The Theology of the Great Recognition

The Theology of the Great Recognition

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I remember very clearly the first day I grasped the basic concept of what Charlotte Mason refers to as “the Great Recognition required of parents.” It was about ten years ago, and I was walking along a path at the Broad River Greenway in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. In a conversation with friends, I narrated my understanding of The Great Recognition, and I felt an excitement bubble up in me. The glow of that conversation remained with me through that evening, into the following week, and even through the following decade. That moment transformed my understanding of education. Education was no longer an activity. Education was a participation with God the Holy Spirit.

Since that day, two follow-on questions have always tempered and balanced that initial excitement. The first question is, “Is it true?” Certainly The Great Recognition is a wonderfully invigorating concept, filling teaching and parenting with a new and vibrant meaning. But is it grounded in reality, or is it only wishful thinking? The second question is, “Why is it so?” If the Holy Spirit gets involved whenever true education is taking place, why does He do so? How does that relate to the broader ministry of the Holy Spirit? After ten years of reflection on these two questions, I will share some of the answers I have found.

The first question is, “Is it true?” As an evangelical Christian, I believe that the most reliable source of information is the Bible itself. If the Bible teaches a concept, then I can accept that concept with complete confidence. A secondary source of information is what God the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church through the centuries since its inception. A truth found in Scripture that has been reaffirmed by the church in the centuries following is a truth that is trustworthy indeed.

We find that Scripture does indeed reveal God the Holy Spirit as the instructor of mankind. An early example occurs in the book of Exodus. Moses tells the people about a master craftsman named Bezalel. Moses states that Bezalel is an “expert in working with gold, silver, and bronze.” Where did Bezalel obtain this knowledge of craftsmanship? Moses explains: “The Lord has filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, ability, and expertise in all kinds of crafts.”[1] In other words, the Spirit of God was Bezalel’s teacher. He gave Bezalel not only wisdom, but also expertise in a wide variety of what we might think are non-religious skills, such as engraving, mounting, and carving.

A later example is King Solomon. Solomon prayed for wisdom, and God answered that prayer. Solomon’s wisdom is displayed in the inspired book of Proverbs, which provides timeless guidance for godly living for all generations. But the Scriptures show that God also helped Solomon to understand botany — a category of knowledge commonly thought of as “secular”:

God gave Solomon very great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sands of the seashore… He composed some 3,000 proverbs and wrote 1,005 songs. He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall. He could also speak about animals, birds, small creatures, and fish.[2]

Later, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that God is the teacher not only of famous individuals such as Bezalel and Solomon, but also of the common man. God teaches the farmer the secular science of agriculture:

The farmer knows just what to do, for God has given him understanding. A heavy sledge is never used to thresh black cumin; rather, it is beaten with a light stick. A threshing wheel is never rolled on cumin; instead, it is beaten lightly with a flail. Grain for bread is easily crushed, so he doesn’t keep on pounding it. He threshes it under the wheels of a cart, but he doesn’t pulverize it. The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is a wonderful teacher, and he gives the farmer great wisdom.[3]

Confirming The Great Recognition, Isaiah proclaims that our God “is a wonderful teacher.” Along these lines, the psalmist explicitly refers to God’s activity as a teacher: “he who teaches knowledge to humankind, does he not chastise?”[4]

The book of Daniel also notes how God is the teacher of mankind. Daniel announces that God “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars.”[5] One beneficiary of God’s instruction was Daniel himself: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.”[6]  We see that knowledge, wisdom, and skill are not achieved by human effort alone, but by the provision of God Himself.

