New Catechisms, Theological Progress, & Man's Chief End

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Pastors writing their own catechisms was standard practice in the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras. Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Ursinus, Ussher, Owen, Fisher, Cotton, Baxter, Ball, among many others wrote catechisms. Each catechism has similarities and differences. Moreover, a lot of Particular Baptist pastors in the eighteenth century wrote their own catechism upon entering the ministry. 

John Ball's first Q. & A. in his (justly praised and tremendously influential) catechism shows his own distinct emphases:

Q. What ought to be the Chief and continual care of every man in this life? 

A. To glorify God and save his soul (1 Cor. 10:31; Acts 16:30-31; Matt. 16:26).

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Thomas Goodwin, instrumental in the production of the Westminster documents, was also responsible for producing the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658).  He made the point that the additions and changes in the SDFO were the "latest and best." The Savoy divines aimed for "clearer expressions" in the language they used to defend the truth. The Westminster documents could be (and were) improved upon (compare WCF 11 with SDFO 11).

Interestingly, revising a Confession was a bigger deal than revising catechisms or writing new catechisms. The catechisms were never intended to be confessed to begin with. The Confessions in England were to be "publicly held forth" to promote and defend true religion. 

Ryan Kelly provides a fascinating account of John Owen's desire for continuing confessional reform in his chapter, "Reformed or Reforming" in the Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen. He writes:

...as assemblies do their own doctrinal investigation and formulation, they emerge with a greater doctrinal and scriptural confidence than when they began. Owen is suspicious that truths can be "taken for granted" in a kind of mindless and lazy confessional allegiance, especially when they have "lived [in] the comfort of" them for a time (vii). Confessional assemblies, then, are to be "put upon a new search" of divine truth (vii). 

Owen had a remarkably "progressive" position regarding the writing of Confessions. His view on the progress of theology meant that confessions need to be re-stated, sometimes even modified or changed, in order to meet the particular needs of the church in each age. Reformed confessions were sometimes written within years of other Reformed confessions in Britain during the seventeenth century. 

Kelly adds:

Owen suggests that there is always an ongoing need for the church "to defend, improve, give and add new light unto old truths" (Works, 11:11). Such a concept of adding "new light unto old truths" at least suggests the possibility of a better articulation and fuller explanation of an old truth in a new confession; but it, in fact, goes further to include an improvement of old truths with "new light" (Works, 4:223-31). 

Early in his career, Owen argued that every age discovers truth: "Are all the depths of Scripture, where the elephants may swim, just fathomed to the bottom? Let any man observe the progress of the last century in unfolding the truths of God, and he will scarce be obstinate that no more is left as yet undiscovered" (The Death of Death, Works, 10:151). Thankfully today we have Beale, not Goodwin, on Revelation.

Owen's career testified to the truthfulness of this sentiment. Few theologians have made as many significant contributions to Christian theology as John Owen. Perhaps his attitude to the progress of theology had a little to do with that fact. Without question, he improved Reformed theology. Where Calvin, for example, was sometimes unclear, those who followed him provided better statements of the truth on many questions.

Commenting on Owen's approach to Confessions, Kelly ends his chapter with this interesting comment: "Some of today's Reformed churchmen will not appreciate such a sentimental and innovative confessional approach." Perhaps.

Returning to my "critique" of the WSC Q. & A. 1, there are different ways we can approach God's chief end and man's chief end. Many answers to specific questions could bring out different but complementary truths from the Scriptures. That is the blessing of so many (Reformed) catechisms and Confessions.

Regarding God's chief end, Thomas Goodwin could well say: 

Q. "What is God's chief end?" (in his ad extra works - not ad intra Trinitarian relations)

A. "God's chief end was not to bring Christ into the world for us, but us for Christ. He is worth all creatures. And God contrived all things that do fall out, and even redemption itself, for the setting forth of Christ's glory more than our salvation" (Goodwin). 

(Note: the phrase "chief end" regarding both man and God is fairly commonplace among Reformed theologians [E.g., Edward Fisher], and does not necessarily represent an inquiry into his ad intra trinitarian relations, but rather a statement about his ad extra purposes in creation and redemption.)

Therefore, if someone asks me what my chief end is as a Christian, I would say:

"My chief end is to glorify God (the Father) and Christ, through the Spirit, and enjoy them with God's people forever (Rom. 11:36; 2 Cor. 13:14; Col. 1:16-18; Eph. 1:23; 3:16; Rev. 21:2)." 

(Note: in the NT, "God" often refers to the Father, and is distinguished from Christ, see 1 Cor. 8:6; 15:15, 27; 2 Cor. 13:14). This is the "economical language" of the NT, and explains why I framed my Q. & A. in "economical" terms, i.e., God and Christ).

This answer attempts to do justice to the economy (ad extra works) of God's purposes, with a focus on the corporate nature of the Christian religion. We are part of a body, with Christ as the Head, with an eternal destiny where Christ will be the immediate object of our worship (the beatific vision). This reflects the outline of the Apostles' Creed and Calvin's Institutes. And it also reflects the Father's own purposes in his ad extra works: to glorify himself and his Son by the Spirit and enjoy his people forever.

We should also remember that the Holy Spirit's principle work is to glorify Christ (Jn. 16:14). The Spirit glorifies Christ in many ways (Rom. 8:9), one of which includes making us like Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). I would also add that Christ has a distinct glory as the God-man which belongs to him alone. Reformed theologians have called this his "personal glory" (considered as God-man) in distinction from his "essential/native glory" (considered as God). In other words, Christ possesses a peculiar glory that the other two persons in the Trinity do not possess because he alone is a "complex" person. Hence my emphasis on glorifying God and Christ - not as though Christ is not God. In fact, I would argue that his "personal glory" is the chief glory we will be taken up with in eternity.

My Reformed brethren who may have taken exception (no pun intended) to my gentle critique of the WSC, need to keep in mind that I was only looking for a "more accurate" reflection of the NT teaching on a specific question. Of course the WSC answer is fine; and of course the rest of the catechism explains what they meant by "God." The divines were not incoherent. 

Yet, what is our chief end? To be "truly Reformed" (hereafter "TR"), I believe we need to have John Owen's concerns in mind (see Works, 11:11, second para). What do the Scriptures teach (see Col. 1:15-18)? 

To glorify God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is one legitimate way to look at our chief purpose. But to glorify God and Christ, through the Spirit, is a (not "the") way of approaching the question concerning our "chief end" in terms of "economy." 

Pastor Mark Jones is currently writing "The New Suburban Catechism," geared towards large families.


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Posted February 9, 2015 @ 2:06 PM by Mark Jones
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