Reviewed by Stephen Jenks
What is the extent of the image of God in humans? In particular, to what extent might humans share in that most quintessential feature of the divine identity, that of Creator? And what boundaries might be put in place to safeguard against overstating the extent of creaturely creativity? These are some of the questions that Trevor Hart takes up in Making Good, his impressive first volume in a proposed theological trilogy.
Hart acknowledges that raising these questions verges on transgressing a well-established theological boundary so he presents his argument very methodically. In short, Hart argues that both creation and incarnation involve the self-giving and self-limiting of God and that these divine moves both make the space for and delimit any concept of genuine creativity. Along the way he touches on so many biblical and theological topics: creation, the imago dei, work, rest, craftsmanship, culture, language, the economy of the gift, imagination and aesthetics. The depth and range of his argument resist point by point summary in a review of this length. What he presents might rightly be considered a tour de force. In this case, the tour traverses biblical, historical, cultural and theological ground.
In the biblical witness Hart highlights Scripture’s depiction of God as the master craftsman. Yet while God’s character as Creator is often linked to his transcendence, Hart notes that there is counterevidence. God “gets dirty” in the process of creation. In creating with words God limits himself somewhat. Though self-sufficient, he involves others. The creation narratives also imply certain human participation in the ongoing nature of creation. This human creativity, he notes, is presented somewhat ambiguously. While the narratives of the construction of the tabernacle parallel the creation accounts—thus making tight links between divine and human creativity—those same narratives are in the context of Aaron’s decidedly problematic artistic creation of the golden calf.
From consideration of the biblical presentation Hart moves to analyze human culture and to consider ways in which it can be said that humans create. He sees human creativity in the development of language and culture. Humans may indeed receive the world as a given from God, but they do not leave it as it is. Through language they give meaning to the world, though language can lead to misrepresentation of the world as easily as representation.
To expand on these cultural observations Hart looks at the field of art. Art is a specific instance of the broader category of human transformation of given materials. Hart spends several chapters tracing changing ideas in the theory of art and the role of the artist in the process. Over time the goal of art moved from the faithful representation of nature to representing the inner world of the artist’s self. At the same time the artist is increasingly thought of as doing a rival work of creation that competes with or even corrects the divinely created given. Further, he sees the move from an economy of the gift to one of achievement. Art as creation must involve something new, original.
Hart then counters the end of this narrative with more balanced positions. The doctrine of creation implies a certain situatedness, in the cosmos and in the human community. There is neither pure representation of the cosmos in art nor anything truly new. At its best art is an activity in which one is accountable to the materials and the culture. The artist receives the gifts from creation and the community and the community receives the artist’s transformation of these things as gift as well. The gifts of the artists or craftsmen are evaluated on their respect of the material world and their fitness for their task in that world.
Hart closes with a couple of chapters in which he ties together the various pieces of his argument. Instead of the category of “art,” Hart proposes a return to the concept of “craft.” With craft comes the notion of the utility of the things produced and therefore their success or failure. Here Hart interacts with Dorothy Sayers on the nature of human work and the role of Sabbath and with Nicholas Wolterstorff on the question of evaluating aesthetic merit.
In the closing chapter Hart brings together the theological, Christological and anthropological concerns that have been evident throughout the book. In particular he links the doctrine of Creation to the doctrine of the Incarnation. In both, God limits himself in certain ways in order to show himself to be “for us in love.” Instead of creating a perfect world, God created one in process and has humbly invited human involvement in its development. This creation-in-need-of-development model, Hart maintains, points beyond to Christ rather than back to some pristine moment from which humanity and the world have deviated.
Hart makes it clear that his target audience is the theological guild. His material assumes a familiarity with many biblical and theological concepts. Furthermore, Hart’s prose is at times demanding of the reader’s full attention. These features diminish the usefulness of the text to the average reader. Hart does offer frequent summaries of the argument and ties the chapters together very well.
Aside from these formal considerations there are a few material concerns with the argument. After an impressive build-up of the argument through the biblical, cultural and historical survey the theological conclusions almost seemed anti-climactic even abbreviated. Specifically, the issue of evaluating human creative efforts through applying concepts such as “utility” and “fitness” seem very important and yet insufficiently developed. Similarly, the themes of Christ, creation and the imago dei seemed almost hastily drawn together in the end.
Hart’s book is replete with rich biblical, cultural, historical, and theological analysis and commentary that repay the reader’s investment. The book presents deep theological reflection on important topics such as stewardship and the image of God that get frequent reference in Evangelical theology but not always extended consideration. Accordingly it is worthy of attention from those who seek to develop a robust, Christologically-informed anthropology.
Stephen Jenks (PhD, Marquette) is pastor at Union Christian Church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
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Making Good: Creation, Creativity, And Artistry