Chief Ends and Ultimate Ends (Part 1): A Review of Jonathan Edwards’ Distinctions

Last weekend, a friend of mine, Tom Musetti, reminded me of an article by Jonathan Edwards, where he talks about the end for which God created the world (this, in fact, is the title of his article). He begins by identifying and distinguishing some key terms: chief end and ultimate end (along with subordinate endinferior end, among other related terms). Edwards writes: “These two phrases [chief end and ultimate end] are not always precisely of the same signification: and though the chief end be always an ultimate end, yet every ultimate end is not always a chief end. A chief end is opposite to an inferior end: an ultimate end is opposite to a subordinate end.” I’ll try to summarize in English what he meant, but here’s a pdf of the article if you want to read the whole thing.

By the way, we don’t really use the word “end” in this way anymore, but I’ll stick with it (you can substitute  “purpose” if you’d like, though “end” really is the more accurate term, like τέλος). Anyways, back to definitions. A subordinate end is something that one aims at, not for itself, but as a means for another end–hence, it is subordinate. For example, someone goes to the grocery store for the end of buying groceries. But buying groceries is a subordinate end, since it is not accomplished for its own sake but as a means for a greater end, to cook food and to eat. Eating may be considered an ultimate end, which is something that one aims at on its own account, for the sake of itself, for the sake of its own enjoyment. For example, eating a nice ribeye steak would be an ultimate end if it is done for its own pleasure. A chief end is the most valued in a multiplicity of ultimate ends. For example, a man drives to a nearby city for two ultimate ends: 1) to meet up with his girlfriend and spend time with her, and 2) to collect money from a friend who happens to live in the same city (for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that collecting money is an ultimate end). These are two separate, unrelated ends from the same subordinate end (driving to the nearby city), but if the man considers spending time with his girlfriend more valuable than collecting his money, this is a chief end among the two ultimate ends, and collecting his money is the inferior end. And of course, driving to the city is a subordinate end, because it is desired as a means to accomplish other things. (Edwards also talks about supreme ends, but I’ll refer to it in a follow-up post so as to stay on track.)

I actually think these are still some helpful distinctions to start with and want to use this to clarify my previous post on integrity in scholarship. In it, I claimed that I find it integrous to engage in scholarship as an end to itself–that is, that scholars should engage in scholarship by the sheer joy of gaining knowledge rather than engage in it as a means for other ends such as fame, notoriety, or wealth (if you’re wondering if Christian writing is actually lucrative, Francis Chan purportedly grossed over $500,000 for Crazy Love–though it is claimed he donated 90% of it to charity), implying that it is a noble ultimate end. But as I considered Edwards’ distinctions, it occurred to me that I do not intend to convey that scholarship is a good chief end. It may be a good ultimate end (to engage for the sheer pleasure of its own enjoyment), but it does not have to be a chief end (the greatest end of all ends). Of course, I think for all Christians, their chief end should be to glorify God and enjoy him forever (following the Westminster Shorter Catechism), and I think this chief end trumps all other ends (hence, it is a chief end).

Anyways, here’s the bottom line using Edwards’ terminology: I think scholarship is honorable and integrous as an ultimate end, but not necessarily as a chief end. I think that scholarship is even acceptable as a subordinate end, as long as the greater end (or ultimate end) is honorable and integrous (such as teaching others or developing a greater love for God). And I think scholarship as a subordinate end to a greater/ultimate end of anything self-servient or self-praising is ignoble and disintegrous. I wrote my original post primarily as a self-reminder to engage in scholarship as an ultimate end (i.e., to love the game and not see it as a means to something “greater”). But I also wrote it in part as a criticism of scholars who may consider scholarship (subconsciously or consciously) to be subordinate to the greater end of obtaining fame, notoriety, praise, wealth, or any other ignoble reward (not that I personally know of any–this should not be seen as a criticism of anyone in particular).

I think in my next post, I want to talk about Edwards’ definition of supreme ends and draw out the implications for all of this in how we live and determine purpose.


Published by Dave Yoon

Slave of Jesus Christ.

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