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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Whose Child?

By Mary L. G. Petrie, B.A.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 693-697


Writing for those who have the great honour and solemn responsibility of impressing the truths of our holy Christian faith upon the open minds and unhardened hearts of young children, I propose to discuss a matter which looks theoretical, but which is most practical in its issues.

Are these little ones lambs of the flock or kids of the wilderness? In dealing with an adult who seeks spiritual instruction from us, it is comparatively easy to begin by saying, "Are you or are you not God's servant already? If not, turn to Him without delay. If you are, press onwards in the Christian life." But when we join a child's hands in prayer, and try to answer its questionings concerning God, are we to talk about reconciliation with God as the prelude to Christian privileges, or are we to encourage it to claim such privileges at once?

Two different views are held as to this; we cannot harmonise them, and the one we adopt must colour all our teaching. Many a conscientious parent and teacher puts forth one or the other of them under a half-conscious protest against it in his heart, or oscillates between them with a timid, confused, and contradictory teaching that can convey no clear ideas to his pupil.

It is not our business here to condemn or justify particular writers, so without mentioning names, I will quote an expression of the first view from two catechisms by authors well known and widely honoured, whose works are reprinted again and again for the instruction of the young. "Are we not born children of God? No. Whose children are we by nature? Children of the devil." And again, "What good do you hope for by seeking to please God? Then I shall be a child of God, and if I am a child of God, I shall be taken up to heaven. And what if you do not fear God, nor love Him, nor seek to please Him? Then I shall be a wicked child, and the great God will be angry with me. Why are you afraid of God's anger? Because He can kill my body, and He can make my soul miserable after my body is dead."

In short, the child is here taught to say that he is not a child of God, though under certain conditions, including love for a most vindictive Being, he may possibly become one; and until he proves by unmistakable signs that he is a child of God, we are to regard him as a child of the devil.

What is the result of this teaching? I knew of one of very tender years, who feared to close her eyes lest she should die in her sleep and be lost, so had the terror of these doctrines wrought upon her. This unchildlike attempt to appropriate the experiences of an Augustine or a Bunyan, haunted by a guilty past, will produce in the end, according to natural temperament and after-influences, either a disheartened and unmanly piety, or a morose bigotry, or an indignant scepticism. Even in childhood, we shall see the widespread hypocrisy of borrowed phrases, or a frank repudiation of religion; such as these real thoughts of a real child, nurtured upon the edifying books so highly approved by certain good people: "I notice that the unusually good child dies young in stories. Hence I conclude, first, that I, being far from good, am unlikely to die; secondly, that I would rather not be much better than I am, since my wish is to live." For the parent or teacher who cannot fail to see the natural religiousness of the child, how easily love of God is called forth in him, and what a spontaneous simplicity there is in his childish faith, this grim doctrine lies like a cold weight of lead upon the heart and conscience, and yet that parent or teacher sometimes feels compelled to insist on it because "it is the Bible; it is bound up with evangelical canons of faith; it is undermined by popular and dangerous neologies." So he says, "The questions involved are too puzzling for me to solve. Let me therefore keep to the good old paths commended to my feet by the practical piety of the past generation."

But if we believe that Divine truths may be more clearly apprehended in the present and future than they have been in the past, the teaching of the past generation will only control ours if it is the teaching of the Bible.

Let us look at the two passages cited in favour of the view which the catechisms I quote expound. "Ye were by nature the children of wrath" (Eph. ii. 3). "Ye are of your father the devil" (John viii. 44). St. Paul addresses people newly rescued from those flagrant sins of heathendom through which, as he says further on, God's wrath came upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. v. 6). Our Lord's words may be compared to the Baptist's denunciation of unrepentant Pharisees as "the offspring of vipers" (Matt. iii. 7, R.V.). He speaks to obdurate and blasphemous Jews, who were willfully blind, and refused and mocked at His teaching. What application has either sentence to the young children whom Christian parents are training in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?

This view is also closely connected with a doctrine of election according to which the child is taught, as in the Scottish "Shorter Catechism," to speak of Christ as the Redeemer, not of the world but "of God's elect," to think of the few as fore-ordained to life, of the many as fore-doomed to death. Without entering here upon so profound a subject, we may put against such inferences from St. Paul's teaching to the Romans, his own plain words to Timothy, "God our Saviour willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. ii. 4).

But another boy or girl is taught to say, "I heartily thank our heavenly Father that called me to this state of salvation;" or to sing "It is Thy little child that cometh to be blest."

