Introduction to Jonathan Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World

In my post in response a reader’s question, “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?” I suggested, among other things, that the “man” Jacob wrestles with (he’s actually a representative of God, like the “angel of the Lord” elsewhere in the Old Testament) was probably “giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout twenty difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.” I noted that Jonathan Edwards had written in The End for Which God Created the World that when things are “in themselves excellent,” it is also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. And so this wrestling match was a chance for Jacob’s acquired excellent qualities to be demonstrated. A reader of that post commented, “I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the Edwards book. It’s tough sledding.” So here is an overview of the argument that Edwards makes, which I hope will be helpful.

Today we might express the question as, “Why did God create the world?” (I’m sure many of us have wondered this.) But Edwards puts it this way: “To what end did God create the world?” That is, what “end” or purpose was God pursuing through the creation?

Edwards begins his treatise by explaining what kind of “end” he’s talking about. He notes that a person might pursue one end as a means to another. For example, someone might go on a journey to get some medicine to heal a sickness. The ultimate end being pursued is healing. Getting the medicine is a subordinate end to that purpose, and going on the journey is a subordinate end to getting the medicine. (Even if we took a walk just for the pleasure of it, the pleasure would be the ultimate end, and taking the walk would be a subordinate end towards that goal.)

Edwards explains that he wants to explore what God’s ultimate end was in creating the world. That is, God might have made the world in pursuit of a number of purposes, but some of them might have been means to other ends. So what was the “bottom line,” as we would say today?

Edwards also specifies that he’s looking for God’s original ultimate end, that is, the one that God began with before the creation existed. This distinction is necessary because it’s possible that once the world had come into being, some other ultimate end might have been recognized that creating the world was also an appropriate means of reaching.

For example, a man and a woman might get married because they feel called together into a lifetime partnership. But after they got married, they might have children, and they might realize that they now actually value being a family even more than they valued being a couple—their original ultimate end. In such a case, Edwards would say that becoming a family turned out to be their chief end, that is, the one they valued most highly. But it would still not be their original ultimate end.

In the same way, it might turn out that God considered the relationship with his creatures to be the most valuable thing that had come out of the creation. But that would be after the fact; what purpose did God begin with? Edwards leaves off this line of the argument there; he doesn’t follow up on the question of God’s chief end in creating the world, since his task is to explore God’s original ultimate end.

Edwards approaches this question from two angles. He asks first what reason suggests the answer would be, and he then seeks to confirm this from Scripture. We today might approach things in the reverse order. We would first ask what the Bible teaches, and then we would try to make sure that we had understood the Bible correctly by asking whether our answer was reasonable.

But Edwards was living right in the middle of the Enlightenment period, when Western societies had great confidence in reason as a gift that God had redeemed. “The revelation which God has given to men,” he wrote, “has been the occasion of great improvement of their faculties” and it has “taught men how to use their reason.” Edward acknowledges that “it would be relying too much on reason” to try to use it to answer the question at hand “without being . . . principally guided by divine revelation.” But since, he says, some have offered objections to a proper Scriptural understanding of the question “from the pretended dictates of reason,” he will begin by explaining “what seems rational to be supposed concerning this affair,” and then turn to the Scriptures to “consider what light divine revelation gives us in it.”

Edwards then observes that it would not be “agreeable to reason” to think that God created the world because he needed something from the creatures he would make. Rather, God must have had himself in view as the ultimate end of the creation. “God esteems, values, and has respect to things according to their nature and proportions,” and so “he must necessarily have the greatest respect to himself.” Specifically, Edwards says, God created the world with his own glory in view as its ultimate end.

“It seems to be in itself a thing fit and desirable,” he continues, that the glorious attributes of God should be exerted, that they should be known, and that once seen and known, that they should be “valued and esteemed, loved and delighted in,” in a way suitable to their dignity. All of this was accomplished by the creation of a world whose “rational, intelligent creatures” could witness and value God’s glory. (However, Edwards specifies, we should not conclude that God’s desire to “communicate himself to the creature” led him to create the world. Rather, “a disposition of God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world.”)

After addressing at length various questions and objections that his argument to this point may have raised, Edwards then concludes his treatise by offering an extensive demonstration that “the Scriptures represent God as making himself his own last end in the creation of the world.” I will not even try to summarize Edwards’ elaborate and comprehensive Scriptural argument here. It is certainly not a matter of a handful of proof-texts that could be taken to say, “God created the world for his own glory.” Rather, it is an exegetically grounded case that reaches throughout the whole Bible to establish this point. So I will commend it to the reader of The End for Which God Created the World, trusting that I have at least helped thereader get to this point in the treatise, that is, onto what should be more familiar ground for us today.

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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