared to the infinity of God Almighty? And when we consider that time proceeds at different rates at different locations (according to Einstein’s theory of relativity), we realize that God had many options at His disposal for working this miracle.

4. The miracle of Joshua 10 meets the test of “essential fitness with the divine character.” Recall that Mason proposes “that henceforth a miracle is accredited, not merely by the fact that it is recorded in the sacred history, but by its essential fitness with the divine Character.”[87] Turning again to Pastor Pastorum, we read:

… it was with many an open question whether to ascribe [miracles] to God or to Beelzebub, for the latter had, it was supposed, a share of power upon the earth. But one popular criterion there was of the power being God’s: in heaven, said the Jews, God reigned supreme and alone. A Sign worked there would carry with it the autograph of God. When Joshua would convince their fathers, he had wrought a Sign in heaven; he had made the sun and moon stand still.[88]

Here Latham argues that Joshua’s unique circumstances necessitated a miracle that would appear “in heaven” in order to provide absolute assurance that the work was of God and not of the devil. It is entirely consistent with the character of the God who said “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other”[89] to demonstrate once and for all His superiority above every so-called god of every other nation.

5. Jesus said that as adults we must have the faith of a child. Mason describes the faith of a child:

All things are possible to the little child, and the touch of the spiritual upon our material world, the difficult problems, the hard sayings, which are an offence, in the Bible sense of the word, to his elders, present no difficulties to the child’s all-embracing faith.[90]

I take Mason at her word. All things are possible to the little child. The child does not stumble at the thought that the God who created the sun in the first place would one day make it stop in the sky. Oh that I too would always have such an all-embracing faith! And in this case, at least, I do. I believe.

Living With Dissonance
If you follow the Charlotte Mason method and you agree with Mason’s conclusion that there are errors in the “accidental” portions of Scripture, then you have no dissonance to resolve. If that describes you, then please feel free to stop reading now. If, on the other hand, you love the Charlotte Mason method but also believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, then you may feel a certain dissonance. I know I do. Please keep reading if you’d like to hear how I personally cope with that dissonance. I will express it as my answers to three questions.

1. Does this dissonance make me respect or trust Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, theology, or insight into education any less? No, nor does a similar dissonance diminish my respect for and trust in C. S. Lewis. In Common Place Quarterly I shared about the impact of Lewis on my homeschool and my life. Although I disagree with his stance that “the early stories of Genesis [are] mythical,”[91] I recognize that he knows the same Jesus I know and that he is a far better theologian than I will ever be. We all draw theological lessons from great thinkers who differ with us on one point of doctrine or another. The communion of saints is comprised of all who are faithful to the essential tenets of the historical Christian faith, what Lewis calls “Mere Christianity.” And so I learn from Mason.

Mason has performed a unique service for Christendom by giving us a complete and coherent philosophy of education derived primarily from Scripture. To develop this philosophy, she drew from the teachings of the Bible that she would classify as “essential truth.” I believe with all my heart that such “essential truth” is true indeed; it is the very Word of God. Mason discovered a “code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ,”[92] and no particular view of Joshua’s long day is required to receive, defend, implement, or uphold it.

An analogy may be drawn to a bridge that has a primary lane for cars and a side lane for pedestrians. One engineer says that only the primary lane is safe, and that only cars should use the bridge. Another engineer says that the entire bridge is safe, and that pedestrians may use the side lane with confidence. Both engineers agree, then, that cars may safely use the primary lane of the bridge. In my analogy, the bridge is the Bible, the primary lane is “essential truth,” and the side lane is “accidental truth.” The car represents theological deductions and doctrines. The Charlotte Mason method is based on the part of the bridge that we all agree is reliable. However, I personally go beyond that and trust both lanes of the bridge, and so I also look to the Bible for historical and scientific truth. Thus, I walk along the side lane with confidence. And I bring my children along with me.

2. Does this dissonance affect the way I write or speak about Charlotte Mason? To some extent, yes. On the one hand, I do my best to accurately and frankly represent this aspect of Mason’s theory. (As, for example, I am hopefully doing in this article.) On the other hand, I neither emphasize nor advocate Mason’s concept of essential versus accidental truth. In my articles on Bible lessons, for example, I acknowledge this element of Mason’s guidelines for Bible teaching, but I add my own caveats. Perhaps this puts me in an odd situation, as I am normally such an enthusiastic advocate of Mason’s ideas, and I stress that her ideas should be applied in an authentic fashion. But I would rather acknowledge this point of difference than invent a fake Mason who conforms to my ideals. So if you are looking for a speaker to promote and defend Mason’s idea of essential versus accidental truth, I’m not your guy.

