To Enjoy God: Puritan Hedonism?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” to which it gives its famous reply, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Few Christians would debate the assertion that mankind was created for the glory of God. In Isaiah 43:7, God says of Israel, “I have created [you] for my glory.” Paul tells believers in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” To the Christians in Rome, he exclaims, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). But why did the Puritans add the phrase “and enjoy Him”? Why not simply “glorify God”? After all, there were earlier catechisms that simply defined man’s chief end in terms of glorifying God.1 Why did the framers of the Westminster Catechism add “and to enjoy him.” If they had to add a phrase, why not “glorify God and believe in him”? Why not “glorify God and serve him”? Why did they choose “and enjoy him”? Is it even biblical to describe man’s chief end in terms of enjoying God?
Before attempting to answer this question, I’d like to offer several reasons for considering this topic:
The Vital Importance of the Topic
Why are we here? What are we to live for? What should be the primary motivation for all that we do? What’s God’s ultimate design for our life?
These are questions asked by people all over the world—young and old, rich and poor, philosopher and simple man. These are the very questions I was asking as a lost man looking for meaning in life, and God used these kinds of questions to draw me to Jesus Christ. Therefore, the subject to man’s chief end is a topic worthy of our consideration.
A Part of the Reformed Tradition
I serve as the dean and as a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary, which affirms as its doctrinal standard the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This confession was based largely upon the well-known Puritan and Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith. And the Westminster Confession of Faith was written by the same assembly of pastors and theologians who published the Shorter Catechism.2 So the Shorter Catechism belongs to my own theological heritage and tradition.
More importantly, our day has witnessed something of a revival or resurgence of interest in Reformed theology. It’s likely, then, that some of my readers will share with me an interest to know what the Catechism actually teaches and whether that teaching is completely biblical. We should esteem good tradition. But our primary loyalty is to Scripture. If there’s anything in our tradition that’s not biblical, we ought to be willing to part with that part of our tradition.
The Marginalization of “the Enjoyment of God”
Some Reformed expositors of the catechism appear to ignore or to minimize “the enjoyment of God” as man’s chief end. For example, Alexander Archibald Hodge (the son of Charles Hodge) wrote a commentary on the Catechism which was published in 1888. Though Hodge refers to the glory of God as man’s chief end, he doesn’t appear to comment on the enjoyment of God.3 It’s as if the Catechism never used that phrase.
More recently, G. I. Williamson published a study guide for the Catechism, and the main headings are (1) The Two Mind Sets, (2) Glorifying God, and (3) What ‘Chief End’ Means. In the first section, he contrasts a selfish mindset with a God-centered mindset. In the second section, spends most of his time explaining what it means to glorify God though he does say at the end, “and [those who glorify God] do enjoy him forever.” In the final section he defines the phrase “chief end.”4 He doesn’t completely ignore the phrase “and enjoy him,” as did Hodge. But he appears to minimize its importance.
According to Johannes Vos (1903-1983), the framers of the Catechism placed “glorify God” before “enjoy God” because
the most important element in the purpose of human life is glorifying God, while enjoying God is strictly subordinate to glorifying God. In our religious life, we should always place the chief emphasis upon glorifying God. The person who does this will truly enjoy God, both there and hereafter. But the person who thinks of enjoying God is in danger of supposing that God exists for man instead of man for God. To stress enjoying God more than glorifying God will result in a falsely mystical or emotional type of religion.5
And Vos’ concern to subordinate the act of enjoying God to the act of glorifying God was shared by other Reformed writers who lived before him. Thomas Boston, for example, writes, “Man’s chief duty is to glorify God…. And this is man’s chief, and last or farthest end. Man’s chief happiness is, to enjoy God as his God…. And this is man’s chief subordinate end.”6 John Brown offers the following series of questions and answers to clarify the meaning of the Catechism:
Q. Is our delight in the glory or glorious excellencies of God as satisfying to us, to be our chief end or motive in our actions, religious or moral?
A. No; but our shewing forth the honour of these glorious excellencies, Isa. ii. 11. Psal. xvi. 4. Isa. xliii. 21.
Q. Why may we not make our own delight in the glory of God as satisfying to our desires, our chief end and motive?
A. Because this would be a setting up of our own happiness above the glory of God.7
Ebenezer Erskine, James Fisher, and Ralph Erskine also wrote a catechetical exposition of the Catechism that was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication in 1753. Similar to Brown the authors ask,
Q. 46 Is not our delighting in the glory of God, to be reckoned our chief end?
A. No; we must set the glory of God above our delight therein, otherwise, our delight is not chiefly in God, but in ourselves, Isa. ii. 11.8
These authors obviously don’t ignore the phrase “and enjoy him.” Nevertheless, they seem to minimize its importance in relationship to the phrase “glorify God.” In their minds, to give the phrase “enjoy him” equal weight with the phrase “glorify God” runs the risk of promoting a man-centered, mystical, or overly emotional kind of religion.
