The Chief End of God: Soli Deo Gloria

The fundamental doctrines which guided and distinguished the early Protestant movement are generally called the five “Solas”–namely, Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).  Of these five, the last one may seem a little peculiar.  Compared to the others, the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria is noteworthy in that no Protestant/Catholic contrast readily presents itself.  How then did this doctrine—which did not quite fit the “protesting” mold due to its lack of uniqueness to the Reformation movement—become elevated by the Reformers to the same iconic status as controversial doctrines like Sola Fide and Sola Gratia?

Through their thorough investigation of the Scriptures, the Reformers rediscovered the theme of God’s glory interwoven throughout the biblical witness as His most preeminent concern and fundamental motivation in every word and deed.  In response to this realization, notes Herman Bavinck, “The Reformed tradition made the honor of God the fundamental principle of all doctrine and conduct, of dogmatics and family, of society and the state, of science and art.  Nowhere was this principle of the glory of God more universally applied than among the confessors of the Reformed religion.”[1]

To reiterate, the importance of the glory of God to both the Christian and to God Himself would not be denied by any stream of the Christian tradition; at the same time, the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria is not one to which all professed Christians would readily subscribe.  Thus it is beneficial to define the doctrine, discuss its scriptural support, address several prominent objections to it, and examine its practical relevance to the Christian life (each in successive posts).  Of course, as a means of introduction to the doctrine, one would also do well to acquaint himself with a general biblical understanding of God’s glory.

Defining Soli Deo Gloria

Though the Bible includes a number of genres of literature, the ‘dictionary’ genre is not to be found among them; therefore, while readers of the Scriptures may encounter terms like glory with such frequency as to develop general ideas of their meanings, there is much to be gained from seeking to establish a proper definition for such important theological concepts (or, better stated, such significant metaphysical realities).  In the case of the glory of God, the difficulty of constructing a definition is amplified by the fact of its partial incomprehensibility to the finite minds of human beings; in fact, this may be where any accurate definition must start: the acknowledgment that the divine quality of God’s glory makes it altogether too lofty to be captured in full by pen or tongue.  Having granted this limitation, John Piper defines God’s glory as “the beauty of his manifold perfections.  It can refer to the bright and awesome radiance that sometimes breaks forth in visible manifestations.  Or it can refer to the infinite moral excellence of his character.  In either case it signifies a reality of infinite greatness and worth.”[2]  Bruce Milne defines the glory of God in similar terms—“the visible manifestation of God’s being”; he elaborates, “His glory carries us into the heart of all that is essential to his being as God, his divine majesty, his sheer Godness….  His glory refers to that by and in which he alone is God.”[3]

Both of the definitions given above seem to imply two subtly distinct meanings of glory: one an objective, intrinsic quality of God’s being (“moral excellence”; “that in which he is God”) and the other a corresponding outward display of His qualities.  Some dispute has arisen over whether the former understanding of glory as likened to an attribute of God is in fact biblical.  H. P. Smith argues persuasively that the Scriptures only ever speak of God’s glory with the attending notion of manifestation or communication; for the present purposes, Smith’s case is more than satisfactory.[4]  While not altogether abandoning the notion of an internal quality of glory, Jonathan Edwards is careful to distinguish between the two and to emphasize the external aspect as it pertains to Soli Deo Gloria:

The thing signified by that name, the glory of God, when spoken of as the supreme and ultimate end of all God’s works, is the emanation and true external expression of God’s internal glory and fullness; meaning by his fullness what has already been explained; or, in other words, God’s internal glory, in a true and just exhibition, or external existence of it.[5]

Having thus briefly surveyed a number of baseline definitions, it is clear that God’s glory is indeed magnificent and divinely splendorous.  The doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria begins with the notion that God finds no greater pleasure than in His own glory.  As Piper explains, “God’s own glory is uppermost in his own affections….  He puts a greater value on it than on anything else.  He delights in his glory above all things….  He loves his glory infinitely.”[6]  It follows naturally that God’s highest joy would be His highest priority; it also follows that God would be consumed with righteous jealousy were anyone else to grasp at the glory which only He deserves.  Such is the essence of Soli Deo Gloria: that God’s foremost motivation and intention in every work is His own glory alone.  Even at its best formulation, the syntax here may lend itself to some confusion; while the word alone indicates God’s unwillingness to forfeit His glory to another, it does not mean that God’s glory is the only end for which He works.  The fact of God’s glory being His ultimate end does not preclude Him from also having proximate ends for His works; it does however subordinate all other ends to that glory.  As Piper explains, “God has many other goals in what he does.  But none of them is more ultimate than this….  God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith reflects the primacy of glory among God’s divine aims by placing the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria among the very first expressions of God’s character and activity in the confession:

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory….[7]

It can rightly be reasoned that such a doctrine would not achieve this prominent placement in such a significant and enduring confessional statement without having been first established on a defensible scriptural basis.  In our next post, we will briefly survey several major texts in which the glory of God can be seen as His predominating motivation and goal across a number of significant biblical contexts.

The Lord bless you and keep you.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), 434.  To clarify, Bavinck is not here confusing Reformation theology with Reformed theology, nor is the author.  It so happened that the Reformed theologians would retain this particular zeal for the doctrine as Protestantism differentiated.

[2] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1986), 31.

[3] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (rev. ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 81.

[4] H. P. Smith, “The Scriptural Conception of the Glory of God,” The Old Testament Student Vol. 3 no. 9 (May 1884): 325-326.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, ¶ 265.

[6] Piper, Desiring God, 31-32.

[7] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, II.I.

2 thoughts on “The Chief End of God: Soli Deo Gloria

  1. Pingback: Soli Deo Gloria in the Bible | Calling Out Your Name

  2. Pingback: “Can God Be Selfish?” Answering Objections to Soli Deo Gloria | Calling Out Your Name

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