“What Is the Chief End of Man?” by Francis P. Miller
May 26, 1947
Man is troubled—more troubled than at any previous time in the brief sojourn of his kind on this planet. Wars, revolutions and social convulsions all indicate the depth of his disquiet. He is troubled because he does not know, and he wants to know, the meaning of his own life. Why is he here in this world? Has man any significant destiny on this earth? What is it all about anyway?
The Christian religion provides the answers to these questions. The Christian faith affirms that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the creator and sustainer of all things visible and invisible, and that God has a purpose and a plan for his creation. Man cannot foresee exactly what the end of human society or of this planet may be. But his mind illumined by faith can discern that human existence has significance and that God intends man to have a destiny both in this world and in the world to come.
It is precisely at this point that modern Protestantism is weakest and most vulnerable. Religion is usually conceived of by Protestants as being primarily concerned with the destiny of man’s soul and, as a corollary, with man’s conduct (personal and social). As far as it goes that is a true conception. But concern for conduct in relation to man’s spiritual destiny does not necessarily include concern for man’s destiny on this planet. And it is about their destiny on this planet that men are most confused and disturbed. As rational beings and as beings capable of faith, men have the right to inquire and to seek assurance regarding their earthly pilgrimage. But when men inquire, contemporary Protestantism is unable to give a satisfying answer.
Our failure as Christians to give man some adequate clue to the meaning of his earthly existence is the explanation of the underlying crisis of Western civilization.
At the very moment when we are most inarticulate on this subject, Communism (the only serious rival of Christianity as a world religion) is passionately articulate. The Communist faith is concerned exclusively with man’s hopes on this earth. That explains the appeal that it makes and will continue to make to the masses of mankind. The Communist faith is false, but we must beware lest our aversion to the Marxist lie blinds us to man’s legitimate hunger for assurance regarding the significance of his life in this world as well as in the next.
Protestantism has not always been so inarticulate about the meaning of human existence. The Westminster shorter catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. This answer was given by English and Scotch divines during the brief triumph of Cromwellian Protestants in England while Charles I was in prison awaiting his execution.
According to the Oxford dictionary “to glorify” means to advance the glory of God by faithful action. But words have a way of losing their value through the erosion of time and as a result of being transplanted to other continents and other cultures. Certainly not many Presbyterians are brought up now to think of “glorifying” as meaning primarily “faithful action.” It connotes for us rather an inner attitude of the mind or of the spirit—personal, contemplative and worshipful. Such a connotation is hardly Calvinistic.
In Calvin’s own sixteenth century catechism the answer to the question, what is the chief end of man, is more explicit than the answer given by the British in the seventeenth century. Calvin wrote:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. To know God.
Q. What is the true and right way of knowing God?
A. To know him in order to honor him.
Q. What is the best way to honor him?
A. By putting our confidence exclusively in him; by serving him in obedience to his will; by calling on him in all our times of need, seeking in him our safety and our happiness; and finally by being mindful both in word and thought that all kinds of good things come from him alone.
And the record of Calvin’s activities in Geneva gives a concrete illustration of what he meant by “serving him in obedience to his will”.
The answers we give today are obviously different in kind from the answers given by our spiritual fathers three or four hundred years ago. Their answers breathe an assurance, a certainty about the significance of man’s earthly life which is missing in the answers we try to give. We may repeat the same phrases, but the words we use lack an authentic ring—they have lost their driving power. The human path is not illumined very much by what we say or do; our fellow men do not catch from us a new and overpowering sense of the destiny God wills for them upon this earth; they do not detect in our language the note of an imperative call to action.
Yet man’s greatest need at the moment is a divinely inspired word about his earthly mission. What is his mission on this planet? What is his role as creature in the unfolding drama of God’s creation?
We affirm that our faith supplies the material for answers to these questions, but we have failed to give answers that men can understand or make their own. Let us humbly seek God’s forgiveness for our inadequacy in these awful days that warp and damn men’s souls, and let us pray that God will raise up individuals whose lives and words will make the light of heaven to shine upon man’s earthly way.
The supreme task of the church during the next generation is to help men understand the meaning and significance of their earthly pilgrimage. It has been extremely useful to study the bases of a just and durable peace, but what value has peace apart from understanding more clearly God’s purpose for human society. It is highly desirable that there should be a World Council of Churches. But what value has such a Council unless mankind senses that the Protestant community has something of tremendous importance to say about the destiny God wills for men—a destiny which begins here and now but extends beyond our mortal ken. When the Council is finally organized its major concern for the remainder of this century should be to encourage Christians everywhere to seek and to give a more adequate answer to the question, what is the chief end of man. This alone would justify its existence. Perhaps after some years of prayer and work a meeting of the World Council of Churches might be inspired to speak with authority on this matter. In that event what was said would be a milestone in the life of the church, and might also be a decisive turning point in the history of human society.
Francis Pickens Miller (1895 – 1978) was a politician who supported civil rights, represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1938–42, and opposed the Byrd Organization (a state political machine that supported racial segregation and opposed integration with “massive resistance”). From 1942–45 Miller was an intelligence officer with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). As a colonel, he served on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and became the US representative on the Tripartite Control Committee for Operation Sussex. In 1949 he lost to John S. Battle in the Democratic primary for Virginia governor, and in 1952 he lost to Harry F. Byrd Sr. in the primary for US senator. In addition to serving on the editorial board of Christianity and Crisis, he was a contributor to Presbyterian Life and wrote multiple books.