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26 April 2017

Theology: the creator God

Theology: the creator God

"You're a theology student; you must have a good imagination!" Of all the different comments I heard about my subject choice at university, this was one of my favourites. Of course, the atheist who said it to me didn't mean it in a particularly positive way. But the more theology I studied, the more I saw that these words were true, just in a different sense. Rather than being the product of human creativity, our faith describes its source, and gives us its right context.

This context is the recognition of God as our creator. The first thing we learn about our God in the Bible is that He created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). He gives it form and purpose, and fills it with abundant life. And the climax of creation comes in Genesis 1:27, when God creates human beings in His image.

Genesis 1 and 2, however, speak not just of human creation, but of human creativity. In Genesis 1 it's God who does the work of creation. Then, in Genesis 2:15, God sets human beings in the midst of His creation "to work it and take care of it". In chapter 1 it's God who names all things. In Genesis 2:19 this creativity is delegated, and it's Adam who names the animals. This is an essential aspect of creation in the image of God: the image-bearers imitate the creativityof their creator.

This is not to say that human creativity is the same as God's creation. For example, we do not create things out of nothing, but are confined to what God has already made. But there is still a real sense in which our creativity and creative work are a way in which we imitate God and reflect His image.

This is perhaps why we see creativity connected so closely with worship in the Bible. We see this in the intricate details of the Tabernacle in Exodus, and in the spiritual gifts of creativity and skill given to Bezalel, Oholiab and the other craftsmen who build it (Exodus 31:1-11). We see the same point in the Psalms, where the most beautiful poetry and creative depictions of creation are found in the context of worshipping the creator (Psalm 8 and Psalm 104).

But some have seen worship as the death of creativity. "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath," wrote the poet A.C. Swinburne, for example, who saw the rise of Christianity as responsible for ending the creativity that flourished under paganism. Similar beliefs are held by opponents of our faith today, for whom creativity is increasingly about authenticity or self-expression.

And yet this is to ignore the great creative energies unleashed by loving obedience to Christ. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should not forget the creativity of those who first translated the Bible into English, or those who preached its story and were moved by it to write the hymns we still love today.

And then there are the creative works of Christians nourished by biblical truth, from the poetry of John Donne or George Herbert to the music of Handel's Messiah. The world of these artists is not grey and lifeless because of Christ. It's instead Jesus Christ who inspires them – and us – in our creative work.

But even when Christ is not yet acknowledged, all human creativity and pursuit of beauty still speaks of our longing for our creator. And, however beautiful, whatever is the product of that creativity can't satisfy in the end without the one we're imitating. As C.S. Lewis preached in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory:

"The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

So far from our faith being a product of human creativity, human creativity is fulfilled and given meaning by faith. And it should be our prayer for every creative human being that they come to know the God who gives this meaning for themselves. 

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