No Argument of the Emptiness: Edwards and Irenaeus on the End of the World

Mar 19th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles

The Divine goodness is the end of all corporeal things because the entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end, inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness, to the glory of God. Reasonable creatures, however, have in some special and higher manner God as their end, since they can attain to Him by their own operations, by knowing and loving Him. – St. Thomas Aquinas


Tim Troutman’s paper and Jonathan Deane’s recent post have inspired me to say something about one of my own “salient moments” on the road from Geneva to Rome.  So, if you’ll indulge me a little (indubitably utterly fascinating) autobiography, here goes.

From Antho- to Theocentrism

Not so long ago, I believed that Calvinism was equivalent to Protestant Orthodoxy (which was to say, equivalent to the Biblical faith).  It was exquisitely systematic and it had an answer for everything.  But the context in which I began to grow in this faith was very individualistic and human-centered, and the influence of this context on my thinking caused me to overlook some of the most beautiful and deeply Christian aspects of classical Calvinism.

I was thinking of Calvinism as a system explaining, in rigorous detail, how it was that individual folks came to be saved from their sins so that they could go to heaven when they died.  I thought that this was pretty much all there was to the Gospel – not that I didn’t think it was glorious – and I thought that it happened in precisely the way Calvin said it did, so far as I understood him.

Further reflection suggested that I was missing something about the faith.  For one thing, the whole point of creation couldn’t simply consist in the salvation of us sinners.  It wasn’t that I thought our salvation should just be ignored; I didn’t and don’t think that.  But if there was some overarching point or purpose to it all, in some sense it had to be fundamentally about God, the author of it all.1 This is of course the conclusion towards which Calvinism tends, and I was delighted to discover this robustly theocentric theme expounded powerfully in the works of Jonathan Edwards and (following him) John Piper.2

Edwards on Glory and Felicity as the Ends of Creation

The genius of the thing was that Edwards had a way of explaining how the glory of God – which had to be the ultimate purpose of creation – was intertwined or “tied up” with His redemptive activity, because God’s glory on the one hand, and our salvation and happiness on the other, were really just two sides of the same coin.

This idea that God’s glory and our happiness fit together hand-in-glove was particularly eye-opening to me.  For before discovering this way of looking at things, I had been a little worried that if God was really only concerned about glorifying Himself – if He was just “looking out for number one,” so to speak – then it seemed as though He couldn’t be much concerned about us mere humans at all.  To be sure, maybe He cared about us in a certain sense, since He might want to use us as tools or instruments in His Big Self-Glorification Project.  But this was a little dissatisfying.  After all, if we were simply getting used like tools or mere “means to God’s ends” it wasn’t easy to see how God could love us as individual persons, as “ends in ourselves,” who genuinely mattered to Him as well.  But God is love.  So how could that be?

Yet Edwards had the right sort of answer to this apparent dilemma.  God’s pursuit of His own glory did not conflict with His fatherly concern for human creatures, after all.  It wasn’t something that had to be superadded to or somehow reconciled with His unselfish love, expressed in His yearning desire to rescue and make us forever blessed.  For, as John Piper cleverly formulated it, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”3

According to Edwards (and Piper) it was precisely in our recognizing and celebrating God’s supreme worth, in adoring and enjoying Him, in responding to His grace in love and trust, that God was genuinely glorified in us.  That was how He sought His own glory in and through us: by sharing His life and goodness with us, and thereby making us happy in Him.  And since that is the highest happiness any human creature could possibly attain, God’s unwavering pursuit of His own glory just was His unfailing pursuit of our happiness.  Thus Edwards:

And with respect to God’s being glorified in those perfections wherein his glory consists, expressed in their corresponding effects,-as his wisdom, in wise designs and well-contrived works, his power, in great effects, his justice, in acts of righteousness, his goodness, in communicating happiness,-this does not argue that his pleasure is not in himself, and his own glory; but the contrary. It is the necessary consequence of his delighting in the glory of his nature, that he delights in the emanation and effulgence of it…

