Comparing Divine and Artistic Creativity (Part V): Toward an Ethic of Artistic Creativity

We have now arrived at the final post in this five part series. Up to this point, I have considered the way that one’s approach to the image of God influences one’s theological reflection on artistic creativity. In Part II, I considered those who reflect upon artistic creativity as part of the structure of humanity. In Part III, I considered those who reflect upon artistic creativity as fulfilling the function of humanity in the cosmos. In Part IV, I considered those who reflect upon artistic creativity as participating with God’s creativity in the cosmos. While it is clearly possible to distinguish three different approaches, it is wise to remember that the biblical text does not make these distinctions. One might say that structure, function and relationship are three different aspects of the image of God, and the image of God always refers to the totality of the human person.

By paying attention to those who emphasize the participatory relationship between divine and artistic creativity, it is easier to see how comparisons between divine and artistic creativity can serve as an ethic of artistic creativity. This is not to say that the other approaches do not recognize the ethical implications of these sorts of comparisons. They clearly do. But for those who emphasize the participatory relationship between divine and artistic creativity, such as Jeremy Begbie and Trevor Hart, they focus their reflection on artistic creativity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This allows them to propose a view of divine creativity in which human creators have something to do. In this participatory relationship, comparisons between divine and artistic creativity are like a shared vision that encourages the artist to work in and with the cosmos in the same way that God has made and is working with the cosmos. Within a participatory framework, Begbie drives home the ethical import of God’s redemption of the cosmos in Christ for artistic creativity:

the way in which this transformation [of creation] has been set in motion in Christ displays yet again that respectful love which marks all God’s dealings with his world.[1]

Does it make sense to say that comparisons between divine and artistic creativity can ground an ethic of artistic creativity? It is the case that comparisons between God’s actions and human actions have been used by Christians as a strategy for encouraging people to live a morally upright life. For example, the imitatio Christi serves as a traditional basis for Christian ethics by encouraging Christians to align their lives with the life of God incarnate. But it could be objected that, in this case, Christians are actually imitating the life of a human and not the actions of God.

While the imitatio Christi rests on a fairly straightforward concept of imitation – one human life imitating another human life – there is a more complicated form of imitation that might described as “paradigmatic.” A paradigmatic form of imitation does not seek to imitate its object exactly but seeks to discern an attitude within its object to emulate. This strategy for encouraging ethical Christian living is seen clearly in Paul’s writing where, for example, he exhorts Christians to imitate the incarnation in their love toward one another.[2] Clearly, Paul is not suggesting that Christians literally imitate the incarnation. Rather he helps them to discern the depths of God’s love revealed in the incarnation, and he then encourages them to love others in the same way.

Comparisons between divine and artistic creativity are of ethical value to the artist because they help the artist to imagine ways of acting creatively, which are in keeping with with God’s creative vision for the cosmos.  Now we have arrived at the rather complex question of what sort of comparison is most beneficial to the artist’s ethical relation to his materials (or environment), self, society and God.  Although I do not have space to develop such a comparison here, I would like to suggest that a beneficial comparison between divine and artistic creativity will hold the related the Christian concepts of divine creation and redemption by focusing on the love of Christ in the incarnation as the heart of God’s creative action.

How do you think comparisons between divine and artistic creativity can help to pattern, structure or orient an artist’s creative practice?  More specifically, how might comparisons with Jesus’ self-giving and sacrifice at their centre shape creative practices in ways that are more loving and compassionate?


[1] Voicing Creation’s Praise, (London: T & T Clark, 1991), 175.

[2] See Phil 2:5-11. See Richard Hays’ discussion of this passage in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 28-31.


  • 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.

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  1. says: Cole Matson

    I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings at the moment, and last night was struck by the line, spoken by one of the Elves of Lothlórien, that “we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make”. That seems to me a good approach for the artist – seeing artistic creation as sharing the things (and the people and the stories) that we love with others.

    I think it is fruitful to see artistic creation as giving of yourself to honour the beautiful thing – and in so doing, to honour God, the Creator of that beauty. If I’m painting a beautiful sunset, I’m saying, “Yes, this is indeed beautiful” – the painting is a “sacrifice of praise” to God for the sunset. And by putting the work in to communicate that sunset to others through the medium of paint, I’m giving of my own time and effort to bring that beauty into their lives – in a way that is (or ought to be) gift, offered in love to my neighbour.

    I imagine that art which arises out of a love for one’s neighbour, and for God, is more likely to be beautiful, gentle, and joyful, and less likely to be ugly, harsh, and brutal.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hey Cole, thanks for this comment. That is a great quote from Lord of the Rings (Please give me the page number). Yes, I agree that art is a form of service, sacrifice even, for the good of the thing one is making, for the good of others, and for God.

      I’m not sure that I agree with what you say at the end: “that art which arises out of a love for one’s neighbour, and for God, is more likely to be beautiful, gentle, and joyful, and less likely to be ugly, harsh, and brutal.” I think that love can often take the form of a penetrating and hard stare at the ugly, harsh and brutal. Also, I think artistic excellence is culturally relative, and dependent upon a culture’s “institution of art,” and so I am not confident that there is a direct correlation between an artist’s love and the excellence of their work. In other words, I think it is possible for a very poor work of art to also be the product of the work of love.

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