This general teaching is made even more specific in the deuterocanonical books of the Bible, which are recognized as inspired by the Catholic and Orthodox churches. These books are also considered edifying by both the Anglican and Lutheran churches. In the book of Wisdom, the author writes:

I pray to God that my thoughts may be worthy of what I have learned, and that I may speak according to his will. He is Wisdom’s guide; he gives correction to those who are wise. We are under his power and authority — we ourselves, our words, all our understanding and skills. It is he who gave me true knowledge of the forces of nature: what the world is made of; how the elements behave; how the calendar is determined by the movements of the sun, the changing seasons, the constellations, and the cycles of years. He has taught me about the nature of living creatures, the behavior of wild animals, the force of the winds, the reasoning powers of human beings, the different kinds of plants, and the use of their roots as medicine. I learned things that were well known and things that had never been known before, because Wisdom, who gave shape to everything that exists, was my teacher.[7]

This remarkable passage indicates that God grants understanding of many branches of science, from astronomy to psychology. Indeed, even the dispensing of skills and crafts is apparently at God’s discretion, since all understanding and skill is “in His hand.”

The New Testament continues to testify to the divine role in the acquisition of wisdom. For example, the Apostle James writes of “the wisdom that comes from heaven.”[8] But we have seen from the Old Testament that wisdom does not refer only to sacred or spiritual matters. Indeed, James writes that “every good and perfect gift is from above.”[9] This includes, for example, the gift of agricultural understanding to the farmer.

Christian teachers in the centuries following have reaffirmed this teaching. One notable example is Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). Kuyper was a Reformed theologian who wrote extensively on the topic of common grace. In his writings, he insisted that growth in learning cannot proceed without the participation of the Holy Spirit:

We cannot help but remain exposed to … danger, as long as this darkening of human understanding receives no counterweight in the illumination of that understanding by the Holy Spirit. Apart from common grace, the decline of science would have become absolute without that illumination by the Holy Spirit.[10]

Kuyper taught that this illumination extended not only to the regenerate, but to all people, due to the common grace of God.

Based on this testimony, confirmed by the witness laid out by Charlotte Mason herself, I confidently affirm The Great Recognition. I find the truth to be a real and relevant aid and inspiration on a daily basis. But the question remains: why does the Holy Spirit deign to perform this ministry? We often hear that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Christ. A recent catechism developed by J.I. Packer stated that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is as follows:

The Holy Spirit imparts life in all its forms throughout God’s creation, unites believers to Jesus Christ, indwells each believer, convicts believers of sin, applies the saving work of Jesus to the believer’s life, guides the Church into truth, fills and empowers believers through spiritual fruit and gifts given to the Church, and gives understanding of the Scripture which He inspired.[11]

The theme through all of these ministries is to bring people to Christ and to bring Christ to people. If that is the case, then how does the divine work of education fit into this ministry? Is it a distraction of the Holy Spirit from His primary activity?

I pondered this question over the years as I continued my own faith journey. I was born and baptized in the Episcopal Church, but I left that church in high school when I experienced a spiritual awakening to a personal relationship with Christ. I spent the next twenty years attending Bible churches, until shortly after I discovered Charlotte Mason’s Great Recognition. At that time, in 2007, I returned to my roots and joined the Anglican Church, albeit this time with firm evangelical convictions.

As I immersed myself again in the traditional liturgy and writings of the Anglican tradition, I began to notice allusions in Charlotte Mason’s writings that I had missed before. Mason quoted from or alluded to a wide variety of sources, but only rarely specified her source. Often these allusions are not in quotation marks, so it is easy to miss them and not realize that she is evoking a source that she thought would be familiar to her audience. One of these sources is her beloved Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican catechism defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” The use of the word “means” appears also in the Great Thanksgiving, where the prayer reads, “We bless thee for … the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” In the Anglican lexicon, then, the phrase “means of grace” is a synonym for “sacrament,” and it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

This language can easily be misinterpreted by evangelicals and Catholics alike. Evangelicals tend to associate grace with salvation: it is the grace of God that allows us to be justified on the basis of Christ’s merits. Similarly, Catholics often envision saving grace as being transmitted in the reception of the great sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[12] However, in these and other Christian traditions, grace can also refer to any blessing from God. It could be something as simple as an answered prayer or a revival of hope. This kind of usage is especially common in Mason’s Anglican context, in which she goes as far as to define grace as “the touch of God.”[13] So in Mason’s Anglican context, the phrase “means of grace” is not an ipso facto reference to the transmission of saving grace.

In the Anglican tradition, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are true and real channels of God’s grace, but this grace takes many forms. Salvation itself is still received by faith alone, but other blessings are received through the sacraments by God’s grace. Many Anglicans extend this concept beyond the familiar sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and use sacramental terminology to refer to the direct involvement of God with his creation.[14] One contemporary theologian who speaks of sacraments in this light is N.T. Wright, considered by Christianity Today to be “one of our time’s top theologians.”[15]

Wright argues that the sacraments are to be understood as special points, established by Jesus and used by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s presence and new creation into the world. Such a sacramental theology is based on the biblical world-view of heaven and earth being understood as interlocking dimensions of the created order rather than distant from one another…

The ordinary and earthly nature of the sacraments is an indispensable sign of the goal of Christian salvation being a renewed and transformed earth, rather than escape from it. This understanding of baptism and the [Lord’s Supper] in turn points to a world full of sacramental possibilities, as every good thing that God has created can potentially anticipate the new creation and become a channel of the presence of the risen Jesus…

Such a connection encourages those who recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread also to recognize him sacramentally in the suffering and poor people that they help and care for (Matthew 25:31–46).[16]

For Wright, “every good thing that God has created can … become a channel of the presence of the risen Jesus” — in other words, every good thing has the potential to become a means of grace.

As I reread Mason’s writings through this Anglican lens, I noticed that Mason sometimes uses the phrases “outward and visible sign,” “inward and spiritual grace,” and “means of grace.” These are clearly intended to evoke the sacramental definition from the catechism. However, she does so in areas unrelated to the familiar sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. One example is when Mason writes about art (emphasis added):

There are always those present with us whom God whispers in the ear, through whom He sends a direct message to the rest. Among these messengers are the great painters who interpret to us some of the meanings of life. To read their messages aright is a thing due from us. But this, like other good gifts, does not come by nature. It is the reward of humble, patient study. It is not in a day or a year that Fra Angelico will tell us of the beauty of holiness, that Giotto will confide his interpretation of the meaning of life, that Millet will tell us of the simplicity and dignity that belong to labour on the soil, that Rembrandt will show us the sweetness of humanity in many a commonplace countenance…

[T]he outward and visible sign is of less moment than the inward and spiritual grace.[17]

Mason also uses sacramental terminology when describing nature:

Also, that other profound doctrine is borne in upon us, that ‘nature’ is sacramental, not only in the sense that it is an outward and visible sign of spiritual things signified, but also that it is a means of grace whereby we receive the same, i.e., a large content, simplicity, humility and healing.[18]

Several other examples may be found in Mason’s writing. When Mason writes in this way, she is not saying that art or nature convey salvation. Rather, she is saying that in the practice of these activities, one may encounter “the touch of God.”

Once I realized that Mason had this sacramental lens, I began to search more diligently to understand how significant this concept was to her philosophy of education. It was then that I realized the central place of John 6 in her thinking. John 6 is the famous passage in which Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”[19] Later in the discourse, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”[20]

Evangelicals generally do not interpret this passage as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. For example, the Bible Knowledge Commentary states:

Drinking “His blood” is another bold figure of speech… Jesus was speaking of His making atonement by His death and giving life to those who personally appropriate Him (cf. John 6:63). Faith in Christ’s death brings eternal life (cf. vv. 40, 47, 50–51) and (later) bodily resurrection (cf. vv. 39–40, 44).[21]

This commentary acknowledges that “Jesus is man’s necessary ‘food,’” but it insists that this “bread of life” is “eaten” by being in right relationship to Christ: “And once someone is in right relationship to Jesus, he finds a satisfaction which is everlasting, not temporal.”[22]

By contrast, many Catholics say that in John 6, Christ is speaking of saving grace in the Lord’s Supper.[23] For example, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible speaks of John 6:53 as follows:

[E]at the flesh … drink his blood: Jesus is speaking literally and sacramentally.

Jesus gives us, not his mortal flesh as it was during his earthly ministry, but his glorified humanity as it was after rising from the dead. This is why he calls himself the “living bread” (6:51).[24]

According to this view, when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” He meant that the life of grace was to be received through the elements of the Lord’s Supper, which become His body and blood.

The Anglican perspective shares elements from both viewpoints, but does not align perfectly with either.[25] In the Anglican view, Christ is speaking sacramentally in John 6. However, “eating” His body and blood refers to more than just what happens at the Lord’s Supper. Informed by the Reformed view, Anglicans believe that the merits of Christ’s body and blood are received by faith, and it is through faith that salvation is received.

Mason takes this broad Anglican perspective and ties it directly to the fundamental model of education. In her educational catechism, she refers to John 6 when she writes:

This View throws Light on Christian Doctrine—Does this doctrine of ideas as the spiritual food needful to sustain the immaterial life throw any light on the doctrines of the Christian religion?

Yes; the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Word by which man lives, the “meat to eat which ye know not of,” and much more, cease to be figurative expressions, except that we must use the same words to name the corporeal and the incorporeal sustenance of man. We understand, moreover, how ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people. We find it no longer a “hard saying,” nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread.[26]

In this remarkable and foundational statement from Mason, she connects “ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour” to the tenth point of her educational creed:

On the contrary, a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal, and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.[27]

In connecting John 6 to this point, we see that Mason is making the astonishing claim that the ideas that the soul feeds on may be thought of as the Body of Christ.

When we consider this, we must remember that the Apostle John begins his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[28] In this verse, St. John calls Christ the logos, which we translate “the Word.” Matthew Henry insists that “the second person in the Trinity is fitly called the Word; for he is … that eternal essential Wisdom which the Lord possessed.[29] When Mason writes of “ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence,” she is speaking of Christ the Logos, who is the Wisdom of God. Since Word and Wisdom are of His essence, therefore living ideas emanate from Him. And since we live on these ideas, Mason associates them with the Body of Christ.

Is Mason out of line to make such a claim? For example, should the term “Body of Christ” be reserved solely to the communion elements of the Lord’s Supper? Well, even the apostles themselves use the term “Body of Christ” in other ways. For example, St. Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”[30] Furthermore, we noted that evangelical commentators on John 6 apply the term “Body of Christ” metaphorically to refer to all the benefits that may be received from Christ:

“Eating” the living Bread is a figure of speech meaning to believe on Him, like the figures of coming to Him (v. 35), listening to Him, (v. 45), and seeing Him (v. 40).[31]

If the apostles, along with modern commentators, refer to the “Body of Christ” in such a variety of ways, is it so surprising that Mason would associate the term with the living ideas which emanate from Christ in a living education?

In Mason’s Christ-centric world view, Christ the Creator is the source of all life, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual. This world view is most clearly presented in her comments on John 6:27:

All the life that we have, of whatever sort, is the life of Christ, and in proportion as we realise that which is least, we shall perceive, however dimly, that which is greatest, and every eating of bread and drinking of wine will become to us, in a lesser degree, sacramental. But life, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, has its three courts. There is the outer court where living things blossom and bear fruit, eat and drink, and sleep and play; and this life is holy, and disease and fever do not extinguish, but liberate, the principle of life. There is the Holy place where not all living beings walk but only mankind, because men are able to think and love; this life also is sustained upon Christ, who is our life. Within, there is the Holy of Holies, where man communicates with God and consciously receives in Christ the life of his spirit.[32]

According to Mason, whether we are sustaining our bodies, our minds, or our spirits, we are feeding on Christ the creator who is the direct and personal source of all good gifts. Mason summarizes this view when she refers to the bread of Christ as a sacrament. In a poem on John 6:52, she writes:

A man like other men stands in our midst;
Cries, “I am Bread, and ye must eat or die!
I am sole Sustenance of all the world!”
Mark you, not for the Jews [only] he comes, the world
Shall share this sacrament, His flesh! All men
Shall come and eat— and there’s to spare— His “flesh,”
As men eat sacrificial lamb.[33]

In this poem, Mason is not speaking in a restrictive sense about the Lord’s Supper. She is speaking about how all people must “eat” of the “Bread” of Christ or else die. Because everything that gives life has its origin in Christ.