From what has been said, it appears, that the pleasure God hath in those things which have been mentioned, is rather a pleasure in diffusing and communicating to, than in receiving from, the creature. Surely, it is no argument of indigence in God that he is inclined to communicate of his infinite fullness. It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow …

[However,] God and the creature, in the emanation of the divine fullness, are not properly set in opposition; or made the opposite parts of a disjunction. Nor ought God’s glory and the creature’s good, to be viewed as if they were properly and entirely distinct, in the objection. This supposeth, that God having respect to his glory, and the communication of good to his creatures, are things altogether different: that God communicating his fullness for himself, and his doing it for them, are things standing in a proper disjunction and opposition. Whereas, if we were capable of more perfect views of God and divine things, which are so much above us, it probably would appear very clear, that the matter is quite otherwise: and that these things, instead of appearing entirely distinct, are implied one in the other. God is seeking his glory, seeks the good of his creatures; because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures. And in communicating his fullness for them, he does it for himself; because their good, which he seeks, is so much in union and communion with himself. God is their good. Their excellency and happiness is nothing, but the emanation and expression of God’s glory: God, in seeking their glory and happiness, seeks himself: and in seeking himself, i.e. himself diffused and expressed, (which he delights in, as he delights in his own beauty and fullness,) he seeks their glory and happiness.4

In this discovery I found what I took to be two more major points in favor of Calvinism.  Not only did this perspective explain how God’s seemingly different aims (His glory, our happiness) fit together, but it also firmly grounded what I thought of as a specifically Protestant ethic.  Over against the Catholics, we didn’t believe in works-righteousness.  We knew salvation was a free gift from God.  But we also knew we had to do good works – not to “get saved” but because “we were saved.”  Well, one asks, what motivates us to do the works if we’re already saved?  Why bother?  Easy: we can say that we’re obeying God because we want to be happy and because we want to glorify Him (these things being all of a piece).  And in responding this way, we didn’t put ourselves in the ridiculously backward position of affirming that all our “merit” places God under some sort of obligation to pay us back with accolade and reward – so that “all glory, laud and honor” ultimately went to us instead of Him.

From Edwards to Irenaeus: gloria Dei vivens homo vita autem hominis visio Dei

Of course, if I had actually read any Catholic literature at the time, I would have realized that they’d beaten Edwards to the punch.  I would have seen then that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says just what the Westminster Catechism says about our “chief end,” and quite as insistently.  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever,” says the Calvinist.  And the Catholic, for his part, insists that

Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: “The world was made for the glory of God.” St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things “not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and communicate it,” for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand…”

The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created.  God made us “to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace,” for “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”  The ultimate purpose of creation is that God “who is the creator of all things may at last become ‘all in all,’ thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude.” 5

That wonderful little sentence up there, taken from St. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies (2nd century), says it all.  “The glory of God is man fully alive,” and “man’s life is the vision of God.”  In other words, God glorifies Himself in us by making us fully alive in Christ; and being made fully alive in Christ – which ultimately leads to eternal happiness in the heavenly “vision of God” – is exactly what God built us for in the first place: “Thou madest us for Thyself,” said St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find repose in Thee.”6 Thus when God relentlessly pursues His own glory in us, He is at the same time relentlessly pursuing our own happiness, our own heart’s rest in Him.  And that, of course, is how God manages to “simultaneously assure His own glory and our beatitude.”

Neat little package, no?  Nice and clean.

The Logic of Glory, the Logic of Grace

So it turned out that Edwards’ general solution went way back, that it flooded beyond the confines of the Calvinist stream right into the Catholic river.  But what of the bit about Protestant ethics?  Isn’t it here that the Catholic must pull back, and must hold that since our “merit” before God is the thing that saves us, the glory for our salvation cannot really go to God but must somehow go to us?

