Comparing Divine and Artistic Creativity (Part II): The Structural Imago Dei

In Part II, I consider those who identify the image of God with creativity as an aspect of the human being. What are the ethical implications of comparing divine and artistic creativity from this perspective?

In part I, I proposed to write a series of posts on the role of comparisons between divine and artistic creativity in a Christian theology of art. I suggested that comparisons between divine and artistic creativity are connected to one’s theological approach to the image of God. In this post, part II, I will consider those who make comparisons between divine and artistic creativity and who also take a structural approach to the image of God. This approach follows a very traditional way of conceiving the image of God that distinguishes the imago from the similtudo.[1] The imago refers to something about the structure (being) of humanity, while the similtudo refers to the destiny (becoming) of humanity. Traditionally, those who take a structural approach to the image of God often identify it with an aspect, usually incorporeal, of the human being.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker is the most extended and complex example of this approach.[2]  She develops a comparison between divine creativiy and artistic creativity in remarkable detail, and she suggests that the artistic process—from idea to work to response—can be understood as an image of the trinity.[3] The reason that artistic creativity makes such an excellent analogue to divine creativity is, according to Sayers, because the artist is involved in a process that externalizes features of the ‘world of the imagination’ into the material world. She writes that “this represents the nearest approach we experience to ‘creation out of nothing’…”[4]

A similar sort of approach can be found in Sayers’ French contemporary Jacques Maritain. He begins by observing that God’s “creative Idea” is “in no way formed by its creatable object, it is only and purely formative and forming.”[5] In light of this, Maritain suggests that God knows creation by knowing himself. He then points out that, although “the poet is a poor God,” in a way similar to divine creativity, “poetic creation presupposes, as a primary requirement, a grasping, by the poet, of his own subjectivity, in order to create.”[6] Thus, Maritain suggests that the mind of God and the mind of the artist have a similar sort of relation to their respective creative works.

I mentioned in part I that comparisons between divine and artistic creativity have ethical implications. For those who take the structural approach, their comparisons tend to emphasize the freedom of the artist, in general, and the freedom of the mind over material, in particular. Some who take this approach stress the freedom of the artist to such an extent that the artist appears to be in need of liberation from the material world. This liberation can sometimes be future-oriented: the artist seeks to usher in a new era.[7] Or, this liberation can sometimes be past-oriented: the artist seeks to return humanity to an original, edenic state.[8] Either way, the extreme forms of the structural approach often explicitly or implicitly entangle artistic creativity and sin.[9]

While some who develop comparisons between divine and artistic creativity in this way become embroiled in ethical and theological difficulties, the structural approach insists on a theological point that I think should be embraced: creativity in all its forms is a fundamental part of being human.

Those who take the structural approach typically give comparisons between divine and artistic creativity a central role in their theologies of art.  In part III, we will consider thinkers who are very suspicious of comparisons between divine and artistic creativity, and who thus take a very different approach to the image of God.

[1] See Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) 141-82.

[2] (London: Methuen and Co., 1941).

[3] Ibid, 25-36.

[4] Ibid, 23. In a later essay, Sayers retracts her original claim that artistic creativity reflects creatio ex nihilo, and instead focuses on how the incarnation shapes our understanding of image.  See “Towards a Christian Aesthetic” (London: V. Gollancz, 1946).

[5] Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (London: The Harvill Press, 1954), 112.
[6] Ibid, 114.
[7] See Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, (New York: Collier, 1955).
[8] See Sergei Bulgakov, “Religion and Art,” in The Church of God, ed. E. L. Mascall (London: SPCK, 1934).
[9] Paul Tillich tends to view artistic creativity as arising out of sin, or at least being closely related to sin.  For a recent defense of the view that artistic creativity is a post-Fall human activity, see Andreas Andreopoulos, Art as Theology: From the Postmodern to the Medieval (London: Equinox, 2006), 7-8.



  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

Written By
More from Jim Watkins
Chapter Three: Can Science Help?
Review of Chapter 3 in What Good are the Arts? by John...
Read More
Join the Conversation


Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,550,246 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments