In his lifetime Richard Sibbes’ (1577-1635) theology changed at some key points. For any who appreciate Sibbes the claim invites some attention. We know he was a lifelong learner and was ready to think for himself. As a pastor and teacher he read widely and explored the Bible both for his teaching and in his personal pursuit of God.
We also know that Augustine of Hippo was one of his favorite reads. And that brings us to a particular change in Sibbes. Augustine may help account for Sibbes’ willingness to reconsider what is “the chief end of man.”
Here’s some context. In Sibbes’ day a theological axiom—“The chief end of man is to glorify God”—was gaining stature. In fact, soon after Sibbes’ death the Westminster Assembly used the statement as a first item in the Westminster Catechisms. While it wasn’t a novel claim it certainly hadn’t been elevated to such a degree in prior centuries. Instead the honor of ultimate calling belonged to the two great commandments: to love God and neighbor above all else.
Sibbes accepted the newer axiom in his early preaching. He noted, for instance, the calling of 1 Corinthians 10:31 for every Christian to “do all to the glory of God.” But in his sermon series on Romans 14:7-8—“The Christian’s End”—his focus shifted.
Paul’s priority—“whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s”—was his focus. Sibbes tied this calling to Augustine’s teaching: “As Saint Augustine saith, ‘Thou has made us for thee, and our hearts rest not till we come to thee’” [Sibbes, Works, 5.300].
Sibbes reflected on Augustine’s ambition: “And being not his own end, it is his wisdom and understanding to look principally to that which is his last and best and main end, which is God, and union and communion with God in Christ …” In his discussion Sibbes also considered Christ’s Matthew 6:33 calling for believers to “seek first” God and his kingdom.
So what emerged in “The Christian’s End” sermons was a shift from a focus on God’s glory to a focus on Christ himself as the basis for union and communion with God.
Was this a real change in Sibbes, or simply a corollary to the Westminster statement? In other words is the call to seek God part of glorifying God?
Perhaps. But I think it actually represented Sibbes’ willingness to displace his university-based theology with a more biblical theology.
A broad reading of Sibbes reveals his distaste for theological speculation. Part of that was the blending of Classical Greek philosophy in Christian thought. As further context, Cambridge students, Sibbes included, began their studies in scientia—“knowledge”—especially as found in the works of Aristotle. Knowledge came first; then theological studies followed.
An obvious question, then: how was Aristotle’s “knowledge” blended with Bible truth? The brilliant Aristotle was, after all, a pagan who viewed God as a monad.
Medieval thinkers wrestled with this. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), in particular, worked out a possible synthesis in the Summa Theologiae. It satisfied many scholars in the Roman church and among Post-Reformation Protestant Scholastics.
According to Aristotle one certainty about God is his unchanging reality. God cannot be “moved” by change. And with that he can only think about the one ultimate unchanging reality: himself. So, Aristotle concluded, “throughout eternity” God’s thought must always have “itself for its object” [Metaphysics 12.9.10]. God, in other words, must be completely self-concerned.
Yet to a skeptic this self-absorbed God is better aligned with the serpent’s Genesis 3:5 recreation of God. In that text the serpent promised Adam and Eve they could “be like God.” They were invited, in other words, to a lie—to be like a God who exists in solitary self-concern.
While this element isn’t explicit in the Genesis dialog it emerges as the first couple received the Serpent’s promised divinity: “they knew they were naked.” They had a new self-focus. And the true God, who exists in Triune communion; and who created them in love, was no longer trusted.
Yet Cambridge theology students in the 17th century tried to unite Aristotle’s version of a self-absorbed God with the true God of the Bible. And the axiom that God is captivated by his own glory seemed to fit the bill—despite its obvious incoherence.
But Sibbes, it appears, was finally unwilling to embrace this scheme. His growing awareness of Trinitarian theology certainly led him to portray God, instead, as eternally active in the mutual love of the Godhead. God isn’t self-absorbed; but eternally self-giving. And he invites our own selfless response.
Which view is accurate? The Thomistic synthesis of Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” with Christian faith? Or the vision of the Triune God who shares his glory, both within the Godhead; and from within the Godhead to all who receive the Son?
This answer seems clear enough in John 17:24—“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Aristotle, in other words, got it wrong. Along with many Christians who still follow in his footsteps.