Telos is a Greek word which means end, goal, termination, conclusion, final destiny. The Bible uses this word often. For instance:
- 1 Peter 1:8-9: …though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.
- 2 Cor 11:14-15: …even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
Telos also became a technical term in Greek philosophy to speak of the end, goal, or purpose of life. According to Aristotle and his counterparts, “Human beings… have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature toward a specific telos… There is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature (telos). Ethics is the science which enables men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue). In moral philosophy this is known as teleological ethics: an ethic that argues for what we should do based on what we are destined for.
The Bible and Aristotle both held that human beings had some ultimate destiny. According to the Bible, the end, goal, and purpose of all things is the glory of God. According to Aristotle, the end of human life is blessedness, fullness, well-being – the good life. As MacIntyre points out, the whole point of ethics (in both the biblical and classical understanding) is to help us become the people we were intended to be. The virtuous life is a life oriented toward our proper end, our purpose, our telos.
However, in After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that it is precisely this concept of telos which has been lost in the past 300 years of philosophical discourse. This gap lies at the root of modern pluralism and emotivism: “Unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods [of particular situations] and constitutes the good of a whole human life… a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life… The replacement of Aristotelian or Christian teleology… [is not] the replacement of one set of criteria by another, but rather a movement towards and into a situation where there are no longer any clear criteria.”
So, if we are to seriously cultivate the virtues extolled in Colossians 3, we must first rebuild our understanding of the purpose of human life and existence. We must be rooted in the biblical meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. We must have a clear vision not just of what God saved us from, but what he saved us for.
In other words, we must live with the end in mind. More this Sunday.