Not so much.  To be sure, Catholics do say with St. Augustine (and for that matter with Scripture) that God will crown us, will reward us for our obedience, and all the rest.  But they also say with St. Augustine (and for that matter with Scripture) that when God crowns these things, He’s doing nothing more than crowing His own gracious work in us.  “Grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness,” says St. Augustine, “in order that it may be true, because it is true, that ‘God shall reward every man according to his works.'”7

In other words, God not only graciously works the good in us (“for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” Eph. 2:10) but, as if that weren’t quite enough of a gift, He also rewards and glorifies us for those good works (“for those whom He called He justified, and those whom He justified, He also glorified,” Rom. 8:30)

So this was a “salient moment” for me, an important recognition that allowed me to understand what the Catholics had been getting at.  From a Catholic perspective, it is entirely in keeping with the impetus behind soli deo gloria to recognize that God not only liberally distributes His glory to creatures, but also that the creaturely pursuit of such glory is a thoroughly Christian activity, and is therefore entirely in keeping with the Gospel of grace.  Here of course we have to be careful; for naturally, we must never seek to exalt ourselves, or else we’ll be humbled.  And Catholics know that.  But it most certainly does not follow from this fact that God wants to withhold glory from everybody else, or to stop us from pursuing it; and to assume that He does is unwittingly to cut the Gospel off at its knees.

For consider, Jesus glorifies the Father, as we know, but in so doing He teaches us the crucial lesson that “If I glorify myself, My glory is nothing.  It is My Father who glorifies Me” (Jn 8:54).  Yet the Son brings us into precisely this filial relationship with the Father, which He won for us through His life, death and resurrection.  Now we are in a position to cry Abba, Father; now we too get to share in the life of God, by Christ and through the Spirit.  And just as the Father shares His life and love with the Son, and thereby glorifies Him, so too with us: for we who are brought into God’s family are ourselves “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).  Thus “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7) – that is to say, “the eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).

In all this, strikingly, the Apostle Paul is commending the pursuit of “glory,” the hope of being transformed gloriously ourselves, and so forth.  Yet this does not conflict with “all glory laud and honor” going to God, according to the Church, because the “grace” that “extends to more and more,” which “increases thanksgiving to the glory of God,” is given precisely “for our sakes” in the first place (2 Cor 4:15).  After all, Jesus “earned” absolutely nothing for Himself that He didn’t already possess prior to becoming man.  He did not become incarnate, suffer and die in order to get something He lacked, or to receive something more for Himself.  He did it for us men and for our salvation.  He did it, not to reassert in front of everyone that all of creation belongs to Him, but to raise us up to live and love like Him, and share in His glory and rulership. That is why Scripture spends so much time talking about God’s glory on the one hand, but also our “rewards” and “crowns” and so forth on the other.

It’s a simple but staggering thought.  And like most simple ideas, it seems fairly obvious in retrospect.  As St. Bonaventure pointed out, God did not go to all the trouble of creating a universe and redeeming us in order to increase His glory – for how exactly is creating the universe supposed to make His glory any “bigger?”  Rather, He went to all the trouble of creation and redemption to communicate His glory, to share it with us, for “God has no other reason for creating than His love and goodness.”

It took a little while for me to put these pieces together.  But when I finally started to think through all this with fresh eyes, it became clear to me that I had fallen into the understandable mistake of thinking that if all the glory goes to God – which is most certainly true – then it must mean that no glory goes to anybody or anything else – which is most certainly false.  When God “crowns our merit,” as St. Augustine says, He crowns nothing but His own gifts.  But He cannot very well do that without crowning us.  And when God calls us for His own glory, and justifies us for His own glory, He glorifies us for us own glory as well.  But it would be a little tricky, even for God, to accomplish all that unless He really did end up glorifying us after all.  Yet this doesn’t mean any less glory goes to God.  The Lord simply isn’t in the business of playing tug of war with His creation; He hasn’t got anything to prove, and that’s not how the logic of glory (or the Gospel of grace) works.

Thus to glory in God’s works – including the works of our salvation, our sanctification and all the rest – is to glory in God.8 It is to glory in God for being the sort of God He is: glorious enough to share His glory, rich enough to afford a little liberality, and full enough of goodness to let His goodness overflow.