The Popular and Influential Teachings of John Piper.
John Piper is the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1986 Piper published a book entitled Desiring God with the subtitle, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Because of its popularity, it’s been revised, expanded, and republished in four times (1986, 1996, 2003, 2011), and over 350,000 copies are in print. In that book, Piper begins by citing the Shorter Catechism and by suggesting that the answer to the question of man’s chief end can be better understood by simply changing one little word.
Instead of “Man’s chief end is to glorify God AND enjoy Him forever,” Piper suggests, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever.”9 Or as he paraphrases it later in the book: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”10 This is the essence, Piper argues, of Christian Hedonism. Piper has written several other books that are in many ways expositions and applications of that theme.11
For better or for worse, Piper’s emphasis upon the enjoyment of God has caused a stir in the Reformed community. Some have accused him of altering the teaching of the Catechism by changing the wording.12 Others, like Peter Masters, pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, have accused Piper of reductionism. In a critique of Piper’s teaching, Masters asserts
Dr. Piper’s formula … undoubtedly alters the understanding of sanctification long held by believers in the Reformation tradition, because it elevates one Christian duty above all others…. As soon as you substitute a single ‘big idea’ or organizing principle, and bundle all the strands into one, you alter God’s design and method.13
Dr. Masters argues that Piper has departed from the Puritan view of sanctification which he calls “multi-track.” He says, “If it is possible to see one duty lifted a little higher than the others in Puritan literature it is probably obedience, not the pursuit of joy ….”14 Nevertheless, as the Shorter Catechism demonstrates, the Puritans did sometimes elevate one duty above the rest and in this case the duty is the enjoyment of God.
We return to the question: Is it right to think of man’s chief end as the enjoyment of God? Did the Puritans advocate a kind of Christian hedonism? How we answer that question will affect our view of the Puritans, our view of John Piper, and most importantly, our view of the Christian life. Therefore, I think it is a question worthy for our consideration. In the following posts, we’ll attempt to provide biblical support for the Puritan (and Piperian) doctrine, and we’ll endeavor to address several objection to “Christian Hedonism,” which we believe are also objections to the doctrine of the Shorter Catechism.
- Examples are offered in Benjamin Warfield’s article, “The First Question of the Westminster Catechism,” The Princeton Theological Review (1908) printed in The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (1931; reprint, Baker Books, 1991), pp. 393-94. [↩]
- The Catechism was published in 1648 for the purpose of instructing new believers and young children in the Christian faith. For a historical overview of the drafting and publishing of the Westminster standards of which the Catechism was a part, see Warfield’s The Westminster Assembly and Its Work. [↩]
- The System of Theology Contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Opened and Explained (1888), pp. 7-8. [↩]
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism For Study Class, 2nd ed. (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), pp. 1-5. [↩]
- The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), p. 4. This commentary is actually compiled from a series of expositions Vos published in the Blue Banner Faith and Life (1946-49). [↩]
- A Brief Explication of the First Part of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, in vol. 7 of The Complete Works of Thomas Boston, ed. Samuel M’Millan (reprint, Richard Owen Roberts Publishers, 1980), p. 9. [↩]
- An essay towards an easy, plain, practical, and extensive explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism (microfilm; Carlisle, PA: Printed for Archibald Loudon for George Kline, 1797), p. 5. [↩]
- The Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism Explained by way of Question and Answer (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1753), 13. [↩]
- Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 2nd ed. (Multnomah Press, 1996), p. 15. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 50. [↩]
- These would include but are not limited to The Pleasures of God, rev. ed. (Multnomah, 2000), God’s Passion for His Own Glory (Crossway, 2006), When I Don’t Desire God (Crossway, 2004), and God is the Gospel (Crossway, 2005). [↩]
- See Dale Harris’ critique in his essay, “The Glory of God and the Pleasures of Man: An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of Hedonism” (I accessed the essay the Internet Nov 13, 2008. I’m not now able to locate the website where I found it, and as far as I know it’s technically an unpublished.). [↩]
- “‘Christian Hedonism’—Is it Right?” Sword & Trowel (2002), accessed on the internet from the following website on April 27, 2007: www.metropolitantabernacle.org/?page=articles&id=3 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]