Creativity in the Bible
© 1999 by Dr. Barry Liesch
The Church should not only seek to be relevant to local culture, but also an agent of transformation
Creativity: The Reformed View
Creativity - Troublesome Word
I hope this article begins to address the concern expressed by Calvin M. Johansson. The church should not only seek to be relevant to local culture, but also an agent of transformation. This often requires creativity, risk-taking.
Just as "performance" is a troublesome term, so is creativity. Artists value this term, and often feel the churches have an inadequate understanding of it, and will not allow much of it.
How is creativity used in our society today? How is it used in Scripture? Can Biblical criteria for calling something creative be discerned? Has the term changed over time? Do Reformed and Sacramentalist scholars view it differently? Are we "workers" or "creators," "imitators" or "imagers"? In probing these questions I hope to correct misperceptions, offer perspective, handles for self development, and put us in touch with part of the 20th Century artistic milieu.
Creativity has become a buzzword in our society. Everything from a child's scribble to Einstein's theory of relativity is considered creative. Not so in the Scriptures! In the Bible "create" is reserved for extraordinarily exalted activity. The Hebrew and Greek words for it, respectively, bara and kitzo, are very similar in meaning and are employed sparingly to denote only the pinnacles of God's achievements - creating the heavens and the earth, man, righteousness/justice, the nation Israel, the Church, reconciling Israel and the Church, creating the New Jerusalem, and to regeneration and worship. The Biblical concept embraces a much broader canvas than merely the physical creation in Genesis chapter one.
In the Bible, creative activity must contain something of the miraculous and the mysterious (Exod 34:10). If the phenomenon can be explained away by natural means, it is no longer bara activity. As lofty and explosive as is the word omnipotent, charged feelings of human astonishment accompany it:
Moreover, in both the Old and New Testaments bara creativity is power theology. It urges a rethinking of everything, a transformation of one's worldview to acknowledge God:
Bara creativity is illustrated in Numbers chapter sixteen where the sons of Korah were rebelling against the divinely instituted leadership of Moses. God instructed Moses to tell the people to separate from the tents of these rebels:
The words translated "totally new" in the above passage are a rendering of two successive bara words ("bara beriah"), the only time this succession occurs in Scripture. A strictly literal translation would be the Lord "creates a creation." The word-play is doubly explosive and appropriate. What occurs is an entirely unprecedented phenomenon-- not even an earthquake, because no shaking of the earth is described. The earth's surface opens and closes! The example also illustrates the performance dimension of bara activity.
Two main dimensions characterize Biblical creativity, the constructing dimension (as in the making of the universe) and the performing dimension (as in the doing of miracles). By way of human analogy, to make something in the construction dimension is to take material and shape or reshape it into a book, a sermon, or a composition. To do something in the performance dimension, however, is to perform on the piano or deliver a sermon. An action results, not a new form. The performance dimension is also clearly illustrated in Exodus 34:10 where "do" and "performed" appear together. God is speaking:
The meaning of words, however, can change over time, and the word create has undergone extraordinary change over the centuries. In the Bible, man is refered to as a maker or fashioner, but never as a creator. A comprehensive examination of the word "create" in the Scriptures reveals that in all 86 cases it refers to activity performed exclusively by God, never humans. Moreover, researcher Tigerstedt (1968) could not find in the writers of Christian theology or classical philosphy any reference to the metaphor of a human creator. The first recorded articulation of a human creator occurs in Landino's exaltation of the poet to the status of a creator in 1482 A.D. God, he said creates out of nothing and the poet produces "great and admirable things nearly out of nothing." Art historian Erwin Panofsky (1960) similarly observed: "The words creare, creator, creatis and their vernacular equivalents...seem not to have been applied to artists until the sixteenth century, and in Italy not before ca. 1540-1550."