What thanks ought we to render to Almighty God my dear brethren, that He has made us what we are!  It is a matter of grace.  There are, to be sure, many cogent arguments to lead one to join the Catholic Church, but they do not force the will.  We may know them, and not be moved by them to act upon them.  We may be convinced without being persuaded.  The two things are quite distinct from each other, seeing you ought to believe, and believing; reason, if left to itself, will bring you to the conclusion that you have sufficient grounds for believing, but belief is a gift of grace.  You are then what you are, not from any excellence or merit of your own, but by the grace of God who has chosen you to believe.  You might have been as the barbarians of Africa, or the freethinker of Europe, with grace sufficient to condemn you, because it had not furthered your salvation.  You might have had strong inspirations of grace and have resisted them, and then additional grace might not have been given to overcome your resistance.  God gives not the same measure of grace to all.  Has He not visited you with over-abundant grace?  And was it not necessary for your hard hearts to receive more than other people?  Praise and bless Him continually for the benefit; do not forget, as time goes on, that it is of grace; do not pride yourselves upon it; pray ever not to lose it; and do your best to make others partakers of it.

And you brethren, also, if such be present, who are not as yet Catholics, but who by your coming hither seem to show your interest in our teaching, and you wish to know more about it, you too remember, that though you may not yet have faith in the Church, still God has brought you into the way of obtaining it.  You are under the influence of His grace; He has brought you a step on your journey; He wishes to bring you further.  He wishes to bestow on you the fullness of His blessings, and to make you Catholics … Yet now the first suggestions of grace are working in your souls, and are issuing in pardon for the past and sanctity for the future.  God is moving you to acts of faith, hope, love, hatred of sin, repentance; do not disappoint Him, do not thwart Him, concur with Him, obey Him.  You look up, and you see, as it were, a great mountain to be scaled; you say, “How can I possibly find a path over these giant obstacles, which I find in the way of my becoming Catholic?  I do not comprehend this doctrine, and I am pained at that; a third seems impossible; I never can be familiar with one practice, I am afraid of another; it is one maze and discomfort to me, and I am led to sink down in despair.”  Say not so, my dear brethren, look up in hope, trust in Him who calls you forward.  “Who art thou, O great mountain, before Zorobabel? but a plain.”  He will lead you forward step by step, as He has led forward many a one before you. – John Cardinal Newman, “Faith and Private Judgment

  1. “For My own sake, for My own sake, I do it, for how should My name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another,” Is. 48:11. []
  2. See Piper’s God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards, Crossway Books (1998), and Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Multnomah (1996). []
  3. Desiring God, p. 50. []
  4. Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World,” sec. IV. []
  5. CCC 293-294. []
  6. St. Augustine, Confessions, I. []
  7. St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, 20. []
  8. Compare: wouldn’t it be weird if someone complained, after singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on some Sunday morning, that this hymn was spending too much time glorifying the sun, stars, and seasons, all to the detriment of glorifying God? The person who makes this complaint doesn’t “get” “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” This is something like how Catholics hear the complaint that they are making too much of the saints or the Blessed Virgin or what have you; it manifests a kind of confusion about the logic of glory and grace. []
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  1. Neal,

    Your post reminds me of Gaudium Et Spes, “Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself “(24) The Catechism goes on to explain what this means: man has been made to share in the very life of God (CCC 356).

  2. Thanks, Tom. That’s a beautiful passage.


  3. I tagged your article as a favorite sometime ago. I returned to it today and reread these words, “And just as the Father shares His life and love with the Son, and thereby glorifies Him, so too with us:” For sometime I have been asking and concluding that God’s glory is the manifestation of his love within the beloved. That manifestation is obviously sourced to the Trinity, and out of the overflow of the love of the Godhead we share both in this love made manifest in us and its glory. So my question is, could love made manifiest and God’s glory be the same thing? If not how are they seperate or differnt? Needless to say, it is my meditations on John 17 that cause me to suspect this association. What do you think?
    Thanks, Marcia
    P.S. I love this article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  4. Thanks for the note, Marcia. I would have to put some more thought into the question before I made an outright identification of divine glory with the love shared/made manifest within us, though I am very sympathetic to this kind of orientation. Again, thanks for your remarks. Blessings to you and yours,


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