Theology

Chief Ends and Ultimate Ends (Part 2): Supreme Implications

In my last post, I summarized Edwards’ distinctions of various types of ends: chief end, ultimate end, subordinate end, and inferior end. Chief end and inferior end correspond oppositely to each other, while ultimate end and subordinate end correspond oppositely as well. In short, an ultimate end is one that is enjoyed for its own pleasure and enjoyment–it is not a means to another end. A subordinate end is one that is a means to another end and subordinate to that greater end. A chief end is the greatest of all ends in a multiplicity of ends (including ultimate ends), and an inferior end is one that is not a chief end.

In addition to these terms, Edwards also introduces supreme end to describe the end by which a person in general operates, the final end that governs his/her life and all other ends (it is both a chief end and an ultimate end). Edwards writes: “if any being has but one ultimate end, in all that he does, and there be a great variety of operations, his last end may justly be looked upon as his supreme end. For in such a case, every other end but that one, is in order to that end; and therefore no other can be superior to it.” All other ends are subordinate to this end.

As I wrote the initial post, it occurred to me that we may often operate without properly identifying our ends. We sometimes mindlessly make decisions without really considering why we do them. I’m not talking about mundane things like snapping our food when eating (though that is annoying) or being left-handed. I’m talking about why we sit and watch 4 hours of TV on a given night, or why we sign up to play in a soccer league. I’m talking about decisions like how we spend our money. In short, why do you do what you do? What’s your purpose?

Suppose we all operated in life with one final end, an end which governs all other ends, an end by which all other ends are subordinate. A supreme end. Paul seems to indicate that, as Christians, we should have a supreme end–and not just any supreme end but one specific one. He writes: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). He also writes: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8). It appears his supreme end is glorifying God (or in other words, gaining Christ). The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the biblical teaching by stating: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” So eating, drinking, or any other activity we engage in, should be subordinate ends to the supreme end of glorifying God. (But I do think that an end can be simultaneously subordinate and ultimate in different senses, if it is a means to a greater end but also enjoyed for its own pleasure. One example of this is going to school–if one really does enjoy going to school, that is.)

Having an awareness of this type of paradigm should revolutionize our way of life and decision-making process (to say the least). Every significant decision we make should be considered under this paradigm (of course it’s easier said than done). Some may be clear: the decision to steal from someone clearly does not fit, while the decision to pray or read the Bible does. But others aren’t as clear, and it’s in those decisions that some soul-searching is required. Perhaps there isn’t a direct link between one of your ends and your supreme end, but it may exist in a chain of subordination. For example, how does playing basketball glorify God? It may or may not directly, but here’s one suggestion (there are probably other ways of getting there): it gives me a good workout, which increases my health, which increases my ability to sit behind a desk and study God’s Word longer–so in this particular chain of subordination, playing basketball ultimately (though perhaps not directly) glorifies God. But it can also qualify as an ultimate end since I do enjoy playing for the sake of its own pleasure.

Another more significant example. How can my career choice ultimately glorify God? Perhaps you’ve chosen a career in law. It may be an ultimate end in that you just love your job, and, simply put, you’re good at it. But at the same time, it may be a means for other ends. Being an attorney, sometimes viewed as a profession requiring deceit and unethical behavior, may truly become a God-honoring profession if you refuse to compromise your convictions, strive for ethical and moral behavior, seek truth even if it means you might lose your case, and defend the poor and helpless even if you might not get paid for it. And if you’re one of those attorneys that gets paid the big bucks, that resource can also be used for God-honoring purposes (I know of at least one attorney friend who does make the big bucks and is active in supporting the ministries of others; and by this I think he is glorifying God).

Considering this paradigm of ultimate ends, subordinate ends, and supreme ends seems to be a good way for us to make more consistent decisions in living for God’s glory, if that’s truly our concern. Speaking of glorifying God, that’ll be the topic of my next post.

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