Scriptural Poetics and Ephrem’s Theology of Names

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Those familiar with the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures cannot help but notice how the imagery and language of these writings pervades the writings of Ephrem. The problem with Ephrem’s extensive use of the metaphors and terminology of scripture throughout the fabric of his madrâŝe is that of genre; that is, while Ephrem very clearly employs and interprets scripture, discerning the framework of his interpretation remains far more difficult to parse. In response to this question, Jeff Wickes has suggested categorizing Ephrem’s madrâŝe as a “doxological genre”, more specifically that of “scriptural poetics.” This paradigm functions as a transition from traditional commentary, where readers examine scripture to understand and uncover its meaning, to the engagement of scripture as a means for understanding or uncovering some other thing (God, an event) in the presence of an audience. Through the lens of “scriptural poetics” the scriptures become the building materials for an applicable theology, the raw conceptual tools at the intersection between “Scripture, world, God, and audience.” This essay reflects upon the nature of “scriptural poetics”, especially in light of Ephrem’s theology of names.

The “scriptural poetics” model seems to help account for both the what and why of Ephrem’s hymns: not only is he finding, reconditioning, and reapplying the themes of scripture to his contemporary context, but he is doing this because the words and motifs of scripture offer the clearest explanation of true reality of God. Reflection serves a vital role in properly understanding scripture and applying it to one’s immediate needs and concerns (Griffith, 16). Recognizing the chasm between the Creator and His creation, Ephrem affirms that knowledge of God remains a possibility only because of His self-revelation (Young, 145-6). The central components of this revelation are nature, Christ himself, and the names of God revealed in scripture. Through reflection upon nature, the mind is prepared for knowledge of God. Though God is “imageless” Christ has come as His Image, the one in whom we may see God most clearly (HoF, 31.6). In this sense, Christ constitutes the “fullest” name of God. Yet, because Christ no longer walks among us as the flesh and blood image of the Creator, we must now turn to the scriptures, and more specifically the names of God in the scriptures, in order to understand God’s revelation of Himself.

Shepherd Early ChristianityFor Ephrem, God’s anthropomorphizing, how he as “put on their names for our weakness” (HoF, 31.1), serves as the interpretive key for the scriptures (Wickes, “Scripture”, 7). Through the scriptures we find certain ‘proper’ names which belong fully to God, such as Being, Creator, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Young, 147). Insofar as humanity uses these names they are mirrors of God. Yet even in the revelation of these ‘proper’ names, God’s true self remains concealed, the names thus functioning somewhat like an icon which both illuminates and mystifies.[1] This being the case, proper reflection upon the names of God remains vital to encountering His majesty (Griffith, 24). Only through contemplative association, best experienced through communal worship, will the revealed types, symbols, and metaphors of the names of God be properly understood. In Young’s words, “It is because of the worship context that the language of scripture thus becomes sacrament” (Young, 158).

Thus there are at least four important implications of Ephrem’s “scriptural poetics”: First, God must be approached through His self-revelation, most notably, His names. Second, making sense of God’s self-revelation of names comes through serious contemplation, best done through community worship and, one would presume given Ephrem’s Hymns, experiencing the Names recapitulated for the contemporary context. Third, the revelation of these names—especially though Christ, the “full” name of God—there is the possibility of an “exchange” of names between Divinity and humanity (Wickes, “Scripture”, 25). And finally, all of these implications, and especially Ephrem’s method of “scriptural poetics” itself, serve as a reminder that scripture “transcends” total human understanding, and that any theological conclusions must necessarily be limited and any conception of God understood as only partially and particularly revealed.


[1] To better make sense of these names we must begin to move ourselves past conceptions of a name as a ‘linear typology’, where Ephrem’s texts from the fourth century point back toward the writings of earlier centuries. Instead, Ephrem’s understanding of the names of God reveals their intertextual and sacred nature, how contemporary use and reflection upon the names of God shows their truth and applicability in the immediate context.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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