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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.
*ORIGINAL NOTE.—So much of every Question both in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, is repeated in the Answer as maketh every answer an entire proposition, or sentence, in itself; to the end the learner may further improve it upon a occasions, for his increase in knowledge and piety, even out of the course of catechizing as well as in it—Cornelius Burgess, Prolocutor; Henry Roborough, Scriba; Adoniram Byfield, Scriba. For an excellent account of the Westminster Assembly, from which the Confession of Faith and the Larger rind Shorter Catechisms emanated, the student is recommended to read the introduction to Macpherson's Confession in the present series

If an assembly of philosophers had been convened at Athens to compose a catechism of religion and morals for the youth of Greece, to a certainty it would have opened with the very question before us. For almost all the dialogues and discussions of the fathers of moral philosophy revolve around this supreme and everlasting question, What is the final cause and chief end of man? Moral philosophy can put this question, but it is a theology drawn from the Holy Scriptures that can alone supply the answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

It has often been pointed out, that full as the Shorter Catechism is of ripe Christian doctrine, it is at the same time cast into a thoroughly scholastic shape. The Westminster Divines who drew this document were deeply-read and scholarly men. "It is perhaps new to some of our readers to be told, that the profound distinctions of an Aristotle and a Bacon are employed in the construction of that humble primer called The Shorter Catechism" (Macfarlane's Preface to Paterson's Catechism).

Man's chief end—"chief and highest end" (Larger Catechism). Our well-known word end most commonly carries the sense of a limit, a boundary, a termination. But it also means an aim, a purpose, an intention, a design. And it is in this latter sense the word is used in the text. The student will at once see that this question and answer carefully recognize other ends in man besides his "chief" end. For it could not with propriety be said that man had a "chief" end unless he had also inferior, secondary, and subordinate ends. The Catechism does not concern itself with them, but it is aware of their existence; it implies them in passing by them to pursue man's chief end.

to glorify God—Glory in its scriptural use is a divine word setting forth, struggling to set forth, a divine thing. The divine glory is the revelation of the divine perfections in the works of creation, providence, and redemption. God's glory stands originally in His possession of all being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth; and He is glorified in the manifestation of Himself to all His receptive and responsive creatures. "The glory of God," says Calvin, "is when we know what He is." "Glory is the divinity manifest" (Bengel). In the fourth verse of the seventeenth of John we are supplied with an explanation of this word which will admit of being adapted and applied to the whole creation of God. In our Lord's report and prayer contained in that great chapter, He says, " I have glorified Thee on the earth." And then, as if in explanation, He adds, "I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do." Now this same explanation of the word, carried through the whole of creation, and adapted to the nature and capacity of each part, will make the meaning of this great word as clear as it is capable of being made. "Man's chief end," therefore, is to "finish the work God has given him to do," and what that work is the Catechism will labour in both its parts to set forth. (Consult Cruden's analysis, under glory)

"His word all things produced,
Though chiefly not for glory as chief end,
But to show forth His goodness, and impart
His good communicable to every soul
Freely; of whom what could He less expect
Than glory and benediction, that is, thanks."—Milton.

and to enjoy Him—Joy is the purest, deepest, and most satisfying delight that can possess the heart of man; and the Scriptures continually set forth God as man's chiefest joy. As thus: "In Thy presence is fulness of joy. . . .Then will I go to God, my exceeding joy. . . Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord . . . before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy." See Ans. 38, "perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity."

for ever. Never to end, eternal, everlasting. These words for ever, occur four times altogether in the Catechism. In the answer before us they assure us that our enjoyment of God shall never come to an end. The very same words are found along with the pains of hell in Ans. 19; with the continuance of two distinct natures in Christ in Ans. 21; and with God's kingdom, power, and glory in Ans. 107.

1. Thomas Carlyle, in speaking against modern materialism in 1876, made this confession: "The older I grow, and I am now upon the brink of eternity, the more comes back to me the first sentence of the Catechism which I learned when a child, and the fuller and deeper its meaning becomes, ‘What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.'" And Dr. Binnie says: "Of the numerous excellences that have endeared the Westminster Shorter Catechism to so many churches on both sides of the Atlantic, I am disposed to reckon this among the greatest, that it opens with such a solemn announcement of the nobility of human nature. I know no other Catechism that opens so grandly."

2. "Indeed, this seems properly to be an affair of divine revelation. In order to be determined what was designed, in the creating of the astonishing fabric of the universe we behold, it becomes us to attend to, and rely on, what He has told us, who was the architect. He best knows His own heart, and what His own ends and designs were, in the wonderful works which He has wrought" (Jonathan Edwards). Students of sufficient talents and enterprise should master Jonathan Edwards' tractate, A Dissertation concerning the End for which God created the World.

3. Let a man examine himself as to the chief end he sets before himself in life.


1. Mention some of the subordinate and secondary ends of man; and point out how, properly pursued, they all become means to his chief end.

2. Derive and illustrate the rich and difficult word glory. Give Scripture passages where glory is put for God Himself, for Heaven, for the Church, for the Ark in Israel, for the tongue or power of speech in man, for riches, and for renown.

3. Men must not seek their own glory in anything. On the other hand, God, in everything He does and commands us to do, seeks His own glory. Explain and reconcile. Consult Paradise Regained, Book 3; also Edwards' Dissertation.

4. Quote utterances of our Lord to prove that He looked on it as His chief end to glorify the Father.

5. Point out Scripture passages to illustrate Bengel's note: He calls Him Father because He derives His origination from Him; He calls Him God because He has Him for His end.

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