The Origin of Ideas

The Origin of Ideas

Not so very long ago, I was in the car with my six-year old when he asked, “Did God make that truck?”

“Nope. But God made the people who made the truck.”

He studied my face. “Okay.” Then he resumed staring out the window.

Several weeks later, I thought of that exchange, and I saw something in it I’d missed the first time. My son’s train of thought wasn’t off the rails. It was gliding along tracks my wife and I had been laying since he was three:

“Hezekiah, who made you?”


“And what else did God make?”

“All things.”

If God, as the Children’s Catechism teaches, made all things, why wouldn’t “all” include the truck we’d passed that day?

But my response to his question began to trouble me. “God made the people who made the truck.” It wasn’t untrue, but it reduced God’s role in human invention to that of being the first cause.

According to Hebrews, Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3, ESV, 2016). God is no clockmaker, no mere first cause. The Voice that called everything into existence from nothing still speaks. Creation is as dependent on its Creator as it ever was. As N.D. Wilson has written, “Does matter exist apart from Him? Is it still here? Are you still here? Then He is still speaking” (Wilson, 2009, p. 31).

God is still elbow deep in the work of creation and is as involved in the invention of sedans and space shuttles as he is lilies and lions. But God doesn’t form Chevy Silverados from the dust of the earth, so how is he involved in their creation?

First of all, he speaks and matter obeys. Wilson writes:

I am made of cells. My cells are built on molecules. My molecules make use of atoms. My atoms are mostly space, but the bits that aren’t are called quarks. My quarks are standing because they’re obedient. They’ve been told to by a Voice they cannot disobey. (Wilson, 2009, p. 24)

But there’s more to creation than matter, and this is where I find Charlotte Mason so helpful. Mason taught that education requires attention to the material and the spiritual. Habit formation is material; the presentation of ideas is spiritual. And I’d like to devote the rest of this essay to the latter of these two.

Ms. Mason writes:

Now that life, which we call education, receives only one kind of sustenance; it grows upon ideas… We say of an idea that it strikes us, impresses us, seizes us, takes possession of us, rules us… We do not in the least exaggerate in ascribing this sort of action and power to an idea… Why do you devote yourself to this pursuit, that cause? ‘Because twenty years ago such and such an idea struck me,’ is the sort of history which might be given of every purposeful life—every life devoted to the working out of an idea. (​Mason, 1989b​, pp. 33-34)

Mason believed these ideas are often mediated to us through living books, which is why she insisted on spreading a rich feast of such books for our children. However, she agreed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that these ideas have a divine origin. Commenting on Coleridge’s work on the rise and progress of an idea, Ms. Mason writes:

Notice the genesis of such ideas—‘presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than Nature’; notice how accurately this history of an idea fits in with what we know of the history of great inventions and discoveries, with that of the ideas which rule our own lives; and how well does it correspond with that key to the origin of ‘practical’ ideas which we find elsewhere… (Mason, 1989b​, p. 35)

Ms. Mason affirms Coleridge’s statement that ideas are “presented to chosen minds by a Higher Power than nature.” But then, citing Isaiah 28, she sharpens the notion with an exegetical razor strap:

Does the plowman keep plowing all day to sow?
Does he keep turning his soil and breaking the clods?
When he has leveled its surface,
Does he not sow the black cummin
And scatter the cummin,
Plant the wheat in rows,
The barley in the appointed place,
And the spelt in its place?
For He instructs him in right judgment,
His God teaches him.
(Isaiah 28:24-26, NKJV, 1982, emphasis added)

According to Isaiah, God teaches man how to prepare the land and plant his crops. Whatever the process may have looked like to his neighbors, however many times he may have failed before he got it right, it was God who taught him. And he did so through the ​impartation of ideas.​

At first, I was cautious embracing Mason’s use of Isaiah 28 to substantiate Coleridge’s claims, but after some investigation of my own, I found her reading of the text in line with historic Protestantism. Rather than providing a survey of relevant commentators, I’ll simply quote John Calvin as a representative of what others have written.

In his commentary on Isaiah, Calvin writes:

A passing observation on the 26th verse may be made, and indeed ought to be made, that not only agriculture, but likewise all the arts which contribute to the advantage of mankind, are the gifts of God, and that all that belongs to skilful invention has been imparted by him to the minds of men. Men have no right to be proud on this account, or to arrogate to themselves the praise of invention… The Prophet shews that such arts ought to be ascribed to God, from whom they have been received, who alone is the inventor and teacher of them. If we ought to form such an opinion about agriculture and mechanical arts, what shall we think of the learned and exalted sciences, such as Medicine, Jurisprudence, Astronomy, Geometry, Logic, and such like? Shall we not much more consider them to have proceeded from God? Shall we not in them also behold and acknowledge his goodness, that his praise and glory may be celebrated both in the smallest and in the greatest affairs? (Calvin, 2010, p. 306)

It’s a little known fact that Calvin’s first book was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. As is evident from the above quotation, Calvin was passionate about the arts and sciences. He loved literature and philosophy. And this passion was in no way at odds with his concern for the Kingdom of God.

Acknowledging that all truth is God’s truth, that all beauty is God’s beauty, and that all goodness is God’s goodness, Calvin believed, is foundational to the Christian worldview. In his ​Institutes of the Christian Religion, h​e writes:

… we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness… but also that ​not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause​; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. (Calvin, 1845, p. 52, emphasis added)

Calvin puts us in a better frame to understand Mason, and Mason puts us in a better frame to instruct our children. To believe, as Mason did, that education “grows on ideas” is to believe that the Holy Spirit, who is the author of ideas, is the Great Teacher who instructs every child (Isaiah 28:26). Mason writes,

In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her ​children​; the divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils. We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us. (Mason, 1989b​, p. 273)

Therefore, when we pray for our sons and daughters at the beginning of each school day, we must entrust each child to Him as an individual, an individual who receives His undivided attention, an individual whom God treats as His only pupil. Education grows on ideas, and ideas are imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. It is God Himself who teaches our children. What a marvelous thought!


Calvin, J. (1845). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 1). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.

Calvin, J. (2010). Commentary on the book of the Prophet Isaiah (Vol. 2). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

NKJV. (1982). The new King James version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Wilson, N. (2009). ​Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl​. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Jonathan Cavett is an author and instructional designer. He and his wife Tara live in Southeast Tennessee where they spread the feast of the Charlotte Mason method for their two sons, Hezekiah and Nicolaus.

©2018 Jonathan Cavett

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