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Jonathan Edwards: Chief End, Ultimate End, Subordinate End

In his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World (which you can read for free HERE), Jonathan Edwards makes some logical distinctions about desire. This relates to God’s purposes in creating the world. It’s also helpful in understanding our own desires. I’ve written in the past HERE about his fountain analogy for creation. But in this post I’m going to summarize Edwards’ idea of ‘ends.’ The qualifications he make about our different types of desires have been helpful for me in understanding the Bible and my own motivations.

There are two reasons to desire something: (1) You desire a thing for its own sake or (2) you desire it for the sake of something else (as a means to a further end).

Under the heading of “desiring something for it’s own sake,” Edwards uses the terms “chief end” and “ultimate end.” What are they?:

  • Chief End: The absolute highest purpose; the thing most valued in and of itself. A person can have only one chief end.
  • Ultimate End: Something sought for its own sake. A person can have multiple ultimate ends and various levels of desire relating to them. An ultimate end is not necessarily a chief end.

When distinguishing between a more desired ultimate end and a less desired ultimate end, Edwards uses the phrase Inferior End.

  • Inferior (Ultimate) End: The lesser valued of two or more ultimate ends

He calls things desired not for their own sake but for the sake of something else (as means to an end) “subordinate ends.”

  • Subordinate End: something sought not for its own sake but for some further purpose (a means to an end)

To summarize: a chief end is desired in and of itself above all other things without qualification. An ultimate end is desired in an of itself, but only one ultimate end can be a chief end.

One person can have all sorts of ultimate ends at any given time. For example, if I take my wife out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, I can have two ultimate ends. One is eating a steak. The other is spending time with my wife. I enjoy both things in and of themselves. Whichever I desire less is the inferior of the two ultimate ends. In order to get to the steakhouse, I have to drive for 30 minutes. Driving is a subordinate end. I don’t desire to make this drive in and of itself. I only want to do it because I want to get to the steakhouse.

That leaves the chief end. What’s my chief end in all this? The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This should be the chief end in everything that we do. In my driving, in my eating, and in my marriage, my desire should be to glorify and enjoy God.