Yesterday I began to look at Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child (click here to read it). My interest in this book is based in part on its popularity and in part on the way in which it very clearly highlights how faulty foundational beliefs will lead to faulty actions. In the first part of the review I showed that Pearl advocates a particular method of training children and that he distinguishes this training from discipline. Today I want to show you that much of his technique flows out of his denial of a key Christian doctrine.
The Innocent Child
Pearl denies the doctrine of original sin and thus believes that children have no need to be justified and, further, until they are older cannot be justified. This puts him radically at odds with the vast majority of Evangelical Christians. Let me show you what he denies and what he believes in its place.
As Pearl lays the groundwork for the book, he says that his training is a reflection of the way God trains his people. He goes to the Garden of Eden and says that this was God’s training ground for humanity. “When God wanted to ‘train’ his first two children not to touch, He did not place the forbidden object out of their reach. Instead, He placed the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in ‘the midst of the garden’ (Gen. 3:3).” He teaches that the tree was located in the middle of the garden so that it would be a constant temptation; with more visibility would come more opportunity for training by temptation. It was a “moral factory” meant to produce character.
It was the language of “training ground” along with some other scattered words and phrases that made me begin to wonder what Pearl believes about the spiritual state of children. I visited his web site’s “What We Believe” section to find important clarifying information. There he says,
We believe that man was created in the span of a twenty-four hour period. He was created perfect physically and constitutionally, including the moral and spiritual essence. Man, though complete and entire, wanting nothing, was, in his innocence, without character. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, a moral testing ground, was, in the wisdom of God, the perfect opportunity for spiritual development. The natural constitution of man (desire for food, etc.) became the basis for temptation. In the eating of the tree, the willful and direct disobedience to God resulted in legal estrangement from God and precipitated the curse of death on Adam and all his descendants.
He holds, then, that Adam and Eve were created sinless but with unformed character. The purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to test them and provide them a context for spiritual development. The statement of faith goes on to say this: “When a descendant of Adam reaches a level of moral understanding (sometime in his youth) he becomes fully, personally accountable to God and has sin imputed to him, resulting in the peril of eternal damnation” and later, “When man reaches his state of moral accountability, and, by virtue of his personal transgression, becomes blameworthy, his only hope is a work of grace by God alone.”
This brings all kinds of clarity to his training technique. He believes that children are born sinless and unformed just as Adam and Eve were. Their younger years are a context for spiritual development that allows the parents to train them for when they become personally accountable to God somewhere around their early teens. Any “bad” things they do in these early years are not actually sinful since they are not truly opposed to God. They are still bad, but only as measured against a standard lower than God’s. Supposing that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the Garden as a test that would provide Adam and Eve a context for spiritual development, and seeing that they fell after facing a temptation that appealed to their natural constitution, he encourages parents to do the very same thing, to create a moral testing ground and to face children with what most naturally appeals to them.