Creator and Sub-Creator, part II


"Man is a creative being, as "sub-creator," he shares in the creative power of God."

Man as Sub-Creator

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

“Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed. We make still by the law in which we're made.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia. Introd. by Christopher Tolkien (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989), pp. 97-101.)

In Tolkien's essay he was primarily speaking about world building, the act of creating worlds of fantasy and fairy tales that are different from our world but are at the same time related to the world we know and have their own internal consistency.

But we could argue that creating a consistent, secondary world extends far beyond the role of the writer of high fantasy. Any artist, whether they are a painter, singer, actor, writer, dancer, etc., creates a secondary world related to the world we know. In order for that secondary world to make sense it must have an internal consistency. And so the term sub-creator can be expanded upon to include any creative individual. A landscape designer or gardener is in effect creating a consistent, secondary world. Indeed all of our lives can be seen as works of art, and we are all sub-creators.

This is what pope saint John Paul II expressed in his 1994 “Letter to Artists .” “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” (John Paul II, “Letter to Artists”)

Man is a creative being, he shares in the creative power of God. We cannot create as God does, that is, ex nihilo, out of nothing. But we can reshape the stuff of the world into new and wondrous forms, in imitation of the Creator of all things. In our creativity we mirror the created world, we accentuate the the mark the Creator has left on His creation, we highlight the spiritual relationship that still exists between God and man.

John Paul II made this distinction between the creative power of God and the sub-creative power of man. “The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God.” (John Paul II, “Letter to Artists”)

In Greek the word for craftsman is “tektōn,” a word which is usually translated into English as “carpenter.” But “tektōn,” means so much more. In a broader sense, a “tektōn,” is an artificer, a “maker of things.” The word is not limited to the work of a carpenter but encompasses all craftsmen. The Gospel according to Mark, written originally in Greek, uses this word to describe Jesus, “Is not this the carpenter (“tektōn,”) the son of Mary...?” (Mark 6:3)

Jesus, in His divine nature, is the Creator, the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3). In His human nature Jesus is sub-creator, a craftsman, a “maker of things.” Jesus, God and man, is an artist in every sense of the word.

Artist Vs. Craftsman

It is common in our contemporary society to compartmentalize every human endeavor. We We seem to take great delight in defining occupations ever more narrowly and then pitting them against each other; artist vs. craftsman, painter vs. illustrator, author vs. writer, and so on. But this is all vanity. We all share in the creative power of God, some of us, in addition,  "make things."

Man, then, draws wisdom and light from the Creator, and redirects it into new forms guided by his imagination. Though we have fallen from God's grace we are redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ and still participate in God's creative power, enjoying the right to imitate Creation.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog