Trinitarian Creativity: Creation, Self and Originality

Can we add anything to the universe? Can we give anything back to God that he has not already given to us?

When we try to answer these questions, we sometimes feel torn between two extremes.  On the one hand, we buy into the popular narrative that artists can usher in a new reality. This is what Sara Schumacher called, in her post earlier this week, ‘The Cult of the New.’ On the other hand, we buy into another popular narrative that says artists are not creative at all, but only recreative. This is what Schumacher called ‘The Myth of the New.’

However, there is an alternative way of thinking theologically about artistic creativity and originality that avoids these two extremes. If we begin with Trinitarian theology, then we can offer another way of relating originality to the world and to the self.

There is a long Christian tradition of understanding God’s world as something that develops.[1] The garden of Eden, on this view, is only the beginning because it is immature. The Spirit frees the world to mature in its own way, and the goal of this process is revealed in Christ.

Humanity has a part to play in this development, and the invitation to respond creatively to God’s world can only be understood properly in light of Trinitarian theology.  As Trevor Hart writes:

If the Word of God is fulfilled through a free and Spirit-filled participation or activity of Jesus as a human being, we are compelled to think rather differently about how God views human activity in relation to his own creative Lordship, not least because Paul reminds us that this enhumanising takes place precisely that we might now be drawn in to share in its essential dynamics for ourselves.[2]

Both ‘The Cult of the New’ and ‘The Myth of the New’ refigure human identity in problematic ways. The first implies that the self is the ultimate origin of originality.  On this view, the self is free only outside of the created realities that constrain it. The second implies that the self is, as one writer puts it, more like a ‘switch for the relay of information flows.’ On this view, the self seems to lack free will altogether.

A Trinitarian theology, however, frees the artist to be genuinely creative in relation to God’s Triune creativity. As Jeremy Begbie writes:

We can begin by recognising that in the humanity of Christ, our humanity has been incorporated into the divine life by the Son of God, set free by the Spirit from its debilitating self-obsession, from its self-will and its evasions of the truth, liberated to respond to the Father’s love and his will, and freed to respond appropriately to the created world. Therein lies the very foundation and source of authentic freedom and authentic creativity.[3]

In light of a Trinitarian theology, we might say that humanity participates in the creative work that God is doing in the world. Creativity, as Hart puts it, is not a potential ‘threat to the divine copyright on the logical structure of things’[4] nor is it merely the discovery of things already made. It is a response to God’s gracious gift of the world, and we are most genuinely creative and original when we align our efforts with their telos, their goal, in Christ.


Jim Watkins is Featured Artist Editor of Transpositions. He has recently completed his PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and his forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.

[1] For example, see Ireneaus, Adversus Haereses, IV.38.1.

[2] ‘Hearing, Seeing, Touching the Truth,’ in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000), 18.

[3] Voicing Creation’s Praise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 178-9.

[4] ‘Hearing, Seeing, Touching the Truth,’ 16.


  • 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: Travis Buchanan

    Thanks for a great post, Jim. It made me think of something Lewis wrote in a 1939 article on ‘Christianity and Literature’, on creativity and also in a trinitarian context. Lewis is reacting to certain understandings of art for art’s sake (I believe), of setting up aesthetics as a religion where man’s ‘creative genius’ is worshipped, and where a transcendence and spirituality are available as a replacement to those earlier found in traditional religion (now thought impossible or at least discredited in the ‘modern’ world science had ushered in by the early twentieth century–I am also thinking of Clive Bell here), and the new style of poetry practiced by T. S. Eliot and others, which seemed to prize most highly the personal consciousness of the poet as expressed in his verse (free verse being the vogue, throwing off the restrictive chains imposed in the past by style, form, etc.). In other words, a spirit akin to the cult of the new and individual, to relate it to Sarah Schumacher’s prior post to which you also refer. So, onto Lewis’s point, and then if you may, I would love to hear your response. Lewis wrote, beginning with the action of the Incarnate divine Son in response to the Father:

    There ([John] 5:19) we are told that the Son does only what He sees the Father doing. He watches the Father’s operations and does the same (ὁμοίως ποιεῖ) or ‘copies’. The Father, because of His love for the Son, shows Him all that He does. I have already explained that I am not a theologian. What aspect of the Trinitarian reality Our Lord, as God, saw while He spoke these words, I do not venture to define; but I think we have a right and even a duty to notice carefully the earthly image by which He expressed it—to see clearly the picture He puts before us. It is a picture of a boy learning to do things by watching a man at work. I think we may even guess what memory, humanly speaking, was in His mind. It is hard not to imagine that He remembered His boyhood, that He saw Himself as a boy in a carpenter’s shop, a boy learning how to do things by watching while St Joseph did them. So taken, the passage does not seem [end of p. 7] to me to conflict with anything I have learned from the creeds, but greatly to enrich my conception of the Divine sonship.
    Now it may be that there is no absolute logical contradiction between the passages I have quoted and the assumptions of modern criticism: but I think there is so great a difference of temper that a man whose mind was at one with the mind of the New Testament would not, and indeed could not, fall into the language which most critics now adopt. In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being ‘creative’, ‘original’, and ‘spontaneous’. ‘Originality’ in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, in reflecting like a mirror. Nothing could be more foreign to the tone of scripture than the language of those who describe a saint as a ‘moral genius’ or a ‘spiritual genius’ thus insinuating that his virtue or spirituality is ‘creative’ or ‘original’. If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for ‘creativeness’ even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours. I am not here supporting the doctrine of total depravity, and I do not say that the New Testament supports it; I am saying only that the highest good of a creature must be creaturely—that is, derivative or reflective—good. In other words, as St Augustine makes plain (De Civ. Dei xii, ch. I), pride does not only go before a fall but is a fall—a fall of the creature’s attention from what is better, God, to what is worse, itself.

    Applying this principle to literature, in its greatest generality, we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom. Our criticism would therefore from the beginning group itself with some existing theories of poetry against others. It would have affinities with the primitive or Homeric theory in which the poet is the mere pensioner of the Muse. It would have affinities with the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth; and remoter affinities with the Aristotelian doctrine of μῑμησις and the Augustan doctrine about the imitation of Nature and the Ancients. It would be opposed to the theory of genius as, perhaps, generally understood; and above all it would be opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression. (7-8)

  2. says: jfutral

    My favourite post this season. And that’s a high mark as this was one of the best season of posts for you guys.


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