We use the word offhandedly. We mean by it, innovation, or inventiveness. Sometimes the verb is turned into a noun: the artist is called a creative. I am uncomfortable with this usage, as it is elitist: some are “creatives” others are not. But we use the term loosely. An entrepreneurial business executive is said to be creative. An inventor, say, Thomas Edison, is said to be creative.

For many Christians, the equation is simple: God creates, and we, his image-bearers, create at our level. There is some truth to this. Our calling as a human race is to imitate God. The law of God tells us we should “be holy” as he is holy (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7). Jesus quotes this principle, changing the word “holy” into “perfect” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:48).

Likewise, human beings are to follow the divine pattern of work and rest. The Fourth Commandment focuses on the need to stop and rest one day out of seven. But it is also a commandment to work on the other six days:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (emphasis added, Exod. 20:8–11)

It can easily be forgotten that this is a commandment to labor and work, and not only to cease working on a given day.

The reason given for the human pattern is the divine one: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day” (v.11a). Then it affirms, “Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (v.11b). So how did God work? By creating. Thus, how should we work? By creating.

But the parallel is not strict. God’s work is creating the world “out of nothing,” ex nihilo. The first words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The word “created” is a translation of the Hebrew word bara (בָּרָא). The meaning is that God originated the universe from nothing; in other words, he did not use previously existing material. As Cornelius Van Til used to remind us, there are only two kinds of being: uncreated (God) and created (the universe). We cannot be like God in this fundamental, metaphysical sense.[1]

When we create, it is out of materials that already exist. Even when we boast about having “a new idea,” it is not strictly out of nothing, but belonging to the realm of human ideas.

*          *          *

It may be helpful in order to distinguish our activity from God’s activity to refer to ours as crafting. We can fashion an object out of the materials at hand. If you have ever watched a painter at work, the artist may start with a design, then choses different colors from the palette, and makes sure the light and shadows are right. Does this mean there is no room for inspiration? Not at all.

Perhaps the most familiar examples from the Bible of divinely guided craft are from the construction of the tabernacle, and then the temple. Exodus 31:1–6 and chapters 36 to 39 describe Bezalel as the chief artisan of the tabernacle. He, his colleague Oholiab, and scores of other craftsmen were called of God to design the interior of the tabernacle. They were filled with God’s Spirit, giving them the ability to work with different kinds of material with “intelligence.” Bezalel would later construct the Ark of the Covenant, a work of art if there ever was one (Exod. 37:1).

Moving into the New Testament, we see numerous examples of creativity. Jesus’s parables were artistic masterpieces. Decisions about an itinerary required creativity. Think of Paul’s avowals to the Romans about his travels. He began with general principles, such as respecting parity agreements: “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’” (Rom. 15:20–21).

But presumably, concrete decisions about where to stop first, what roads to journey, etc., were left to his creative wisdom. He did not always need to cite God’s direct authority for such decisions.

In any case, biblical authors always respected the distinction between God’s original, uncreated authority and the creativity of his image-bearers. It may be of interest to note that J. R. R. Tolkien wrestled with this problem. In his complex mythology, Arda was the Quenya name for the entire world. It was the home of elves, people, dwarves, and others, including Hobbits. These are in the realm of subcreation, a term used to distinguish the work of the Origin (God) from creatures. Subcreation meant for Tolkien the creation of great stories, or myths. As a believing Roman Catholic, he would not call the work creation. He was eager to safeguard the Creator-creature distinction.

*          *          *

That is the easy part! The hard part is how creative people should think about their responsibility. There is no silver bullet, no one motivation or purpose for human creativity. Some artists have lofty metaphysical ideals. Paul Cézanne wrestled with ways to represent nature in his work, without either literalistically copying a scene or departing from it into abstraction. He once declared, “je vous dois la verité en peinture” (“I owe you the truth in painting”). He believed the natural world was the repository of certain truths, in shapes, in forms, in human qualities, and that it was his calling to make these invisible qualities visible.

Other artists believe they have a more direct public mission. Especially in the non-West, some of their voices are compelling. Take, for example, the work of First Nations painters Kimowan Metchewais and Wendy Red Star. Without falling into cheap propaganda, they articulate the values of Native Americans, which include a sense of exclusion from the dominant culture and the need to showcase the beauties of their world to outsiders. In one of Kimowan Metchewais’s imaginative photo albums, “Old Indians with Eyewear, Etc.,” he compiles photographs from the nineteenth century to today of Native men wearing glasses or goggles. There is humor here, but also a message: these folks are human and not just ethnographical objects, such as represented in National Geographic.[2]

Creativity may be exhibited at more ordinary levels than the visual arts. How you decorate your living room, what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, how you promote creativity in your neighbor, these count as examples of our calling to imitate God, without usurping his originality. Now, go and subdue the earth . . . creatively.


[1] The word bara (בָּרָא) is used throughout the first few verses of Scripture. God created mankind in his own image (Gen. 1:27). God blessed the Sabbath because he rested from his work which he had created (Gen. 2:3). These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created (Gen. 2:4).

[2] See the New York Times Guest Essay by Wendy Red Star [https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/03/opinion/kimewon-metchewais-native-american-art.html]

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and emeritus professor of apologetics and ethics Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: March 2023


Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Communicating in the Electronic World with a Christian Voice, Chapter 2

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4A

Ambiguities in Book of Discipline 9.1, Standing Revisited

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 3: The Importance of the Devotional Life

Jazz and the Gospel: A Review Article

What Do We Do with Modern Art? A Review Article


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