Creativity in the Bible, part 1 of 2

The Reformed View

Dallas Willard Said:
I don’t want you to think of art as
a little frill or whipped cream on the cake of life.
It’s more like steak and potatoes.

Creativity–Troublesome Word

“If one were to ask an unbiased observer to name that institution in our society which clearly espouses creativity, we can be sure that he would not name our twentieth-century church. This is an indictment of how we Christians feel about the mandate God has given us for being creative…We do not embrace creativity as a way of life…We do not see it as having much to do with Biblical living…. What about that? I hope this article begins to address the concern expressed by Calvin M. Johansson. The church should not only seek to be relevant to local culture, but also an agent of transformation. This often requires creativity, risk-taking.

Just as “performance” is a troublesome term, so is creativity. Artists value this term, and often feel the churches have an inadequate understanding of it, and will not allow much of it.

How is creativity used in our society today? How is it used in Scripture? Can Biblical criteria for calling something creative be discerned? Has the term changed over time? Do Reformed and Sacramentalist scholars view it differently? Are we “workers” or “creators,” “imitators” or “imagers”? In probing these questions I hope to to correct misperceptions, offer perspective, handles for self development, and put us in touch with part of the 20th Century artistic melieu.

Bara Creativity

Creativity has become a buzzword in our society. Everything from a child’s scribble to Einstein’s theory of relativity is considered creative. Not so in the Scriptures! In the Bible “create” is reserved for extraordinarily exalted activity. The Hebrew and Greek words for it, respectively, “bara” and “kitzo,” are very similar in meaning and are employed sparingly to denote only the pinnacles of God’s achievements–creating the heavens and the earth, man, righteousness/justice, the nation Israel, the Church, reconciling Israel and the Church, creating the New Jerusalem, and to regeneration and worship. The Biblical concept embraces a much broader canvas than merely the physical creation in Genesis one.

In the Bible, creative activity must contain something of the miraculous and the mysterious (Exod 34:10). If the phenomenon can be explained away by natural means, it is no longer bara activity. As lofty and explosive as the word omnipotent, charged feelings of human astonishment accompany it:

Inquire from one end of the heavens to
the other. Has anything been done like
this great thing [God’s creative act],
or has anything been heard like it?
(Deut. 4:32 NASB)

Moreover, in both the Old and New Testaments bara creativity is power theology. It urges a rethinking of everything, a transformation of one’s worldview to acknowledge God:

That they may see and recognize,
And consider and gain insight as well,
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
And the Holy One of Israel has created it.”
(Isa. 41:20 NASB emphasis added)

Bara creativity is illustrated in Numbers chapter sixteen where the sons of Korah were rebelling against the divinely instituted leadership of Moses. God instructed Moses to tell the people to separate from the tents of these rebels:

“Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away…. If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them…They went down alive into the grave with everything they owned; the earth closed over them and they perished and were gone from the community” (Num 16:26, 29-33, emphasis added).

The words translated “totally new” in the above passage are a rendering of two successive bara words (“bara beriah”), the only time this succession occurs in Scripture. A strictly literal translation would be the Lord “creates a creation.” The word-play is doubly explosive and appropriate. What occurs is an entirely unprecedented phenomenon– not even an earthquake, because no shaking of the earth is described. The earth’s surface opens and closes! The example also illustrates the performance dimension of bara activity.

Two main dimensions characterize Biblical creativity, the constructing dimension (as in the making of the universe) and the performing dimension (as in the doing of miracles). By way of human analogy, to make something in the construction dimension is to take material and shape or reshape it into a book, a sermon, or a composition. To do something in the performance dimension, however, is to perform on the piano or deliver a sermon. An action results, not a new form. The performance dimension is also clearly illustrated in Exodus 34:10 where “do” and “performed” appear together. God is speaking:

I will do such miracles as have never been performed
[form of bara] in any nation or in all the world.” (NEB)

Meanings Change

The meaning of words, however, can change over time, and the word create has undergone extraordinary change over the centuries. In the Bible, man is referred to as a maker or fashioner, but never as a creator. A comprehensive examination of the word “create” in the Scriptures reveals that in all 86 cases it refers to activity performed exclusively by God, never humans. Moreover, researcher Tigerstedt (1968) could not find in the writers of Christian theology or classical philosophy any reference to the metaphor of a human creator. The first recorded articulation of a human creator occurs in Landino’s exaltation of the poet to the status of a creator in 1482 A.D. God, he said creates out of nothing and the poet produces “great and admirable things nearly out of nothing.” Art historian Erwin Panofsky (1960) similarly observed: “The words creare, creator, creatis and their vernacular equivalents…seem not to have been applied to artists until the sixteenth century, and in Italy not before ca. 1540-1550.”

However, the trickle of references to humans as creators in the Renaissance gradually becomes, by the 20th Century, a torrent. By 1710 Shaftesbury extols the master poet as a “second maker,” who can “imitate the Creator.” In the19th Century theoretical work in linking divine and human creativity occurs in Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake, and the idea of “artistic genius,” a Scripturally alien concept, is popularized as individuals like Franz Liszt are exalted to the point of cultish worship. By the 20th Century the concept of a “creator like unto God” is the “most pervasive image of the artist” and is “at the root of much of the thought and practice that takes place today.” Picasso echoes that thought: “The important thing is to create. Nothing else matters; creation is all.” And Paul Gauguin in a letter dated 1888 says: “Creating like unto our Divine Master is the only way of rising toward God.” Statements like these are a breath away from the euphoria of stardom and Hollywood marketing techniques which now infect our own local and TV church cultures. But, it wasn’t always this way!

