The Arts and the Imago Dei, Part I

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule [KJV says “have dominion”] over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."  So God created man in his own image,…” Genesis 1:26.

When we read that God created humanity as a reflection of Himself we say that God created us in the imago dei…the image of God. The doctrine of the imago dei says that we have at least three things:

  • The divine mandate to have dominion over the earth
  • The mental, physical, and spiritual ability to obey that mandate
  • The innate spark of the creative drive

It is our responsibility to have dominion over the earth. We are limited by our physical abilities and do not have the same power of dominion of God Himself, but He has given us minds and with those minds we have invented tools to help us obey our mandate.

The appreciation and the utilization of art is a part of the doctrine of the imago dei.  Implicit in our mandate to subdue the earth is the cultivation of an inherent sense of beauty in the form of both the appreciation for God’s natural wonders and for artistic expressions (Gen. 1:28-30). If we can come to some small understanding of the theology of the imago dei then we can come to a truly biblical understanding of the arts. Unfortunately, our understanding of art and our appreciation for it is far too often based upon a secular worldview. What we need to work on is developing a Christian worldview of artistic expression.

The practical outworking of this doctrine is seen in God’s command to build an aesthetically pleasing worship center. Here is the description of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 3, “…In the Most Holy Place he made a pair of sculptured cherubim and overlaid them with gold…[and] He made the curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen….” 

God is the source of all beauty. This divine beauty and perfection is reflected in God’s work of creation and his sovereign rule of history. 

Now it is time to drop the other shoe.  Mankind’s sense of beauty was distorted in The Fall. Not only was our sense of beauty distorted, but our selfish nature was turned loose and is easily and regularly manifested in so-called “artistic” expressions that magnify and glorify the most godless aspects of human nature.

Given the many examples of godless works being passed off as art, it probably shouldn’t trouble me, but it does when I think about the way the arts, even the good things, have been rejected by many churches. Of course, the rejection of arts by otherwise knowledgeable and Godly Christians is a reflection of human nature. We have been taught to avoid things and people that are sinful. But we also tend to avoid things and people we don’t like or understand. We avoid things and people we disagree with and artistic expressions, due to the fact that they can reflect the natures of both man and God, are prone to be attacked from all four corners. This is not a new phenomenon. Here are the words of two of the church Fathers:

Everything is right when it springs from the fear of the Lord. Let’s dance as David did. Let’s not be ashamed to show adoration of God…Dance bound up with faith is testimony to the living grace of God. He who dances as David danced, dances in grace. –
Ambrose, 390 A.D.

They [the Arians] show themselves no better than madmen, agitating and moving their bodies, uttering strange sounds, engaging in customs foreign  to the things of the Spirit. They introduce the habits of mimes and dancers into sacred places. Their minds are darkened by what they have heard and seen in the theatres. They confuse theatrical action with the ceremonials of the church. –Chrysostom, 398 A.D.

Here is an example of a widespread lack of understanding that remains with us through this day. In the Reformation many of the early Protestant churches got into squabbles over whether or not it was proper to sing hymns, psalms, or whether to sing at all!  Please note that the squabble between hymns and contemporary songs is, essentially, the same squabble.

Dr. William B. "Barry" Wilson holds a Master of Music degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Worship Studies from The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has served thirty-three years as a minister of music in Southern Baptist Churches; is currently an adjunct instructor at Midlands Technical College and Southern Wesleyan University; and is an online instructor for Regent University, Nazarene Bible College, Indiana Wesleyan University, and the University of Louisiana/Monroe. Dr. Wilson plays semi-professional trumpet and flugelhorn in Columbia, South Carolina where he lives with his wife and their six cats.