In short, you tell him that he is already a child of God, on one of two grounds. First, because he is a human being. St. Paul, by quoting the words of Aratus and Cleanthes to that effect, has shrined them as a truth to us for ever (Acts xvii. 28, 29). But if we dwell overmuch upon this aspect of our sonship, we may lose sight of "the fault and corruption of our nature," which Scripture teaches, and all history and experience confirms in so mournful and humbling a way. Our child, while we talk loosely of God's mercy, may never gain an adequate notion of sin, or an adequate appreciate of salvation. Secondly, because he is baptized and so brought into the household of God, solemnly dedicated to God, place under definite instructions about God, and unless the united prayer made for him and the font was neither heard nor answered, he is nearer to God than the unbaptized. But if we dwell overmuch upon this aspect of our sonship, we may be led to an extravagant appreciation of the mere ceremony, such as leads to christening moribund infants against their parents' will in Roman Catholic missionary work; or, by way of reaction, to an equally extravagant depreciation of the rite, such as led to its disuse by the Quakers. Excited controversy tends, as usual, to obscure the whole matter.

We cannot combine the two views. I have before me an exposition of the Church Catechism which contains a disastrous attempt to do so. This points out to the young learner that baptism made him "a member of the visible Church and a visible child of God," explains that visible and invisible means seen and not seen, and that the real Church is invisible. This learner can only understand that he was brought into an unreal church and seen for the first time at the font.

Nor can we halt between them. If this little one is the devil's child, don't delude him by putting words of filial confidence in God into his lips. But if he is God's child, teach him at once to rejoice in God's love rather than to fear His anger.

Holy Scripture makes the following things very clear, and they may guide us to a conclusion. First, there is a spiritual life, whose great exemplar is St. Paul, which dates from some crisis through which, in a moment, old things passed away and all became new. There is also a spiritual life, whose great exemplar is Samuel, where the heart has opened like a flower to the influences of that Spirit who is likened to a gently distilling dew as well as to a swift flame. From earliest infancy Samuel was "lent to the Lord," "ministered unto," and "grew before" Him; "was in favour with the Lord," and "the Lord was with him." This is not such a striking story as that of St. Paul's conversion, but in "the generation of the righteous" it should be the normal rather than the exceptional type.

For, again, we see that the children of God's servants are not as others. Noah's righteousness availed for the salvation of his house (Gen. vii. 1). God knew Abraham to the end that he might have God-fearing children (Gen. xviii. 19, R.V.). Isaac was blessed for his father's sake (Gen. xxvi. 24). Amram's piety was commemorated when Moses was called (Exo. iii. 6). Isaiah marks out the seed of the blessed of the Lord for special privilege (Isa. lxv. 23). St. Paul goes further when he tells the Christian parent that his children are holy (1 Cor. vii. 14). We find the true clue to unravel perplexities about "the doctrine of baptisms" in such phrases as "children of the promise" (Rom. ix. 8); "children of the covenant" (Acts iii. 25); "children of the kingdom" (Matt. xiii. 38); "beloved for the fathers' sakes" (Rom. xi. 28); and, above all, in St. Paul's application of the promise of Pentecost to the children of those first converts of the church of Christ (Acts ii. 39).

Finally, let us appeal to the deeds and words of our Lord. Jesus called a little child to Him; He recognised praise from infant lips; He welcomed and blessed not one but many little ones (Matt. xviii. 2, xxi. 16, xix 14, 15). And He said, "Despise not these little ones; cause them not to stumble" (Matt. xviii. 10, 6). "Forbid them not to come to Me." "Receive them as you would receive myself" (Mark x. 14, ix. 37). "For of such is the kingdom of heaven. Their angels ever behold my Father's face; and it is not His will that one of them should perish." Wherefore, "feed my lambs" (John xxi. 15).

Look, then, at the infinite possibilities of good rather than at the latent evil in these babes, brought to Christ according to His own command in baptism; loved by Him as He loves each of His redeemed; and committed to our care, that being, as human creatures, children by birth of a Father they know not, and as baptized creatures, children by adoption of a Father they are learning to know, they may indeed become children by faith of a Father whom they will serve and love to the end (John i. 12). For that Father has two sons still; one who is ever with Him, heir of a sure heritage; and one who wanders into a far country and sells his birthright. And it is easier to keep His son in the right path now than to reclaim him from the wrong one hereafter. Meanwhile, let His child sleep peacefully under His almighty wings, with some such evening prayer as that lovely old hymn which so fitly utters the child's fearless and intuitive faith in its only and all-sufficient Saviour: --

                    Now I lay me down to sleep
                    I give my soul to Christ to keep;
                    Wake I at dawn, or wake I never,
                    I give my soul to Christ for ever.


Typed June 2013 by S. Lancaster