Subduing the Materials of Creation

Believing it invites pride or rebellion against God, Reformed theologians (those Calvinistically inclined) view the idea of man as a creator as dangerous:

“the more the artist attains to the ideal of free, untrammelled creativity, the more likely he is to be disobedient to God…Human creation thus is seen not as stewardship, but as a competition with divine Creation.

The competition motif, indeed, is struck when the serpent persuades Adam and Eve that the prohibition on the forbidden fruit obstructs them from achieving God-likeness and exceptional awareness:

…[for] when you eat of it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God…(Genesis 3:5)

When Barnett Newman seductively links the concept of man as creator to the allurement of the forbidden fruit, he justifies the warranted apprehensions of these theologians:

It was inconceivable to the archaic writer that original man, that Adam, was put on earth to be a toiler, to be a social animal…. man’s origin was that of an artist and he set him up in a Garden of Eden close to the Tree of Knowledge, of right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation. The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as a fall from Utopia to struggle…[nor] as a fall from Grace to Sin, but that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life, to be, like God, “a creator of worlds,” …and was reduced to the life of toil only as a result of a jealous punishment…What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden? (emphasis added)

Many artists today aspire for the creative state at any cost. Creativity for them leads to a higher state of consciousness. Defiant of any limits, any responsibility to live obediently under God’s authority, they are a law to themselves.

The Reformed View

Against this backdrop, Reformed theologians insist man’s calling is not to create, but to work with the materials of creation responsibly and obediently for the delight of mankind and benefit of all creation. They see in Genesis chapter one a “cultural mandate,” a broad directive for focusing human energy:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Gen. 1:28, emphasis added)

Reformed theologians take this passage as a command, a charge, to subdue not only all living creatures, but to discover and use the potentials in all materials, including their macro and micro structural dimensions. This enlarged scope appears justified from these words addressed to man elsewhere: “you put everything under his feet ” (Ps. 8:6); “God left nothing that is not subject to him” (Heb. 2:8). In uttering this mandate, God dignified mankind’s work, and “crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8: 5).

To subdue means to tame, master, humanize, impose order, develop technique– to place our imprint on creation in a positive way. This takes effort, wisdom, and experience and infers mankind is invited to work and to extend God’s creation. In that sense “creation” is uncompleted, unfinished. For Jubal this meant tuning, ordering tones and rhythms in order to play the harp and the flute (Gen. 4:21). For some musicians today it means exploring the potentials in digital instruments and MIDI.

Moreover, God in His creativity has demonstrated a love for immense variety without sacrificing quality! This variety and plentitude of materials on our planet offers an extraordinary range for mankind’s field of action. Notice that verses 28 to 30 read “every living creature,” “every seed bearing plant, ” “every tree,” and every green plant.” Moreover, scripture teaches us to respect the materials of creation:

God saw all that He had made and it was very good. (Gen. 1:31)

Additionally, the following helpful Scriptural metaphor teaches us to lovingly care for the created order.

Adam and Bezalel:
Master Gardeners

The kind of “subduing” and “ruling” that Scripture envisions is not that of raping the environment or squandering or suppressing human potential. The image appropriate to subduing, says Wolterstorff, is “that of gardening. Man’s vocation is to be the world’s gardener.”

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food…The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work [“cultivate”] it and take care of it.”

The devoted gardener learns the secrets of good management– when to water, when and how to prune the trees for the benefit of all.

It is not difficult to see how the image of a gardner could further apply to pastors and those who work the arts. “The artist takes an amorphous pile of bits of colored glass and orders them upon the wall of the basilica so that the liturgy can take place in the splendor of flickering colored light and in the presence of the invoked saints.” Similarly, pastors take ideas, order them, and express them eloquently in words. Like the trees in the garden, these ideas need to be pruned and shaped. The gardening image also elicits the thought of preservation and conservation, of appreciating and building upon forms of the past while at the same time aggressively reaching toward the future.

The kind of artist balance we need is projected in the charge Moses gave to Bezalel, chosen to head the team making the furnishings for the tabernacle. Bezalel! Master gardener of the arts! The excerpt below from Exodus has the feel of the Genesis passages. It begins with his calling, enumerates his qualifications, then goes on to put emphasis on the materials themselves, and the great variety of specific skills he mastered.

Then Moses said to the sons of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel…He has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship; to make designs for working in gold and in silver and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, so as to perform in every inventive work. He also has put in his heart to teach… to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroider, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver…Then Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful person in whom the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him, to come to the work to perform it.” (Exod. 35:30-36:2, emphasis added)

Veith says this passage is “incisive in its analysis of what artistry involves–indeed, it is the most comprehensive analysis of the issue I have ever found.” He says whereas human theories about art tend to be partial and narrow–some emphasizing talent, some training, some technique–it is characteristic of Scripture to be comprehensive.

Let’s examine the qualities that Bezalel possessed–wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and craftsmanship–in more detail. Notice the progression from the general to the specific. The Hebrew word for “wisdom” means to have insight or perspective into the overall plan, to see how everything fits together. It means to have the big picture, to understand the rationale of the whole. It also relates well to the idea of conceiving the designs and innovating the settings of particular abstract, decorative art pieces. The word “understanding” suggests intelligence or ability in practical problem solving. “Knowledge” has to do with “know-how” knowledge, the knowledge of particular crafts. Bezalel had to know his materials. He needed to know how to prepare acacia wood, cast bronze, beat gold, and make dyes. “Craftsmanship” relates to workmanship. Craftsmanship involves working in a specific medium, and requires the mastery of technique in the act of embodying an idea. The emphasis is on the quality of the product. “Skill” here is more associated with wisdom. Note finally, Bezalel is designated as a maker, not a creator.

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