The End(s) of Theology
The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (and Larger) Catechism famously states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Some have asked whether this is actually one end rather than two, saying instead that man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Questions like these flow from the nature of theology itself. How we define theology largely determines how we will study theology and why we do so. The object of theology likewise both affects our definition of theology and the ends or goals of theology. Bernardinus de Moor (1709-1780) helps us wade though the implications of what it means that God is the object of theology, that man is its subject, and that God’s glory and man’s salvation are its ends. These questions bring us toward the close of traditional Reformed prolegomena and towards the commencement of the Reformed theological system proper, as we learn to study “the doctrine of living to God” in relation to all other things.
According to de Moor, God is the only proper object of theology (Continuous Commentary on Marckius, 1:259, Dilday Translation). Theology concerns the knowledge and the worship of God. This God reveals himself to us through Scripture and we can know him through Christ alone. God is always the formal object of theology, though the material object we are studying at the time may include man, creation, etc. God nevertheless remains the formal object of our studies, regardless of the material or secondary objects we consider. This God becomes our God only “as he is covenanted in Christ, just as he reveals himself to us in the Word” (1:259). In this way, the experimental, covenantal, and saving knowledge of God was never far from de Moor’s treatment of theology or of any of its topics. Theology is about knowing the right God in the right way, not merely about growing in speculative knowledge.
If God is the object of theology, then why does theology include the study of things like creation, man, and sin? De Moor answered that God’s works, including mankind, are secondary objects of theology only (1:259). We study them in theology only insofar as they relate to God and reveal God. God made all things, they are subordinate to him, and they tend toward him. De Moor appealed to the doctrine of sin to illustrate this point:
If you ask concerning sin, the treatment of which also enters into theology, in what manner it might be able to be referred unto God and divine things? I respond that, not as it is of God, but as it has a certain…relation to God, and lies under his Providence and Justice; Just as medicine treats of diseases and poisons, although its principal object is the healing of man (1:260).
This is an important point that can teach us how to understand everything around us, and even ourselves, theologically. The essence of a sinful life is to live without reference to God in this world (Ps. 14:1). De Moor reminds us that it is not only sinful to think and to live apart from God, but that we cannot even think about sin properly without reference to God.
What then is the subject of theology? De Moor answered that the subject of theology was the education of fallen mankind, “to whom this doctrine, like a plank after a shipwreck, was given, that he might rise again from his fall” (1:261, citing Ps. 19:7; 2 Tim. 3:17). Any revelation from God to man prior to his fall into sin was legal only. Yet all revelation from God to man after his fall, whether in the OT or in the NT, is “evangelical” and designed to save him from sin in Christ. This reminds us that the study of theology is always redemptive and designed to draw us from sin to God in Christ because the triune God revealed himself to sinners for this very purpose.
In light of its object and subject, theology has a twofold end. The “supreme end,” according to de Moor, is the glory of the triune God. The “subordinate end” is the salvation of God’s elect in Christ (1:262). However, these two ends are related intimately, because God shows his glory and the full spectrum of his attributes most perfectly in redemption. This is why the salvation of the elect is the subordinate end of revealed theology (1:262). God is glorified in all of the works of his hands, including creation and the just condemnation of sinners. Yet the triune God uses even these things to magnify his glory through the salvation of his elect.
So, is there one end of theology or two? The chief end of theology is the glory of God because the chief end of man is the glory of God. Man should study theology as a means to glorify God through Christ. Yet we should still likely distinguish the end from the means. God is always more important than we are. He is the goal and apex of all things. He is the aim of all true theology. Our redemption in Christ may put his glory on display more radiantly than anything else that he does, but our chief end is still his glory first and our happiness secondarily. Yet those who seek to make these into one goal instead of two are saying something true and important. Theology is not an exercise in abstraction, neither is it merely an intellectual affair. Those who study theology without their own salvation in view dishonor God and fail in the aims of theology. We must learn to use our theology to glorify God and to understand ourselves, and our world, primarily in relation to God. God’s glory must remain more important than our salvation, but we can never promote his glory if we neglect our salvation in Christ. Knowing God in Christ by the power of the Spirit must always be the mark of the true theologian even as it is the mark of the true Christian.
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.