However, the trickle of references to humans as creators in the Renaissance gradually becomes, by the 20th Century, a torrent. By 1710 Shaftesbury extols the master poet as a "second maker," who can "imitate the Creator." In the19th Century theoretical work in linking divine and human creativity occurs in Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake, and the idea of "artistic genius," a Scripturally alien concept, is popularized as individuals like Franz Liszt are exalted to the point of cultish worship. By the 20th Century the concept of a "creator like unto God" is the "most pervasive image of the artist" and is "at the root of much of the thought and practise that takes place today." Picasso echoes that thought: "The important thing is to create. Nothing else matters; creation is all." And Paul Gauguin in a letter dated 1888 says: "Creating like unto our Divine Master is the only way of rising toward God." Statements like these are a breath away from the euphoria of stardom and Hollywood marketing techniques which now infect our own local and TV church cultures. But, it wasn't always this way!
Subduing the Materials of Creation
Believing it invites pride or rebellion against God, Reformed theologians (those Calvinistically inclined) view the idea of man as a creator as dangerous:
The competition motif, indeed, is struck when the serpent persuades Adam and Eve that the prohibition on the forbidden fruit obstructs them from achieving God-likeness and exceptional awareness:
When Barnett Newman seductively links the concept of man as creator to the alurement of the forbidden fruit, he justifies the warranted apprehensions of these theologians:
Many artists today aspire for the creative state at any cost. Creativity for them leads to a higher state of consciousness. Defiant of any limits, any responsibility to live obediently under God's authority, they are a law to themselves.
The Reformed View
Against this backdrop, Reformed theologians insist man's calling is not to create, but to work with the materials of creation responsibly and obediently for the delight of mankind and benefit of all creation. They see in Genesis chapter one a "cultural mandate," a broad directive for focusing human energy:
Reformed theologians take this passage as a command, a charge, to subdue not only all living creatures, but to discover and use the potentials in all materials, including their macro and micro structural dimensions. This enlarged scope appears justified from these words addressed to man elsewhere: "you put everything under his feet " (Ps. 8:6); "God left nothing that is not subject to him" (Heb. 2:8). In uttering this mandate, God dignified mankind's work, and "crowned him with glory and honor" (Ps. 8: 5).
To subdue means to tame, master, humanize, impose order, develop technique-- to place our imprint on creation in a positive way. This takes effort, wisdom, and experience and infers mankind is invited to work and to extend God's creation. In that sense "creation" is uncompleted, unfinished. For Jubal this meant tuning, ordering tones and rhythms in order to play the harp and the flute (Gen. 4:21). For some musicians today it means exploring the potentials in digital instruments and MIDI.
Moreover, God in His creativity has demonstrated a love for immense variety without sacrificing quality! This variety and plentitude of materials on our planet offers an extraordinary range for mankind's field of action. Notice that verses 28 to 30 read "every living creature," "every seed bearing plant, " "every tree," and every green plant." Moreover, scripture teaches us to respect the materials of creation:
Additionally, the following helpful Scriptural metaphor teaches us to lovingly care for the created order.
Adam and Bezalel: Master Gardeners
The kind of "subduing" and "ruling" that Scripture envisions is not that of raping the environment or squandering or suppressing human potential. The image appropriate to subduing, says Wolterstorff, is "that of gardening. Man's vocation is to be the world's gardener."
The devoted gardener learns the secrets of good management - when to water, when and how to prune the trees for the benefit of all.
It is not difficult to see how the image of a gardner could further apply to pastors and those who work the arts. "The artist takes an amorphous pile of bits of colored glass and orders them upon the wall of the basilica so that the liturgy can take place in the splendor of flickering colored light and in the presence of the invoked saints." Similarily, pastors take ideas, order them, and express them eloquently in words. Like the trees in the garden, these ideas need to be pruned and shaped. The gardening image also ellicits the thought of preservation and conservation, of appreciating and building upon forms of the past while at the same time aggressively reaching toward the future.
The kind of artist balance we need is projected in the charge Moses gave to Bezalel, chosen to head the team making the furnishings for the tabernacle. Bezalel! Master gardener of the arts! The excerpt below from Exodus has the feel of the Genesis passages. It begins with his calling, enumerates his qualifications, then goes on to put emphasis on the materials themselves, and the great variety of specific skills he mastered.
