Has the Potter No Right over the Clay? Shall the Potter Be Regarded as the Clay?
Sovereignty, Creativity, Integrity, and Responsibility in Divine and Human Economy

Westmont College Faculty Exchange
with Scott Anderson, Wayne Iba, Cheri Larsen-Hoeckley, and Marilyn McEntyre
March 20, 2006
© Telford Work ;)

Conventional western notions of creativity, ownership, contract, integrity of products, responsibility, and justice derive in part from Christian convictions, but they have been increasingly informed by post-Christian categories of Deism, individualism, nationalism, socialism, idealism, dialectical materialism, pragmatism, emotivism, and the like (e.g., Locke).

If the Church is to fulfill its mandate of proclaiming the good news, not just with our mouths but with all we are and have, then we face the urgent task of re-educating ourselves about the specifically theological character of our stuff, including our intellectual stuff. We cannot wait for the powers and principalities to catch up, whether they be nation-states, corporations, classes, users, or markets. They are looking to us. Or they will be, if we are faithful to our calling as the Lord’s appointed sign and colony of his sure future.

The Christian doctrine of creation informs proper categories of human creativity, ownership, freedom, and responsibility. The analogy between divine and human creativity is central, not just because of the similarities but also the dissimilarities, and especially because of their narrative unity. Here are a few (most of which I will ignore when I read this):



God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we are creatures (Isa. 29:16 LXX in Rom. 9:20).

The creator is whole apart from the creatures.

As imago dei our self-expressions still reflect God.

Creatures are in some sense the creator’s self-expression (esp. imago dei as Jesus Christ the eikon theou).

God also creates difference out of nothing, but we just form stuff that is fundamentally like us.

The creator is different from (not just other than) the creatures.

Only the Spirit is the giver of life (Ps. 104).

Creation is the creator’s self-gift of, to, and through creatures (esp. in the indwelling Spirit).

God’s primacy makes God the final owner and foundation even of our creations. “The earth is the L ord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1 KJV).

The creator bestows relative autonomy on the creatures in granting created being. “Has the potter no right over the clay” (Rom. 9:21, cf. Jer. 18:6 and Wis. 15:7)?

As creatures we are contingent and rely on external means (e.g., patrons) that limit our freedom as creators.

The creator exercises covenantal freedom in relating to creatures in self-limiting ways.

Our creations last only as our goals fulfill God’s goal. Thus all creating will ultimately manifest narrative integrity (1 Cor. 15:28).

Creating is teleological or motivated toward the creator’s goal.

God proves this integrity as the savior and judge of all creatures, including ours (1 Cor. 3).

The creator and creature share a relationship of mutual but asymmetrical responsibility.

There are encouraging continuities between western categories of ownership and what Christians should say with our stuff. Intellectual property, copyright, licensing, transfer, and contract laws respect the costly self-investment of creating and the creator’s prerogative to surrender use and/or control to others, including the public domain. Traditions of acknowledgement and citation and standards of representation and misrepresentation even of objects in the public domain respect the integrity and relative autonomy of created things. Liability laws respect the relatedness and mutual responsibilities of both creators and creatures. (Think here of their discouragement of Marilyn’s ‘anonymous crime’.)

The apostolic paradigm here is the Ten Commandments that follow the exodus, renewed as Jesus’ love commandment for his disciples in the Father’s Kingdom. Ownership rules can go monstrously wrong wherever they underwrite a theology in which the implicit or explicit story is any other. I am not qualified to give more than a slightly educated guess about how American intellectual property law does and does not respect that story, but my sense is that it has generally helpful points of contact as well as some troubling points of departure.

For instance, copyright and patent laws follow utilitarian rather than covenantal notions of justice in granting first a restricted monopoly and then mandatory surrender to the public domain. Modern intellectual property’s ultimate owner is ‘the people’, whose executor is the state. Ownership reverts to that ultimate owner sooner (Marxism) or later (American capitalism). The people’s real or imagined welfare is thus the ultimate criterion of ownership (so eminent domain cases like last summer’s chilling Velo decision). Expiration of patent/copyright is something like a jubilee – but here the heir or original owner is the ‘god’ from which all value is held to derive: the people. Arguments that determine ownership by scarcity ( Wayne’s appeal to Calvin’s Duplicator?), efficiency, or access are thus, in a word, idolatrous.

Here’s another example: Cheri sent me a Michael Crichton op-ed on the abuse of patent law. Who owns natural correlations? The Patent Office says the discoverer; Crichton says that “basic truths of nature can’t be owned.” Well, doesn’t God ‘own’ and ‘license’ them and aren’t we accountable for what we do with that knowledge? Is Crichton’s absolute the ‘god’ of nature?

American churches tend to worship these disarmed principalities and powers – for instance in acquiescing to the statist-versus-individualist-versus-socialist-versus-naturalist terms of the recent debate over drug copyrighting and pricing. Neither the Christian left’s nor the Christian right’s voice in that debate is prophetic. We have forgotten whose story is the master story.

Doctrines of creation and redemption should guide us in formulating theologies of ownership. For instance, the Christian doctrine of God as purposeful in creating (for instance, in forming ‘pots’ for specific uses) and as creator of things invisible (meaning authorities as well as all other intangibles) confirms that language is construction (e.g., dabar = ‘thing’ and ‘word’), that all human acts are teleological, and that information, ideas, and even intentions can in fact be owned and credited. At the same time, the doctrine of humanity as specifically created in God’s image confirms that language, thought, and creativity are neither simply collective nor individual but social and personal, so that originality is intrinsically shared and sharing. (In other words, love of God, neighbor, and self are mutually implicated in intellectual creativity.)

These doctrines can also help us critique visions of creativity and intellectual ownership. For instance, intellectual ownership allows creators to rely less on patrons for support. Once upon a time, patrons were aristocrats. Nowadays they might be aristocrats, foundations that serve as their proxies, schools, institutes, the state, or named sponsors; but they might also simply be the creators themselves, or voluntary guilds and corporations. I approve of that. A robust tradition of a creator’s power to own, sell, destroy, or give away creations pulls the economy of creativity away from the false hegemony of powers and principalities. Breaking up those old oligopolies reduces the public constraints on which stories creators can tell in how they create. It effectively eases a form of persecution of creators. To combine Scott’s concerns with Marilyn’s, freedom also makes generosity possible (“freely you have received; freely give”). Whether modern nation-states respect such traditions is beside the point. The Church should respect them regardless – whether the creating is of hymns, software, or designer drugs.

The original, lingering, restored, and ultimate goodness of creation – a function of all the qualities in that table – keeps human creativity, ownership, integrity, and responsibility from drifting into untrammeled arbitrary power. Incarnation, cross, and resurrection are the goal of all creations. Thus we earthly creators are ultimately stewards. Whether the sort of work we have been doing has served that goal will become manifest in the fire of the Day that will disclose it (1 Cor. 3:13). On that day it will not be the U.S. Patent Office or World Trade Organization issuing the judgments.