3. How do I handle this dissonance when I study Ourselves with my own children? This question brings out the fact that Mason did not only write books for parents and teachers. She also wrote a book for youth — she called it Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies, and it is the fourth volume of The Home Education Series. The book is intended to instruct young people in the “possibilities that lie in human nature, and of the risks that attend these.”[93] However, it does not stop there. It also teaches a theology of the Bible and lays out the doctrine of essential and accidental truth. In fact, many of the quotes from this article are drawn from that volume.

Ourselves is a wonderful book and has been a great blessing for me and my children. However, in my family, when we come to passages on essential and accidental truth, I calmly and concisely let my children know that I disagree with the teaching. I do not “censor” these passages, nor do I “censor” the entire book. When I note my disagreement, no more explanation is necessary. In my family we are so steeped in readings and discussions about the Bible, creation, and miracles that my children already know exactly where I stand. I am sure the dissonance registers with them when they hear these passages in Ourselves, and they would expect me to note the disagreement.

I am aware Mason insists that “what we have no right to do, is to pass [ready-made] opinions on to our children.”[94] I take to heart Mason’s insightful and sober warning, and I even repeat it before live audiences:

The mother of the Newmans was a devoted Evangelical, and in their early years passed her opinions over to her sons, ready-made; believing, perhaps, that the line of thought they received from her was what they had come to by their own thinking. But when they are released from the domination of their mother’s opinions, one seeks anchorage in the Church of Rome, and another will have no restriction as to his freedom of thought and will, and chooses to shape for himself his own creed or negation of a creed. Perhaps this pious mother would have been saved some anguish if she had given her children the living principles of the Christian faith, which are not matters of opinion, and allowed them to accept her particular practice in their youth without requiring them to take their stand on Evangelical opinions as offering practically the one way of salvation.[95]

I am aware that Mason says that “Dogmatic teaching finds its way to [our children] by inference through a quiet realisation of the Bible records.”[96] So why don’t I let Mason’s words in Ourselves pass directly to my children without comment?

I suppose my answer is found in the second part of the quote on dogmatic teaching: “… and loyalty to a Divine Master is likely to become the guiding principle of their lives.”[97] Loyalty to my Divine Master is the guiding principle of my life. For me, loyalty to God is part and parcel with loyalty to His Word. I cannot keep silent. Loyalty forbids.

Could my children turn around and rebel, like the children of Mama Newman? Of course they could. Even Adam rebelled against his Father, and he was educated in Eden. My homeschool is no Paradise. Yes, my children could rebel. I pray that they won’t. Meanwhile I teach them that God’s Word is true.

My firstborn went to a secular university and wrote a paper defending the historicity of the Book of Job. It was a precious moment for me, though perhaps not for the professor. Then my daughter went to a different secular university and joined a campus ministry group that stands for biblical inerrancy. What will come next? God knows, not I.

I just take refuge in these precious words of Charlotte Mason:

All things are possible to the little child, and the touch of the spiritual upon our material world, the difficult problems, the hard sayings, which are an offence, in the Bible sense of the word, to his elders, present no difficulties to the child’s all-embracing faith.[98]

I never meant to push ready-made opinions upon my children. I suppose we’ve all just had a kind of child-like faith. And I pray that we never grow up.


[1] While I am a member of an Anglican church, and I describe myself as a Confessing Anglican, I also consider myself to be an evangelical. I agree with formulations such as the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals.

[2] J. I. Packer, “Chicago Statement,” ed. Martin Davie et al., New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (London; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), p. 164.

[3] (accessed 4/14/2022).

[4] G. R. Evans and J. Robert Wright, The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources (London: SPCK, 1991), p. 230.

[5] Ibid.

[6] (accessed 4/15/2022)

[7] Richard B. Cunningham, C. S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith, ed. William Griffin, C. S. Lewis Studies (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), p. 15.

[8] Ibid., pp. 88–89.

[9] Parents and Children, p. 111; Formation of Character, p. 209.

[10] The Saviour of the World, vol. 2, p. xvi.

[11] Ibid., p. 177.

[12] Formation of Character, p. 155. Pages 144–157 from this volume are entitled “A Schoolmaster’s Reverie.” In this chapter, Mason is speaking in the voice of a fictitious Michael St. John Harrowby. However, the context and the confirmation of Mason’s other writings indicate that this character’s assertions are Mason’s own.