Veith says this passage is "incisive in its analysis of what artistry involves - indeed, it is the most comprehensive analysis of the issue I have ever found." He says whereas human theories about art tend to be partial and narrow - some emphasizing talent, some training, some technique - it is characteristic of Scripture to be comprehensive.
Let's examine the qualities that Bezalel possessed - wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and craftsmanship - in more detail. Notice the progression from the general to the specific. The Hebrew word for "wisdom" means to have insight or perspective into the overall plan, to see how everything fits together. It means to have the big picture, to understand the rationale of the whole. It also relates well to the idea of conceiving the designs and innovating the settings of particular abstract, decorative art pieces. The word "understanding" suggests intelligence or ability in practical problem solving. "Knowledge" has to do with "know-how" knowledge, the knowledge of particular crafts. Bezalel had to know his materials. He needed to know how to prepare acacia wood, cast bronze, beat gold, and make dyes. "Craftsmanship" relates to workmanship. Craftsmanship involves working in a specific medium, and requires the mastery of technique in the act of embodying an idea. The emphasis is on the quality of the product. "Skill" here is more associated with wisdom. Note finally, Bezalel is designated as a maker, not a creator.
Creativity: The Sacramentalist View
Creating the way God Creates
The plethora of definitions of creativity in our society are so loose, yet so embedded in popular culture, that the exclusive, pristine use of the term as found in Scripture is for the foreseeable future, irrecoverable. Given this widespread useage, is there any warrant for the application of the word "creativity" to human agency?
Fully acknowledging the Reformed theologian's warnings against a "heaven storming" creativity, I now to set forth Dorthy L. Sayer's ideas on creativity where mankind is viewed as a small "c" creator or "sub-creator" (Tolkein's expression). Her views conflict with the Reformed theologians and philosphers (i.e., Kuyper, Seerveld, Wolterstorff) but are representative of the Sacramentalist stream (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) who see artistic endeavor more as "creation" than "work." Crucial components in her view are:
Her major contribution is to draw on theology for her ideas on creativity, and to relate the human creative process in particular to a theological framework.
One reason why the Reformed and Sacramentalist streams are opposed stems from their differing evaluation of analogical language. Kuyper, a Reformed theologian, distrusts analogical, symbolic, or metaphorical thinking: "the more Religion develops itself in spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art's bandages because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion." Sayers, in contrast, begins with the premise of analogy: "All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical."
Sayer's writings suggest four analogies (or metaphors) which comprise part of the identity mankind shares with God: the father analogy (God as Father, man as father); the creator analogy (Creator, creator); the maker analogy (Maker, maker); and the trinity of the creative mind analogy (Trinity, trinity). Of the four metaphors, she feels the Creator metaphor has been neglected partly because the Father metaphor has been "particularly consecrated by Christ's use of it," and partly because most of us "have a very narrow experience of the art of creation."
She speaks of the deficiencies in understanding that arise when theologians/pastors and artists do not engage in integrative dialogue. Specifically, theologians fail to recognize the "likeness and familiarity between God and His children" in the Creator-creator metaphor. They use this analogy, "to illustrate the gulf between God and His creatures," neglecting to inquire what light the artist can throw on it. But if the Creator analogy, like the Father analogy, is rooted in human experience, then "it is to the creative artists that we should naturally turn."
Sayers, while acknowledging the differences, underscores the commonality between God and man in the Maker/maker metaphor:
Created in the Image of God
This Maker/maker analogy, affirms Sayers, is located in the concept of man created in image of God (the "imago deo"). Scripture does not specifically say what comprises the imago deo, rather the immediate context of Scripture in Genesis one leads to the conclusion that God "created" (Gen. 1:1); therefore mankind is fundamentally a maker. That is what the Genesis one is about and that is what the imago deo is about:
She also rejects theories that art is a "copy," an "imitation," or a "representation" of forms. She believes in an Incarnational approach to the arts (poetry, music, fine arts, etc.), citing that Christ enfleshed was not an inferior imitation but a mirror image of God:
May I interject here? The words translated "express image" above (Gr. charakter), are translated as "exact representation" in the NIV and NASB versions. We find, however, the word "image" (Gr. eikon) used elsewhere in reference to Christ, which corroberates the thrust of her argument. For example:
My study suggests that the words "image" and "imitate" are employed differently in Scripture. The word "imitate" is used by Paul and the writer of Hebrews in reference to behavior modification:
In other words, the word "image" in Biblical useage, seems to be used more in relation to communication processes. The word "imitate" is used for behavior modification, as when a son watches his father and learns by doing what he does, or when a student copies a particular musical or sermonic style, or performs the way his teacher does. Stravinsky sums this up well: "the object of music is not and cannot be imitation," but "imitation is in itself something useful and even indispensible to beginners who train themselves by studying models." The mature artists, however, have an idea and then use the materials available to "image," embody, or flesh out their intent. In that sense art is incarnational, just as Christ is God incarnate.
