Why Do We Exist?

For all is quaintness, the opening question and answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism is iconic. Despite the best attempts by its updaters to give it a more contemporary feel, none seem to resonate in the way the original wording still does. (‘What is our main purpose in life?’ just does not convey the majesty of what’s in view!) It was a stroke of theological genius on the part of the Westminster divines to begin this wonderful little document by asking ‘What is man’s chief end?’ and then supplying the answer, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’.

Their choice of starting point was not entirely original. A brief glance at the opening questions in Calvin’s Geneva Catechism shows striking similarity both in their focus and their choice of words. They were certainly among the influences that shaped the Shorter Catechism. And just as the French Reformer’s catechism was meant to lead people into his larger treatment of theology in the Institutes, so too the Shorter and Larger Westminster Catechisms served as simplified summaries of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In that sense their respective starting points are even more significant.

They provide the context for doing theology – not least ‘theology for the common man’ – and explain its purpose.

Far from being an exercise to pursue as an end in itself, the task of theology is bound up with the very essence of our humanity. We can neither know ourselves truly, nor experience life fully as human beings without knowing God as he has made himself known in creation and through his word, and also in our shared experience of life.

The Westminster documents have often been criticised for a perceived air of theological detachment. Indeed, they are often critically contrasted with the Heidelberg Catechism and its use of first person singular forms in its wording. But this contrast is less than fair on several counts.

The obvious one is that there is no necessary disjunction between what is true generically for the human race as a whole and the members of that race individually. The only way the race can change corporately is on a person-by-person basis.

The other major reason for not overplaying the contrast between Westminster and Heidelberg is that are two sides of the same theological coin. What is good for us as individuals cannot be separated from what is good and necessary for the race as a whole and vice versa.

The value in starting where Calvin and the Westminster men started in their catechisms is their reminder of the reason for our existence as a race. The human species stands distinct and apart from every other species of life within this world. Although the entire created order was made to reflect God’s glory as its Creator, there is something unique in the way this is true for human beings. And even though the angels and heavenly creatures constantly participate in the worship God in the heavenly realm, that too belongs to a different category of praise than what is bound up with the worship offered by human beings.

The angels, cherubim and seraphim were not made in God’s image. And when the eternal Son became incarnate it was as a man and not as one of the above (even though, from a human perspective, that may have seemed more appropriate).

So the ‘Why do we exist?’ question is the biggest question we can ever ask ourselves. And its more lyrical expression in terms of our ‘chief end’ in life elevates it far above mundane functionality into the mysteries of humanity as it reflects the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Given that catechisms have generally been intended to help children and ‘ordinary’ people to grasp the main teachings of the Bible, Calvin’s and Westminster’s starting point have further significance in terms of how our most basic self-understanding is shaped.

By couching this first article of theological education in corporate and generic language, as opposed to merely personal, it reminds each one of us that we are not the centre of the universe. What is good for us personally can only be understood in the context of what is good for the human race in its entirety. And what is good for the entire race can only be grasped and enjoyed in relation to God.

The relevance of this little detail for a generation hard-wired to think the individual actually is the centre of the universe could not be more far-reaching. There is a huge temptation for Christian parents to follow the philosophy of this age and bring up their children in a way that gives them the impression ‘this world exists for your glory and your pleasure’. The pastoral fallout from this often-subliminal distortion is almost impossible to measure. Children who grow up having this mindset instilled into them grow into the kind of self-centred, self-serving individuals who can never find happiness – not even in church, if they happen to be Christians.

‘What is man’s chief end?’ should never cease to bring a smile to our face, because there is far more packed into that question and its far-reaching answer than we ever could imagine. It lifts us up to the heights of glory in understanding who and what we are, while it simultaneously leads us into the depths of true enjoyment as we discover that God himself is the key to our being human.


Mark Johnston