[13] Scale How “Meditations” No. 13.

[14] Parents and Children, p. 104.

[15] Formation of Character, p. 151. See also endnote 12.

[16] Ourselves, Book II, p. 85.

[17] Formation of Character, p. 156. See also endnote 12.

[18] Parents and Children, p. 96.

[19] Ourselves, Book II, p. 86.

[20] Ibid., p. 83.

[21] Ibid., p. 87.

[22] Ibid., p. 185.

[23] Ibid., p. 81.

[24] Ibid., p. 82.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Home Education, p. 336.

[27] Parents and Children, p. 104.

[28] School Education, p. 133.

[29] Ibid., p. 175.

[30] Ourselves, Book II, p. 87.

[31] The Saviour of the World, vol. 5, p. viii.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ourselves, Book II, pp. 115–116.

[34] Scale How “Meditations” No. 2.

[35] Ourselves, Book II, p. 83.

[36] Parents and Children, p. 97.

[37] Ibid., p. 98.

[38] Ourselves, Book II, p. 92–93.

[39] Scale How “Meditations” No. 20.

[40] Ibid.

[41] The Saviour of the World, vol. 1, p. 121.

[42] Ourselves, Book II, pp. 87–88.

[43] Formation of Character, p. 155.

[44] James Gavigan, Brian McCarthy, and Thomas McGovern, eds., Psalms and the Song of Solomon, The Navarre Bible (Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2003), p. 370.

[45] The Saviour of the World, Volume 1, pp. 61–62.

[46] Ourselves, Book II, p. 89.

[47] The Saviour of the World, Volume 5, p. ix.

[48] Formation of Character, p. 154.

[49] The Saviour of the World, Volume 3, p. ix.

[50] Parents and Children, p. 99.

[51] Scale How “Meditations” No. 8.

[52] The Saviour of the World, vol. 1, p. 120.

[53] Parents and Children, p. 99.

[54] Scale How “Meditations” No. 17.

[55] Ourselves, Book II, p. 91.

[56] Ourselves, Book II, p. 184.

[57] Scale How “Meditations” No. 1.

[58] The Saviour of the World, vol. 2, p. 109.

[59] John Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary, p. 657, commenting on Matthew 9:9. See also Mason’s poem “The call of Levi.”

[60] The Saviour of the World, vol. 1, p. 47.

[61] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 273.

[62] Formation of Character, p. 355.

[63] Home Education, pp. 249–250.

[64] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 162.

[65] Formation of Character, p. 343.

[66] Ibid., p. 342.

[67] Ibid., p. 343.

[68] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 310.

[69] Ourselves, Book II, p. 88–89.

[70] Ourselves, Book I, p. 161–162.

[71] Formation of Character, p. 151.

[72] Ourselves, Book II, p. 185.

[73] Formation of Character, p. 154.

[74] Ourselves, Book II, p. 184–185.

[75] Ourselves, Book I, p. 161.

[76] Home Education, pp. 251–252.

[77] J. Paterson Smyth, The Bible for School and Home: Joshua and the Judges.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Formation of Character, p. 297.

[80] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 164.

[81] The Parents’ Review, vol. 53, p. 19.

[82] Scale How “Meditations” No. 30.

[83] Ourselves, Book II, p. 94.

[84] Parents and Children, p. 98.

[85] School Education, p. 183.

[86] Henry Latham, Pastor Pastorum, p. 87.

[87] Parents and Children, p. 99.

[88] Henry Latham, Pastor Pastorum, pp. 24–25.

[89] Isaiah 42:8 (ESV).

[90] Parents and Children, p. 109.

[91] Richard B. Cunningham, C. S. Lewis: Defender of the Faith, ed. William Griffin, C. S. Lewis Studies (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), p. 88.

[92] Home Education, p. 12.

[93] Ourselves, p. xx.

[94] School Education, p. 42.

[95] Ibid., pp. 42–43.

[96] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 165.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Parents and Children, p. 109.

2 Replies to “Charlotte Mason on the Authority of Scripture”

  1. Very timely article, Art! I was uncomfortable when I read those passages the first time and struggled for understanding. Just a week ago my oldest and I were reading THAT passage in Ourselves. I read it as is and waited patiently during his narration to hear what he understood. We had a lively conversation afterwards and it maybe counts as a highlight of reading this book together.

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