It is this theological concept that, to me, explains why The Great Recognition operates as it does. The reason the Holy Spirit participates in our education is because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Christ. When bodies, minds, and souls are awakened, they are awakened to the Lord Christ Himself. Mason wrote, “It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living.”[34] What is delightful living if not to know Christ Himself? It is He who is “the true light, who gives light to everyone.”[35] Now here we have something that is central to the ministry of the Holy Spirit! When we approach education with faith and trust, we are entering into the sacred space where, in the words of N.T. Wright, “heaven and earth” meet, “quite literally.”[36]


[1] Exodus 35:31–32, Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, IL, 2015.

[2] 1 Kings 4:29–33, Holy Bible. New Living Translation, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, IL, 2015.

[3] Isaiah 28:26–29, Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, IL, 2015.

[4] Psalm 94:10, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

[5] Daniel 2:21, Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, IL, 2015.

[6] Daniel 1:17, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

[7] Wisdom 7:15–22, Holy Bible, Good News Translation (2nd Ed.), American Bible Society, 1992.

[8] James 3:17, Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, Inc., 2011.

[9] James 1:17, Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, Inc., 2011.

[10] Kuyper, A., Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, Christian’s Library Press, Arlington Heights, IL, 2011, pg. 52.

[11] Packer, J., To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, p. 27.

[12] See, for example, the following paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.), United States Catholic Conference, 2000:

  • 1407 “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church.”
  • 1332Holy Mass (Missa), because the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful, so that they may fulfill God’s will in their daily lives.”
  • 1279 “The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
  • 1163 “Thus recalling the mysteries of the redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace.”

Other relevant paragraphs include 1257, 1265, 1266, 1392, and 1393.

[13] Mason, C., Scale How Meditations,, 2011, pg. 49.

[14] This concept is certainly not limited to Anglicans. Similar views have been expressed by Catholic and Orthodox theologians as well. See, for example, Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.

[15] website Retrieved March 24, 2016 (

[16] Kuhrt, S., Tom Wright for Everyone, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011, pg. 61–62.

[17] Mason, C., Ourselves, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL,1989, pg. 102.

[18] The Parent’s Review: A monthly magazine of home training and culture, (Vol. 14, 1903, pg. 389).

[19] John 6:35, Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1971.

[20] John 6:53, Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1971.

[21] Walvoord, J. Ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary—An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty—New Testament, Chariot Victor Publishing, Elgin, IL, 1998.

[22] Walvoord, J. Ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary—An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty—New Testament, Chariot Victor Publishing, Elgin, IL, 1998.

[23] Paragraphs 1407, 1332, and 1163 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.), United States Catholic Conference, 2000, provide doctrinal support for this interpretation.

[24] Holy Bible, Hahn, Scott Ed., Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2010.

[25] The point here is not to evaluate the various perspectives, but rather to clarify Mason’s own theological foundation. This clarification will help us understand Mason’s theological statements about education.

[26] Mason, C., Parents and Children, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1989, pg. 246.

[27] Mason, C., Parents and Children, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1989, Preface.

[28] John 1:1, Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1971.

[29] Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2003, pg. 1915.

[30] 1 Corinthians 12:27, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version Bible, The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

[31] John 6:51, Walvoord, J. Ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary—An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty—New Testament, Chariot Victor Publishing, Elgin, IL, 1998.

[32] Mason, C., Scale How Meditations,, 2011, pg. 165.

[33] Mason, C., The Saviour of the World. Volume IV: The Bread of Life, Rutledge Revivals Taylor and Francis, Kindle Edition 2015, pg. 58.

[34] Mason, C., Towards a Philosophy of Education, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1989, pg. 25.

[35] John 1:9, Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, IL, 2015.

[36]Wright, N., Hebrews for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2004, pg. 82.

One Reply to “The Theology of the Great Recognition”

  1. This is something that has been on my mind so much since first hearing about it on Delectable Education and I am grateful for how humbly, carefully and lucidly you work out these ideas. I love printing out your blog posts so that I can underline and make notes because I learn so much from each one! Thank you!

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