The Trinity and the Human Creative Process
Sayers further believes the concept of the Trinity suggests a model for the human creative process. Though the Trinity enjoys a reputation for "obscurity and remoteness from experience," a trinitarian structure in the Creative Mind of God parallels a trinitarian structure familiar to the creative mind of the human artist:
To reiterate, for the writer the Idea is equated with having an "idea" for a book, or the book as thought; the Energy is the incarnation of that idea in words or the book as written; and the Power is the communication of the image in power or the book as read.
Instead of a book, the Trinitarian model could be applied to sermon making or music performance and composition. Her idea is certainly an intriguing application of a great and central theological doctrine, don't you think? In fact, thinking of the Trinity this way assigns value to the concept, and brings what has been felt as an obscure and difficult concept, closer to our human experience. Denis de Rougement uses three verbs to evoke the same artistic functioning in the Trinity: "to create [Father], to incarnate [Son], to inspire [Holy Spirit]."
Sayers enlarges on the theological implications:
Sayers insists the Biblical concept of creativity envisages the production of something new, a unique aspect of the Christian world view in contrast to the Greek world view:
A study of the eighty-six occurences of the word "create" in Scripture supports Sayers contention does that newness centrally characterizes creativity. In eight instances the word "new" occurs in immediate conjunction with the word "bara". Furthermore "new" (chadash), like the word bara, is used sparingly in reference to significant events.
What kind of newness is involved? How can it be described? What are its features, its criteria? A study of the context of in which "create" occurs indicates at least five features that characterize bara newness.
Practically, these criteria can guide human endeavor, help us recognize when we onto something significant. Feature three is particularly useful in avoiding unproductive forays. I find myself thinking of these criteria often as I persue my own work!
Grounds for the Human-Divine Interface
Is it possible, then, that the Bible envisions a creative capacity in man that is a reflection of God's activity, even though bara is used exclusively for God? Sayers has answered "Yes." Sayers would locate the creative urge in man in the imago deo, and would see analogies in the Maker/maker, Trinity/trinity correspondences.
Is there other support for her view? Other grounds for considering a human-divine interface include (1) man's naming of the creatures, (2) the Psalm eight passage, and the concepts of (3) "newness" and (4) "wisdom." Wilkinson points out that God allows Adam to share in the activity of Genesis creation: He brings the animals before Adam and waits "to see what he would name them" (Gen. 1:19). Wilkinson says,
In Psalm eight, written after the Fall, a close linkage is forged between man and God:
And Romans suggests that man has a cooperative role to play in "reconciling" creation:
Moreover, God creates by exercising wisdom, and man is enjoined to get wisdom:
Please do not misunderstand! Nowhere would Sayers nor does any Scripture teach that man is God or a god! Rather, the suggestion is that there is correspondence.
The Reformed & Sacramentalist Contribution
Let's review for a moment what the Reformed and Sacramentalist exponents have each contributed to our understanding of Biblical creativity. The Reformed exponents have emphasized a respect for the materials of creation, given dignity to the concept of man as a worker, clarified and extended the meaning of the creation mandate, and have provided a healthy caution to the dangerous concept of a "heaven storming" creativity. The Sacramentalists have contributed the idea of art as incarnational, and have related the process of creativity to theology - given artistic process some theological underpinning in the concept of the Trinity. Both are valuable.
Reprinted by permission from
Updated by: Matt Bynum