Comparing Divine and Artistic Creativity (Part III): The Functional Imago Dei

We are now in the middle of a five part series on the role of comparisons between divine and artistic creativity within a theology of art. In Part I, I introduced the topic and suggested that the role of a comparison between divine and artistic creativity in a theology of art is often closely connected to one’s theological approach to the image of God. In Part II, we considered those who regard creativity as part of the structure of humanity. In Part III, we will consider those thinkers who take a functional approach to the image of God. The functional approach is based upon the view that the image of God, in the biblical literature, is linked to a royal ideology. According to ancient thought, the king serves as the representative of God in the same way that an king might use an image or statue to represent his authority and power over land and people.[1] In short, the functional approach is concerned with the function of humanity in creation rather than with what humanity is.

Those who take the functional approach tend to be very suspicious of comparisons between divine and artistic creativity. Calvin Seerveld argues, for example, that even the word ‘creativity’ is unhelpful: “There are no biblical grounds…for the usual talk about artistic ‘creation.’ Comparisons between God as capital A Creator Artist and man as small, image-of-God creator artist are only speculative and misleading.”[2] While Seerveld offers a strong argument against comparisons between divine and artistic creativity, others are simply dismissive. Nicholas Wolterstorff says that a comparison between divine and artistic creativity is negligible within Christian theology: “I think the existence of a significant similarity between man’s composing and God’s creating is only a peripheral component” in the doctrine of creation.[3]

But why should these thinkers be so hesitant to make comparisons between divine and artistic creativity? Both Seerveld and Wolterstorff agree that the autonomy of the individual is the primary theological problem in modern thought. Wolterstorff, for example, shows quite clearly that the modern artist assumes the view that he or she is ‘like a God,’ and he suggests that these divine pretensions are nothing more than the creature rebelling against the Creator.[4]

For those who take the functional approach, the solution to the modern problem of human autonomy is to re-assert humanity’s obedience to God. The functional approach challenges the artist to be obedient to the ‘norms’ God has made in the cosmos and to what God is calling the artist to do. Seerveld writes that “when artistic activity is truly obedient, it will know and disclose a holy freedom that is constrained and driven passionately by the love of Christ, wanting to bring its new offerings close to the workaday people of God.”[5]

The functional approach offers a powerful corrective to the excesses of the structural approach because it emphasizes the importance of exercising freedom within responsibility. But these thinkers have a tendency to emphasize obedience to such an extent that one wonders whether it makes sense to talk of artistic ‘creativity’ at all. By over-emphasizing obedience, they tend to neglect the scriptural themes of grace, gift and blessing associated with divine creativity, and they sometimes fall into the trap of a grace-nature dichotomy when speaking of the human being.[6]

What do you think about this approach to artistic creativity?  Are these thinkers correct to challenge the commonly held view that creativity involves the production of something new?  Do you agree with these thinkers that it is better for the artist, and perhaps everyone else, to avoid comparisons between divine and artistic creativity?


[1]  Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Westminster John Knox, 2001), 197-99.

[2] Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 26.  Seerveld’s position on the imago dei is idiosyncratic: “Man is not God’s image, a finite parallel to an infinite Perfection.  Only Chirst is a spitting image of God.  The fact that man is made in the image of God means that men and women carry inescapably around with them a restless sense of allegiance.”

[3] Art in Action, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 68.

[4]Ibid, 50-8.

[5] Rainbows for a Fallen World, 39.

[6] For critique, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1991), 152.

2 Comments

  • matt ballou says:

    I believe they’re correct in challenging the notions of originality or newness (as well as the notion of the autonomy of the self) – in these things we are not like God. Since we are contingent and our very being-ness is situated within countless interwoven systems of maintenance, influence, inflection, and derivation, we can’t help but take what we have received and use or reuse it. This human reality stands in contrast to the Divine creative act. Where I differ with those mentioned above is that I believe the reordering, restructuring, and – essentially – curating of received (i.e. learned, practiced, and implemented) material is in itself a creative act. It’s not a making of a NEW thing as such, but rather a uniquely inflected permutation of a constellation of what has been. And, of course, that is our job as Imago Dei: to reject the notion of ourselves as autonomous god-like centers of our own universes and instead to highlight what is before, within, and beyond us, aiming to present and re-present the common grace of aesthetic and contemplative forms of creation and expression. We are meant to step back and point to Him.

    I write more about these sorts of issues here:

    Art and Submission:
    http://neotericart.com/2010/03/19/art-and-submission-by-matthew-ballou/

    On Intuition and Analysis:
    http://neotericart.com/2011/04/10/on-intuition-and-analysis-by-matthew-ballou/

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Matt, thank you for this very interesting, and very well written, comment. I think we are in agreement on the basic problems and virtues of the position described in this post. In Part IV, I will present a third position that, I think, ameliorates some of the problems associated with the structural and functional approaches.

    Thank you, also, for posting links to your essays. The essay “Art and Submission” is particularly fitting, and it reminded me that one’s views on creating art and appreciating art are often closely linked.

    I also think that this idea of submitting to one’s art and to God is an important part of making art, and you are right to point out that the imago dei undermines delusions of the autonomous self. Alongside denying one’s self and pointing to God as an important aspect of a Christian theology of creativity, I might also add that creativity is an offering of who we are and what we have to the Creator. In this way, I think it is possible to fully affirm both that human creators add something new to the cosmos, and that this novelty is itself dependent upon what God has given to His creatures.

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