Problems with the Westminster Confession (155)

This episode is the third of a four-part series where Gregg reads excerpts from—and comments on—an excellent  conversation that took place in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group.  All comments and names are used with permission of the authors.

In this podcast Gregg explains his comments at the end of the previous episode, #154, where he explained that establishing the most appropriate, most productive relationships of dependence result in being one’s fullest and “best” self: being the most properly independent and also most functional version of myself, and so the happiest.

He notes a subtle but important difference between happiness (as the result of becoming “fully functioning” or becoming one’s “best self” and following St. Augustine’s work in De Beata Vita) and the formulation of the aim of Christianity prized by many Evangelicals, from the Westminster Confession Shorter Catechism, Article #1.  It states: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Gregg’s views the WCSC Article #1 to deviate significantly from the New Testament, which is remarkably clear: those who follow Jesus are to hold as their highest priority what he paraphrases as “loving God entirely,” and as their second priority “loving themselves rightly, and others likewise.”  In other words, the purpose of human existence is to be in a love relationship with God (based on truth) and to allow this truth-based love relationship to impact and flavour all other interactions and pursuits.

Gregg argues that the reason that the WCSC Article #1 fails to align with the Bible’s prioritization due to a skewed emphasis on one aspect of the Christian God’s nature and a corresponding under-representation—or de-valuing—of another, equally central and equally important aspect of the Christian God’s nature.

Simply stated, the Westminster Confession Shorter Catechism puts too much emphasis on God’s sovereignty, not enough emphasis on God’s fatherhood and parenthood.  By corollary, it puts too much emphasis on truth (and the importance of declaring, promoting, and defending that truth—hence the action of “Glorifying God”), not enough emphasis on love (and the necessity of receiving and give love—the state of being loved and in love with God, and allowing that mode of being to flavour and direct my actions).

Gregg sees at least three problems resulting from this skewed emphasis.

First, the WCSC #1 promotes not human enjoyment of relationship with God, with oneself, with others, and with the created order but the enjoyment of God alone, as though that is sufficient (and is what God intended, as if the created order were only an intermediate and temporary structure rather than a necessary reality).  But this is not in keeping with the focus of the biblical text: God gives every good thing for enjoyment (including ourselves!) and the created order is not to be superseded or abolished but renewed and remade when God’s kingdom is fully realized.

Second, Gregg believes that those who have an affinity for the WCSC’s viewpoint in Article #1 attempt to formulate the implications of this view more fully.  In other words, he offers a challenge to these people, to ask themselves: If I take “enjoyment of God” to be my chief goal, what effect should this “enjoyment of God” most likely produce?  In other words, what is the logical impact of any “enjoyment?”

The question is aimed at helping those who promote the Westminster Confession to consider whether the purpose of human existence is more an act or more an outcome, such as a state of being?  (This returns to Gregg’s comments equating “loving God entirely” with the state of being “loved and in love with God,” rather than loving being first an action).

On the Westminster Confession framing it is an act (even “enjoyment” is stated in the verbal form: “to enjoy God”).  This is an action.  From my perspective, while action is certainly involved the purpose of human existence is to achieve (or at least frequently experience) a state of being / state of mind, out of which our actions, thinking, and dispositions will necessarily be best oriented.  Further, I think that my framing the matter has the advantage of being supported and corroborated by a large body of scientific evidence (such as understandings in psychology and neurology, that show that how we perceive and experience the world is determinative for all of our engagement with the world).

Third, summarizing such massive concepts, while possible, must be done with both strict attention to one’s sources and with the understanding that summarization requires skilled and thoughtful formulation.  On the first count, Gregg argues that any summary of the primary “goal” (or as mentioned in #154, the primary “orientation”) of human beings according to the Christian faith requires a very close reading of the Bible’s own claims in this regard.  And the WCSC #1 seems to fail in this regard.

Concerning the need for “skilled and thoughtful formulation,” in Gregg’s view any attempt to summarize the primary goal or orientation of human beings relative to God (and the primary task that humans are to undertake in that regard) is much more than citing biblical passages or simply regurgitating their content.  Instead, a fully hermeneutical approach is required.  In other words, an approach that considers not only the biblical texts in terms of their immediate and broader contexts, but that also considers what it means for human beings to live life as a human being.

Gregg clarifies this approach in offering his reformulation of the primary orientation and task of humanity from the perspective of the Christian faith: “The primary ‘orientation’ of a human being is to love God entirely, love her or himself rightly, and to love others likewise, and that the primary ‘task’ of a human being is to enjoy living and enjoy becoming who one is meant to be: to enjoy the created order, to enjoy others, and to enjoy her or himself in the context of being in a relationship of dependent independence with God—that is, through being in a love relationship based on truth, with God, who both knows me more truly than I know myself and loves me more deeply than I love myself.”

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