What Is the Chief End of Man?

What did the authors of the Westminster Catechism mean by “enjoy” in their first question? Did they mean what we mean by the word—”to take delight in”? Or did they in fact mean something different, “to give joy to”? Is man’s chief end “to glorify God and give joy to God forever”? I’ve seen people argue both ways, and I was curious to know who was right.

So I went to the best authorities in the field. I checked the OED, and I went to the original source, the Westminster Catechism. Here are the relevant portions from the OED entry for enjoy (v.):

2. a. trans. To put into a joyous condition; to make happy, give pleasure to. Obs.

  • 1484 CAXTON Ryall Bk. Cj, For to gladde and enjoye the people.
  • c1500 Melusine 150 Whos taryeng enjoyed her moche.
  • 1502 Ord. Crysten Men IV. xxvii. (1506) 324 That it hym may enioye & recomforte in his spyryte.
  • 1610 MARKHAM Masterp. II. li. 107 No meat will enioy or do good vnto him.

3. a. trans. To possess, use, or experience with delight. Also with reference to the feeling only: To take delight in, relish. Also absol.

  • 1462 Paston Lett. No. 457 II. 109 Iche off us all schuld injoy the wylleffar off odyr.
  • 1538 STARKEY England ii. 67 No one can long Enyoy plesure.
  • 1597 SHAKES. 2 Hen. IV, IV. iv. 108 Such are the Rich, That haue aboundance, and enioy it not.
  • a1639 Reliq. Wotton. 12 Both well enough injoying the present.
  • 1667 MILTON P.L. IX. 829 Adam wedded to another Eve, Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct.
  • 1713 ADDISON Cato (T.), I could enjoy the pangs of death And smile in agony.
  • 1742 RICHARDSON Pamela III. 137 How he..injoys..the Relations of his own rakish Actions.
  • 1870 E. PEACOCK Ralf Skirl II. ii. 10 William enjoyed the novelty very much.
  • 1872 RUSKIN Eagle’s Nest §85 It is appointed for all men to enjoy, but for few to achieve.

Linguistically, then, it would seem that either sense is possible in the 1640s catechism: 2a) “to bring joy to God forever” or 3a) “to take delight in God forever.” You can’t just say that Shakespeare, Milton, and Addison were on the 3a side and that settles it. Both uses were clearly idiomatic during the time the Westminster Catechism was written.

So how can we know which one the original authors intended? I did some research into the provenance of the catechism’s proof texts. It appears that they were supplied by the original committee and are therefore a testimony to their intent.

The lone proof text the catechism’s authors place next to the phrase “and enjoy Him forever” is Ps 73:25-28:

Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strengthe of my heart, and my portion for ever. For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee. But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.

This proof text clearly points toward the latter sense, 3a, taking delight in. The focus of the passage is Asaph’s enjoyment of God, His desire for time with Him. I don’t catch any hints of giving joy to God in that passage but, rather, of finding joy in God, delighting in and desiring Him alone (though I fully believe that desiring God as Asaph did brings joy to Him).

May God give me this delight!

The proof texts subsequent generations of interpreters supplied to question 1 also support viewing “enjoy” as an example of OED’s sense 3a. They include verses like “happy is that people, whose God is the Lord” and “rejoice in the Lord alway”. None of the proofs support 2a. And commentaries on the standards, including those of Thomas Vincent in 1674 and James Fisher in 1753, clearly view “enjoy” in OED sense 3a.

Also, question 38 of the Westminster Catechism reads, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?” Among the benefits listed is that believers will be “made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” The proof texts prove neither view here (I John 3:2; I Cor. 13:12), but the focus appears to be on the benefits believers receive, not those they give.

And question 90 of the Catechism says that believers will be “made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, …especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father.” Apparently the Westminster divines were at least willing to speak of being happy because of God. (Question 90 continues, incidentally, “This is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory”—which also seems to reflect the OED 3a sense).

The Westminster Divines meant that it was part of our creational purpose to delight in God forever. What a privilege, and what a responsibility unspeakable and full of glory.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “What Is the Chief End of Man?”

  1. Good question, Dave, and good to hear from you! I love linguistics, but I can’t claim to be an expert. I can claim to have read in many places that authors typically mean one thing. Double meaning is possible, but I would think the Westminster Divines would have to leave some evidence that this was their intent. In my reading in relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson), I think this evidence would be called “contextual effects.” All of the contextual effects I’m aware of (basically, the first pieces of evidence I listed in my post) point to one intended meaning. And I think the most decisive factor is the one proof text they appended to the point.

    Certainly, both meanings are true, because enjoying God “enjoys” Him! But I believe the authors intended only one meaning.

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